On Friday the Critic, his daughter and I started discussing what to have for New Year's Eve dinner. My stepdaughter Marianne wanted to do a raclette but the Critic vetoed it on the grounds that we had made one a few weeks ago when my mother was visiting. I was secretly relieved because although we usually joke that it's a meal where the guests have to do the cooking themselves, there is actually a fair amount of work in the preparation and the clean-up. The Critic wanted a goulash, because that's his favorite dish that I make. Marianne and I vetoed that on the grounds that it wasn't festive enough (me) and sounded weird (her). I suggested a nice big traditional - for Paris - seafood platter. But we couldn't think of a single item on it Marianne would be willing to eat. We had fun teasing her about the sea snails, though. (Ewwwww...)
And so that evening I pulled out the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, looking for inspiration. And I found it, fittingly enough, in the chapter on New Year's Eve: Chicken Breasts in Champagne.
This recipe was perfect on several levels. Chicken breasts are something that both the Critic and his daughter will eat every day of the week. Cream and champagne would make it rich and also make it a special dish, on the day before we all make resolutions to stop drinking too much and eating too much rich food. And, lastly, the recipe was actually very similar to a dish the Critic made me on one of our first dates, some nine years ago. Saturday was our sixth wedding anniversary, so it seemed delightfully appropriate to make something that would remind us of that evening so many years ago when it was all just beginning.
Although I found the inspiration in the Good Times Cookbook, as usual I ended up making a few essential changes in it. I'm not sure at what point you can say that a recipe has changed from being "theirs" to being "mine". We'll have to call it "ours" and let the lawyers sort it out when I sell my recipes for a few thousand dollars and a house in the south of France...
Chicken Breasts in Champagne and Tarragon Cream
4 whole, boned and skinless chicken breasts
5 Tbs unsalted butter
2 small onions, sliced in thin half-rounds
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbs flour
2 tsp dried tarragon
15-20 white grapes, seeded
1/3 bottle (roughly) champagne or sparkling wine (I used sparkling Vouvray)
1/2 cup (roughly 50 ml) heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in the bottom of a large thick-bottomed frying pan. When it begins to froth, toss in the onion and garlic and cook until they are soft and maybe even a little browned on the edges. Remove them from the pan, leaving as much as possible of the butter in the pan. If necessary, add a little more butter to coat the bottom of the pan.
Add the chicken breasts and turn up the heat a bit so that they will brown quickly. Brown well on both sides, even if it means the butter starts to turn a bit brown. Don't let it burn, but a bit of browning on the bottom of the pan will make the sauce even more flavorful. Once the breasts are browned on both sides, toss the onion and garlic mixture with the flour and then add them to the pan. Pour in the wine and sprinkle the tarragon over the whole. Stir for a few minutes, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Halve the grapes (and seed them if necessary) and add them to the pan. Cover and let simmer for 45 minutes.
Just before serving, stir the sauce again and add the cream. Here in France, I find the cream does not separate easily, but if you are concerned you can add a little of the hot chicken sauce to the cream and then pour that mixture into the hot pan. Taste for seasoning: be generous with both the salt and the pepper.
This was delicious served over a bed of wild rice mixed with long grain rice. The sweet grapes and cream are silky in your mouth and the chicken nearly melts into them with tenderness. Although I could see that my stepdaughter was very dubious when she heard it was made with wine, she devoured her portion, wild rice and all. If there had been seconds I know she would have been an enthusiastic taker. It was a lovely rich and comforting dish to end the year. And mercifully for the cook and chief scullery maid, it was simple to make and to clean up afterwards.
So for those of you who have a half bottle of bubbly lingering after your New Year's celebrations (surely someone buys those special champagne corks they sell in airline magazines?) this is a great way to use it up without breaking your resolution to go easy on the alcohol. Or what the heck, why not just open up a brand new bottle and serve the remainder with dinner?
To quote one of my favorite films of all time, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"