Napoleon’s “lucky” meal for success in the Oscar Contest
by Alan Reed
Jan 31, 2007 | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hawkins is big into movies. One of his favorites of 2006, a film called “Little Miss Sunshine,” received a best picture nomination last week. It was a good flick. At first, I plainly “did not get it” and accused it of stealing many of its plot devices from “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” It grew on me over the months, and after a while, I realized that the similarities were intentional- a lampoon of “Lampoon.” One of the lines in the movie that I laugh about was delivered by actor Alan Arkin, and expressed his disgust over being served chicken again at a family meal.

It’s unfair! Chicken is so versatile that it can be eaten frequently, combined into completely different dishes. Chicken is low in cholesterol making for a healthful meal. There is really nothing wrong with “chicken again,” as long as it is prepared creatively and differently.

This week’s entrée, Chicken Marengo, is a variation on the way I prepared chicken Marsala a few weeks ago. Before all of the readers of this column accuse me of a “cop out,” I would like to offer a quick defense. The technique itself is very similar, though by changing a few ingredients, we arrive at a completely new flavor. The two dishes could be served back to back, and with such a difference in flavor, it doesn’t seem like the “same thing twice.”

Now is the time for a quick history lesson. Most culinary staples evolve over time, rather than being “invented” on a specific day. Chicken Marengo is a clear exception to the rule. Premier Consul Napoleon Bonaparte led his army into the Piedmont region of Italy to a town called Marengo where he encountered the Austrian Army commanded by General Michael von Melas. Napoleon, tired of army rations, demanded that his chef prepare a fresh dish for him. The chef scrounged ingredients from local pantries, finding an old, and tough chicken, olive oil, garlic, herbs and tomatoes. He may have added some cognac from the diminutive leader’s canteen. The chef is said to have carved the chicken with a saber before cooking the chicken in a tomato sauce. Popular lore adds that the chef garnished the dish with fried eggs and crayfish. Marengo’s birthday happens to be July 14, 1800.

Napoleon went on to win a stunning victory at Marengo and requested the dish before every battle. I cannot say that he ate the meal before the Battle of Waterloo, but given his ultimate fate, I think we can safely assume that Chicken Marengo does not impart any good luck.

I began my own version of Marengo by cutting about a pound-and-a-half of chicken breasts into thin filets. Five tablespoons of olive oil went into a five-quart saucepan, with several whole cloves of garlic. The garlic seasons the oil. Brown the garlic lightly and remove it from the oil. Dredge the filets of chicken through flour seasoned with salt, pepper, and a quarter teaspoon of thyme. Cook the chicken in the oil with medium to medium low heat until it reaches a nice golden brown on both sides. Remove the chicken from the pan and reserve as well.

Onions play a big part in this dish. I finely chopped a large red onion and added it to the pan with the garlic. Sautee the onions until they are translucent, of course. Sounds like Chicken Marsala so far, doesn’t it?

Here’s where we depart from the familiar path and into the realm of brand new. Coarsely chop two large tomatoes and add them to the onions. This makes for a good tomato based stock. Many recipes call for white truffles, a type of fungi that can have a wholesale cost of over $1,000 per pound. That may be a bit out of my price range, so I added eight ounces of white mushrooms. Seasoning comes from another half teaspoon of thyme, salt and pepper and two bay leaves- a favorite spice of mine. Stir the mixture well until the mushrooms begin to soften.

Last time we used Marsala wine for the chicken. This time, we are going to use sherry. Sherry is not sweet, but rather imparts a dry flavor. Regrettably, this dish was a last minute idea, and I could not get any cognac. Some recipes suggested a flambé with it, but without the high-alcohol libation, I had to pass on this plan. Pour about 2/3 cup of sherry into the pot then re-add the chicken. Stir well and reduce the heat to a simmer.

I covered my pot for ten minutes to trap the heat inside and cook the vegetables. After that, the lid came off to reduce the sauce. Watch the pot closely. Let the tomatoes cook thoroughly, and the sauce thicken to a glaze. Taste it to see if any more thyme, salt or pepper is needed. Sometimes tomatoes can be a bit too acidic. If the meal seems too tart to your tongue, throw in a pinch or two of plain white sugar. Remember to extract the bay leafs when cooking is finished and before serving.

The chicken was served with some plain pasta tossed with a little olive oil. The next night, we ate the leftovers over brown rice. Napoleon is said to have eaten the first Chicken Marengo with some crusty bread issued to the army. Crawfish are not too easy to find in these parts, and I never much cared for fried eggs. Some recipes call for fresh coriander leaves just before serving, while others call for black olives. I had no olives, and am no fan of coriander. Truthfully, I thought the flavor was good on its own.

As Chicken Marengo was prepared by a French chef originally, for a Corsican general of Italian descent, in Italy with traditional Italian ingredients, the origins of this meal by France or Italy remains debatable. Napoleon did become Emperor of France, but he was also crowned as the King of Italy. Perhaps that is the reason why Zinedine Zidane head butted Marco Materazzi on the pitch at last summer’s World Cup soccer tournament.

Hawkins and I enjoyed our supper, which could have easily served four. After we ate, we returned to movies. The guy is an encyclopedia of films, but you know what? I think our readers can stump him with his Oscar-Winner Challenge. Look for him on the street and call him out. Let’s see if we can’t beat “Mr. Smarty-Pants.” With a good meal and his movies, a good time was had by all. Good eating.
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