If there’s one thing that I know to be true, it’s that the Italians taught the French how to cook. It’s true, just ask any Italian. When Caterina de’ Medici married Henry II, she departed Italy with her best cooks and delivered the gift of Florentine cuisine to the heretofore uninitiated. But after this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge, I’m pretty sure that somebody in Caterina de’ Medici’s entourage was a giant wiseass.
I imagine a parting conversation, the exchange probably happened something like this:
FRENCH BARBARIAN: What can I do to make my boiled potatoes better? I’ve been eating them with my hand since the last English invasion.
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: Try this.
FRENCH BARBARIAN: What is it?
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: Red wine and olive oil, it’ll make your balls bigger.
FRENCH BARBARIAN: Ohhhh… good. And what’s this?
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: That’s a fork you dumb bastard.
FRENCH BARBARIAN: For the balls?
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: No, don’t get it anywhere near your balls. Leave that shit to the Germans.
FRENCH BARBARIAN: Right.
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: OK, I’m gonna go and create the world’s best art, greatest literature and some necklaces with little gold horns for when we move to New Jersey.
FRENCH BARBARIAN: Where?
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: You’ll see. Oh, and one more thing: you know the way I make chicken where I roast it really simply with sausage and rosemary and the skin gets all crispy and hot and it’s really good?
FRENCH BARBARIAN: Yeah.
ITALIAN MASTER CHEF: Don’t do that, here’s a 27 step recipe that you’ll like much better. It takes five days. It’s boiled and then you eat it cold, you’ll love it. Now keep that fork away from your balls and keep an eye on those Germans.
And that’s textbook history, look it up if you don’t believe me. Or just try and make a chicken galantine and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
The galantine is one of those things you read about. One of those old school pieces of use-the-whole-beast visionary majesty. A piece of true refinement that takes an ordinary bird and through some extreme Dr. Frankenstein wizardry makes it a delicate, intricate and artful display of food porn. It’s also a fairly sizable pain in the ass to make. Especially if you make it in one marathon session, which is what I did.
Creating the galantine is something akin to listening to Miles Davis as proof of how much you like music. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s something that requires attention. It’s something that can be a little nerve racking. And like jazz, it’s something that can go horribly awry and wind you up with a fork firmly jammed into your balls. Figuratively speaking, of course. The whole thing comes together a little like a seven-step trial or obstacle course where you have to answer a troll’s questions at the end of it.
It starts with skinning a chicken, keeping the skin intact for later use. Overall, the skinning a pretty straightforward endeavor. Like removing a sweater… Made of chicken skin… That’s connected to your body through various membranes. It requires a deft hand and a sharp knife, and the ability to maneuver around a chicken that’s slippery as a bastard without cutting a hole in the skin, dropping the damn thing on the floor or jabbing a sharp boning knife straight through your hand. But it’s doable, and I did it.
Then you bone the chicken, keeping the breasts intact and removing all the bits of tendon and sinew from the other parts of the bird. Easy enough. The hardest part here is reaching for a beer or scratching your eye or doing anything else because you have a hand covered in chicken glop—a substance that we’ve all been trained to know is as dangerous as a chemical weapon. I accomplished this as well, no food poisoning, no tiny bits of chicken sneaking around my kitchen waiting to strike at a later date.
Then you make stock, sear off the breasts and make a farce with the rest of the meaty bird bits (I added some sautéed cremini mushrooms and parsley to the farce for some extra oomph). Easy enough, although unfortunately I continued the Charcutepalooza tradition of hand cutting the meat till about 1am because my daughter had already gone to bed and waking her up with a howling meat grinder would earn me an A+ in the silly bastard, dumb sonofabitch catagory.
After all this, the galantine sort of comes together like a huge chicken skin burrito that you wrap in cheese cloth and poach in the stock you’ve made. This worked alright as well—although I think I over-trimmed my Buffalo Bill style chicken sweater , because I had quite a bit of farce left over to cook into its own little chicken and mushroom pate. What didn’t work was the damned cheesecloth. Can I just say how much I dislike cheesecloth? Outside of that crap foam drycleaners put on hangers it might be the most infuriating substance on earth. I’m not sure why I hate it so much, maybe because it took me a good 30 minutes of cursing and picking chicken-y bits of teeny tiny cloth fibers off of my hands, my table and my beard to get the damned thing wrapped properly.
I then poached the whole galantine very, very gently in the stock I had made. Cooled it thoroughly and then let the whole thing rest in the stock, in the fridge for about a day. Where it sits submerged for the final hours of the magical alchemy that elevates a simple disassembled chicken into the mythical galantine.
When it was time for the big reveal, the galantine was good. Everything came together well enough. The forcemeat didn’t break down. The breast meat was still juicy and tender. The mushrooms added a nice dimension, as did the parsley. I’m glad I made it, if only because it seems like something good to have made. Something that only a serious cook would attempt and in turn, accomplish. But for all that work, all that trimming and cooling and resting and farcing and searing and stocking, all that supposed alchemy, it was still just sort of cold chicken. Really good cold chicken. But cold chicken none the less, and therefore subject to what seems to be cold chicken’s natural ceiling. Don’t get me wrong, the galantine was good, especially when I hit it with a little red sea salt, put it over lightly dressed greens and ate it with wood grilled slices of baguette. But for all the Frankensteining that took place, it didn’t raise a dead chicken into some walking talking work of mad poultry genius. It was good, and it was a great test of the limits of my own technical skills but I wanted it to be a great meal. Instead it was a fine enough lunch. A solid antipasto… Smartass 16th century jerk cook.