Culinary Note:
Chicken Maryland
16 May 2019

Chicken Maryland appeared on almost every local menu during my childhood, but I was always forbidden to order it. For one thing, there was that “twenty minutes extra” note, common to many chicken dishes. My father, whose taste began and ended with quick-cooked steaks and fish, would not be held up for what my mother objected to as a plate of too much food with rich cream gravy. My parents did not like sauces, and my mother’s Thanksgiving gravy reinforced this, not in the usual lumpy, watery way but by being at the same time rich, brown, smooth, and vaguely sickening.

I was attracted by the name, of course — what else did I have to go on? Through my curious-kid’s cultural osmosis, I had learned that Maryland was a charming place, southern but not too southern, with a big city that gave its name to a cake, a name with a handle, no less: Lady Baltimore cake. (I never got to taste that, either.) The only dish with a proper name, Chicken Maryland sounded like something that Martha Washington served to George when it was just the two of them for dinner. If I had a bite of Chicken Maryland and closed my eyes, maybe I would wake up somewhere else.

I was in a floaty sort of mood yesterday, distracted and exhausted by the many small transformations of the preceding afternoon. I managed to forget the shopping list when I went to Fairway after lunch, so I decided not to do a big weekly shop but to pick up the few things that I knew we needed. I thought that it would be nice to have chicken for dinner. And there, in the poultry display, was a half or split chicken, something you rarely see these days. That’s where I got the idea of trying Chicken Maryland, a dish that I had never even tasted, much less made. 

James Beard’s American Cookery was not much help. Beard summarized Escoffier’s version: cook a chicken in clarified butter, and put horseradish in the béchamel. He mentioned a few other approaches, too, but he gave no details for any of them, more or less dismissing the dish. I sat at the house desk (yes!) and thought long and hard about what to do. The correct answer, which I’ve just learned at Wikipedia, did not occur to me, but I might have hit on it in another try or two, after last night’s not unsuccessful experiment. 

Chicken Maryland is classed as a type of fried chicken, but it is really a chicken sauté. The chicken — breaded for a change — is browned and then steamed (or poached) in a closed pan. Sauce is produced from the relatively small quantity of fat. The sauce, Wikipedia confirms, is indeed the whole point of this dish, which is not supposed to come out, as mine did last night, like a less flavorful fried chicken. Again, however, there is no canonical recipe, although you could probably come close if you got a good one from one of the Eastern Shore restaurants that still serves it. The result, I imagine, is a rather delicate dish

Here’s what I did: I happened to have on hand a mid-sized Hellman’s jar full of clarified butter. Some time ago, I had gone through the refrigerator and the freezer and thrown all the sticks of butter into a pyrex measuring cup, which I placed on a flame-tamer over very low heat. I poured off the clarified butter (or ghee) very carefully, and then I wondered what I would ever do with it. Ordinarily, I freeze clarified butter in a small ice-cube tray; one cube is usually too much. Here was a whole bottle! Well, I softened it in a double boiler and heated it up in a Dutch oven (for spatter control). I had brined the chicken, breaded it in herbed and seasoned flower, dipped it in beaten eggs, and covered it with breadcrumbs. Once the butter was hot enough, I slipped in the split chicken, and it was soon a very presentable brown.

Now what? It certainly hadn’t cooked through. I left it in the butter, bone side down, and kept reducing the heat, but to no apparent avail, as the thermometer wouldn’t budge from 350º. Meanwhile, I made rice, and prepped the sauce. I was disinclined to put a lot of thought into the sauce, because I wanted to concentrate on cooking the chicken. So I planned a mixture of flour and some hot butter from the Dutch oven with some fresh (whole) butter. When this was cooked, I stirred in some boiling water until the sauce was smooth. Then I added some packaged bone broth from the refrigerator that still smelled all right, and plenty of cream. I even threw in a dollop of horseradish. But I forgot salt, if you can believe it. When I finished the prepping, about ten minutes after the rice was done (it takes twenty-five minutes), I took the chicken out of the pot and drained it on paper towels. 

Kathleen, familiar with my experiments, avoided the sauce, but ate her drumstick and all of her rice, and pronounced it very nice, if not as good as fried chicken. I poured sauce all over everything, and was keenly inspired to do better. Disappointment was greatly exceeded by encouragement. 

Here’s what I’ll do next time: I’ll soak the chicken in a blend of buttermilk, eggs, and seasonings. Then I will bread the chicken very lightly, either with flour or the very finest breadcrumbs. I’ll brown the meat in a moderate quantity of clarified butter, and then reduce the heat and cover the pan. Forty minutes of that usually does it. 

Meanwhile, I’m going to take a box of chicken broth and enhance it, by simmering it with sautéed mirepoix, peppercorns and parsley (and salt). I may throw in some mushroom stems. Then I’ll strain the broth and pour it back into the box. When I make the chicken, I’ll bring the broth to a boil and add as much as I need for the sauce, finishing it with chopped parsley and another dollop of horseradish. 

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