Squash the Chicken King

My love of all things vintage runs fairly deep and has stood the test of time. What could have been perceived as a passing fancy in childhood has aged into a distinguished appreciation for the Mid-Century Modern era. I have a special fascination with WW2 era; but the furniture styling, fashion, and – as weird as it sounds – the food fads of the 50s and 60s fits me and my personality best. Thankfully, “Mid-Mod” home styling is having a proper resurgence and I am here for it. For Christmas this year, we asked solely for gift cards for a couple local furniture stores to update our main areas. We don’t have a huge space so we were able to upgrade our sofa and dining set. The new pieces look so nice in our space!

That said, it’s no wonder that I have a few treasured vintage cookbooks that I am not the least bit timid about cooking through. Often times, people will treat vintage items with Kidd gloves, but I generally source my stuff through Half Price Books or eBay, so it really is for my using and not just sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Maybe this is why I enjoy church-lady cook books so much… These recipes were meant to be used and enjoyed for many years and by many people! I so appreciate the hospitality mentality of Love. Welcome. Serve that Amy Hannon has embraced and promoted. The earth will eventually be remodeled by the Lord when He returns anyhow. May as well enjoy our blessings while we have them now, I think!

During a recent cold front, I employed my 1956 edition of The American Woman’s Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer, Director of the now historic Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago. The CAI wasn’t so much a cooking school as it was the powerhouse publisher of cookbooks during its heyday as well as a group of test kitchens to further their cook book publishing efforts. The American Woman’s Cook Book even preceded James Beard’s first cook book by one year! That’s pretty incredible considering James Beard is a now household name whereas Ruth Berolzheimer’s is virtually unknown to the average home cook.

The interesting this about vintage cook books is that many of the recipes are fine on their own or give options to build onto in order to round out the meal. I was angling to use up the last of my store of Winter squash (a beautiful white pumpkin!) and while poring through the annals of my cook book collection, I came across a recipe for something called “Squash in the Shell.” I used part of this recipe to build on to make an even fuller meal as per the suggestion in the book. The recommendation in this recipe was to bake off the squash (sans seeds) and fill the remaining cavities with Chicken à la King.

Chicken à la King is one of those dishes with vague origins, but it is deliciously aromatic and the flavor decidedly comforting. Though it is French-sounding, its origins are a bit more American than one would initially imagine. Regardless of birthplace, it is thought to have been invented at the turn of the century at the Brighton Beach Hotel and spread like wildfire all over New York City appearing on the menus of all the best restaurants. It enjoyed immense popularity until its apex during the 50s and 60s after which time its popularity quickly diminished. By the early 1980s, it was virtually unheard of to make such a retro dish and nowadays I doubt that there are many people at all who’ve heard of such a thing as Chicken à la King.

As one who appreciates exploring nouveau cuisine as much as vintage fare, I was definitely game to give this a shot. It sounded “Retro Fancy” and comforting all at once and I was about 75% sure that my husband would enjoy something a little different. I say 75% because, for the most part, my husband humors my culinary adventures. Bless him. Sometimes I wait to tell him what we’re having for dinner until he asks! When he asked this time, he was thankfully pumped to try it especially since it was ladled into the white pumpkin halves.

The white pumpkin’s internal color was a creamy linen shade. The texture was a little like spaghetti squash and a little like its flame-fleshed brethren. It was a pleasant cross and complement to the meal as a whole. It lent a faint sweetness and slight nuttiness to the rich and gravy-like chicken filling. The sweetness was not in any way overt like one would imagine when using traditional pumpkin in a recipe (pumpkin stew is still one of my favorite fall dishes). Instead, it worked well with the sherry (a type of wine fortified with a distilled spirit) in the chicken mixture – one not overpowering the other.

If you prefer a more umami flavor to the sweet ones that were favored during the 50s and 60s, you can swap the sherry for another cooking wine (I’m a big fan of Holland House‘s line of cooking wines). Or, if you’d prefer not to use wine at all, feel free to swap out the wine with more broth, cream, or even water! I will also note that though the recipe calls for diced pimiento, I opted for finely diced red bell pepper. A pimiento is a small, heart-shaped, sweet-fleshed pepper. It’s smaller and sweeter than a bell pepper, but my local market was fresh out of pimientos so a small red bell pepper came to play. Sure it means more pepper in the dish overall, but I love red bell peppers and they added more bulk and flavor!

What Are Pimentos, and How Are They Used?
Image courtesy of The Spruce Eats

All-in-all, I aimed to use the freshest ingredients while solely resorting to canned with the chicken. In the future, I think I would take the extra time to either grill some chicken breasts for the mix or tear up some rotisserie chicken. Canned chicken isn’t terrible when you’re using it in something where it’ll be enveloped in a blanket of other goodness, but fresh would’ve taken this dish up just one more notch. The use of canned chicken was one that was quite typical during that time period. Canned… everything was a novelty and très en vogue as such.

Chicken à la King is an incredibly vintage dish, but we both really enjoyed it (even more than I thought we would). The piquant, béchamel-like sauce was a bit reminiscent of a warm chicken pot pie at your grandmother’s house. We really liked the change of pace with the combination of the pumpkin buried under the filling. It made the dish feel a bit more updated/reimagined/modern. I’m giving my ever-so-slight variation on the vintage recipe below.

Ingredients:
2tbsp butter
1 small green bell pepper, finely diced
1c sliced mushrooms (or you could just toss the whole 8oz container in if you’d like!)
2tbsp AP flour
1c chicken broth
2c diced, cooked chicken (salmon would even work here)
1c full-fat sour cream (don’t even think about using low/non-fat)
2 egg yolks
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
S&P
4tsp sherry

Directions:
1) Melt butter over medium heat and sautée green pepper and mushrooms until tender.
2) Lift out the veg and set aside on a plate. Whisk in the flour until a nice, dark roux comes together. Add more fat and/or flour as needed. Whisk in the broth until all is incorporated. Cook, stirring until thickened.
3) Add back in the veg and stir in chicken. Heat thoroughly.
4) While the mixture is heating, stir together egg yolks and sour cream.
5) Remove the pan from heat. Stir cream mixture into chicken mixture and season with S&P.
6) Stir sherry into mixture and serve over hot, cooked noodles or freshly baked biscuits (or in our case cooked squash halves. Cut the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds. Place the two halves cut-side-down in a baking dish with 2c of water or broth. Bake at 400º for 1.5hrs. Flip and bake 30min more).

The recipe seems so simple… because it is. There isn’t much to this recipe, but you gain such a great dish in the end. One of the best things too is that since there’s really no “original” recipe, there isn’t really a “wrong” way to do it. This leaves plenty of room for personalization according to taste! What is one of your favorite retro dishes?

Currently Reading: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Scripture of the Day: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” -John 15:13

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