Tuesday Techniques: Cooking with Demi-Glace (Hunter Chicken)

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Tom Colicchio, that most formidable of judges on “Top Chef,” shocked me the other night when, during an interview on PBS’s series Chef’s Story (with Dorothy Hamilton) he revealed that he hadn’t gone to cooking school, he taught himself everything he knows using Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique” and “La M├ęthode.” (This is corroborated on his Top Chef bio page.) “Let me get this straight,” I said to myself. “To cook on the level of Tom Colicchio, to be that formidable, all I have to do is buy two books by Jacques Pepin?”

The answer was a resounding “no.” No, I wouldn’t have to buy two books; I’d only have to buy one–those two books have been consolidated!

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Yes, this is THE book that Tom Colicchio worked his way through to become the toppiest of Top Chefs. When you open it, you feel like you’re looking at a physical fitness textbook from 1965. Every technique is broken down photographically the same way that an old P.E. book would break down a jumping jack: Stand legs apart (photo), lift hands over head (photo), leap in the air (photo), spread arms and legs (photo), land (photo) and repeat.

There’s something musty about this book, something incredibly dated (there are chapters on making orange baskets and apple swans). And yet, that’s all on the surface. Underneath that surface are the core fundamentals of French cooking, fundamentals that have launched thousands of careers, that are responsible for some of the finest food being prepared in this country and around the world. For example, just opening the book randomly, I find Technique 158: “Cleaning Squab and Other Poultry.” Most of us don’t find ourselves with a dead squab on our kitchen counter on a regular basis but many of us have dined in restaurants that serve squab. When that squab shows up at the kitchen door, does the chef shriek and moan: “How in the world will I clean this domesticated pigeon?” No: he knows his technique. That’s why fundamentals are so, well, fundamental. They’re at the core of all great cooking; they are the wings that allow the greatest dishes to soar.

I want my dishes to soar. I get asked all the time: “Are you always going to be an amateur? Are you ever going to go to cooking school? Who’s your favorite Golden Girl?”

The answers–maybe, no and Dorothy–suggest that I embrace my lack of experience while showing an absolute willingness to advance. My Colicchio revelation–that you can teach yourself French techniques by practicing from this book at home (“I used to cut up stalks and stalks of celery practicing my knife skills,” he said on the show) leads me to declare Tuesdays to be Technique Tuesdays. Each Tuesday we will attempt a new technique from this book and hopefully, through my own experimentation, you will be inspired to try them too. Maybe, after a few months, we’ll be master chefs and we’ll open a restaurant. Or maybe we’ll realize we have no natural talent and quit cooking and become accordion players. Only way to find out is to begin…

This week’s technique–cooking with demi-glace–isn’t really a technique at all. The first technique in the book–Holding The Knife–is so essential, so important that it’d be impossible to convey it in an online post. Remember the cackling that ensued when Michael Symon and crew watched me hold a knife at Lola for the FN Dish (see here)? Well I do and after that scarring experience, I practiced and here’s how I hold a knife now:

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You hold the top of the blade like a pencil and wrap your remaining fingers around the handle. Pepin says, “Hold the item to be cut with fingertips tucked under, so the blade ‘rests’ and slides directly against the middle section of your fingers. The knife follows, in fact, ‘glued’ to the fingers and slides up and down the fingers at the same rate all the time. The speed at which the fingers move back determines the thickness of the slices.”

Here’s my visualization of what Pepin is talking about (though I haven’t really created a wall, here):

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So when you see real chefs chopping or slicing, they make that wall with their left hand (assuming they’re righties) and then glide the knife along it as they go. It’s the sort of thing that gets easier the more and more you do it (hence Colicchio and all that celery). Also useful to remember (and something I didn’t really know before reading Technique #1, Step #3): “The knife does not go in a straight down motion while cutting, but rather in a down and back motion at the same time.”

Technique #2 is “How To Sharpen Knives” and it’s so essential, and yet something I’m still so bad at, I feel like I need to get to a knife shop ASAP to get my knives sharpened and to learn how to do it myself for real. (Those who’ve read my book will know which knife shop I’m headed to; I haven’t been back since I wrote that chapter!)

So, yes, understanding knives and knife skills are absolutely fundamental to good cooking. There’s a reason those are #1 and #2.

But after the knife section (which goes about 11 chapters) comes Technique #12: “Brown Stock (Classic and Fast) Half-Glaze and Meat Glaze.”

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In that picture, you’ll see the chapter in question and resting on top of that chapter a store-bought container of demi-glace.

Let me explain. This whole technique–which has a four page essay at its start–is so deep and profound a topic in French cooking that it’d be overwhelming to attempt it all at once. Essentially, great French sauces–yes, those deeply rich wine-colored sauces you soak up with your French bread after finishing your steak au poivre–are mostly enhanced with brown stock and the elixers that brown stock produces when it is reduced in great quantities.

Classic Brown stock (Fond Brun Classique) is made by roasting and then boiling 10 pounds of veal bones, chicken bones and beef bones in water for 10 hours with the requisite aromatics (for more on aromatics, see Michael Ruhlman’s “Elements of Cooking”–a wonderful supplement to this book) namely: carrots, onions, tomatoes, a leek, celery, bay leaves, thyme and black peppercorns.

The resulting broth is used, according to Pepin, to “wet (mouiller as we say in France) a stew or deglaze a pan, or add to other bones (game, lamb, etc.) to produce a more concentrated and flavored stock.”

Brown Stock isn’t very exciting (your stomach isn’t growling reading this, is it?) but when you reduce that stock by half what’s left is rather intoxicating: it is demi-glace, a most powerful tool in the kitchen. Pepin says of demi-glace: “It is the ‘hidden and modest’ friend which enables a cook to produce a well-finished, long-simmered sauce in minutes. It is what we call in English a basic brown sauce. It doesn’t have a specific name or identity of its own yet. With the addition of wine it becomes a sauce Bordelaise, with Madeira and truffles a sauce Perigueux, with vinegar and shallots a sauce Bercy, etc.”

I figured, for this first entry on techniques, it would be useful just to buy some demi-glace and cook with it. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, whether making demi-glace from scratch would be worth it and, most importantly, how demi-glace enhances and enriches a sauce. Lucky for me, D’Artagnan sells pre-packaged demi-glace at my local Key Foods. If yours doesn’t carry it, I’m sure you can order it online.

The recipe I attempted (there are four demi-glace recipes on pgs. 36 and 37 of the book) was Hunter Chicken (Poulet Chasseur). I chose it because it was the cheapest and the least daunting. Here’s what you need:

1 Tbs. butter

1 (2 3/4) pound chicken, quartered, keep the carcass bones for stock

[Note: Here’s how I quartered the chicken. There wasn’t much instruction in the book, so I used kitchen shears to cut the backbone out (which I subsequently put in the freezer) cut off the legs and thighs as whole pieces and then cut the breast in half:

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2 Tbs chopped onion

1 clove garlic, peeled, crushed and chopped fine

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (1 cup) [I used canned tomatoes here–about 3]

1 tsp tomato paste

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon thyme

6 to 8 mushrooms, sliced (1 1/4 cups, loosely packed)

1/2 cup demi-glace

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

So here’s my mise en place–everything all ready in preparation of cooking:

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Always do all your prepping before the heat goes on and you’ll be in good shape.

I opened up the demi-glace and dipped my finger in and tasted:

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It had the viscosity of a gravy and tasted like what a stew might taste like if there were no stuff in it.

Now Jacques doesn’t have you salt and pepper the chicken before you start cooking, but I did out of habit. You begin by melting the butter in a heavy sauce pan (I used my Dutch Oven) and “browning the chicken over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, starting with the skin side down and turning the chicken after 5 to 6 minutes of browning.”

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Browning the chicken, as I’ve learned watching Mario and making various braised chicken dishes, is absolutely essential for the finished dish to taste good. You’re creating a fond on the bottom of the pan–lots of crispy, brown chicken bits–that’ll get picked up into the sauce later. The secret to good browning is NOT moving the chicken around: so just put it into the hot pan and walk away. Come back 6 minutes later and flip it. That’s it!

After the chicken’s browned on both sides, you add the chopped onion and saute for 15 to 20 seconds. Then you add the garlic, white wine, tomato, tomato paste, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms:

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Cover and simmer another 5 minutes. Using a spoon, transfer the chicken and solids to a dish. And here’s where this week’s technique kicks in: add 1/2 cup demi-glace to the drippings…

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…bring to a boil and reduce to 1 cup. Season, add parsley and tarragon (I forgot to buy those!), pour on top of the chicken and serve at once.

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There’s the finished dish. I’d argue that much of what makes it look so appealing is owed to the demi-glace. Look how rich that sauce looks, how thick. And doesn’t it look oh so French (except for the messy border of the plate which, if I were in a restaurant kitchen, would’ve been wiped meticulously only after beating me over the head for letting that go.)

But the real question: how did it taste? Did I notice the demi-glace? Was it worth it?

It tasted wonderful–classic, incredibly rich, and robust–but the overall effect was a bit like a time warp. What did this taste like? This tasted like classic French food in the good sense but also in the bad sense. What’s that bad sense? Continental cuisine! Yes, probably because all those classically-trained chefs who have nowhere to go end up at a musky hotel in Colorado or at the French restaurant in EPCOT or on a cruise ship somewhere, and this flavor, that flavor of demi-glace, is what they use (perhaps poorly) to enhance their uninspired dishes.

Like the book itself, this dish had that whiff of yesteryear. It’s like reading a classic work of literature and coming across a racist passage. You want to put the book down because it’s so out of date, so out of touch with our modern sensibilities, but you keep reading because you have to read the book in context. Same for this dish: you have to eat it in context. This is a dish from a certain period of time when French techniques were the gospel; and like corrupt preachers misinterpreting the Bible, bad chefs have ruined the religion for many of us.

The important thing is seeing the big picture; understanding how sauces work, how they operate. Here, a reduced brown stock turned a standard chicken dish into something decadent and memorable. Demi-glace is a powerful tool and it’s your assignment, if you choose to accept it, to find yourself some demi-glace this week and to cook with it. See if you can appreciate why this tool is such a powerful one in the chef’s arsenal and, perhaps more importantly, how one can use the ideas behind demi-glace in a more modern context. What does Jean-Georges do with demi-glace? What would David Chang do with it?

Not sure what next week’s technique is, but I’m looking forward to cutting my teeth here on the blog with the help of Jacques Pepin and his masterful book on techniques. If this book can produce a Tom Colicchio, who knows what it’ll produce here? Let’s all learn together and conquer the world.

19 comments

  1. Hi AG. First time commenting here. I discovered these tomes in my University library ten years ago as a bored freshman, and browsed through them whenever I could. Was I fun or what?

    Strangely enough, the only time I’ve used them since was to look up Hung’s Potatoes Dauphine (#138) from that Top Chef episode last season. Ooh, try the deep fried eggs (#33). Who knew it was possible?

  2. Adam, Quite ironically, I am in level one at the French Culinary Institute and we made THIS dish yesterday! So you’re on the right track apparently.

  3. Ha ha, I am now very intrigued by the book. Have you got a copy of knife skills illustrated? That is an awesome book, it shows youhow to chop everything ever while also providing general knife info. The pics are inthe same format, I love it.

  4. This looks amazing. I’m going to have to try it. And I think Technique Tuesday is a fab idea.

  5. I think that is amazing that Colicchio is not professionally trained! I have been to Gramercy Tavern when he was the executive chef there, and you would never have known that those dishes were not created from someone who had been classically trained. One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was that the best way to teach yourself how to cook is to get a cookbook, and make every single recipe. Then, that cookbook author becomes your teacher. I will have to pick up this Jacques Pepin cookbook.

  6. I think that is amazing that Colicchio is not professionally trained! I have been to Gramercy Tavern when he was the executive chef there, and you would never have known that those dishes were not created from someone who had been classically trained. One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was that the best way to teach yourself how to cook is to get a cookbook, and make every single recipe. Then, that cookbook author becomes your teacher. I will have to pick up this Jacques Pepin cookbook.

  7. Robert, I am so glad you included the rest of us your journey to chef stardom. Count me in!

    My dad adores Jacque, and has probally mastered his techniques including the squab. My dad is a brillant knife sharpener also and would probally say, just learned that technique today thanks for the birds. I’ll gut them. Maybe I’ll head home to Conneticut and get a crash course.

    So does this mean when you have mastered the book you will have to recall your cookbooks and change the name to The Professional Gourmet?

  8. Bravo! I have been tempted to tackle a similar project, working my way through some classic cookery tome, but I haven’t been able to work up the mental commitment yet. I do have the Pepin book, so I’ll take a look at your post again later with it in front of me and see how your steps worked out with it.

    I love to read cookbooks, but a lot of times that’s as far as I get with the more complicated dishes and techniques. Good for you for diving in!

  9. Ah, this is timely! I get a bit overwhelmed at which books to get that will help me improve my kitchen skills without being a repetitive, plain recipe book.

    Thanks!

  10. I’ve been really enjoying his program on public television (KPBS) and its very dated at times, but wonderful to see his hands working on things. I’ve seen a good fish episode, chicken, meat, meringues, and the scary apple swan too! Its kind of cool to see the old school stuff!

  11. I’ve been really enjoying his program on public television (KPBS) and its very dated at times, but wonderful to see his hands working on things. I’ve seen a good fish episode, chicken, meat, meringues, and the scary apple swan too! Its kind of cool to see the old school stuff!

  12. i loved your blog!!!it really is so well made with lots of thought and very interesting as well! I just started a video recipe site that shows you step by step how to make stuff, http://www.ifoods.tv and i also started out as a blogger so it’s great seeing other bloggers doing well, keep up the good work”

  13. I bought that book last year, when I started getting really serious about cooking. I still haven’t tried half the techniques (who really needs a lemon pig or olive rabbits?) but this may inspire me to go back and at least attempt a bit of demi-glace. Cheers.

  14. This is a really great post. I made veal stock for the first time two months ago. I was a good girl and followed a serious recipe (but I won’t say which one here – even though you can figure it out). Then I used it to make a sauce for a pan of mushrooms. Guess what? I hated how the thyme overpowered the taste of the mushrooms. It was just like you said about this chicken; it tasted old, not fresh. I’m sticking with Marcella’s sauteed mushrooms with garlic and parsley. Too yum to change. And I’m sticking with the chicken stock recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. It’s the absolute best. It’s worth following exactly. You can get a chicken with head and feet (do not get grossed out; it’s worth if) from Jeffrey’s Meats at the Essex Market. If you haven’t found that place yet, give it a try. You might actually find a dead squab on your kitchen counter.

  15. Everyone has a short list of go-to dishes. Since I discovered that the grocery store right downstairs from me sells demi-glace, Beef Bourguignon has become one of mine. Now, this is an easy and good dish in any circumstances (brown the beef, add veggies, add wine – let sit for a few hours (or better still a few hours then overnight in the fridge)), but it is an entirely different thing when you’ve got the demi-glace. It really does take it from good to great. The depth is incredible.

  16. I love this book, and I especially love the fact that those are Jacques Pepin’s very own hands demonstrating every technique. My head chef (who also is on-the-job/book-trained) believes Pepin to have the best techniques of any cook. I saw Pepin do a cooking demo this past Wednesday at the Calhoun school, and he still has impeccable technique and deft in the kitchen. He was charming and so patient with the kids, too. He also has his own garden, and paints with watercolor. Just a lovely man overall.

  17. Oh, I can come up with a lot of reasons why I love you but I’d just be wasting your time. I’ll tell you two: your latest genius coming up with Tuesday Techniques and your ability to make gourmet food simple. Did I tell you I love you?

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