I had the chance to meet Jacques Pépin once. You know, the French chef who was good friends with Julia Child? Boston University was hosting a Jacques Pépin themed evening where local chefs made interpretations of dishes from Pépin’s cookbook, which every participant got to take home. Pépin was to be in attendance that night, but unfortunately his health kept him from coming so instead he made a video message to share with his fans at the event.
It would’ve been cool to meet him. Between my interest in cooking, my love of the French language, and my time studying in France I would’ve had plenty to say to make a connection. I probably would’ve been too shy, knowing me, but the opportunity never presented itself so I can’t say for sure what could have been.
Jacques Pépin and Julia Child were the reasons I came to Boston actually. (Well those two and the wonderful man I now call my husband 🙂 ) In 1989, before the ubiquity of food blogs and the foodie craze of photographing your food in public, Pépin and Child started the Gastronomy Masters Program I attended at Boston University. The program started with the intention of looking at food from different angles, drawing on the interdisciplinary approach of anthropology, history, and food policy. Jacques Pépin has taught the hands-on culinary arts courses there for several years and is still actively involved in the program. I opted not to do the culinary arts program while there, mainly because of scheduling conflicts. Sometimes I regret that decision.
I admit since attending the Pépin event a few years ago that I have hardly looked at his cookbook. Like many people, when I think of French cooking, I picture butter, cream, and wine. Or I think of classic French cooking technique, which sounds intimidating and unreasonable for the every day cook. Yet there are some very simple, lower-fat dishes in French cuisine that don’t require the skills of a well-trained chef or the fat content of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. This Chicken Ragout dish, which is actually Pépin’s mother‘s dish, fits the bill perfectly so don’t be intimidated by French cooking! With a little chopping and a little time (and thyme – har har) this dish can be made quite easily. The harder part is actually eating it, (if you’re used to boneless cuts of meat) but the juicy, flavorful bites of chicken will make it all worth it.
Jacques Pépin’s Chicken Ragout
adapted from Essential Pépin
I like to think of it as a Coq au vin blanc – a simple chicken and wine dish made with white wine instead of red and with some vegetables to make it a little heartier. This dish creates the kind of sauce perfect for soaking up with a nice French baguette, a sophisticated yet simple chicken gravy boosted by chicken on the bone and a crisp Sauvignon blanc.
4 chicken legs, bone-in, skin-on
1 T. canola oil
6 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (2/3 cup)
1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped (1 1/4 cups)
2 tsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup water
1/2 cup fruity dry white wine (such as Sémillon or Sauvignon Blanc)
2 large garlic cloves, crushed and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 pound small Red bliss potatoes or red potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes)
fresh parsley, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large, heavy, stainless steel saucepan until hot. (Make sure your pan is big enough for all of the chicken legs plus more. I had to switch pans part way through because my cast-iron skillet was simply not big enough.) Add the chicken legs and sauté over medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until lightly browned on all sides.
When the chicken is browned, transfer it to a plate. Add the scallions and onion to the hot pan with the chicken drippings and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Add the flour, mix well, and brown the mixture for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the water and wine, scraping the bottom of the pan as you mix it in. Stir in the garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and salt and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally (this shouldn’t take long). Add the potatoes and return the chicken legs, cover and simmer gently over low heat for 30 minutes until the chicken and potatoes are cooked through. Serve sprinkled with parsley and with a fresh French baguette.
Note: Pépin also uses 4 ounces of salt pork or pancetta in his recipe, boiling it first before sauté-ing it with the onion mixture. I had some leftover bacon at home and was thinking I would substitute that instead, though when I got home from the store I had less bacon than I had remembered so I just left it out all together.
As my (non French-speaking) husband always says – Bon appétit!