Now you might wonder about me, seeing that lots of the recipes I’m making these days and sharing with you have alcohol as an ingredient. Let me assure you that, while there was a person near and dear to me who had a problem with alcohol, this was not either of my parents or either of my siblings—or myself, for that matter. Wine in food adds a complex tartness to what might otherwise be a very pedestrian stew.
I realise that there are some who do not drink or cook with alcohol. There are dealcoholised wines which have complexities of flavour without any alcohol at all. It’s not the alcohol that gives the kick to recipes such as Coq au vin; it’s the tart grapey flavour that is there when the alcohol has disappeared (mostly). Red wine, when added to a dish, also adds a reddish brown colour to sauces and soups. That saves coq au vin from being a brownish plateful of chicken, lardons, and vegetables. Even so, it requires a parsley garnish to add some lively colour.
In researching this particular dish, I came across a lot of variations. There was one article (I won’t name the chef who wrote it, to protect the guilty) which was so full of itself and darned proud of it that it’s a wonder that anyone could cook this at all. While I am in favour of authenticity, I am not in favour of masochism in cooking. When you have a sous-chef, a chef de commis, and lots of willing hands, then you can cook so authentically you’ll be dreaming of Michelin stars. However, one of the things about Momfood in general is that it is cooked with one hand on the stirring spoon and the other trying to keep order in the household. What coq au vin is, fundamentally, is chicken stew. And chicken stew is something you want to throw together into a pot and leave for a while. That’s what this version does. It does not put on airs and graces. It’s good, tasty, complex, filling fare.
To start out with, take around 2 pounds of chicken parts. Drumsticks and thighs are good. I would not use breasts as they would tend to dry out and turn purple (from the wine). Melt 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil in an iron skillet—I used my mom’s cast-iron skillet but if you don’t have one, a flat-bottomed frying pan will do. Fry the chicken, skin-side down, until it’s golden, then turn and fry the other side. Don’t crowd the chicken in the skillet; do it in batches if you don’t have much room.
Remove the chicken from the skillet and layer it in the bottom of a cooking pot large enough to hold all the chicken in one layer at the bottom and deep enough to be able to cover the chicken with liquid.
Now take around 1/2 pound of bacon lardons or pancetta and fry them in the skillet until brown. A lardon is bacon that’s cut into cubes or small strips and serves to add some oil and bacony flavour to your dish. Now the French will tell you that you should use unsmoked lardons, but this evening I used smoked lardons, and I can say that the sauce had just a hint of smoky goodness to it that somehow made the entire dish richer and tastier. If you don’t have lardons, or can’t find them at your grocer, take rashers of thick bacon and cut them vertically so that you have strips of bacon with a bit of fat on the end. If you have a butcher, s/he may be able to assist.
It’s funny—recipes often tell you to ask “your butcher” for something or other. I have a mental picture of a butcher with a nametag: “Chris’s Butcher”. The vocation of butcher separate from a supermarket is almost unknown in these days, but if you do have one, cherish him or her.
Add the browned lardons to the chicken in the pot. Then take around a dozen small onions, peeled, and brown them a bit in the skillet. Now I only had medium sized cooking onions. This did not deter me. I topped, tailed, and peeled four medium onions. Then I quartered them, browned them, and added them to the chicken. While they did fall apart in the cooking, they tasted every bit as good as the small onions would have had I had them. I did a search for other recipes online, and one that I saw calls for shallots, peeled but left whole. On the whole I should have gotten some shallots, as they’re available in the local supermarket. Next time, perhaps.
Now crush cloves of garlic. I leave the number up to you. I like garlic, so I used about 6 cloves. The recipe I kind of followed specifies two cloves. Not enough for me. To get the cloves peeled and crushed, separate each clove from the bulb and top and tail it. Then, lay the flat side of your large kitchen knife or cleaver on each clove and punch it with the side of your fist. This will both crush the garlic and separate the peel. Toss the garlic into the pot with the chicken, along with a few sprigs of thyme and two bay leaves. Salt and pepper the mixture to your taste, then add around 1-1/4 pints of red wine. Cover the pot and simmer gently for 45 to 60 minutes until the chicken is tender. Add around two dozen button mushrooms 15 minutes before the end of cooking.
Now the rule for cooking with wine is this: do not cook with wine you would not drink. Do not use cooking sherry (I don’t even know if they still sell the stuff.). However, dealcoholised red wine will be a substitute that will add taste to the chicken without any alcohol, if you don’t cook with or drink alcohol. I must say that I did not taste any alcohol in the sauce when I ate this dish, only a kind of complex grapey taste that is really why you cook with wine in the first place.
Once the chicken is cooked, remove the solid ingredients from the cooking pot and place them in a roasting pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the pan in a warmed oven (not a hot oven!) so that the chicken and vegetables will stay warm while you make the sauce.
The recipe I kind of followed asks you to take 1 tablespoon of softened butter and 1 tablespoon of plain flour, mix them together, and then boil the liquid left in the cooking pot until it’s reduced by around a third and add the butter/flour mixture and whisk until the sauce is thickened. I tried this and was left with lumps that I had to chase around and mash. I would recommend making a roux from the butter and flour (melt the butter in a small pot and add the flour bit by bit until a paste is formed. Then add the reduced cooking liquid and stir in a figure-8 shape until the liquid is thickened). I have found with gravies of various sorts that the roux works better and leaves fewer (if any) lumps.
Now place some white rice on the plate, add chicken and vegetables on top, then a ladle or two of sauce. Garnish with some chopped parsley, and enjoy!
You can also serve this in a bowl with French bread and a nice salad, or over mashed potatoes, or egg noodles..
Even though this is not something my mother would have cooked, her mother was French Acadian, so I am 1/4 French Canadian and proud of it. I have an Acadian cookbook and will look in it for something to cook for a future installment.