Monday, June 10, 2013

Red Dwarf Recipe: Chicken Marengo

"Too slow, chicken marengo! Too slow for this cat!" (Image (c) Grant Naylor Productions.)
If it isn't patently obvious by now, my all-time favorite TV show is probably the BBC comedy series, Red Dwarf. Sure, my appreciation of Monty Python's Flying Circus grants me automatic nerd status, Blackadder is hard to beat for historical parody, and Star Trek is my most beloved scifi franchise of choice (give me some Romulan ale, and I'll be waxing poetic about the virtues - and vices - of both Kirk and Picard for hours)... but there's nothing quite like the magic that is Red Dwarf.

I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite character, but I must say, the Cat is in my top four. The ever-talented Danny John-Jules managed to capture the gestalt of kittiness in his portrayal of the 3,000,000-years-evolved descendant of Dave Lister's cat Frankenstein. Like a cat, Cat's hygiene is meticulous.  Like a cat, his moves are lissome. Like a cat, his self-centeredness is without bounds. And, like a cat, he plays with his food.

Fish seems to be Cat's favorite (being - well, a cat and all), but in a particularly silly moment in the Season One episode, "Confidence and Paranoia" (the very same episode which brings us BEEEEEEEEEEER MILKSHAKES!!), Cat toys mercilessly with a dish of Chicken Marengo.

I've never given birth to twins, played pool with planets, or had an edible pot noodle - and neither have I ever tried Chicken Marengo. Seems it was about damn time.

According to legend, Chicken Marengo was a dish concocted by Napoleon Bonaparte's chef, Dunand, after the Battle of Marengo in June of 1800. Hungry after his victory, Napoleon ordered Dunand to cook him dinner; Dunand started foraging, and managed to rustle up some olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, crayfish, a few eggs, and a rather anxious chicken. One cook pot and a rush of desperation later, Dunand had thrown together the dish now known as Poulet Marengo, complete with artfully-arranged crayfish and fried eggs on top. Napoleon was allegedly so pleased with the dish that he ate it after every battle from then on.

The story is given added flourish with claims that Dunand dramatically cut up the chicken with a saber and helped boost the sauce with a splash of cognac from Napoleon's own flask. It's a great story, but it's probably all a load of honk. No doubt a dish was later created to commemorate the battle, but whether or not it was whipped up on the spot is the stuff of urban legend.

Taking a cursory look at the description from the story, the dish is essentially chicken in a tomato sauce seasoned with herbs, onions, and garlic - a staple Mediterranean dish, with variations common from Portugal to Sicily. This one just happens to have some unusual garnishes: crayfish and eggs. Some recipes include mushrooms in the sauce, but I didn't. Here's my version.

3-4 lb. boneless chicken, cut into large dice or chunks
2 to 3 medium white or yellow onions, sliced
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 to 3 vine ripe tomatoes, cut into large dice
Dry red wine
Italian herb seasoning
Garlic, minced
Olive oil
6 to 8 really big prawns
3 or 4 hard-boiled eggs

Carmelize the sliced onions in a large, deep, heavy skillet in olive oil over medium heat.

When the onions are translucent and starting to brown, add the chicken, garlic, and Italian seasoning to taste (I used about 3 cloves of garlic and 2 tsp. of Italian seasoning).

When the chicken starts to brown and is partly cooked through, add the diced tomato. Turn up the heat a little and cook for a few minutes until the tomato is hot, stirring often.

Add the red wine and crushed tomatoes. Turn up the heat until the crushed tomatoes start to bubble. Reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. If you want less liquid, simmer uncovered; if you want more, simmer covered.

At the very end, lay the prawns on the surface of the sauce. Cover and simmer until the prawns are done (about 5 to 8 minutes depending on the size of the prawns).

Serve in flat soup bowls. Garnish with hardboiled eggs and 1 or 2 prawns per serving.

  • Take your time carmelizing the onions. Letting onions carmelize properly will make any dish taste absolutely amazing, so be patient.
  • My version had the consistency of a thick tomato stew. If you prefer less liquid, brown the chicken in a separate pan with the seasonings (herbs and garlic), drain, and then add to the onions. You can also use less crushed tomato and thicken with tomato paste, and/or leave out the fresh diced tomato entirely.
  • Don't be afraid to be generous with seasonings. Don't be afraid to use fresh herbs too, if they're available. Try oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, savory, and basil, in any combination. Mince the herbs and add towards the end, a few minutes before steaming the prawns. They'll stay green and retain a fresh flavor that way.
  • Goes well with a dry red wine, thick crusty bread, and a green salad dressed simply (with olive oil, vinegar, a little salt, and some shaved or shredded parmesan cheese)