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Chicken Marengo is a classic Italian entrée that has roots that can be traced back to the 19th century. Its original ingredients traditionally included chicken, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic along with herbs, olive oil, crayfish and eggs. It was typically served with bread, potatoes or another starch.
Many historical accounts claim the popular dish was named after the Battle of Marengo, a city in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy in which Napoleon Bonaparte led his troops to victory over the Austrians on June 14, 1800. The dish was reportedly concocted by his Swiss chef, Dunand, after Bonaparte demanded a repast at the conclusion of the battle. Since the Austrians had seized the enemy’s food during the conflict, Dunand was hard-pressed to find ingredients for a meal.
Since Napoleon had reportedly not eaten before fighting, allegedly a common practice among warriors at that time, he was famished after the hard-fought battle at Marengo. Dunand scoured the ravaged town for ingredients to make a proper and filling victory meal to serve his boss. From the local farmers, he gathered the aforementioned food items and began to create a dish for Napoleon.
According to stories of the dish’s origins, Dunand sautéed the cut-up chicken in olive oil until it was browned. He then made a sauce of the tomatoes, onion, garlic, mushrooms and herbs, added it to the chicken, and simmered them together until they were tender and the flavors married. Some accounts claim Dunand added a splash of cognac from Napoleon’s flask to the mixture as well. He garnished the dish with sautéed crayfish and a fried egg and served it to Napoleon. Dunand purportedly included a soldier’s ration biscuit with the meal.
As the story is told, Napoleon was delighted with the dish and immediately dubbed it Chicken Marengo. Since he was reportedly quite superstitious and gluttonous, Napoleon ordered Dunand to prepare the same dish for him after every battle. He was sure this proclamation of the ritual meal would ensure repeated victories.
Today’s version of Chicken Marengo follows the original recipe fairly closely. Wine frequently replaces cognac in the list of ingredients, however. A significant number of modern recipes for Chicken Marengo also call for a moderate amount of chopped fresh herbs and black olives to be stirred into the dish right before serving. The fried egg and crawfish garnishes are typically optional. Recommended accompaniments frequently include a slice of hearty French bread or a potato side dish.