In the 1970’s I lived in an off campus college apartment in St. Louis — a madhouse of four Jewish girls living across the hall from four Jewish boys. I was the only cook — which was fine by me, as my dear roomies did all the buying and clean-up — and I had big ideas about what to serve for Shabbat dinner, dishes like beef wellington and chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce. In preparation for these meals, I’d scour “The Times” and “Julia” for recipes, most of which were, of course, unsuitable for a kosher table. I have to say that the weekly horde, which could come to twelve or more, were perfect guinea pigs for my culinary experiments, a captive audience whose appetites didn’t quit.
For one Shabbat, the dish I had my eye on was Poulet Veronique — a heavenly combo of chicken, grapes and, yes, butter and cream. I loved the idea of the grapes, a traditional French garnish for a number of savory preparations.
Chicken was readily available, and more important, you could get kosher cuts. In the seventies, outside New York, kosher cooks had a hard time finding certified ingredients for other than the most basic Ashkenazi dishes — good eating, but hardly gourmet.
Back then, I had my work cut out for me. How to “kosherize” Poulet Veronique without losing its goodness or essential character? First, I decided to use chicken breasts, which, in those days, I had to bone myself. Out went the butter and cream, of course, and in came the best olive oil I could find, tarragon, and, in place of breading that might contain milk products or even lard, cracker crumbs made from Manischewitz’s Tam Tam, the only kosher crackers I could find. There was no problem using grapes, and I decided to add mushrooms for their earthy goodness.
Come Friday night the crowd assembled, as rambunctious as ever. When I first announced my Shabbat dish, eyebrows shot up. Chicken with grapes? Was I mad?
But I passed my creation around the table and held my breath as everyone dug in.
The room became silent. Really silent. All you could hear was the sound of silverware scraping against plates and, soon following, those little moans of pleasure that meant people were enjoying, really enjoying, their food.
My chicken veronique was a major success, and it’s stood the test of time. It’s become a staple of Shabbat meals and holiday family dining in my house. Some things have changed, though — it’s now simpler to do. Today you can buy boneless chicken breasts — and instead of having to crush crackers using a bag with a heavy can as I did, you can use a food processor. Mushrooms and grapes are now available year-round. And you can use better wine to make the sauce. Try it for your Shabbat horde. Pleasure, if not moans, are guaranteed.
Chicken with Grapes and Mushrooms
Reprinted with permission from Geila Hocherman and Arthur Boehm’s “Kosher Revolution: New Techniques and Great Recipes for Unlimited Kosher Cooking”
This simple “bake” can be served straight from the oven, warm or cold. I’ve made it with a variety of white-flour crackers, both plain and seasoned, whatever’s in the house. If, however, I want to buy crackers for this, I still use Manischewitz’s Tam Tam crackers. To make the crumbs, pulse whole crackers in a food processor.
1½ cups cracker crumbs, any kind (see note)
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
¼ teaspoon white pepper, plus more
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, tenders removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
1 cup diced onion
¾ cup white wine
¾ cup chicken stock
2 cups mushrooms, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 cup seedless green grapes
1) On a large plate or in a shallow bowl, combine the crumbs, tarragon, 1½ teaspoons salt, and ¼ teaspoon white pepper, and spread evenly. Add the chicken and dredge on both sides.
2) In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and sauté, turning once, until brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a 9 x 12-inch baking dish.
3) Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Wipe out the skillet and heat the remaining grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with a little salt (to help it release its moisture), and sauté, stirring, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add ½ cup of the wine and ½ cup of the stock, bring to a boil to deglaze the pan, and pour over the chicken. Bake the chicken for 10 minutes.
4) Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil and grapeseed oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, and sauté until tender and golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining wine and stock and boil until almost all of the liquid has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the grapes, stir, and transfer to the baking dish. Bake the chicken, uncovered, until just cooked through, about another 10 minutes.
5) Transfer the chicken to serving plates, spoon the sauce, grapes, and mushrooms over it, and serve.