There is no surer sign that spring has arrived than the appearance of morels on Paris menus.
On my last night in Paris before a trip to the States, I wanted the kind of meal that I knew I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. I booked Chez Michel, and when I saw coucou de Rennes aux morilles on the ardoise I knew I had chosen well.
Unless you are a wandering mycologist, fresh morels can be hard to find. This recipe uses dried morels, which plump up beautifully and absorb all the flavors of the pot. Yes, they are expensive (I paid $17.99 for three-fourths of an ounce at a grocery store in Ohio), but the rest of the ingredients are not.
You’ll need to soak the dried morels in hot water for a couple of hours. That soaking liquid becomes an important addition to the sauce. Just be sure to strain it well—a coffee filter is a good idea—because all of those crannies in the mushrooms hold a lot of dirt and grit. In fact, after you take the mushrooms out of their bath, give them another rinse in fresh water.
This is a dish that can go straight to the table, a fine place to use your Le Creuset or Staub. I served it with that other harbinger of spring, asparagus, and bread to mop up the sauce.
Chicken with Morels
¾ oz (25 g) dried morel mushrooms
2 cups (500 ml) boiling hot water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or clarified butter
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4–5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup (250 ml) full-bodied dry white wine
½ cup (125 ml) crème fraîche or heavy cream
1. Put the mushrooms in a heatproof bowl and pour the hot water over them. Let them soak for at least two hours. Remove the mushrooms and strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter. Reserve about a cup of the strained liquid for the sauce. Give the soaked mushrooms another rinse in fresh water.
2. Rinse the chicken parts and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
3. Heat the oil in a large casserole or dutch oven over medium-high heat until very hot and nearly smoking. Brown the chicken parts, skin side down first, about three minutes on each side. Do not crowd the pan: if the chicken doesn’t fit easily in a single layer, brown it in two batches. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate.
4. Turn the heat down to medium and put the onions, garlic and thyme in the pan. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until the onions are soft, about five minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook for another minute. Add the wine to the pan and let it reduce by half. Add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid.
5. Put the chicken back into the pan and cook, covered, at a gentle simmer for about 35 minutes, until the chicken is done. Once again remove the chicken from the pan while you finish the sauce.
6. Turn up the heat and add the crème fraîche to the pan. Let it bubble and reduce until it has thickened slightly. Taste for seasoning. Return the chicken to the pan and serve.
Notes and Variations
The chicken can be any part you like. If you or your family prefer thighs, for example, there’s no reason you can’t make this with thighs only. Chicken with skin and bones will have more flavor, but you can use boneless, skinless breasts; just keep in mind that the cooking time will be much shorter. This dish is often made with Madeira, which gives the sauce a nutty sweetness—try it if you like. Finally, if you don’t want to serve this from the pan, transfer the cooked chicken to a warmed serving dish and cover loosely with foil while you finish the sauce, then pour the sauce over the chicken. A few thyme sprigs make a nice garnish.