A Classic North German Dish: Bremer Kükenragout

Time for another food post and a recipe.

The background is that a few days ago, the local Bremen newspaper Weser-Kurier tweeted an image gallery of typical Bremer foods. I retweeted the gallery and got into a conversation with Paul Weimer about why there was a photo of a fluffy yellow baby chicken among the many food photos.

I explained that the fluffy yellow baby chicken is supposed to represent Bremer Kükenragout (Bremer Chicken Ragout), because the German name of the dish uses the term “Küken”, i.e. baby chicken rather than the actual German word for chicken. I also explained what Bremer Kükenragout was, namely a stew of chicken, crawfish, mushrooms and some other ingredients, served with rice. And suddenly I thought, “Hey, that sounds pretty good. Maybe I should make it someday.”

Now I happened to have both chicken and crawfish in the fridge, so I thought, “Why not make it now?”

So I took my copy of Bremer Speisen, a cookbook focussing on local specialties, to look up the recipe, because Bremer Kükenragout is not something my mother ever made, though she made chicken fricassee, which is a similar if simpler dish.

To my surprise, the book had not one but three recipes for Bremer Kükenragout, a traditional recipe from Betty Gleim‘s 1817 Bremisches Kochbuch, the recipe used at Grasshoff’s Bistro and the recipe used at the (now defunct) restaurant Alte Gilde. What was more, the three recipes agreed on very few ingredients beyond the obvious chicken. Finally, some of the recipes (and not just Betty Gleim’s 1817 recipe) included ingredients that were either difficult to procure or just “ugh, no way, I’m not eating that”.

I used to assume that the relative scarcity of Bremer Kükenragout, which – though a local specialty – is rarely found on restaurant menus in Bremen, was due to the fact that crawfish was nigh unprocurable for a long time, because the native crawfish that used to live in the river Weser and other German rivers died out due to pollution (though it’s making a tentative comeback) and imported crawfish only started to show up on supermarket shelves in the past few years. However, it turns out that not just crawfish was difficult to procure for many years (and indeed, some recipes use grey shrimp instead of crawfish), but some of the other ingredients are as well. For example, both Grasshoff’s and Betty Gleim’s recipes called for morels, which are very difficult and extremely expensive to procure.

Meanwhile the “ugh, nope, no way” ingredients include strange pieces of meat such as ox tongue, calf mouth and veal sweetbread (which is neither sweet nor bread). Even if it was possible to get them (I suspect the local butcher could hook me up with ox tongue and veal sweetbread and maybe even calf mouth), sorry, I don’t like offal, so this simply wasn’t happening.

Nonetheless, I wanted to give Bremer Kükenragout a try and since apparently every chef has their own version anyway, I set about combining the three recipes into one that worked for me.

I kept the chicken and the crawfish, of course, as well as button mushrooms and asparagus as well as the spices and ingredients for the gravy. From Betty Gleim’s very luxurious version (honestly, I’m not sure how some of those ingredients were even findable in 1817 in North Germany), I kept the pistachios, because they added colour and a nice crunch. The original recipe calls for butter, but I used half olive oil and half butter as cooking oil. Instead of beef stock, I used venison stock, because the flavour is more intensive and besides, I had some in the pantry. I substituted the unprocurable morels with sheathed woodtuft mushrooms though king trumpet mushrooms or even shiitake would probably work as well. Meanwhile, I omitted the “ugh, no way, nope” ingredients. I also omitted the veal meatballs, which most recipes include (coincidentally, chicken fricassee also has meatballs), because making meatballs is a lot of work, I don’t even like them all that much and besides, I didn’t think the dish needed them anyway.

A word about the chicken: Most recipes specify that you should use poussin, i.e. a very young and tender chicken. But while poussin is certainly nice to have, any chicken will do. You can even use turkey, if you want. In fact, I used chicken breasts from the supermarket and chopped them up.

Finally, I should probably also explain Suppengrün (soup green). Suppengrün is a chopped vegetable mixture that serves as a flavour base for soups and stews in German cuisine, similar to the French mirepoix, the Spanish and Latin American sofrito and the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking. Suppengrün consists of carrots, celeriac, leek and parsley. In Germany you can buy pre-packed Suppengrün sets which contain all the required ingredients, but of course you can also buy the ingredients separately.

Pro-tip: Even the Suppengrün sets from the supermarket usually result in way too much Suppengrün for a single dish. So what I do is buy a Suppengrün package or two, chop up everything, use as much as I need for whatever dish I’m making and freeze the rest, so I have Suppengrün on demand.

So here is my take on Bremer Kükenragout:

Bremer Kükenragout (my way):

Ingredients:

  • 1 Chicken (ideally, use a young chicken, but regular chicken, chicken breast or even turkey will do as well)
  • 100 g package of crawfish
  • 1 package of button mushrooms
  • 1 jar of sheathed woodtuft (alternatively use king trumpets or even shiitake or morels, if you can find them)
  • Suppengrün (i.e. celeriac, carrot, leek and parsley, finely chopped)
  • approx. 5 spears of asparagus (ideally, use white asparagus, though green will do as well)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 spring onion/scallion
  • Pistachios
  • Venison stock (beef or chicken stock will do as well)
  • 1 cup of cream
  • White wine
  • Lemon juice
  • Lobster or crab paste
  • Butter
  • Olive oil
  • Pepper
  • Salt
  • Nutmeg
  • Mace
  • Cayenne
  • Brown sugar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cloves
  • Rice (I use basmati, but whatever rice you prefer will do)

Method:

  • Peel asparagus and chop it into small pieces. Chop onion and spring onion/scallion. Wash and clean mushrooms. If necessary, chop up Suppengrün.
  • Blanch the asparagus
  • Clean chicken and chop into pieces of the desired size. Season with pepper, salt and brown sugar.
  • Pour some olive oil into a pan. Add butter and lobster paste. Add bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cayenne, pepper, salt and sugar to taste.
  • Heat up onion, Suppengrün and chicken in the pan, until the oil begins to sizzle.
  • Add white wine, stock and lemon juice and stir.
  • Add asparagus, mushrooms and pistachios and stir some more.
  • While the stew is cooking, cook and season rice
  • Add crawfish.
  • Add cream and scallions and thoroughly stir. Season to taste.
  • Serve with rice.

Finally, here is a photo of the finished dish on the place:

Bremer Kükenragout

Bremer Kükenragout, served on a bed of basmati rice.

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