A dish that always pans out

There are endless twists to the classic chicken sautes we've all come to know.

chicken (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
One of the favorite subjects for my cooking classes - how to make a chicken saute - is based on one of the first lessons I learned upon arriving at cooking school in Paris. What is most impressive about this simple dish of chicken pieces cooked in a little fat and served with a concentrated sauce is the amazingly long list of variations that chefs have developed. Our chef explained that a saute is different from a stew in that the chicken cooks on its own, not in its sauce. I noticed that it was different from schnitzel and Chinese stir-fried chicken because in a saute the chicken pieces still had their bones. Because the chicken cooks on the bone, it comes out more succulent. It's lighter in calories than American-style fried chicken because it is not coated and needs much less oil to cook. The pan juices provide the principal flavoring for a luscious, quick sauce. Chefs finish the sauce by cooking the pan juices with white or red wine, chopped tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, citrus juice, fresh herbs or vegetables. The chicken pieces are first browned in oil, or, in France, a mixture of oil and fresh butter. Vegetable oil is the most common, but olive oil can be used for a Provencal flavor. After browning, the chicken is covered and cooked gently just until it is tender, usually without the addition of liquid. Flavoring ingredients such as chopped onions or tomatoes or sliced mushrooms might be added to cook with the chicken. After the chicken is removed, the pan is deglazed: a liquid is added to the pan juices in order to form the basis for the sauce. The favorite deglazing liquid is dry wine, but chicken stock or broth, vegetable or fruit juice or fortified wines like Madeira are also often used. The liquid is then boiled so its flavor intensifies. Last, the sauce is thickened, either by continuing the process of reduction or by the addition of a small amount of tomato sauce, brown sauce, a spoonful of margarine creamed with flour, or potato starch dissolved in a little liquid. Although chicken sautes can be reheated, the chicken tastes best when freshly cooked. Therefore, additions to the sauce, such as cooked vegetables, are prepared ahead or while the chicken is cooking. During the few minutes needed to finish the sauce, the chicken is kept warm. If you do need to prepare the chicken in advance, it is better not to reheat the chicken in its sauce. Instead, heat the pieces in a covered pan in the oven or on the stovetop, and reheat the sauce separately. This method keeps in the chicken's "sauteed" flavor and prevents fat from the bird's skin from making the sauce greasy or causing it to separate. Creating new chicken saute combinations is easy and fun. Classic chicken Vichy, with a sauce finished with chicken broth and cooked carrots, is turned into chicken "a la bretonne" if sauteed leeks and mushrooms are added to the chicken juices. It may not be traditional, but I like snow peas in this dish as well. If diced red bell peppers, fennel and minced garlic are added to Chicken Saute with Paprika Sauce, the result is a dish called Bohemian chicken. I find this dish benefits from the addition of small cooked cauliflower florets or sauteed zucchini sticks. Try it also with eggplant cubes, or other vegetables that strike your fancy, even frozen medleys. After all, any vegetable is good with chicken. When it comes to choosing an accompaniment, it's hard to improve on tradition: Prepare the chicken's customary partner, rice pilaf. CHICKEN SAUTE WITH SNOW PEAS, CARROTS AND VERMOUTH A generous amount of vegetables are part of this colorful chicken saute. For an elegant presentation, chefs "turn" the carrots in oval shapes instead of cutting them in long pieces. Makes 4 servings 4 a 11⁄2-kg. chicken, cut in 8 or 9 pieces, patted dry 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 4 4 medium carrots (about 350 gr.), peeled, cut in 5-cm. lengths 4 110 to 140 gr. snow peas, ends removed, or frozen snow peas 4 11⁄2 cups chicken stock or broth 4 1 Tbsp. margarine, soft 4 2 tsp. flour 4 1⁄4 cup dry or extra dry Vermouth Season chicken pieces lightly with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large heavy skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add leg and thigh pieces and brown lightly. Set on a plate. Add breast, wing and back pieces to skillet and brown lightly. Return leg and thigh pieces to skillet. Add chicken juices from plate. Cover and cook over low heat 15 minutes or until breast pieces are tender. Transfer them to a platter, cover and keep them warm. Cook remaining chicken 10 minutes more or until tender. Add leg and thigh pieces to platter. Discard back pieces, neck and wing tips. While chicken is cooking, halve thin carrot pieces lengthwise; quarter thick pieces lengthwise. In a medium saucepan, simmer carrots in the stock, covered, 15 minutes or until barely tender. Remove carrots, reserving liquid. Cook snow peas in a pan of boiling salted water 1 minute or until crisp-tender. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain well. Mash margarine in a small bowl with a fork until softened. Add flour and stir mixture to a uniform paste. Skim as much fat as possible from chicken juices in skillet. Reheat juices until very hot. Add carrot cooking liquid and boil until reduced to about 1⁄2 cup. Add Vermouth and bring to a boil. Gradually add flour paste into simmering sauce, a small piece at a time, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, whisking. Add carrots and snow peas and heat 1 or 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. To serve, blot any fat or liquid from platter of chicken with paper towels. Spoon vegetables over and around chicken and spoon sauce over chicken. CHICKEN SAUTE WITH PAPRIKA SAUCE Use aromatic sweet paprika, and add a touch of pungency by finishing the dish with a pinch of hot paprika or cayenne. Makes 4 servings 4 A 11⁄3- to 11⁄2-kg. chicken, cut in pieces, patted dry 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 5 tsp. paprika 4 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil 4 1 onion, chopped 4 450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or a 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped 4 1 fresh thyme sprigs or 1⁄2 tsp. dried thyme 4 Pinch of hot paprika or cayenne pepper, if desired Sprinkle chicken lightly on all sides with salt, pepper and 2 teaspoons paprika. Rub seasonings into chicken. Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add leg and thigh pieces and brown lightly on all sides. Transfer to a plate. Add breast pieces and wings to skillet and brown lightly. Transfer to plate. Add onion, chicken neck and back to skillet. Cook over low heat, stirring, until onion is tender. Add tomatoes, thyme and remaining 3 teaspoons paprika and stir over high heat for 1 minute. Return chicken pieces to skillet, with juices from plate. If pieces don't fit in one layer, arrange breast and wing pieces on top. Cover and simmer over low heat about 15 minutes or until breast pieces are tender. Transfer them to a platter, cover and keep warm. Cook remaining pieces about 10 minutes more or until tender. Add wings, leg and thigh pieces to platter. Discard back and neck. Skim as much fat as possible from sauce. Simmer sauce over medium-high heat, stirring, until it thickens. Add cayenne pepper and and taste for seasoning. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve. Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook and of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.