We never know where a new recipe will take us. This recipe from Mary Ellen Evans’ book, Bistro Chicken, published in 2004, is just the latest example. When we decided to make the recipe, the obvious thought was that the olives for which the Niçoise appellation is employed would be our destination. Then the next likely subject was the traditional spice combination, herbes de Provence. No, our exploration went in a completely different direction. (By the way, we substituted the more widely available Greek kalamata olives for the French Niçoise.)
Instead, our education for this recipe was provided by the liqueur Pernod, which is added to the dish to provide southeastern French authenticity. It turns out Pernod (pronounced like the words “pear” and “no”) has a storied history and some remarkable properties.
Like it says on the bottle we bought, the Pernod company goes back to 1805. The original Pernod brothers made absinthe, which was wildly popular among the nobility and intelligentsia of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Absinthe’s growing reputation for contributing to deleterious long-term effects on health led to France banning absinthe in 1915. The Pernod distilleries largely switched to a star anise-based product, known as a pastis.
The pastis is interesting in its own right. When poured neat, Pernod has a deep yellow color reminiscent of corn oil, but when water is added, the alcohol concentration drops, causing some of the solutes in the drink to drop out of solution, giving the beverage a cloudy or milky appearance. The traditional way to drink Pernod in France is one part liqueur with five parts cold water. This is considered to be a particularly refreshing summer drink. Different syrups are added to produce a variety of cocktails; the French consume about 130 million liters of pastis each year. That’s about two quarts per French citizen per year!
Anyway, our recipe only calls for one tablespoon of Pernod for the entire dish, so you can experiment on your own with the cocktails! Here’s Ms. Evans’ recipe.
2 Tbsp olive oil
Six 6 to 8-oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large onion, chopped
1 Tbsp minced garlic
One 15-oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 cup pitted and coarsely chopped niçoise or kalamata olives
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
1 Tbsp Pernod, optional
1 tsp herbes de Provence
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the breasts; sauté until well browned on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove and set aside. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 3 to 4 minutes; add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the tomatoes with their juice and crush lightly with a fork. Add the olives, red wine, broth, Pernod, if using, and herbes de Provence. Cook until reduced and thickened slightly, 8 to 10 minutes. Return the breasts to the skillet; reduce the heat to low. Cook, covered, turning once, until the chicken is no longer pink in the thickest portion when cut with a knife, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Serve.