This Chicken Marengo recipe comes with a dollop of fanciful history

Louise Matthews

Chicken Marengo

Active time:50 mins

Total time:1 hour 20 mins

Servings:4 to 8

Active time:50 mins

Total time:1 hour 20 mins

Servings:4 to 8

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According to legend, Chicken Marengo was invented by Napoleon’s chef on the battlefields of (mais bien sûr) Marengo in northern Italy. As le Petit Caporal led his overmatched troops to a spectacular victory over the Austrian army, his chef was in a panic. France’s fearless leader would require a sumptuous feast to celebrate his triumph, but the supply wagons carrying the food had gotten lost.

“Sacré bleu!” he said. (Probably.)

Napoleon’s chef took stock of what he had. There was a skillet, which he carried with him everywhere like a soldier did a saber, and a flask of brandy, because he was French. He dispatched two men on horseback to scavenge the ruins of Marengo for anything edible, while he stayed behind to frantically forage for food on the blood-soaked battlefield.

He plucked wild garlic from the ground; tomatoes from a vine; herbs from a thicket. One of his men returned with a few stolen chickens and a pocketful of eggs; the other appeared with a jug of oil at his hip and a loaf of crusty bread tucked beneath his arm. It wasn’t much, but for a clever chef on a date with destiny, it was enough.

Napoleon would not be the only man to emerge victorious at the Battle of Marengo.

The pilfered foul were quickly dispatched, plucked clean and hacked into quarters with a sharp sword. Napoleon’s chef laid the butchered birds into a searing-hot skillet slicked with golden olive oil, leaving it be until the skin became crackly and crunchy from frying in its own rendered fat.

The chef tore bread to bits with his bare hands, partially because his serrated knives were on a missing wagon, but mostly because he was hopped up on adrenaline and pure, unadulterated French chef rage. (There are no excuses for losing a wagon train full of wine and cheese while crossing the Alps!)

He pulled the cooked chicken from the pan and tossed the shredded bread into the schmaltz left behind, letting it cook into croutons as golden as the setting sun. He moved the toasted bread to a grand serving platter (he found one hiding in the bottom of his luggage), threw the garlic and tomatoes into the hot pan, and poured in the flask of brandy.

WHOOSH! A rush of flames shot up to the sky with a ferocious roar, which everyone in attendance found very impressive. Napoleon’s chef was getting his groove back, and it felt fantastic.

“Oh la vache, je suis bon,” he said. (Probably.)

He artfully arranged the chicken atop the crouton bed before drowning it in brandied, garlicky tomato sauce. As Napoleon strolled into the dining tent, his chef quickly fried up the eggs from his steward’s pocket and placed them daintily atop the general’s feast. (While there are no official records of this event, based on the size of trouser pockets and the average size of a 19th-century Frenchman, we can assume this was between four and six eggs.)

Napoleon slumped into his dining chair, filthy, famished and harboring exceedingly high standards for army food. The weary general took a bite; his spine straightened to attention, his eyes opened wide.

“Incroyable!” he exclaimed. (Probably.)

So smitten was the general with the ad hoc dish, he insisted the chef serve it at the end of every battle. Word of Chicken Marengo spread across Napoleon’s growing empire, the recipe altering itself wherever it went to accommodate the local terrain. At some point, mushrooms became involved. So did wine because, well, France. Some chefs added shallots; others added bell peppers. Almost everyone got rid of the eggs, because having to wash out a skillet just for fried eggs is annoying.

French leader Napoleon Bonaparte has a complicated legacy

Over 200 years later, the world is still feasting on Chicken Marengo, and no one can agree what the recipe is supposed to look like, much like the legend itself.

Most white-knuckle thrilling origin stories end up being apocryphal, especially when they have to do with entrees. But dismissing it as lore isn’t much fun, now, is it? We don’t always need to be so concerned with the facts or “authenticity” — sometimes a dish deserves to have elements of the fantastic. Sometimes we need stories of gods and generals and pockets full of eggs on a weeknight.

Since I don’t have a French-army-camp-sized skillet, I adapted my Marengo for the oven, where I can gently cook eight chicken thighs in brandied sauce without having to hover over the stove using multiple pans. The oven also makes it easy to make plenty of croutons, which all too often are omitted from modern interpretations. Just like you never take a wagon full of cheese into the Alps without a map, you should never ignore an opportunity for schmaltz-soaked bread.

And once you’ve got the technique down pat, feel free to have fun with this recipe. Swap out the mushrooms for cubed zucchini, use red wine instead of white — you could even add the eggs back in, just to see what that was all about.

Napoleon is dead; you have no gods nor generals to impress. Write your own story.

Searing the chicken can be messy, but using a high-sided Dutch oven or a splatter screen can help.

Storage: Refrigerate the chicken and croutons separately for up to 4 days.

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For the chicken and sauce

  • 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 to 10 medium bone-in chicken thighs (3 pounds total)
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt, divided, plus more to taste
  • 1 pound white button mushrooms, thickly sliced (about 2 cups)
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
  • 1 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • One (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 2 large bay leaves
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • Chicken drippings
  • Loaf of crusty rustic bread (1 pound), torn into 1-inch pieces
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Sear the chicken and make the sauce: In a large, deep saute pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until it shimmers. Season half of the chicken thighs with 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, skin side down, until the skin is crisp and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. The chicken will splatter, so use a screen if you have one.

Carefully turn the thighs over; cook until browned, another 2 to 3 minutes; then transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Transfer the chicken to a plate and cover to keep warm. Pour the rendered chicken fat into a large, heatproof bowl, leaving a small amount in the pan.

Place one oven rack in the lowest position and another in the middle, and preheat to 375 degrees. Scatter the mushrooms across the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set aside.

Return the saute pan to medium heat, and add the shallots, the garlic and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring and adding more oil, if needed, until golden, about 2 minutes. Pour in the wine, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, then add the brandy, tomatoes, bay leaves, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Increase the heat to high and stir gently, breaking the tomatoes into large pieces by pressing them with a wooden spoon. When the sauce comes to a boil, decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until reduced by half, 5 to 7 minutes.

Make the croutons: While the sauce is simmering, in the bowl with the chicken fat, toss the bread, salt and pepper until coated, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil, as needed. Taste, and season with more salt and/or pepper, as desired, then spread out on a large, rimmed baking sheet.

Return to the chicken and sauce: Once the sauce has reduced by half, pour it over the reserved mushrooms. Nestle the chicken pieces in the pan, moving the mushrooms around (or on top of) the chicken as necessary.

Slide the chicken onto the bottom rack of the oven; set the crouton sheet pan on the middle rack. Toast the croutons for 15 to 17 minutes, stirring halfway, until golden brown. Cook the chicken undisturbed for 25 to 30 minutes total, or until the meat is tender and the sauce is bubbling. (An instant-read thermometer should read at least 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the chicken.)

Serve the chicken on top of the croutons, generously ladling sauce on top for the bread to soak up, and serve hot.

Calories: 655; Total Fat: 33 g; Saturated Fat: 8 g; Cholesterol: 143 mg; Sodium: 848 mg; Carbohydrates: 40 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugar: 6 g; Protein: 37 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From food writer Allison Robicelli.

Tested by Allison Robicelli and Suzy Leonard; email questions to [email protected].

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