The streets are bustling with freshmen making their way through with beer chugging contest initiations, 99¢ pizza (or at least that’s how much it cost when I was a freshman) at closing time and a greasy spoon breakfast or their preferred hangover remedy. It got me reminiscing about my freshmen initiation and first year of university. I remember hating the taste of beer and having to chug pitchers during the McGill Pub Crawl. I remember my parents taking me out for a smoked meat sandwich at Montreal’s legendary Schwartz’s. I remember loading up on KD boxes and ramen noodles at Club Price. I also remember my parents saying “How is she going to manage? She doesn’t even know how to cook herself an egg!”
For those who know me, you would probably be surprised to hear that. For those who don’t know me, I spent my last three years of high school in boarding school; in other words cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner! And although i grew up with my parents preparing home cooked meals every night, I personally never stirred a pot. I think the only thing I ever cooked with my mom was home-made play dough when I was 4…which I ended up eating anyway. Growing up I knew a lot about food, loved to eat in large quantities but never learned how to prepare any of it.
All that being said, my culinary exploration and fascination with food started that first year at McGill, in my tiny apartment kitchen tucked away in a closet-like space. In that kitchen, I cooked my first soups, my first spaghetti meat sauce, my first salmon filet, my first cheese fondue, my first huevos rancheros, my first Irish stew, my first veggie lasagna, and after a few failed attempts my first successful hollandaise sauce.
Now that you’ve calmed down for the first weeks of intense partying, the readings are catching up on you, midterms are right around the corner and you’ve started burning the midnight oil on those term papers. So in tribute to all you poor souls recovering from your initiations and the rest of those starving first year students, I present my own first year staple: “poule au pot”, which directly translates to “chicken in a pot”. This dish is the meal of my childhood that I looked forward to on Sunday nights. It tops my list of comfort foods and my cousins (for lack of brothers and sisters) are always astonished with the way I can inhale this dish. In university I learned to be creative with it, meaning that I didn’t restrict this dish to only a stew-like meal but transformed it into other things. Before moving on, one must start with the basics!
The Freshman “Poule au Pot”
- One chicken, whole and insides cleaned out
- One large onion, cut up into large pieces
- One leek, sliced
- Carrots, sliced
- Turnips, cut into large cubes
- Potatoes, cut into large cubes
- Bay leaves
- One tbsp of Herbes de Provence
- Cloves, whole
- Pepper, whole
Grab the biggest pot you have, big enough to hold the whole chicken. If you do not have a pot big enough, then you’ll have to make a smaller portion simply by using a few chicken legs (bone-in).
Put the pot onto a medium heat, drizzle with olive oil, add the onions and leek, and sauté for a couple of minutes. You simply want to sweat the onions and leek, not brown them. If they start browning, lower the heat.
Put the whole chicken in the pot (make sure its been rinsed under cold water first) and add water until it covers the chicken. Add one heaping tablespoon of salt, a few whole black peppercorns, two bay leaves and the tablespoon of Herbes de Provence. Cover and simmer for about an hour depending on the size of your chicken. Obviously the smaller the chicken the less cook time it requires.
After one hour, using a spoon remove and discard any impurities and extra fat gathering at the surface. Add the carrots, turnips and potatoes. Let the pot simmer for another 30 to 45 minutes, checking regularly for impurities to be discarded. You may also want to check the vegetables for doneness; you want them to be fork tender. At this point your “poule au pot” is ready!
You can serve it in a bowl as a stew. You can remove the chicken and veggies from the pot and strain the liquid to make a clear broth – a great base for other soups, sauces, rice, etc. You can pull the chicken apart from the carcass and use the meat throughout the week in soups, sandwiches, salads, stir-fry, casseroles. Save the veggies and use them whole or purée them as a side. If you purée them, you can thin it out with the broth, add a little milk or cream and make a cream of vegetables. The possibilities really are endless with this classic Sunday night French dish. Be creative and enjoy reusing leftovers to make something new and interesting. This time I decided to make a simple chicken and vegetable soup: to the broth I added the chicken that I shredded, leeks, carrots, parsnips and mushrooms as seen in the picture.
To the students out there who decide to make this dish, go ahead and use its French name when referring to it. Not only does it have a nice ring to it but you can also pull out your pretentious first-year tongue when serving this up to your fellow intelligentsia and tell them that King Henri IV of France declared that every laborer of his kingdom should be able to afford “poule au pot” every Sunday.