True Coq au Vin
For those who don’t know, “coq” means “rooster” in French. Therefore, “Coq au Vin” means “Rooster cooked in wine”. The dish is a staple of French provincial cooking, a dish originally made by using extra roosters culled from the chicken yard or an old chicken (aka a stewing chicken), the local red wine and available aromatics. Of course, in those areas that produce only white wine (Alsace), they have versions using white wine or beer (excellent beer is made is Alsace). In Normandy and Brittany, which are too cold for wine but where hard apple cider or perry (pear cider) have been made for century, there are versions of the dish too.
It’s like curry, or chili or Brunswick stew. Nobody has a monopole on it: many versions have evolved over time in different parts of the country. I am sure the Spaniard and the Italians have their own way to slow-cook chicken in wine, too. What those many dishes have in common is that they were born of necessity and ingenuity and that they use wine as a simmering base. Don’t kill the chicken as long as it’s laying eggs, but once that’s over, find a way to eat it. It’s the essence of peasant/country cooking: you use what you have, and make the best of it. So, no fryer, no tender little poussin for this dish: Save your fryer for frying or grilling, and your poussins for quick braising or spit-roasting! Your old chicken, however, will be perfect simmered for hours in an acidic (wine) sauce with aromatics. It will keep its shape and provide an incomparable aroma (something maybe even too strong for those palates who like their chicken really mild! Be warned).
With temperature dipping in the single digit (Fahrenheit/ -13 C) and with the holidays, long slow cooked hearty dishes that simmer for hours on the stove with tantalizing aromas are just about perfect now. mmm… coq au vin….I was recently reading a post (December 11, sorry I can’t seem to get the permalink!) from Matt of Matt’s Kitchen who relates his disappointment of making the Barefoot Contessa’s version of Coq au Vin, and how vapid and insipid it turned out. Now, I am a great admirer of Ina Garten… but that recipe – as reported and photographed on the few blogs I looked at – sure does not lood like Coq au Vin. Not even remotely. The chicken swims in broth! It’s pallid! It looks like soup …. Several posters and commenters complained of a strong unpleasant wine taste: well… no wonder, that wine did not simmer long enough to let the alcohol evaporate and it never had a chance – along with the mushrooms, onions & bacon – to meld into a gooey mess of thick and silky luscious succulence that is the essence of Coq au Vin – a dish made to savor slowly, sucking all the bones clean, and eating up all the last bits of that thick silky unctuous sauce.
On Barefoot Bloggers (a group of bloggers who cook and comment on Barefoot Contessa recipes) there are suggestions for replacing the wine and brandy for which the recipe calls. Proposed substitutions vary from grape juice, to verjus, to apple cider, to vinegar, to chicken broth etc. All fine and dandy: many of those substitutions might produce tasty chicken dishes (although looking at some of the associated post – it did not), but what they do not do is producing coq au vin. With vinegar, it’s Chicken with Vinegar (Poulet au Vinaigre is also a French country classic); with hard cider: it’s chicken with hard-cider (even Normandy Chicken, if one adds a little cream); with broth, it’s chicken stew… you get my drift. Those wineless versions may be called coq au vin by their authors, but they are no more coq-au-vin than Velveeta is cheese!
Ok. Enough for the rant. Here is my recipe for Real Coq au Vin!
Coq au Vin
- chicken (5 to 6 lb) cut into 10 to 12 serving pieces (the older the chicken, the smaller the pieces should be. If using a stewing chicken – which will give you a more authentic dish – you may have to use two to get to 6 pounds. See Note on Chicken below.
- 6 T flour
- 1 bouquet garni (8 fresh sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig rosemary and a bay leaf, tied with kitchen twine). If you don’t tie them, be ready to fish them out of the pot before serving.
- slices lean and flavorful bacon, the best quality you can afford, cut into small pieces
- 3 T olive oil, or more as needed
- 2 T butter, or more as needed
- 1 pound small onions, peeled, OR 2 large yellow onions, peeled and chopped OR 1 pound shallots, peeled
- 2 T vermouth (See Note on Vermouth)
- 1 bottle of red wine (see Note of Wine).
- 3 cloves garlic, degermed and minced finely, or pounded into a paste
- 1 large pinch sugar
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 2 pound white mushroom, either small so that you can leave them whole, or larger and quartered – trimmed, and cleaned of grit
- A few sprigs of parsley
- Croutons to serve (optional but recommended):
- country baguette, cut in slices, and let to dry or become stale. In a hurry dry off (i.e. crisp) the baguette slices in a low oven.
- Roll chicken in flour to coat all pieces, shake off excess. Reserve the excess flour.
- In a large heavy-bottom Dutch oven, heat up 1 T oil over medium high. Add the bacon, and fry for two or three minutes. Add the onions and cook until softened and colored – about 10-15 minutes – stirring occasionally. Remove from pan & set aside, leaving as much fat as possible in the pan.
- Add the remaining oil (2 T) and 1 T butter to the pan. Add the chicken pieces, and brown on all sides, about 20 minutes. Work in small batches so as not to overcrowd the pan – otherwise the chicken will “steam”. Remove pieces as done and set aside. Do not rush this step: all pieces should be as evenly colored as possible. A pallid Coq au Vin floating in wine is disgusting looking, so take your time and brown all the pieces well. It’s better to cook them too long than not enough. You see why a young tender chicken would not do for this? (Note: the alternative is to have two Dutch oven pans, or cast iron pans going, so you brown the chicken in two pans at the same time). And one more thing: if you do not brown the chicken well, once you add the wine, the chicken will turn purple – really unappetizing.
- When all the pieces are properly browned, add the vermouth to the pan, and using a wooden spatula scrape as much of the bits of meat attached to the bottom of the pan as possible.
- Add the onion & bacon to the pan. Take two T of the remaining flour (discard the rest) and sprinkle over the mixture, mixing well. Pour in the wine, again trying to loosen as much as possible from the bottom of the pan. If you used two pans to cook the chicken, consolidate them in one and make sure to scrape all the attached solids into the one pan.
- Add the herbs, the garlic, sugar, salt & pepper. Stir well. Bring the mixture to boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, for up to 4 hours, stirring from time to time, until the chicken is tender. Uncover the pot after 1 hour so that liquid evaporates (Note: simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour if using a roasting chicken. If using a stewing chicken, it will never be really “tender”: simmer until the meat is easily eatable – that will depend on your taste and the stewiness of the chicken. Count 3 to 4 hours).
- Meanwhile, sauté the mushrooms in the remaining 1 T of butter on high heat until slightly colored. Set aside. Add to the chicken after its initial cooking. Cook for another 30 minutes. Remove the herbs.
- Cover and keep warm. Or let cool and refrigerate for the following day. Reheat gently on the stove. It will taste even better for having sit overnight. Really. Also it will be easier to remove the fat congealed on top of the stew if you worry about those things.
- Just before serving, mince the parsley and sprinkle over the stew. Heat oil in a frying pan, quickly fry the baguette slices until nicely colored. Serve hot with the coq-au-vin.
- I almost always serve my coq au vin with Thai or Chinese style rice (ie. Sticky rice such as Jasmine or Koko Rose).
- Note on the chicken: So what if you don’t have access to a rooster or a stewing hen? It can be difficult to source one unless you befriend a small scale chicken grower. So a big, firm roaster, one that’s free-range and preferably pastured – as such the animal has much more muscle than a caged hen – is your best bet. After the initial hour, if the sauce looks too thin, remove the chicken pieces from the pan, and simmer the sauce for another 30 minutes or 1 hour, until very thick. Put the chicken back, add the mushroom and cook for another 30 minutes warmed through. If you can, make the dish the day before: it will taste a lot better the following day.
- Note on Vermouth: many cooks also use cognac instead and flambé it. Go for it if you want, I never do. My Mom never does either.
- Note on the wine: If using an old chicken get something young & fairly potent (Shiraz). Otherwise something like a Beaujolais-Village or a pinot noir for a younger chicken (roaster). Here in Virginia, a good merlot works well. The traditional advice is to cook with the best wine you can afford. However, you don’t have to spend lots of money for the wine – lots of wine in the $8-$10 range will give you very satisfactory results. Even generic wine will do. Just don’t buy so-called “cooking wine” though, you know that, right?
Note for the Locavore Log. Herbs from the garden. Chicken, bacon, wine = immediately local. Mushroom & butter = regionally local.