On the 14th of June, 1800, in the Northern Italian town of Marengo, Napoleon's troops were hit with a surprise attack from the Austrian forces, commanded by General Michael von Melas. Napoleon figured the Austrians were retreating from Italy, and spread his army widely to try to cut them off. Instead, von Melas attacked directly, with a much larger force. Napoleon was forced to fall back. Some of the French outliers were able to reach and join up with Napoleon's main force, and a counter-attack by the French regained the battleground and scattered the Austrian army, thus winning the Battle of Marengo. By the next day, the Austrians negotiated a retreat from Northern Italy. Hungry after the long day (over 12 hours of combat), Napoleon commanded his chef to make something in a hurry. The chef was forced to scrounge the countryside and found herbs, chicken, tomatoes, garlic, wine, olives, and appropriated some of Napoleon's personal stash of cognac. With these foraged ingredients, the chef whipped up a meal so tasty, Napoleon considered it his "lucky meal" and requested it before many future battles.
So goes the legend of Chicken Marengo. Though Napoleon ordered that the dish never be altered, many have done so over the last couple centuries. My basic "source" recipe came from The Joy of Cooking, and I've gone back and forth over several years altering and changing the recipe, from making almost a casserole version, to a more traditional approach. This version leans toward traditional.
I started by coating two chicken breasts in a flour/kosher salt/black pepper dusting to give a little brown flavor.
I'm using my favorite cast iron skillet for this meal, and I debated this for a while. I don't have an enameled version, but I wanted the heat retention, and I also felt that it's a little more authentic when it comes to battlefield cooking. There is a lot of acid in this dish, though -- tomatoes, wine -- which isn't normally meant for cast iron. I didn't want to etch my skillet, or cause a metallic flavor to the dish. A bit of online research shows a lot of friendly argument to and fro, but the consensus seems to be that long-term stewing of raw tomato might cause a problem, but a quick braise shouldn't be too concerning. Happily, this was the case -- my skillet is fine, and there were no off flavors in the meal.
So, some olive oil in a heated skillet, then the chicken breasts are browned on both sides. Once they're flipped, I added a crushed garlic clove.
While the chicken was browning, I combined 1/2 cup of white wine (I used a pinot grigio), and 1/2 cup of chicken stock. After the chicken was browned, I added the liquid to the pan, and added some crushed tomatoes (seeded), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.
The skillet went into a 300 degree oven to braise for an hour or so. While braising, I quartered a half-pound of white mushrooms and sliced a sweet onion very thinly. I heated a pan over medium, added some more olive oil, then salted and slowly browned the onions. When the onions were just starting to caramelize, I added the mushrooms
After braising for an hour, I removed the chicken from the skillet, removed the garlic and thyme sprigs, then reduced the sauce a bit, 10 minutes or so over medium.
I added the chicken back to the pan, poured the mushrooms and onions over the top, and added a bunch of whole black olives.
For a final touch, a shot of cognac poured over everything.
The skillet is tossed into a 400 degree oven for 5-10 minutes -- just enough to warm everything back up and let the flavors incorporate. Once the liquid starts to simmer again, I take it out of the oven, add some cooked arborio rice, squirt some lemon juice over the whole thing for some brightness, then garnish with thyme leaves.
Deconstruction: The flavors are amazing in this dish. Olive oil, tomatoes, thyme, garlic, wine...it is a simple dish with a lot going on. I think the skillet was an asset, but I also think the chicken breasts didn't come out as tender as I would have liked. They weren't tough (and Christey said I was crazy, they were perfect) but I was hoping for something a little easier to tear coming from a braise (if even a short one). Traditionally, this dish is made with a quartered chicken -- bones, skin, and meat -- and I can see how that would work better in a braise than the dreaded skinless-boneless. I've made some version of this dish for over a decade, and I'm still tinkering with it.