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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.