While researching The Winemaker’s Wife, I spent time in the Champagne region of France, where the novel takes place. I was especially lucky to be the guest of a lovely young woman named Virginie Bergeronneau, who works at her family-owned champagne house, Champagne F. Bergeronneau-Marion, based in the town of Ville-Dommange, where the fictional Champagne Chauveau from my book is also situated. After she gave me a detailed tour of their winemaking operation, which really helped me with some of the details in the book (which is very specific about how champagne is made!), we got to talking about one of my favorite subjects: food.
One of the things I love most about champagne is how well it pairs with so many different kinds of cuisines. Its sharpness and acidity work beautifully with anything salty, fatty, buttery, or rich. Its bubbles cut perfectly through spice and heat. The unique round, yeastiness of champagne gives the sparkling wine a bit of heft and complements anything with toasty or earthy notes. When I talked with Virginie, she mentioned that one of her favorite champagne pairings was, surprisingly, filet mignon, which I generally think of as a food crying out for a big glass of red. But guess what? Virginie is right; champagne is surprisingly perfect with a nice cut of beef, too!
Since Champagne F. Bergeronneau-Marion features a lovely tasting room (Consider a visit there if you’re ever in Champagne!), there is sometimes wine remaining in open bottles at the end of the day—a half a glass here, a half a glass there. Of course it would be a terrible shame to waste such wonderful champagne, so Virginie often likes to use the last of the bubbly to cook with. She told me that sometimes she marinates a nice piece of beef in the leftover champagne and then roasts it (which is an easy but elegant meal, by the way). It got me thinking of other uses for leftover champagne, and after roasting and pan-frying plenty of champagne-marinated beef in the spirit of Virginie, I started experimenting with recipes using chicken breast, which is, of course, a bit cheaper and healthier—but just as elegant when prepared the right way.
The result: an easy, sautéed chicken breast with champagne pan sauce, perfect for an elevated weeknight meal. One important note, though: in our house, it would be rare to find leftover champagne, as my husband and I have the tendency to finish the bottle! So instead of thinking of this as a recipe for the last half-cup in the bottle, think of it as a recipe for the first half-cup. In other words, it’s the perfect excuse to open a new bottle—which of course will be the perfect accompaniment to your meal! You can also substitute any dry white wine or brut sparkling wine, though I have found that brut champagne really is the best wine to use for this meal, if you have it. And what better reason to pop open a bottle on a weeknight?
A champagne sauce flavored with shallots and fresh tarragon and drizzled over chicken breasts makes an elegant pairing with Kristin Harmel's THE WINEMAKER'S WIFE
4 thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breasts (see note)
Salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1/2 cup brut champagne (or dry white wine)
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon
Fresh lemon juice to taste
Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken just until done (no longer pink in the center), about 5-6 minutes on each side. Depending on the size of your pan, you might need to cook the chicken in two batches; add more oil before the second batch, if needed. Remove cooked chicken to a plate and set aside. Tent very loosely with foil.
Without wiping out the pan, reduce heat to medium and sauté the chopped shallot for a few minutes, until translucent and softened.
Add the champagne (or wine) and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add chicken broth, return to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer six minutes. The sauce should thicken slightly.
Add butter and tarragon and stir just until melted, then remove pan from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon sauce over the sautéed chicken, drizzle with lemon juice, and serve.
You can cut two larger breasts in half lengthwise if you can’t find thin-sliced chicken.
I like serving this over white or brown rice (the rice benefits from the sauce, too!), or alongside roasted carrots, tomatoes, and onions. It’s nice served with a simple green salad with Dijon vinaigrette, too.