Category Archives: iron chef

Coq au Vin, or really ambitious and somewhat disappointing adventures in amateur meat preparation. Also: how to break down a whole chicken into pieces

mmmm frenchy

I wouldn’t normally cook two chickens in back to back weeks, but last month I ordered two chickens from a local farm with a stand at the farmer’s market and then basically forgot all about it. The day after I roasted Larry, I got a call letting me know they’d killed my birds and I could pick them up Saturday. We were still working on Larry’s leftovers, so I decided to do something other than simple roasting with at least one of the local birds.* I’d been wanting to try Coq au Vin, the "classic" French treatment for old roosters, and even though my just-butchered birds were relatively small, young chickens, I decided to give it a go. many, many hours earlier

The reason "classic" gets scare quotes is that there’s some debate about whether Coq au Vin is actually the ancient, peasant dish it’s often alleged to be or something more modern. The most compelling evidence on the side of "ancient": the ingredients and methods are typical of many other age-old European cooking traditions—it’s basically a fricassee in wine with mirepoix (onions+carrots+celery), mushrooms, herbs, and some salt pork or bacon. There are also dozens of regional variations based on different varietals of grapes and mushrooms. For example, in the Alsace region, there’s a recipe for cooking roosters that uses Riesling, morels, and cream (the epicurious version is here). Additionally, since it’s basically a time and labor-intensive way of salvaging a tough piece of meat, it seems to exemplify the ideals of frugality and resourcefulness associated with old, "peasant" traditions.

But those traditions are often invented rather than discovered. What makes Coq au Vin questionable is that despite the long history of French culinary publications, the first written reference to "Coq au Vin" doesn’t show up until 1913. A decade later, when the first recipe for "Coq au Vin" appeared in print, it presented the idea as a truly novel. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, aside from the cockscomb, which was prized as a garnish, the cock was historically regarded as indigestible.

Whether or not it’s ancient, it’s certainly a "classic" in that it’s become part of the popular canon of French cuisine, on par with other dishes like ratatouille and coquilles St. Jacques, if not quite as iconic as the baguette. In The Next Iron Chef Season 2 Episode 2 earlier this month, Coq au Vin was one of the "classic inspirations" contestants had to use as the basis for an elimination challenge (along with things like boulliabaisse, pasta puttanesca, and Greek dolmas). Although its modern popularity is a little ironic, given the difficulty most cooks would have securing the titular rooster, it’s easy to see why it would be a winning flavor combination. What wouldn’t be delicious after marinating overnight and then simmering long and slow in a lot of wine infused with the richness of mushrooms, bacon, garlic, mirepoix, and fresh thyme? I’m almost tempted to try it with an old belt or pair of worn out shoes.

That gets at the main reason I was ultimately dissatisfied with the results: it was tasty enough, but the chicken is basically expendable. As a meal, it was no better than this mushroom bourguignon and way, way more time consuming. It’s not that it’s hard, but it just doesn’t quite seem worth it. So unless I happen into some old rooster meat, I’ll stick to roasting my chickens—which is not only easier, but tastes better and takes advantage of their juicy, tender, young meat better.

*I will never get over the delightful double-entendreness of birds and women, and because I am intellectually thirteen, I will never give a chicken a classically feminine name. The idea of a "bird named Larry" just tickles me on so many stupid levels. I named this one "Biff."

Recipe and pictures below the jump

Recipe: Coq au Vin, adapted from Alton Brown

  • ~20 pearl onions
  • one whole 4-lb chicken, or 6-8 servings worth of pre-cut chicken pieces
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 2 T. water
  • 6 oz. salt pork, chopped into 1/4" cubes
  • 8 oz. cremini mushrooms (also sold as "baby bellas")
  • 1 T. butter
  • 1 750-ml bottle red wine, preferably cheap**
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped in 1-2" chunks
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped in 1-2" chunks
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 T. dried thyme or 6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf (optional)
  • 4 cups chicken stock

Boil a small-to-medium pot of water (large enough to submerge the pearl onions), cut off the root ends of the pearl onions, and cut an "ex" in each one (I’m not sure the "x" is necessary, but it probably takes less than a minute for the whole bunch. Then, blanche the onions in the boiling water for 1 minute and remove to an icewater bath. Let cool for a minute or two and then drain. The skins should slip right off. I suspect that frozen, peeled pearl onions would be a completely adequate and way more convenient substitute if you wanted to skip this step entirely. possibly-unnecessary "x"blanched and denuded

Cut the chicken into 6-8 pieces. I was nervous about this and tried to find a guide online, but after wading through a guide to butchering chickens en masse starting with the kill and gutting, which suggested that the actual carcass breakdown was "pretty intuitive," I decided to basically start hacking at it with a sharp knife at all the places where it seems natural to hack at it. That actually worked pretty well.

I started by removing both of the wings, which separate from the body at a joint and then the legs and thighs—also connected at a joint. I had a harder time finding the hip joint, but after wiggling around with the knife a little I managed. Then I sliced the breast meat off as close to the ribs as possible, a lot like you do when you’re carving a roasted bird. And that’s it—you’re left with six pieces of meat and a carcass. Amazingly easy and indeed, pretty intuitive. Good to know, given that whole chickens are often cheaper than buying already-cut pieces, and you get a bonus backbone with enough meat on it to make a nice soup or stock sometime.

 this is biff. de-winged   de-leg/thighed biffde-breasted biff Biff is soup of the future

Season the chicken pieces all over with salt and pepper and then coat with flour by placing them, a few pieces at a time, in a plastic bag with the flour and shaking. Remove and set aside.

wheee FLASH

Meanwhile, cut the salt pork into small cubes and add to a large skillet along with 2 T. water. Cover and cook until the water evaporates. Apparently this step removes some of the salt, and perhaps a little bit evaporates, but especially if it’s covered, most of it would stay in the pot, so I’m not sure if that step was necessary either. But you do need to render the fat, so water or no, cook until the pieces are crispy and brown and sitting in a pool of hot grease. While the pork cooks, you can prep the other vegetables: quarter the mushrooms, chop the celery, the medium onion, and the carrots into big pieces, and peel and crush the garlic. The mushrooms and pearl onions are the only things that remain in the stew for serving, so you really don’t need to worry about making the vegetables bite-sized. A very rough chop will do.

When the pork is crisp, remove it to a container large enough to contain the pork, onions, and mushrooms (the latter two will cook down—a 2-3 cup container should be big enough). Next, saute the peeled onions until golden brown and remove those to the same container. Then, fry the chicken in batches for a couple of minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Does this matter when it’s just going to get simmered for hours? I don’t know. The skin is not going to end up crisp in the final dish, but perhaps the browning adds some depth to the flavor. It’s probably not strictly necessary.

 bitsy onions half of Biff, browning

As they finish browning, put the chicken pieces in a large oven-safe pot (preferably enameled cast iron according to AB, although a very well-seasoned Dutch oven or other covered casserole dish might work as well).

The last ingredient getting the saute treatment in the pork fat is the mushrooms. If there isn’t enough fat left in the pan, you can add a tablespoon of butter. Once the mushrooms start to release their liquid, remove them to the same container as the bacon and onions, cover and refrigerate.

Pour about 1 cup of white wine into the skillet and stir well to deglaze, meaning dissolve all the brown bits remaining in the pan. Add the tomato paste and stir to dissolve, adding more wine if necessary. Add the deglazing mixture to the chicken, along with the rest of the bottle of wine, the other vegetables, the herbs, and the stock. AB calls for two bottles of wine but my pot wasn’t nearly big enough and that seemed excessive for one little chicken. I did double the amount of stock he uses, though. The idea is to have the chicken and vegetables entirely submerged/floating in a pot full of liquid. Cover it and refrigerate overnight.

the dream of the hoover administration deglazing

The next day, preheat the oven to 325F, place the pot in the oven and cook 2-2 1/2 hours or until the chicken is done through (155-165F). When the chicken is done, turn the oven down to warm, remove the chicken to a separate casserole dish, cover and place in the oven.

Then, strain out the vegetables and aromatics and discard them (you’ve already gotten as much flavor out of them as they have to give). Bring the remaining liquid to a simmer on the stovetop and reduce by at least 1/2, which will take about a half an hour. Assuming you’re serving the meal with a starch (egg noodles seem standard, rice or potatoes would also be good…eh, as noted, almost anything drowning in this sauce would be good), try to time it so it’s ready around the same time as the sauce.

When the sauce is reduced and thickened, add the pearl onions, bacon, and mushrooms and cook just until heated through. If the sauce isn’t as thick as you’d like it, whisk together equal parts flour or cornstarch and water or stock, and add that to the sauce. Start with 1 T. each and increase if desired. Let the starch heat through before deciding if you need more.

to strain, I just spooned the solids into a colander held over the pot finished stew

I added al dente egg noodles directly to the pot to finish cooking in the sauce, which may have improved their flavor slightly but made for somewhat gummier leftovers than would have been ideal. In the future, I’ll keep the noodles and sauce separate. Well, and I’ll also omit the chicken entirely.

Here’s the pared-down version that I think would hit most of the key flavor elements with minimal time and effort, very similar to the mushroom bourguignon linked above and easily made vegan.

Recipe: Coq-less Coq au Vin

  • 1 bottle red wine, cheap**
  • 1 package frozen pearl onions
  • 1-2 lbs mushrooms, any variety, cut into 1/2" pieces
  • 2 cups stock, vegetable, chicken, beef, or mushroom
  • 4-6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 t. dried
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 T. butter or vegetable oil or ~6 oz. salt pork or bacon, diced
  • 2 T. cornstarch or flour

Either cook the bacon and remove, or heat the butter or oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sweat the garlic and onions in whatever fat you’ve chosen until the latter are golden or browning. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid. Add herbs, stock, wine, and tomato paste and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until liquid is reduced by more than half. Add the pearl onions and simmer another 10 minutes or until they’re tender. Whisk cornstarch into 2 T. water or stock, add to pot and stir well.

**The reason to use cheap wine while cooking is that, much like delicate or aromatic oils, the subtle flavors aren’t going to survive the heat, especially when cooked for a long time the way they are in this dish. A few years ago, Julia Moskin reported for the New York Times on the results of a series of experiments she did to test the theory that you should "never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink." Even in double-blinds, she and her tasters consistently preferred classic dishes made with cheap wines rather than expensive ones:

Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.

It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.

Battle Tomato Course 2/5: Crab salad napoleons and a green salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette and fried tomato skins

and because we are nothing if not classy in kitchen stadium canada, it's paired with labatt blue light. in a can.

Finally getting back around to the epic battle of tomato before tomato season is over for another year. After I scrapped the idea of doing BLT sliders for my lunch plate because I didn’t want to over-use bacon, I decided to try something that would use the slices of tomato as a structuring agent rather than bread.

Although "napoleon" used to refer exclusively to a dessert composed of layers of puff pastry and pastry cream (or whipped cream), it’s being used now to refer to anything with repetitive layers of differing textures—i.e. more layers than a "sandwich" and more differentiated than layers of gelatin or lasagna. From what I can tell from watching competitive cooking on television (and not as a substitute for cooking either—I so wish the Balzer data Pollan was ranting about in the NYT a few weeks ago had accounted for traditional indicators of social class and suspect that many people watching food television are actually cooking but that’s a topic for another post), napoleons usually have at least three layers of whatever’s playing the roll of the puff pastry and at least two layers of semi-solid filling.

The layers were already a given. For the filling, I decided on a mayonnaise-based crab salad because I knew I had seen crab-stuffed tomatoes on menus and tomatoes love mayonnaise almost as much as they love salt. And indeed, I thought the combination worked really well. I’ll definitely make the salad again, perhaps to use as a sandwich or wrap filling when tomatoes are out of season. Recipes and instructions for making fried tomato skins after the jump, now that jumps are working. Yay for jumps.

Recipe: Crab salad napoleons, adapted from allrecipes.com

(for 6 servings, but easily scaled)

  • 6 medium-to-large tomatoes
  • 1 lb crab—lump or canned, or a surimi product (like imitation krab)
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 shallots diced
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 2 T. sour cream
  • 2-3 T. chopped fresh dill
  • 1 t. Old Bay seasoning
  • 2-3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Core the tomatoes and cut each one into four slices horizontally.

Drain crab and check for cartilage and shell fragments. Combine with remaining ingredients.

Spread a few tablespoons of salad between the layers of tomato and garnish with a sprig of dill.

I served the napoleons with a side salad of fresh greens tossed with a roasted tomato vinaigrette that I can eat by the spoonful I love it so much, goat cheese, diced kalmata olives, and fried tomato skins.

The fried tomato skins were a sort of experiment. I knew I was going to blanch and skin the tomatoes for my soup course and decided that rather than throw them out, I should try to do something with them. Points for creative use of ingredient and all that. So I tossed them in some flour seasoned with salt and pepper and then fried them until golden brown in some hot olive oil, and gave them another sprinkle of salt just after frying. Tomato skins don’t have a ton of flavor, but it’s hard to go wrong with fried flour and salt—they were a hit. I would do it again if I ever, ever bothered to blanche and peel tomatoes when I cook at home. 

The easiest way to get nice big pieces of tomato skins is to cut an "x" on the bottom of your tomatoes before blanching them in boiling water for about 1 min. Transfer them to a bowl of ice water, and then you should be able to remove each tomato skin in four big pieces.

Recipe: Roasted tomato vinaigrette, from Erik Markoff

  • 8 roma tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup + 1 T. olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Halve the tomatoes and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pour about 1 T. olive oil over them and toss gently to coat, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 40 minutes.

Puree roasted tomatoes with remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Battle Tomato Course 1/5: Tomato Toad in the Hole, Sundried Tomato and Asiago rolls, Fresh Ruddy Mary

you can see the hole where the toothpick held the prosciutto in place

My friend Raffi’s family has a summer house on Lake Erie in Ontario, and a group of us who meet there every year stage an Iron Chef-style battle. The battles actually  started in college when Kit’s dad gave him a 7-lb can of refried beans for Christmas, which doesn’t make any more sense if you know Kit, except that he’s the kind of person who appreciates that kind of absurdity.

Obviously, unlike on the show, the ingredient for Battle Refried Beans wasn’t a secret, and we’ve continued to choose the primary ingredient in advance because 1) none of us is Morimoto (who I’m shocked to discover has the lowest winning percentage on Iron Chef America, which apparently includes his record in Battle of the Masters, but still, lower than Cat Cora!?) and 2) although Kitchen Stadium Canada is pretty well-stocked, especially given that it’s not a primary residence, we still have to bring some tools and spices. And by "some," I mean basically half the contents of our kitchen, including the stand mixer and rice cooker and food processor and three chef’s knives and a third of the spice rack and more than eight pounds of tomatoes from our garden and farmer’s market, and I’m sure we would have had a great time trying convince the border patrol we were only in Canada for the weekend if they’d opened our trunk.

In our battles, chefs get two hours to cook instead of one, and they can plate their dishes and even do last-minute cooking right before serving so nothing suffers from having to sit for hours while other dishes are judged. Judges can award up to 10 points for taste, 5 points for presentation, and 5 points for creativity, and they also double as sous chefs. Especially talented cooks get traded off between the competitors to try to keep things even. Beyond that, it’s all delicious chaos.

The main ingredient this year paid homage late summer’s bounty and Leamington, Ontario’s reputation for being "The Tomato Capital of Canada." I knew as soon as the ingredient was chosen that I wanted to make ice cream, but the rest of the dishes were up in the air until I stumbled across an old post on Smitten Kitchen with a recipe for eggs in tomato sauce. The runny yolk in the last photo sold me on the idea of a brunch plate, but I decided I needed to do something with a slightly more sophisticated presentation. About the same time, my friend Laurel posted about making oeufs en cocotte to sate an appetite awakened by Julie and Julia, which made me think perhaps instead of poaching the eggs in a tomato sauce, I could bake them in hollowed out tomato cups.

Naturally, I’m not the first person to think of this. So from the mash-up of those recipes and their reviews, I ended up with this:

Recipe: Tomato Toad in the Hole*

For each serving:

  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 t. prepared pesto
  • 2 t. finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 medium egg at room temperature
  • 1 slice prosciutto (optional but highly recommended)
  • a dab of butter or bit of heavy cream
  • salt and black pepper
  • oil or cooking spray
  • fresh basil to garnish

First, take the eggs out of the refrigerator if you haven’t already. If you attempt this with cold eggs, the yolks will harden before the whites are even close to done.

Slice off the tops off the tomatoes and then scoop out the insides (which you can either discard or reserve and strain for juice or cook down into a sauce or paste). Salt the insides lightly and invert them on paper towels to drain for at least 30 minutes. (People seem to have had more issues with the whites setting with recipes that didn’t include this step)

Preheat the oven to 425F, and coat a baking dish large enough to accommodate all your tomatoes with oil or cooking spray

For the assembly, smear the inside of each tomato with some pesto—I used a traditional basil pesto out of a jar because of the whole frantic two hours business, but the romaine pesto here sounds intriguing and I bet a sharp arugula pesto would be excellent. Sprinkle the insides with parmesan cheese. Then, wrap a slice of prosciutto around each tomato and secure the ends with a wooden toothpick and set in the baking dish. The prosciutto should help the tomatoes stand up straight, but you could probably cut a thin slice off the bottom to create a flat surface as long as the cup remained intact. Break the eggs into a small dish, and gently tip one into each cavity (if using "large" eggs instead of medium, you may wish to reserve some of the whites. Top with salt and pepper, a dot of butter or a tiny bit of cream, and another teaspoon or so of parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20 min, or until the eggs are softly set.

Garnish with torn basil leaves, or basil chiffonade, which is super easy: just stack the leaves flat on top of each other, roll them up, and then cut the roll into thin slices, as seen here.

Mine clearly weren’t done at 20 min, and I got a little paranoid about the possibility of serving undercooked whites, so I left them in the oven for another 4 minutes and that turned out to be about 1 min too long. If the yolks had been just a bit softer, they would have been sublime. Even so, with the prosciutto crisped from the oven and the tomato soft and warm and all the savory herbs and parmesan, they were pretty wonderful.

I served them with a freshly-baked roll studded with chopped sundried tomatoes and asiago cheese based on the Kitchen Aid 60-Min Dinner Roll recipe That Winsome Girl made BLT sliders out of, which was part of my original plan for a lunch plate until I decided that BLTs would be too repetitive given the prosciutto in this dish. I made the rolls anyway, thinking there’d be slightly more runny egg yolk to mop up. The rolls turned out to be as fast to throw together as promised (largely because there’s so much yeast in them):

Recipe: Quick Sundried Tomato and Asiago Rolls

Yield: 12 rolls

  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1 t. salt
  • 3 T. melted butter, divided
  • 3.5 t. instant yeast (a little less than 2 pkgs)
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes (drained if oil-packed, soaked in hot water and then drained if dried)
  • 3/4 cup grated asiago cheese
  • vegetable oil or cooking spray

Melt 2 T. butter and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, heat the water to 105-115F combine it with the yeast and a pinch of sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the milk, butter, sugar, salt, and 2 cups of flour and mix on low for 1-2 min. Add remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing 1-2 min after each addition. Dough should begin to form a ball and clean the sides of the bowl. Mix on low for another 2 min.

Knead by hand briefly, either in the bowl or on a lightly floured surface, if necessary to bring it together, and then wipe the mixer bowl clean (it needn’t be perfect) and coat with vegetable oil. Return dough to bowl and turn to coat, cover with a towel and let rise 15 min.

Grease a 9"x13" pan and preheat the oven to 425F.

Once the first rise is done, knead in the sundried tomatoes and 1/2 cup of the asiago (or whatever else you want, or nothing at all for plain rolls) and then it divide into 12 balls. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 cup of asiago. Cover and let rise another 15 min.

Bake for 12 min, or until golden brown. Melt the remaining 1 T. butter, and brush the tops of the rolls (or just rub with a stick of butter if you’re running around and can’t be bothered). Return to the oven for 1 min. Cool on a rack—or don’t, if you forget, like I did. The bottoms might get a little moist but it’s not mean to be a crusty bread anyway

To complete the brunch course, I served a fresh tomato Ruddy Mary, which is differentiated from its better-known Bloody cousin by the use of gin instead of vodka. goodbye, garnishes

Recipe: Fresh Tomato Ruddy Mary (adapted from Martha Stewart’s recipe)

Yield: 4 servings, about 3 cups

  • 1 lb fresh tomatoes (about 4)
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 t. Worcestershire (could use diluted vegetable bouillon for a vegetarian version)
  • 20 dashes Tabasco sauce
  • 1 1/2 t. freshly grated horseradish
  • 1 t. celery salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 6 oz. gin
  • more celery salt and paprika for rims
  • celery stalks ( hearts would have been prettier) and cherry tomatoes to garnish

Core the tomatoes and pulverize them in a blender or food processor. Force the mush through a medium wire sieve about a cup at a time (you can use a fine one if that’s all you’ve got but it’ll take longer) and discard the solids. Combine the strained tomato juice with everything but the garnishes in a pitcher, taste and adjust seasoning as desired, and chill until read to serve. You can leave out the gin if you want to serve virgin versions or give people the option of having a traditional Bloody Mary, just top each glass off with 1.5 oz of liquor.

To rim the glasses, combine enough celery salt and paprika (about equal parts) in a thin layer on a small plate, moisten the rim of each glass with a wedge of lime, and invert the glass onto the plate and give it a little twist. Then, fill each glass with ice, add a celery heart, top with the cocktail mixture, and garnish with a cherry tomato.

I’m not usually a big fan of bloody marys, but I enjoyed this recipe a lot. The fresh horseradish is a lot milder than prepared horseradish and obviously fresh tomato tastes entirely different than canned tomato juice. I wouldn’t bother with a high-quality gin in a traditional recipe, because the other flavors will overwhelm any subtleties, but Boodles or something would probably be great in this.

Four more courses to go: To Be Continued…

*Re: the name, my personal memory of this is fuzzy, but I have the vaguest idea that either my mother or grandmother, or maybe both, once upon a time cut a circle out of a piece of toast, cracked an egg into the hole, and either baked or griddled it, and called this a "toad in the hole." I may have imagined this entirely. But according to wikipedia, that is one of the names for that basic egg preparation, along with "eggs in the basket," "frog in a log," "hen in a nest," "Rocky Mountain toast," "Soldier in a Boat," "moon egg," "cowboy egg," "one-eyed monster breakfast" (!!!), "One-eyed Jack," and "Guy Kibbee eggs." Apparently in England, "toad in the hole" usually refers to sausages baked in a yorkshire pudding. So you have your choice of names, or, if you want to go upscale, call it Oeufs en Tomates.