Hot, open faced sandwiches of leftovers in gravy were standard economy suppers when I was growing up in suburban New York.
Thin slices of beef, pork or ham from Sunday lunch or, my favourite, the remains of the roast chicken in a sauce enriched with mushrooms and red peppers, delicious made well (as my mother always did), called “Chicken a la King.”
"Chicken a la King" is just one
of many creamed chicken recipes that began to appear on restaurant menus in England and America in the late 1800’s. There are many tales about its origins: (1) It was invented by the chef at Claridges Hotel in London in 1881 and named for a James R. Keene; (2) It originated at New York’s famed Delmonico’s in the 1880’s and named for Keene’s son, Foxhall Parker Keene; (3) At about the same time it was created by chef George Greenwald of the Brighton Beach Hotel in Brighton Beach, New York, and named after patron E Clarke King II and his wife; (4) William King of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia first put it on his menu in the 1890’s.
Certainly the recipe was mentioned in the New York Times in 1893 and according to the New York Public Library Menu Archives, it appeared on more than 300 restaurant menus between the 1910’s and 1960’s. There was a time, in the 1950’s, when the whole country seemed to be eating “Chicken a la King” – it was served in diners, grand restaurants, country clubs, cafeterias, weddings and school proms as well as at family tables, sometimes made well, all too often terribly - but by the 1980’s that time had gone.
Perhaps the ultimate recipe for this dish – “Creamed Chicken a la King” - appears in James Beard’s “American Cookery” published in 1972. Rich with cream and sherry, it is typical of the luxe French food served in New York at the end of the 19th century and, cooked perfectly, undoubtedly delicious. A great treat.
My mother’s version is much simpler:
ALL YOU NEED IS: Serves 4 (or 2 for 2 nights - reheats well)
Ingredients for the sauce (veloute):
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons plain flour
3 cups chicken stock (preferably home made)
A dusting of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1/4lb/110gr small mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh red pepper (about half a large pepper)
2 tablespoons dry sherry (or more, if you like – optional but undoubtedly enhancing)
3-4 cups cooked chicken cut into small, bite sized pieces (use all white meat if you prefer)
TO MAKE THE SAUCE:
In a 1 1/2 to 2 1/2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, bubbling vigorously, for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat.
Add all the chicken broth and stir well until the flour-butter mixture is fully dissolved. Place the pot back on medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture simmers and thickens. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper, and nutmeg. Set aside.
PUTTING THE DISH TOGETHER:
In a straight-sided, 10-inch pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and red pepper and cook for about 3 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.
Pour the sauce into the pan with the mushrooms. Stir in sherry (if using) and bring to a simmer.
Taste and correct seasoning, if needed.
Stir in the cut up chicken and heat through in the sauce.
Serve hot on slices of bread or toast – or rice, if you prefer.