Some time ago, my mother gave me a cookbook by Monique Jamet Hooker, called Cooking with the Seasons. It's half cookbook and half nostalgia trip into the Breton childhood of the author, with stories about her mother's dishes, tables groaning with produce and photos of her ancestors on the family farm. It's a funny fact, but most French people are strangely snobbish about the cuisine of Brittany. "They don't really have any spécialités," a French friend of mine once sniffed when I visited there the first time. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Brittany is a latecomer to the French kingdom, having only joined in the 16th century when young Anne of Brittany was left an orphan and heir of Brittany at the tender age of 11. A short war and a forced marriage later and the Bretons were nominally attached to France, though they remained independent until the death of Anne. To this day, then, the French don't think of the Bretons as "proper" French and the Bretons themselves see themselves as the cousins of the Irish, Welsh and Scots rather than their Gallic countrymen. It's a funny old world.
Time has shown me that Brittany does actually have much to offer in the world of cooking. Oysters and lobsters, for a start. Beautiful globe artichokes. Crêpes, savoury and sweet. And Monique Jamet Hooker's book introduced me to a number of new dishes and new ways to prepare known ingredients. I like the way it is organised by season as it means I can just browse the right section when I'm looking for inspiration. And the recent one - found in April, but the weather has been unseasonably cold and wet lately - was Poulet Princesse, a dish that calls for seasonal fresh spinach and asparagus and goat's cheese and tender new mushrooms.
In actual fact, I didn't have asparagus or fresh spinach in my kitchen. I did, however, have frozen spinach, which I substituted. The result was a savoury, filling dish that nevertheless felt healthy and not too rich. The goat's cheese was an interesting addition, giving a sharp salty flavour which complemented the buttery almost sweet combination of mushrooms and onions.
The Critic approved, aside from the spinach which he doesn't like anyway. But I keep trying.
Monique Jamet Hooker's Poulet Princesse (serves 2)
2 boneless chicken breasts
1 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs olive oil
1 cup chopped cooked spinach
1-2 small shallots, sliced in thin strips
6-8 medium mushrooms, washed and sliced thinly
1/2 a glass of white wine
2 heaping Tbs crème fraiîhe
3-4 Tbs goat cheese, crumbled
In a heavy skillet, melt the butter with the oil. Sauté the chicken breasts until they are browned on both sides. Add the shallots and continue cooking, stirring them around the onions. When they start to soften, add the mushrooms and do the same. Monique's recipe actually calls for removing the chicken and then putting it back in at a later point, but if you are only making two you can fit them AND the mushrooms and onions in the same pan without too much difficulty. The dish is finished more quickly this way.
When the chicken is firm and cooked through and the mushrooms and onions are soft and sweet-smelling, turn up the heat a bit and add the wine. Scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan as the wine bubbles away, stirring them in to make a rich brown sauce. When the wine has reduced by half, turn down the heat and stir in the crème fraiîhe. I don't usually find that crème fraiîhe separates on a low flame, but if you are nervous it might you can stir a little hot sauce into the crème fraiîhe first and then add that to the pan.
To serve, make a bed of the cooked spinach on a plate, pour half the onion and mushroom mixture on it, lay a breast on that, drizzle a little sauce on the breast and then top it with half the cheese. Repeat with the second one. Serve with the same dry white wine you used to make the sauce.
If you were making this Monique's way, you would have steamed fresh spinach and asparagus tips somewhere in there and garnished with the tips. One of the most gratifying aspects of this recipe to me (and it's mean of me) is that she actually leaves out a step: she never tells you what to do with the cooked spinach. I just assumed it was made into a bed for the dish, rather than incorporated in the sauce. But it doesn't say. That happens to me all the time on this site; people write in the comments things like "What do I do with the second half cup of cheese?" So it's nice to know that such errors can even slip through the capable hands of a writer, an assistant and an editor and make it into a printed book.
My middle name is Schadenfreude.