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Recipes and Stories

6 October 2014: Remembering Daisy Redman and Chicken Madeira

Daisy Redman's famous Chicken Madeira, photographed by John Carrington in the dining room of Savannah's historic Battersby-Hartridge House, where Mrs. Redman's cooking frequently graced the table.

At the end of the 1970s, DuBose Publishing Company of Atlanta released a slim little volume called Four Great Southern Cooks. Despite its unassuming appearance, this book was destined to become one of the great treasures of traditional Southern cooks and food historians. Tattered copies that survive are fiercely guarded as family heirlooms, especially here in Savannah.

For while this lovely book has broader significance as a record that fine Southern cooking survived the mid-twentieth-century canned-soup casserole era, for Savannahians, it’s especially valued as the only known record of one of the city’s legendary cooks, Mrs. Daisy Redman.

Born to a Savannah family that she believed to have dated back at least to the eighteenth century, Mrs. Redman was educated to teach home economics, but decided early on that her talents were better suited to professional cooking. She apprenticed with a local caterer until she was confident that she had all the skills she needed. When she ventured out on her own, it wasn’t long before her faith in her instincts was validated: Her creative flair made her one of Savannah’s most sought after caterers, and more than thirty years after her death, her cooking remains legendary.

One of her loveliest specialties was an elegant version of a traditional chicken fricassee made with mushrooms and Madeira. A fortified wine that was an American favorite during the 18th and 19th Centuries, Madeira has deep roots in Savannah, having been imported into the city since at least the 1740s. Mrs. Redman was certainly not the first local cook to take advantage of it in the kitchen, but she was unsurpassed in her mastery of it.

As she knew so well, Madeira’s rich, sweet flavor naturally seems to lend itself to autumn’s heftier flavors, and her sumptuous Chicken Madeira is the perfect way to celebrate the season.

Daisy Redman’s Chicken Madeira

In Savannah, this is traditionally served with rice and a crisp, chilled white wine. It would be equally lovely with crusty bread and a fruity pinot noir or old-vine zinfandel.

Serves 4

8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 chicken, weighing no more than 2½ to 3 pounds, disjointed and cut up as for frying
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
½ cup diced salt pork (salt-cured pork side meat, not fatback or bacon; pancetta can be substituted)
10-12 small shallots, trimmed and peeled but left whole
8 ounces fresh brown (crimini) mushrooms, wiped clean with a dry cloth and thickly sliced
1 cup thinly sliced leeks
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 cup medium dry (Sercial) Madeira
1 cup homemade chicken broth or ½ cup canned broth mixed with ½ cup water (even if label reads “ready to use” or “use full strength”)
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup thinly sliced green onions (my own addition, optional)

1. Warm the butter over medium heat in a deep, heavy-bottomed, lidded skillet braiser, or sauté pan that will hold the chicken in one layer. When the butter is hot, season the chicken well with salt and white pepper and add it to the pan. Brown it well on all sides, turning frequently, about 8 minutes. Remove it from the pan to a warm platter and spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.

2. Add the salt pork and sauté until it’s golden brown and most of its fat is rendered. Add the shallots and sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden on all aside, about 5 minutes. Add half the mushrooms and sauté until they are beginning to color, about 2 minutes longer. Add the leeks and garlic sauté until fragrant.

3. Deglaze the pan with the Madeira, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, and bring it to a boil. Add the broth, let it come back to a boil, and return the chicken to the pan and add the parsley reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cook gently until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes.

4. Remove the chicken, shallots, and mushrooms to a warm platter with a slotted spoon. Raise the heat under the pan to medium high and add the cream and remaining mushrooms. Cook, stirring often, until the sauce is lightly reduced and thickened, about 4 minutes longer. Turn off the heat and pour the sauce over the chicken. I usually add a sprinkling of thinly sliced scallions as a garnish, even though Mrs. Redman’s recipe didn’t contain it. Serve at once.

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