Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black, Black Box: Competition Preparation with Stuffed Chicken Legs

In a flash of overconfidence, mixed in with a little insanity, I have decided to enter a culinary competition. I’ll be entering with one of my classmates from culinary school, but we’ll be competing individually. It’s a black box challenge: we’ll be given a mystery box containing four or five ingredients, probably one or two proteins, one or two vegetables and/or fruits, and a starch. We will have three hours to create a three-course meal, highlighting these ingredients and utilizing others provided in the kitchen. I’ll admit it: I am terrified. My classmate and I have been practicing and trust me, three hours goes by a lot faster than you’d think. To be honest, my goal at the moment is just to finish the competition, never mind coming up with anything I would be proud to present.

All right, so maybe I am selling myself a little short. I know that I can do this, I just need to be mentally prepared. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few tricks up my sleeve either, which is why I have been practicing a number of dishes that I plan to pull out if I am given certain ingredients. One protein that I am likely to get is chicken, mainly because it is cheap, and also because you really need to work with it in order to produce something really tasty. If I do get a chicken, it is likely that I will make Ballotines de Poulet, an impressive little composition consisting of a deboned, stuffed chicken leg, braised in a rich sauce. It’s a very classic, culinary school-type dish that, most importantly, tastes really good.
The stuffing is a combination of sautéed carrot, celery, and shallot, mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs. The legs are then tied up to give you neat, sort of sausage-like, chicken rolls. The rolls are browned in a hot pan, then set aside while you work on the braising sauce.
The sauce is a rich combination of golden mirepoix, wine, brown stock, tomato paste, and thickened with beurre manié, a raw combination of butter and flour. The chicken then gets returned to the pan, and it braises in the oven for half an hour. The braising liquid keeps it moist, tender, and flavorful.
When the chicken is cooked through, it is set aside while the final sauce is prepared. The braising liquid is strained into a clean pan and reduced. Lardons (bacon that has been blanched, then crisped), sautéed pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms are then added to the sauce, and it is served with the sliced chicken.
As you can see, I also served mine with pan-seared Brussels sprouts this time, but I wouldn’t do that in the competition. In fact, I have since made this dish again in a competition practice, and made some minor adjustments to save time, and refine the dish a little: I didn’t thicken the initial braising liquid with the beurre manié. The final sauce was reduced slightly, seasoned, and then monté au beurre, meaning finished with the addition of raw butter. It made for a wonderful sauce, not heavy at all, but rich and with a deep, savory flavor.

I may not do perfectly on this competition, but at least I’ll be going in there with a few ideas, and a few things I know I can do. No matter what happens, it will be an experience worth living, one I’m sure I won’t regret.

Ballotine de Poulet (Stuffed Boneless Chicken Legs)
Adapted from Professional Cooking, 6th ed., by Wayne Gisslen
Serves 4
4 chicken legs, skin on, thigh and drumstick pieces attached
1 oz. shallot, finely chopped
½ oz. carrot, finely chopped
½ oz. celery, finely chopped
½ oz. butter
2 oz. fresh white bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper

1 fl. oz. vegetable oil
2 oz. onion, small dice
1 oz. carrot, small dice
1 oz celery, small dice
5 fl. oz. white wine
1 oz. tomato paste
2 cups brown stock (dark chicken stock or beef stock)
1 oz. beurre manié* (optional—use if you prefer a thicker sauce, rather than a thinner reduction)
Salt and pepper

(If making it Grandmère-style)
3 oz slab bacon
2 oz pearl onions
4 oz. button mushrooms
2 oz. butter (if not using the beurre manié)

Debone the chicken leg by slicing carefully along the thigh and drumstick bones. Gently scrape the meat off the bones, trying to keep the meat as much in one piece as possible. When possible, remove the bone completely from the meat. This video gives a decent demo.

Sweat the shallot, carrot, and celery in the butter until softened. Cool. Combine with the breadcrumbs, and add just enough egg to make a soft, but not to wet consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the bone cavity of the chicken legs with the stuffing, then roll up the legs to enclose the filling. Use butcher’s twine to tie the rolls securely.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat the oil in a large, shallow pan. Brown the legs on all sides, then put aside. Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the pan and cook until golden. Deglaze with the wine, and reduce until it is almost all evaporated. Stir in the tomato paste and stock, and bring to a boil. If using, drop in the beurre manié in small pieces.

Return the chicken legs to the pan; the liquid should come no more than halfway up the sides of the chicken. Bring it to a boil, then place, uncovered, in the oven for about 30 minutes, until cooked through. Baste the legs occasionally with the braising liquid. Remove the legs from the liquid and tent with foil. Strain the braising liquid into a clean pan, and reduce to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper. At the last minute, swirl in the butter, if using.

If doing the Grandmére garnish, cut the bacon into batonnets, about ¼” wide, and 1 ½” long. Place them in cold water and bring to a boil, then drain. Fry them until golden brown, then saute the onions and mushrooms in the bacon fat until golden.

Remove the string from the chicken and slice neatly, pouring the sauce around it. If using, garnish with the bacon, onions, and mushrooms.

*equal parts butter and flour

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