03/11/2011 07:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Move Over, Turducken: Chicken Ballotine's Back in Town

Do you ever stop and wonder why certain dishes have earned their cushy status as American icons, while other perfectly lovely ones languish in obscurity?

Chicken noodle soup: perhaps the ultimate American comfort food.

Chicken Parmesan: an Italian-American classic.

Chicken and dumplings: the definition of soul food.

Chicken ballotine: Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Nobody makes ballotines anymore. That's a shame, considering that they can be inexpensive, zero waste, easily prepared, low in fat, impressive to behold, and deliciously moist and succulent.

Google turns up 97 results when you search for chicken ballotine using its new 'Recipes' tab, which sounds like a lot until you consider that it finds 338,000 hits for fried chicken. Google reveals 198 million results for Charlie Sheen.

What's a ballotine, anyway? A definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary:

Ballotine: n. a piece of roasted meat, which has first been boned, stuffed, and folded or rolled into an egg-like shape. mid 19th century: French, ultimately from balle 'a package of goods.'

An image, courtesy of my inept photography skills:


The technique is closely related to galantine, a dish which probably dates from the 18th century and also involves deboning, stuffing and rolling meat, but then poaching it, pressing it, and serving it cold. A bit old-fashioned and fussy, at least for my taste.

Galantines/ballotines get two mentions in Jacques Pepin's seminal 1976 kitchen manual La Technique, in Techniques 149 and 152. Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking makes only a passing reference to the two preparations, offering the general concept and a stuffing that might be used for the purpose. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, and Mark Bittman's encyclopedic How To Cook Everything might be called How To Cook Everything...Besides Ballotines and Galantines. Nary a word about either.

The topic of galantines/ballotines was brought to my attention last week by an excellent post on Saveur's website showcasing 8 mesmerizing food videos. Well, I assume the whole thing was excellent, but I never actually got beyond the first video. It was Jacques Pepin deboning, stuffing, and tying a chicken -- all in under 10 minutes, and without breaking a sweat.

It has to be said that Jacques Pepin is utterly riveting on screen. I choose him over any chef currently on TV, including hypnotic high priestess of butter Ina Garten and Jamie Oliver, who I will always picture fondly as about 17 years old and inordinately excited about bruschetta. I could watch Pepin for hours -- in fact, I did just that growing up. Most little girls loved "Jem & The Holograms," but give me "Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin" and I'd be glued to the tube. I was a strange child.

In this particular video, Jacques Pepin makes deboning a chicken look as easy as pouring a martini. Instead of ridding a bird of its skeletal system, he might be slipping a shirt off a hanger. It's truly art, the way he suavely, surgically makes his way though that bird.

Now, I'm sure that the idea of having to bone out an animal gives people pause -- yes, that has more than a little to do with why chicken pot pie is a basic part of the American lexicon and chicken ballotine has all but disappeared. But it's really not that hard. In this age of "urban homesteading," where folks have a leg of prosciutto curing in the basement and put up their own marmalade, deboning a chicken seems downright simple.

"It should nut take you much more zan a meenoot to bone out a cheek-an," quothe Pepin.

My maiden effort at deboning took about 25 meenoots, but I can only imagine how steep the learning curve is on something like this. If I'm twice as fast each time I do it, I'll be up to Pepin speed by my fifth bird. On the scale of tricky kitchen tasks it strikes me as easier than rolling out an even pie crust, if harder than making a good omelet.

Once I had the chicken spread before me in the shape of a square (trippy!), I topped it with a forcemeat recipe that I modified from the one found in Mastering The Art of French Cooking -- but as Pepin notes, there are literally hundreds of different variations on what you could use for a stuffing, so don't hold back.

Rolled and tied, I stuck the bird-sausage in the oven for about an hour: 20 minutes at 415 degrees to brown the skin, 40 minutes at 350 degrees to cook it through. The timing will vary widely based on the size of the bird and the amount of stuffing used, so make sure that the internal temperature is around 165 degrees.

As for giving out a ballotine recipe: I'm not even going to try to commit to words what Pepin does so beautifully and so efficiently in the video. Watch the video. Stuff the bird with whatever you like, but my stuffing of choice is below.

Stuffing for a Ballotine
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

1 Tbsp butter
½ yellow onion, chopped
¼ cup Madeira or Port
½ lb ground veal
½ lb ground pork
1 egg
1 tsp thyme leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp cinnamon

1. Melt butter over low heat in a medium skillet, add onions, and let soften for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove onions to a medium mixing bowl.
2. In the same skillet, turn the heat to medium/high and add Madeira. Cook for 4-5 minutes, until reduced by half. Remove Madeira to bowl.
3.Add veal, pork, thyme, egg, cinnamon, and garlic to the onions and wine. Mix well. Stuff at will!