~My Mad Men Last Supper Menu: Chicken a la King~
In the 1950's, '60's and '70's, New York City's Madison Avenue was ground zero for the advertising industry -- for almost all of those years, it was an elitist club of all-male executives. These Madison ad men, cavalierly referred to themselves as Mad Men. Unless you've just beamed to earth from another corner of the universe, you know, that for the past six years, Mad Men has been a period drama television series about this business and the bizarre lifestyle of the people working in it. For those lucky enough to remember the realities of this time period, it's a lot more than entertainment. For those too young to "get it", it's a surreal learning experience.
The moment the theme song begins, the free-fall through the looking glass into this recent-past world begins, and we viewers get to experience, in crystal-clear detail, for better or worse, how we got to where we are today: a full-blown media-driven, money-talks society. It reveals social bias, double-standards and power-lust in such a crafty, powerful way, we crave to watch it, and, openly discuss it too!
It all ends tonight when the finale airs at 10:00PM, and, for us foodies, it's been a particularly fun ride. From a culinary standpoint, "what's old is new again": Mad Men cookbooks have been written, Mad Men themed parties have been given, and, fancy cocktails are back in vogue. To accommodate the movement, I added an entire Category to Kitchen Encounters entitled: ~ What would Don Draper do? Retro Recipes from my past to your present! ~. I'm not going to lie, when Mad Man is airing, even in reruns, Category 26 is a busy place indeed, with a lot of Man Men fans visiting there for "new" old ideas.
For me, the perfect ending to this show would be an announcement telling us they're renewing the show for six more years (or even one), but, that's clearly unlikely. In lieu of that delusion, I pondered what I'd serve for my Mad Men Last Supper. Surprisingly, it came to me quite quickly. The leap from "a retro recipe fit for the kingpin of the show" to "chicken a la king" only took me a few sips of my favorite cocktail!
A bit about classic chicken a la king vs. chicken pot pie -- Chicken a la king is not pot pie & vice versa.
In its purest form, chicken a la king is a refined, American restaurant dish consisting of perfectly-poached white-meat chicken stirred into a silky sherry-cream bechamel-type sauce containing mushrooms, and, green peppers (although peas are commonly substituted by people who don't care for peppers). Classically, it's served served over toast points, puff pastry or rice (with noodles or pasta being acceptable substitutions). Pot pie is a very thick, gravy-like stock-based chicken stew that contains noodles or is topped with a pastry crust. Worst case pot pie recipes are made using cream of chicken soup. For those of you who disagree with my assessment:
butter, chopped green pepper, sliced mushrooms, flour, salt, cream, poached chicken, egg yolks, onion juice, lemon juice, sherry, pimiento (for garnish), toast points (for serving)
Notice: The original recipe contains no chicken stock, it is made with a cream-based bechamel-type sauce, and, pimientos are a garnish, not a stirred in ingredient (all of which are common misconceptions in modern day chicken a la king recipes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, chicken a la king was the pinnacle of upscale comfort food in New York City. In that era, almost anything with a vaguely-sounding French name was adopted by appetites of the rich and powerful. That said, it's not French, and, there are several NYC restaurant chefs claiming the origin of the dish, most notably: Delmonico's, the Brighton Beach Hotel, and, the Plaza. The most credible account, however, is that it was created in the 1890's by a hotel cook, William "Bill" King, of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, as it appeared in his obituary in 1915, as well as a New York Tribune editorial written shortly thereafter.
In the 1950's, this dish was a staple on the menus of elegant wedding receptions, expensive banquets, and, fancy sit-down in-home dinner parties all across America. Sadly, as James Beard lamented in his 1972 book, James Beard's American Cookery, "chicken a la king, now usually prepared in a mediocre fashion, can be quite good if prepared with care, using fine ingredients."
That can be said of many things Americans eat, but, since I'm in the business of writing and publishing really-good, high-quality recipes I'm stealing a quote from Don Draper:
"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation!"
6 cups water
2 cups white wine
4 medium-sized dried bay leaves
juice from 1 lemon, cut in half
2 pounds chicken tenders, chopped into 3/4" chunks (Note: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be substituted with some compromise in taste and texture.)
Start timing immediately, and, cook until chicken is tender and just cooked through, about 6 minutes.
Drain into a colander, squeeze any juices and pulp remaining in the lemons over all, give everything a toss and set aside until cool enough to handle. Chop chicken into bite-sized 3/4" pieces and set aside.
3 tablespoons salted butter
12 ounces white mushroom caps, sliced
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups frozen peas and diced carrots combo, unthawed
~ Step 1. Slice the mushrooms as directed. In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the mushrooms.
~ Step 2. Add garlic powder and salt, increase heat to medium-high & cook until 'schrooms are losing moisture & mixture is juicy, about 6 minutes. Add frozen vegetables. Cook until almost no moisture remains, 5-6 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.
4 tablespoons salted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon: garlic powder, cayenne pepper & sea salt
3 cups heavy cream + up to 1/2 cup milk, to control consistency
2 cups finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)*
2-4 tablespoons sherry, to taste
*Note: Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese is not a classic ingredient, but, when I'm serving a la king w/pasta I've gotta have it's tang, and, my family demands it. When I'm serving it with anything else, I do not put it in. Feel free to omit it with zero compromise in flavor or texture to the sauce.
Increase heat to medium and stir in the flour, nutmeg, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and sea salt. Using a large spoon or a small whisk, stirring constantly, cook until mixture (roux) is thick, smooth and bubbly, about 30-45 seconds. This happens really fast.
Carefully adjust heat to a gentle simmer (not too high or it will scorch) and continue to cook until smooth, thickened and drizzly, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat off.
~ Step 3. Sprinkle in the optional Parm-Regg. Finely-grated cheese melts almost instantly. Stir until mixture is smooth and ribbonlike, adding milk if necessary, or, just because you want the sauce a little thinner. Add the sherry to taste. With or without cheese, you will have 3 1/2 cups of silky-smooth sherry-cream sauce.
~ Step 4. Turn heat off and fold in the chicken and vegetable mixture. Cover and allow to rest, on the warm stovetop, for 10-15 minutes, to allow the flavors time to marry. Serve scooped atop toast points, in puff pastry shells, or over steamed rice, cooked noodles or pasta. Garnish each portion with a a few pimientos, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or a parsley sprig. Reheat leftover a la king mixture over low heat on the stovetop, adding a bit of milk, as necessary to control (thin) the consistency.
Taste & admit: real-deal a-la-king exceeds all expectations!
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot; colander; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; large spoon or small whisk
Cook's Note: Another iconic recipe of mine ~ Untangling an American Retro Classic: Tettrazzini (Stranded Pasta baked in Parmesan Cream Sauce) ~, is nothing more than a variation on the a la king theme. To get this recipe, just click into Category 26!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)