Ask Chef Phyllis
So many stories are told of the dish prepared for Napoleon in celebration of his victory against the Austrians at the Battle at Marengo in June 1800. Legend or food history? Here’s the real lowdown!
Though the French were victorious in the battle, as luck would have it, their food carts had been captured or stolen by the enemy, which is surely a common occurrence in war. Napoleon’s chef, Durand (who was Swiss or French, depending on who’s telling the tale), and some scouts were sent out to the Italian countryside to round up local ingredients. I can see them snatching up whatever the farmers had around: a chicken or two, eggs, cheese, mushrooms, wild onions, regional wines, perhaps some early tomatoes. Older cookbooks also mention truffles (which makes sense since the Piedmont is renowned for them). The resulting recipe for Pollo alla Marengo has been around in various forms ever since
I found the following amazing recipe, which also calls for truffles, in La Grande Cucina by Luigi Carnacina.
Pollo alla Marengo
The best cooking vessel for this dish is a Le Creuset Dutch oven. But if you don’t have one, a large skillet with a good lid will do nicely. And a small skillet for frying eggs will do perfectly.
5 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons olive oil
3–4 pounds young chicken, washed, patted dry with paper towels, and cut up (2 breast halves with wings, legs, and thighs)
Sea salt and black pepper
½–¾ pound cremini mushrooms (the Italian brown Baby Bella), sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup white burgundy wine or sauvignon blanc, preferably a Barbaresco from the Piedmont region of Italy
½ cup chicken stock
8 ripe Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 (14 oz.) can organic fire-roasted diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
For the same dish as the one served to Napoleon, serve with the following ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
6 fresh eggs
6 crayfish, if available, or substitute jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 thick-cut bread slices, fried or toasted in advance
Fresh Raveggiolo or fresh Mozzarella in cherry-size balls
1 white truffle, for grating (optional)
- Heat butter and olive oil in the Dutch oven.
- After patting chicken parts dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add to Dutch oven, skin side down. Cook until skin is crisp and browned.
- Remove breast pieces to a platter and cover to keep warm. Cook leg and thigh pieces a little longer, then add to platter.
- Add mushrooms to the pan. Cook for about 4 minutes on the first side until golden brown. Turn mushrooms and brown on the second side. Add garlic, wine, and chicken stock.
- Stir well. Add tomatoes and parsley.
- Add chicken pieces back to pan. Cover and simmer for 10–15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat up six shallow soup plates. Add chicken to each plate, then spoon the sauce from the pan over the chicken.
- If serving the additional ingredients: Melt butter in frying pan, then add eggs and cook sunny side up. Place eggs carefully on top of the chicken.
- Fry the crayfish or shrimp in the same butter, being careful to not overcook them. Place on top of each egg (1 for each plate).
- Add fried bread on the side of the plate. Top with fresh cheese and, if desired, grated truffle. Serve immediately.
Chef’s note: Chicken Marengo has been served for many years without the fried egg, shrimp, bread, and cheese. Was the addition of these humble ingredients the chef’s creative way to stretch the meal? Find out for yourself. Even though it’s perfectly delicious with its garlicky-tomato-wine sauce just as it is, I recommend that you try it embellished at least once. Bon appetit!
Image from iStock/quangpraha.