Week 5 - Vive La France
Simply good food, and how 40 cloves of garlic can be exactly the right amount for your next chicken dinner. Merci, Paris!
by Lynley Jones
In the centuries after the fall of Babylon, chickens traveled Mediterranean trade routes and it wasn't long before they made their way to France.
Vive La France
I will never forget my first taste of France. In the late 1990s, long before kids and property taxes, when my then boyfriend (now hubby) and I both had comfy corporate jobs and disposable income to spare, I arranged a long weekend for us in Paris. For the couple of months leading up to our trip, I taught myself French as best I could (pre-internet) via audio tapes and home-study books I had found at Barnes & Noble.
We flew Air France, and somewhere between trying out my new French phrases, admiring the stewardesses' je ne sais quoi and reading whatever book I had brought, I mindlessly shoveled in a mouthful of airplane food. I can't remember what it was, but it stopped me in my tracks. It was good.
As we toured the City of Lights, this kept happening. When we grabbed a sandwich at the Louvre, it was fresh greens with mascarpone cheese spread on good crusty bread. When we bought a drink in the park, the man squeezed an actual lemon directly into my cup, adding sugar syrup and water to create the most delicious lemonade I had ever tasted, right before my eyes. From the hot dog stand, we received a frankfurter nestled in a French baguette that had been sliced open and slathered with Dijon mustard. When I ordered a salad at the Rodin museum, no one asked me to choose from the tired list of available dressings. Instead, the salad was not only perfectly dressed, but also topped with a toasted round of chevre.
To say this trip changed my culinary life is an understatement. This brief four days completely changed my understanding of what food was. And what it could mean.
I was raised by practical, no-nonsense folks. Food was the means of getting you from here to there. You ate it, and sometimes it tasted good. But it's job was to be useful. If it filled your stomach and if it didn't taste bad, you were doing well.
By the time I traveled to Paris, I had already progressed beyond my humble culinary roots. I had 10 years of restaurant work under my belt. I had learned to use a knife, I had learned that green beans grew on a plant and not in a can, and that you could actually make things that tasted good without first opening a box. And now living in the New York City area, I had tasted food at some of the best restaurants America had to offer.
But in France, I realized that good food could mean even more than good cooking, and good cooking was so much more than frivolous outings to fancy restaurants. In France, I saw food taken seriously. Food was carefully crafted, something to take pride in. In France, even on an airplane or at a food stand in the park, food was something to truly care about. Good food mattered.
Given my roots, it still feels strange to hear myself say that good food matters. "Oh really?" I can hear my mother saying. "Having a roof over your head matters." And having enough food matters. But good food? Why does that matter?
To me, serving good food matters mostly because it's a labor of love. Good food is a gift to the people around you, a token of your own heart, served up to people you care about. Or even people you just met. It's like dressing up for a friend's recital; serving good food says "you're special" in a way that a microwaved pizza never could.
Good food also matters because it appreciates, and celebrates, the simple gifts of nature. Like that French lemon, or those fresh greens, good food doesn't have to be something we labor over for days. The best good food simply honors the ingredients. It respects the contributions of each component part, helping each ingredient to come together in beautiful harmony with all the others.
The name of this week's recipe can be a little angst-inducing: Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic.
The thing is that garlic is a bit magical. It's characteristics change as it matures, and depending on how you treat it. (You may remember the gentler green garlic we used 2 weeks ago.) One of the things that makes this dish quintessentially French is how the flavor that is coaxed from the garlic is exactly what's needed for this dish. You take what would normally be a ridiculous amount of garlic, and you gradually tame it with low, moist heat, allowing it to gently mellow, infusing the sauce with its flavor. By the end of cooking, the garlic is so soft, mild and creamy that you can literally spread it on bread and squeeze a clove of it onto each bite of chicken.
My recipe calls for a head of garlic, which is usually about 20 cloves. If you'd like to actually use 40 cloves (as in the name), just double all the ingredients and cook two chickens (keep reading for suggestions for leftovers). Or if you really want to, just throw 40 cloves into the pot with the one chicken. It will be great regardless.
Simply Good Chicken
I love this week's recipe for many, many reasons. It's one of the first authentically French dishes my husband and I learned to make. It doesn't require a bunch of obscure or expensive ingredients. It is a comfort on a cold day, or any day. It's my go-to meal for a sick friend or visiting loved ones. It's the kind of dish where everyone sits around one pot or platter, communally dipping their pieces of baguette into the sauce, sharing together in the deliciousness of it all. The leftover chicken makes a killer enchilada filling, and the leftover sauce can be drizzled over anything from pasta to potatoes. And it's a great excuse to eat a lot of French bread, which is always a good thing.
But most of all, I love it because it's the kind of dish that is so astoundingly good, it is literally unbelievable that these few ingredients could come together to make something so delicious. No secret ingredients, no obscure cooking techniques. Just honest food, very good.