A year ago, Richard Olney’s classic tome Simple French Food was reissued in celebration of its 40th anniversary. First published by Atheneum in 1974, the book presented straightforward recipes that elevated simple ingredients and articulated the joys and techniques of French cooking for the common cook. Unlike many other books of its time that extolled the virtues of now gauche foods or professed their love for trends that are now passé if not totally forgotten, Olney’s book has stood the test of time. For me, its timelessness can be accredited not only to its philosophies of simplicity and universal good taste, but also to its representation of the kind of life Olney led, to which many of us foodies secretly aspire.
Born in America and trained as an artist, Olney was an expatriate of the best order who shined his love on France through his experimentation with the country’s food and then articulated it for the enjoyment of us all. By the time he passed away at 71, his daily schedule consisted of life on a simple Mediterranean hillside surrounded by olive trees in a small house built around a grand kitchen. He slept in a small monk-like bed in a tiny space off the kitchen and ate his meals under the grape arbor outside. (What is it with genius, artistic men and their love of small beds in claustrophobic spaces? I wonder this after recently visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and seeing his own sleeping quarters.) From the moment I started spelling my name with a “qu” where the “k” would normally be in the 8th grade, the budding Francophile in me romanticized about this type of living. I am grateful that I have been able to come close with a home on the hill frequently populated with peacocks and deer with the Cute Gardener daily tending to our produce garden (conveniently viewed from my second story studio window) and creating for us, the most exquisite of meals.
In honor of Olney, French food and the good life, I recently made a version of his exquisite chicken gratin –an ingenious dish where a silky gruyere custard fluffs and thickens side-by-side with tender chicken parts in a casserole dish to produce a decadent, soulful meal.
Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin
Adapted slightly by the folks at Food52.
For the chicken:
- One 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound fryer chicken, cut up (or use all legs and thighs, or all breasts)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 large handful finely crumbled stale, but not dried, bread, crusts removed
- 1/3 cup white wine
For the cheese custard:
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 3 egg yolks
- Salt, pepper
- 3 ounces freshly grated gruyère
- Juice of 1/2 lemon and deglazing liquid
Heat the oven to 400° F. Salt the chicken pieces and cook them in the butter over medium heat until nearly done and lightly colored on all sides — about 20 minutes, adding the breasts only after the first 10 minutes. Transfer them to a gratin dish fitted to just hold them.
Cook the crumbs in the chicken’s cooking butter until slightly crisp and only slightly colored — still blond, stirring. Put them aside (don’t worry if a few remain in the pan) and deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by about half.
Whisk together the cream, egg yolks, seasonings, and cheese, then incorporate the lemon and the deglazing liquid. Spoon or pour this mixture evenly over the chicken pieces, sprinkle the surface with the breadcrumbs, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the surface is nicely colored and the custard is firm.