Germany: Geflügelragout (Roast Chicken Stew)
If you have a chance to travel much in central Europe, especially by train, you start seeing a lot of fascinating food-related things that the glossy travel shows about seeing landmarks at high speed will never have time to show you....
During the first few years that EuroCuisineLady and EuroCuisineGuy managed to get over there a few times each year, such sights included mobile distillers, firehouses with their own flocks of free range chickens, Michelin-starred railway station restaurants, and on-train convenience stores (either do your shopping when you get on and then relax with a coffee, or fax/email your order to the shop in the train car and have your bread, milk, pasta, wine or whatever ready to pick up when you board the train).* But one of our favorites -- and one that's surprisingly widespread in everyday food culture in Europe -- is what EuroCuisineGuy immmediately dubbed "The Chicken-Torturing Machine."
No chickens are actually tortured by this machine, as they're well past any possible torturing by the time they go into it. What ECG is referring to is the rotisserie truck that turns up at all kinds of public venues -- street festivals and fairs, outdoor markets, and (surprisingly often) train stations.
While you do see rotisserie trucks that feature such relatively exotic specialties (to the North American eye) as crispy pork and veal knuckle, most of them seem to do chicken, like the one in the photo to the left. Routinely, the slowly rotating and grilling chickens will be basting chunky potatoes that have been placed below them to soak up their savory juices. Marketers or commuters passing by on their way home from work will stop to pick up one of these chickens and maybe some of the potatoes, which get wrapped up in a greaseproof, heatproof bag. When you get them home, you heat them up and then... what?
One of the best answers is this recipe, which we've adapted from Horst Scharfenburg's solid and reliable cookbook The German Kitchen (see the Amazon widget down by the recipe proper: it's worth having). The recipe (which in Scharfenburg's cookbook goes by the name Braunes Geflügelragout) isn't so much for a stew, as a pre-stew: a rich, dark, savory, lemon-scented gravy based on beef stock and augmented with red wine or port. (You can leave the wine out if you're not inclined to add it, but the gravy is much better with the wine included.) Our adaptation uses wine instead of port, as it's too easy to get the wrong kind of port (or one that's too good for gravy), but strong red wines with a little bit of edge are everywhere, and those are exactly what you want for this: an old-school Chianti is perfect.
Having prepared the gravy, all you do is shred the truck-bought (or store-bought, or home-roasted....) roast chicken into it, and serve it forth with your preferred side dish. The dish is therefore perfect for those times when you're too exhausted to cook, or just can't be bothered to. Additionally, the gravy can be made ahead of time and frozen in small (or large) quantities. Then, when you get home from one of those impossible days at work, all you have to do is defrost the gravy, rip up the roast chicken you picked up at the local supermarket or convenience store, dump it into the gravy for long enough to get friendly, and serve.
In Freiburg-im-Breisgau in Germany, home of many great (and mostly unknown) German red wines and a natural haven for this dish, we saw one variant on the theme served with spätzle: elsewhere, closer to Austria, we saw it with noodles. But mashed potatoes work just as well -- maybe even better than the local German pasta variants, as the mash soaks up that wonderful gravy better than anything else.
Our recipe doubles the amount of gravy in the original one, because, frankly, there's never enough of this gravy. Anything extra after a meal, you can always freeze for the next time you pass your own version of the Chicken-Torturing Machine.
- 4-5 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion, chopped as finely as possible
- 4 tablespoons plain flour
- 1 liter / 1 quart of beef stock (from stock cubes / bouillon cubes if you like: we use the Kallo brand of "Just Bouillon" concentrated stock and add a stock cube as well)
- 100 ml of a strong red wine: Chianti, Cabernet sauvignon, or similar. (Omit this if you like, but add another 100 ml of water to the stock to make up the difference.)
- 1 lemon, sliced into four or five thick slices
- 4 bay leaves
- Salt and fresh-ground pepper
- Optional: a dash or two of vinegar or lemon juice to sharpen the gravy at the end of cooking
- 750g - 1 kg or 1 1/2 - 2 pounds roast chicken, depending on how many you're feeding: pulled off the bones and chopped or fork-pulled into bite-size pieces
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan: add the finely chopped onions and cook until translucent.
Add the flour, stir well, and cook until this oniony roux is golden brown. Add more butter if necessary so that the mixture is semiliquid while it's browning.
Prepare the beef stock according to directions for whatever you're using, concentrate or cube. Pour the beef stock and red wine into the flour/butter/onion mixture and stir very well until smooth. (If you have to use a whisk to get it to smooth out, that's fine.)
Add the lemon slices, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Allow the sauce to come very briefly to a boil, stirring all the while to make sure that the flour is all properly dissolved and thickening nicely; then lower the heat and simmer the gravy for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When the cooking time is complete, remove the lemon slices and bay leaves. (Be sure you get all the bay leaves, as whole bay leaf can damage people's insides if they accidentally ingest the central spine of the leaf.) Pour the gravy through a fine strainer and use a wooden or plastic spoon to push as much of the cooked onion as possible through the strainer into the gravy. Test the seasoning, sharpen if necessary with vinegar or lemon juice, and add salt or pepper if required.
Add the chicken pieces and warm over a low flame. Serve with your preferred side dish. Potatoes or (flour- or potato-)dumplings work best: noodles and spätzli work well too.
(...About now you should be wishing you'd made more gravy. You'll know for next time....)
* To EuroCuisineLady's sorrow, these CoOp Railshop cars are now gone. They were introduced in 2000 on the Zurich-Bern rail line as "rolling ambassadors" for the CoOp's new chain of Pronto station-based convenience stores, and to raise the chain's visibility for its corporate sponsorship at Switzerland's Expo 02. At the end of 2002, having fulfilled their PR purpose, they were withdrawn from service. Click here for the German-language press release announcing the completion of the Railshop project.