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~My Mad Men Last Supper Menu: Chicken à la King~

IMG_7424In 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.  

Mad_men_fallThe 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.

IMG_7352It 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.

IMG_3798For 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 à la king" only took me a few sips of my favorite cocktail!

À la king vs. pot pie -- À la king is not pot pie & vice versa.

You'd be surprised (perhaps not) how many folks think the same mixture that goes into pot pie, is the same mixture that gets used to make à la king.  It is not.  If the mixture it is similar to anything, it would be that contained in other all-American creations like chicken or turkey Divan, chicken or turkey Tetrazzini, and even tuna noodle casserole.  Read on to find out the difference:  

In its purest form, à la king is a refined, American restaurant dish consisting of perfectly-poached white-meat chicken or turkey stirred into a silky sherry-cream béchamel-type sauce containing mushrooms, and, green peppers (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 are inclined to disagree with my assessment:

IMG_7370In 1980, in a New York Times article, Craig Claiborne shared the original recipe for chicken à la king (reprinted from a brochure given to him by a reader).  Here is the original ingredients list:

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 béchamel-type sauce, and, pimientos are a garnish, not a stirred in ingredient (all of which are common misconceptions in modern day chicken à la king recipes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, chicken à 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.

IMG_7420In 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 à 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!"

IMG_7482For the chicken:

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.)

IMG_7375 IMG_7361~ Step 1. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring the water, wine, lemon juice, lemon rinds and bay leaves to a boil.  Add the chicken.  

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.


IMG_7511For the sauteed vegetables:

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.

IMG_7532 IMG_7519~ 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.


IMG_7544For the silky sherry cream sauce:

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:  Parmigiano-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.

IMG_7563 IMG_7559~ Step 1.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat.

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.

IMG_7576 IMG_7573~ Step 2. Add the cream, in a slow steady stream, stirring or whisking constantly.

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.

IMG_7587 IMG_7586~ 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.

IMG_7379~ 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 à-la-king exceeds all expectations!

IMG_7385Today's classic choice:  over rice with brioche toast points!

IMG_7436Mad Men Last Supper Menu:  Chicken à la King:  Recipe yields 2 generous quarts, 8+ cups of a la king mixture, or, 6-8 hearty main-course servings.

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 

IMG_7798Cook's Note:  Another iconic recipe of mine ~ Untangling an American Retro Classic:  Shrimp Tettrazzini (Stranded Pasta baked in Parmesan Cream Sauce) ~, is nothing more than a variation on the à la king theme.  To get my recipe, just click on the link.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


Kristin -- Folks like you make what I do feel worthwhile! Thank-you for making my day!!!

My son requests this as his birthday meal every year, so thank you for sharing it! I had tried so many versions over the years and this is the only one worth making. My only change is that I toss half a red bell pepper, matchstick cut, in with the peas and carrots, instead of as a garnish. We eat ours over fluffy biscuits and man oh man is it good. Thank you!

Susan -- As a "small" food blogger who gives blogging her all each and every day, I can only say, it is a comment like yours that keeps me going strong for another day. Thanks bunches! ~ Melanie.

I made this tonight, minus the Parmigianno Regiano cheese, and everyone agreed it was FABULOUS!!!
The sherry sauce is ridiculously delicious, and would also be amazing with lobster meat in it, served over puff pastry shells.
Thank you for this recipe!!!

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