Friday, February 5, 2010

Coq au Vin


For anyone who's familiar with this blog, my deep abiding love for cassoulet probably makes clear that I have some affection for French food. However, that affection is accompanied by very little experience with the cuisine. I don't live in France after all (nor even visited)... and, in America anyway, while classical French cooking was insanely popular in the 60's and 70's (presumably due in large part to the efforts of Julia Child), it had fallen pretty far from fashion by my youth and through most of my adulthood. Indeed, I grew up thinking of French food as either heavy with cream sauces or full of snails (or both!). But most of all, I thought of it as overrated... i.e. that you spent a lot of money at a French restaurant solely for the experience of high class dining, not specifically for the food. To some extent that's obviously true... there are innumerable 4 star restaurants around the world that don't serve French food; you can have an incredible meal in any cuisine. Regardless of this truth, my first real "fine dining experience" was French (L'Espalier - back when they were in the brownstone), and it totally blew my mind... I reevaluated my stance on French cooking immediately on the spot. While certainly the artifice of the occasion was exceptional (maître d', sommelier, etc), it was much more the fact that I had just never eaten food like that. Even to this day, it's probably the best dining experience of my life (from a food and service perspective I mean, there are other... ahem... elements best forgotten).

Even as I've broadened my palate, French food has continued to fascinate me... especially as I've learned to cook. For whatever reason, no other cuisine has really caught my imagination. Nothing thrills and terrifies me as much as... say... making a hollandaise... or even a roux, let alone cassoulet. I just really like making French food, be it peasant style or haute cuisine... but generally the more traditional the better.

Enter Coq au Vin. As evidence of my minimal experience with French food: never had it. I have made beef bourguignon (as well as the Italian Brasato Al Barolo), so I'm not unfamiliar with braising meat in wine. Now, I have to admit I didn't do a whole lot of research... going straight to Cook's Illustrated, as I often do, when I'm trying something for the first time. The following text is mainly a 1999 Cook's Illustrated recipe (subscription required) that I've adapted in a few ways (chicken thighs instead of leg quarters, 10 ounces of mushrooms instead of 8, etc.). I used fresh pearl onions, but you could omit the blanching/peeling step if you use thawed frozen ones.

Ingredients
  • 8 chicken thighs (about 3 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, cleaned, and dried
  • 1 bottle of Red Zinfandel
  • 2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 6 ounces bacon (preferably thick-cut), cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 6 - 7 tablespoons unsalted butter , at room temperature
  • 1 large carrot , roughly chopped
  • 1 large onion , roughly chopped
  • 2 medium shallots , peeled and quartered
  • 2 medium cloves garlic , skin on and smashed
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 10 parsley stems
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1 lb of fresh pearl onions
  • 10 oz package of white mushrooms (small), quartered
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
Directions
  1. To peel the (fresh) pearl onions: Cut an “x” in the root end, blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon, and refresh them in a bowl of ice water. Then slice off the very tip of the roots with a paring knife and squeeze the onions gently from the blossom end. Worked like a charm. You could possibly get this done while the chicken is simmering, but I did it ahead of time.
  2. Season your chicken with salt and pepper and set aside.
  3. Bring red wine and chicken stock to boil in large, heavy saucepan; reduce heat to medium-high and simmer until reduced to about 4 cups, about 20 minutes.
  4. While that's going on, fry your chopped up bacon in large Dutch oven or deep, heavy-bottomed sauté pan (if you use a sauté pan, know that you'll need a lid later in the recipe) over medium heat until fat has rendered and bacon is golden brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Remove bacon with slotted spoon to paper towel-lined plate to drain; set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon butter with rendered bacon fat; add carrot, onion, shallots, and garlic and sauté until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Cook's says to "press vegetables against side of pan with slotted spoon to squeeze out as much fat as possible," but I used the slotted spoon to scoop 'em up and then used another spoon to squeeze out the excess fat back into the pan, before transferring the vegetables to the pan with reduced wine mixture. Whatever works: the point is to keep as much fat as possible out of your reduced wine. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from your Dutch oven or sauté pan.
  6. Return Dutch oven or sauté pan to burner over medium-high heat and add another 1 tablespoon butter. When butter is melted, add chicken (in two batches to avoid overcrowding) and cook until well browned all over, turning once during cooking, 12 to 16 minutes. Remove chicken to a plate; set aside.
  7. Pour off all fat from Dutch oven or sauté pan; return to heat and add wine-vegetable mixture. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan with wooden spoon. Add browned chicken, bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, and bay leaf tied together), and tomato paste to boiling wine mixture; return to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently, partially covered. Turn chicken once during cooking, until tender and infused with wine flavor, 45 to 60 minutes.
  8. While chicken and sauce are cooking, heat another 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add pearl onions and cook, stirring occasionally and reducing heat if butter starts to brown too fast, until lightly browned and almost cooked through, 5 to 8 minutes. Add mushrooms, season with salt, cover, increase heat to medium, and cook until mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Remove cover, increase heat to high, and boil until liquid evaporates and onions and mushrooms are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes more. Transfer onions and mushrooms to plate with bacon; set aside.
  9. When the chicken is cooked, transfer to serving bowl or platter; cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Strain sauce through fine mesh sieve set into a fat separator, pressing on solids with wooden spoon to release as much liquid as possible; sauce should measure 2 to 3 cups. Return sauce to pan; leaving the fat behind in the fat separator. Counting 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour for each cup of sauce, mash 2 to 3 tablespoons each butter and flour in small bowl or plate to make a beurre manié, as shown above. Bring sauce to boil and whisk in beurre manié until smooth. Add reserved chicken, bacon, onions and mushrooms; adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper to taste, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer very gently to warm through and blend flavors, about 5 minutes. Check seasoning one more time and adjust with additional salt and ground black pepper if necessary; add parsley. Transfer chicken to serving platter; pour sauce over chicken. Serve immediately.
Took about 3 hours, so only stay at home parents or freaks like me would make it on a weeknight... but definitely a worthy Sunday dinner, fo' sho'. While the inclusion of a full bottle of wine means it's not super cheap, the use of chicken thighs ameliorates that, and none of the ingredients are particularly hard to find. There's no fine chopping or fancy prep work, and you don't ever have more than two things to monitor at once. I found it to be a pretty leisurely paced dish to make.

Oh... and it's delicious. Highly recommended.