Many recipes have murky histories, and none more so than chicken Marengo. Legend has it (which food historians are wont to disprove) that this stew was invented by Napoleon’s chef, a man named Dunand, after a victory over the Austrians near the Italian town of Marengo in 1800. A stew was supposedly made with chicken (cut up with a saber), tomatoes, brandy from Napoleon’s flask, olives, mushrooms, truffles, crayfish, cilantro, bread scraps, and fried eggs.
Recipes for chicken Marengo appeared in American cookbooks as early as 1886 and were featured in the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion. (There were actually two recipes; one was fairly plain, and the second included fried eggs and triangles of toast.) By the time the recipe appeared in The Joy of Cooking, the truffles, crayfish, and fried eggs were long gone and the focus was on the big flavors in the sauce—tomato, brandy, and olive.
Element of Distress
As it was to so many older recipes, the post–World War II era was unkind to Chicken Marengo. The sauce was downgraded to canned cream of mushroom soup mixed with canned cream of tomato soup. Chicken Marengo began as a rustic yet noble dish designed to satisfy the hunger of a victorious soldier, but it disappointingly meandered into second-rate, bland, canned-soup territory.
Line of Attack
We’d bring this dish back into a triumphant state with high-quality ingredients and a solid stewing sensibility.
Enemy #1: Dull chicken. Here’s a no-brainer—fat (and bones) are flavor. In the test kitchen, skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts beat out its boneless, skinless, rubbery-turning brethren; the bones added flavor to the stew, and the skin browned well and contributed flavor of its own.
Enemy #2: Insipid sauce. So we had some nicely browned chicken, but the real challenge lay in the sauce, which took a true wrong turn somewhere in the food timeline of America. First things first, the condensed soups had to go. We sautéed fresh mushrooms, onion, and garlic, then added tomato paste and canned diced tomatoes, which were quickly buzzed in the food processor to begin the breaking-down process. A strong hit of flavorful brandy and briny kalamata olives were the flavor boosts this dish lacked—and the ones we craved.
Enemy #3: Rubbery chicken skin. How could we wrangle the flavor from the skin without it turning chewy on us during the stewing process? We made sure to have only enough sauce in the pot to come halfway up the chicken breasts. To keep the skin crisp and the meat moist, we nestled the browned chicken into the sauce skin side up, then placed the pot, uncovered, in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes to cook the chicken through and let the sauce reduce and intensify.
Enemy #4: Nothing else? We did it! Hey, Napoleon, are you hungry?