April in Paris: Veal Marengo
After having it for the first time at the Paris buffet in Las Vegas (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it. The cheese alone is worth the price of admission, and if you’ve been losing there’s nothing like a display of French desserts to cheer you right up), I became a little bit obsessed with veal Marengo a few years ago.
Since it was pre-Internet-foodie craze, there wasn’t really a whole lot about the dish on the Internet, and what was out there didn’t go much beyond its history and than basic ingredients. I eventually cobbled together a version of my own from Googling, thumbing through old cookbooks at second-hand bookshops and trial-and-error. But wow, did the search yield some pretty unique backstory for a stew!
Served all over France, it has a something of an odd history what with being a French dish named for a place in Italy where the Austrians were defeated by Napoleon. So, the story goes that after winning the decisive battle of Marengo in 1800, Napoleon demanded his chef whip up a meal with whatever he had around. Tradition holds it wasn’t much: a chicken, a couple of eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic, crayfish, an orange and a little cognac from Napoleon’s own flask. The chef whipped up some kind of stew, garnished with scrambled eggs and herbs, served it with crusty (possibly stale) bread rations. And Napoleon loved it! He declared chicken Marengo his lucky battle dish and demanded it regularly before and after waring about, refusing any alteration in the ingredients, even when Chef Durand tried to leave off with the crayfish. He even changed his horse’s name to Marengo (okay, that was probably more about the battle than the dinner).
I have to admit, I haven’t really been able to figure out why veal replaced the chicken or how the crayfish were ditched (thank goodness!) or when mushrooms got involved. But it has evolved into an awesome staple stew since 1800, and tastes considerably more complicated than it actually is to make — at least the way I make it. It’s so surprisingly low maintenance, I might even be willing to give this one a whirl on the battlefield (okay, campsite).
You can make like Durand if you prefer and try this one with chicken, though I have to say I have and veal is much richer and considerably more complex. If you give the scrambled eggs a go as a garnish, let me know how that works out as I just stick with parsley. Who knows? With a side of scrambled eggs, it might just make you want to change the name of your horse.
While this recipe does make far more than two servings, it freezes well. I like to store it in individual portions for those surprise April evenings float in with cool air to remind you it’s not summer quite yet.
2 pounds veal stew meat, cubed
½ cup flour
4 tablespoons butter (plus extra as needed)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup pearl onions, peeled (frozen ones work just fine)
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup water
2 Tablespoons jarred veal or beef demi glace
2 teaspoons orange zest, divided
8 ounces small button mushrooms, halved or quartered as needed
4 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, optional, for garnish
Coat veal cubes in flour. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, brown veal in butter, in batches if necessary, removing and draining as it browns. In the same butter, sauté garlic, shallot and thyme until fragrant about 30 seconds, adding an additional tablespoon of butter if the pot seems dry.
Deglaze with wine and boil about one minute, or until reduced by half. Add half of the orange zest and all of the tomatoes, water and demi glace, boiling until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add onions, stir; return veal and any accumulated juices to pot, stirring again. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cover.
Simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms and remaining orange zest and simmer 15 minutes more.
Serve over egg noodles or boiled potatoes and crusty bread.