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A Tale of Two Chickens: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk and Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin

A Tale of Two Chickens: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk and Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin
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Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk 
Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin 
Jamie Oliver

I am a sucker for a good chicken recipe.  So the minute I saw that Food 52, one of my favorite food sites, had named Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk a “Community Favorite”, I rushed right out and bought a whole chicken and everything else needed to make it.  There were 85 reader comments about Jamie’s recipe, most of them in the ‘off the charts’ category of sheer love for this recipe.  And as I am a true fan of Mr. Oliver, I felt sure that I had found chicken nirvana. All the photos I take of what I’ve cooked are in files generally labeled with the exact recipe name.  Not so my Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk. Instead its file is entitled “Hideous Chicken”.   What went so radically wrong?  As readers know, I am pretty strict about following a recipe to a tee. I did in this case too. But I think I should have had fair warning when I read the following: “A one-pot technique for the most tender roast chicken, with the most strangely appealing sauce.”  The italics are mine.  The description went further, describing the strange thing that happens to the sauce.  It curdles.  There was an antidote to this curdling but Food52 brushed it away claiming that the curds are the best part and “the split sauce is actually the point”.  Well one man’s split sauce is another man’s idea of how to ruin a chicken. The bird itself was amazingly moist from the lactic acid in the milk I will give you that. But pouring the curdled, overly lemon sauce gave the chicken a terrible bitter taste and ruined it for me.  So you’d think I’d be put off Food52 for a while at least.  But last week, they published yet another chicken recipe. And it was not all that different from my “Hideous Chicken”.  But this time, they had me at Gratin.

Richard Olney is hardly the household name that Jamie Oliver has become.  Behold the power of television.  Richard Olney was born in Iowa but most of his adult life was spent in France, in Provence to be exact.   He had moved to Paris in 1951 where he painted and cooked and wrote.  He was a prolific food writer.  In 1970 his “French Menu Cookbook” was published in English.  In it he extolled the virtues of the seasonal menu and wine pairings.  Then in 1974 he wrote “Simple French Food” and his fame skyrocketed.  He had a huge impact on Nouvelle Cuisine and California Cuisine.  Alice Waters became a disciple and James Beard a mentor.  He then went on to write the 28 volume Time Life series “The Good Cook”.  He died at age 72 in 1999. I first became aware of Olney on a cooking vacation in Provence. Reading up before we got there, I was intrigued by his writing. So when I saw that Food52 had singled out his recipe for Gratin of Chicken and the mouthwatering picture accompanying it, I was off to the market for another kosher chicken.         

Source of Chicken in Milk

There was some communality between the Oliver recipe and the Olney one.  There was of course, the use of milk or cream. And there was also a command to lemon in both recipes.  In Oliver’s chicken, the zest of two whole lemons is used.  As you will see in the recipe that follows, they even tell you that this zest will ‘split the milk’, something I was determined not to happen in my Olney recipe. Olney himself wrote ““The acidity of the white wine and the lemon cause the cheese custard to curdle in the cooking, creating a texture that, personally, I find pleasant but may not please everyone.”  So I left out the juice of half a lemon called for and the white wine because the last thing I wanted was another curdled custard or sauce.  May I tell you that this is conceivably one of the best chicken recipes I have made in a very long time?  The cream tenderizes the chicken to beyond perfection.  The cheese and breadcrumbs are the perfect topping.  Served on a bed of rice with some simple haricots verts, this is a dinner dish that will please all comers.   And if I could have a word with Mr. Oliver, I might be able to tell you what on earth I did wrong with his recipe.  I’m printing both because when I went onto Food52 to comment/complain I was bombarded with commenters telling me I was out of my mind not to love his chicken. So I think it’s only fair to print both.  You choose which to make.  Chaqu’un a son gout, I reckon.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Chickens: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk and Richard Olney’s Chicken Gratin”

    • Lea, I am so glad you found Chewing the Fat. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether you can omit the eggs. They are in such quantity that they are a big part of what the creamy sauce is made of. If you do make it without the eggs, will you please come back and tell us how it went? Thanks!

  • Hi Monte-
    I , too, have tried the Jamie Oliver recipe with the same underwhelming results. I am so excited to try the Richard Olney chicken and have ordered the Simple French Cooking book (which arrives today).

    Hope we get to share a meal together soon ????

    • Dear Beth! How good to hear from you! You will love the Chicken Gratin! And by all accounts Simple French Cooking is a complete winner. Come back and tell us how it worked out. And speaking of which, when are you coming back East? XOXO

  • New to this site and having fun! I agree, no curdling. I made this as recommended but I added a little bit of lemon extract to the custard (I think less than a teaspoon). It gave it that little touch of lemon flavor. Lemon extract is not acidic and doesn’t curdle the custard.

    • Thanks so much for the tip Robin! The curdling, as you know from the article, ruined the dish for me. I am delighted you found a suitable substitute. Thanks for sharing it! Monte

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