I’ve always wondered how the “haute” food of previous generations managed to become so popular, as many of them look (and taste) like mistakes. But the people of yesteryear didn’t eat things like shrimp wiggle and gelatin salads because they had to—these were things that they got genuinely excited about! When they strolled into a soiree in their best party clothes, they would be greeted by an elegant table full of jiggly aspics, molded fish mousses (with olive eyeballs!), and toasts smothered in Chicken à la King. Then, as the 20th century chugged along, humans invented TV dinners, spray cheez, and cream of mushroom soup in the name of “progress.” Previously haute dishes underwent their own evolution to adapt to the times. Take the aforementioned Chicken à la King: By the time I was born in the 1980s, all I knew of it was that it was gloppy and came in a can. How undignified.
I decided to take another look at Chicken à la King, and as is the case with so many old dishes, there are several colorful tales about its origins. I found the most credible to be this story shared by the great Craig Claiborne, revealing that it originated at a very fancy establishment called The Brighton Beach Hotel. Back in the early 1900s that long stretch of shoreline was home to some of the most luxurious hotels in America—a seaside vacation wonderland that attracted all the world’s rich and famous. I missed all of this splendor by a few miles and a few decades. But even though my side of Brooklyn wasn’t the birthplace of the posh chicken dish, we didn’t want the creamed, canned slop either. If you want to make a classic more casual, then do it the right way: by turning it into a hero. If we can have chicken parm heroes, chicken francese heroes, and chicken and peppers heroes, then why don’t we have Chicken à la King heroes? We need to press rewind on this whole situation, get back to the dish’s roots, remove cream of mushroom soup from the equation, and finally give Chicken à la King the future it deserves.
This hero is adapted from the original recipe that was printed on the brochure for the long gone Brighton Beach Hotel. The sauce is traditionally made with Sherry, but if you don’t have any on hand, another fortified wine like vermouth or Marsala will work perfectly. For the sake of the photo below, I delicately drizzled the sauce over my hero, but I drowned it in way more sauce before eating it, and then licked the extra off the plate. It’s that damn good, and I will be putting it on a lot more than just this sandwich.
For the marinade:
- 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 cup yogurt or sour cream
- 2 Tbsp. kosher salt
For the sauce:
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 small onion
- 1 clove garlic
- Freshly squeezed juice of 1 large lemon
- 3 egg yolks
- 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. paprika
- 4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter
- 1-2 Tbsp. Sherry (or another fortified wine)
For the sandwiches:
- 2 large green bell peppers, cut into strips
- 1 package button or cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
- Canola or vegetable oil
- Italian bread or hero rolls, for serving
Cut the chicken breasts into fat 2" chunks and put in a large ziptop bag. Mix together the milk, yogurt/sour cream, and salt; pour into the bag and marinate chicken for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.
Just before you’re ready to cook, make the sauce: First, whip the cream to medium peaks and set aside. In a heatproof bowl, use a Microplane to grate the half onion and garlic clove, then whisk in the egg yolks, salt, and paprika. Cut the butter into tiny pieces and toss into the bowl. Make a double boiler by putting the bowl on top of a saucepan that’s filled with 1" of simmering water. Continually stir using a whisk until the butter is completely melted, then begin whisking briskly for about 3-5 minutes until the mixture thickens—when the whisk leaves a trail or ribbons and the mixture can coat the back of a spoon, it’s ready. Remove from the heat, add the Sherry, and whisk vigorously for 2 minutes to help the mixture cool, then gently fold into the whipped cream and taste for seasoning, adjusting as you please. Let the sauce sit at room temperature while you make the sandwiches.
Preheat an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan over high heat, and wipe it down with a wad of paper towels that have been dipped in canola or vegetable oil. Put a large colander in the sink, drain the chicken, then move to a bowl and set aside.
Toss the peppers and mushrooms with a tablespoon or so of oil, then grill for about 2 minutes per side until delightfully browned. (If you’re grilling outdoors, do this on a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil so you don’t have to worry about the vegetables falling through the grate.) Toss the chicken pieces with a few tablespoons of oil and grill for 2-3 minutes per side until they are firm when you poke them, then move to a plate.
Lightly toast the buns. Smear the insides with sauce, then fill with peppers, onions, and chicken. Cover in more sauce (as much as you’d like!), sprinkle with paprika, and serve immediately.