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I’ve been cooking and eating Coq au Vin for as long as I’ve been cooking and that’s a pretty long time. It is not only quintessentially French, but fabulously delicious and dead easy to make. But, just like my most recent exploration of Coquilles St. Jacques, I wanted to reinvent the dish. I wanted to preserve the flavour while updating the presentation. I think I hit the right notes, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.
In order to know where you’re going you have to know where you’ve been. The traditional Coq au Vin is a tough old rooster braised with mushrooms in red wine, flavoured with the holy trinity of cooking, the mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery), seasoned with a little salt, pepper, thyme and just a bit of bacon. That’s it… that’s the whole recipe. How can something so simple be such a venerated icon of culinary history? The simple answer is flavour. Coq au Vin as endured because these humble ingredients combine to create one of the most satisfying meals in any cook’s culinary repertoire.
I really wondered if I should mess with perfection. I was certain I couldn’t improve on the original, but I was certain I could capture the essence of the dish and still inject my own gastronomic sensibility. So, where to start?
No matter how many times I make Coq au Vin, I always struggle over the decision of what to serve it with. Traditionally, there are potatoes cooked in the braising liquid and the dish is served as a stew. I have also served it ladled over egg noodles and rice. I have even substituted toasted slabs of garlic-rubbed French bread for the starch component. Today I considered serving it over potato gnocchi but finally settled on roasted vegetables… carrots, new potatoes and shallots tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and a couple sprigs of thyme. So simple, yet so satisfying.
The next question was “what to do with the old bird?” I could have braised a stewing hen or a capon, but I really didn’t want all the bulk that comes with the skin. Sure, skin means flavour, but there are lots of ways to inject flavour. I decided on boneless, skinless thighs. Blasphemy you say? Patience, patience… you’ll see.
And what about the sauce? In the traditional version, the “sauce” is the product of hours of braising… rich, thick and flavourful. But how can you recreate all that flavour without all those hours? Yes, we can! And, here’s how.
Coq au Vin 2 – Son of the Rooster
- 4 carrots, cut into 2 inch lengths
- 4 shallots, peeled but left whole
- 8 new potatoes, cut in half
- 2 sprigs of thyme
Toss vegetables and thyme in olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes.
- 8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into ½ inch strips
- 1 cup flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- Combine flour, salt and pepper. Dredge chicken strips in flour mixture. Set aside.
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 lb mushrooms, halve or quarter to bite sized pieces if mushrooms are large
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped fine
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 4 strips of bacon, chopped into ½ pieces
- salt and pepper to taste
In a sauté pan, cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and leave fat in the pan.
If necessary add a little olive oil to make about 2 tablespoons of fat. Add chicken strips in a single, uncrowded layer. Sautee for about two minutes, until browned and turn to brown the other side – about another two minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add mushrooms to pan and sauté until lightly browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add chopped celery, carrots and onions to pan and sauté until softened. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add wine to pan to deglaze, scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Return bacon, chicken and mushrooms to pan. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
The flour from the chicken should be enough to thicken the sauce, but if necessary add a paste of flour and butter to the pan and cook until thickened. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve over roasted vegetables.
So there you have it. The flavour lost from the skin and bones of an old coq are replaced, at least partially by the rich caramelized flavours developed in the pan by sautéing the chicken and roasting the vegetables. Instead of a stew, this is more of a thick sauce.
Would I do it this way again? Absolutely. Would I do it this way for a big group? Never. The Dutch oven is the perfect tool when feeding a crowd. The stovetop was ideal for a dinner for two or four.
I think I will always make Coq au Vin, but I won’t always make it the same way. Maybe next time I’ll use cippolini onions and serve it with potato gnocchi.
Bread and salt.
If you walked into a Ukrainian prairie household in 1902, when my great-great grandparents immigrated to Mazeppa, Saskatchewan, you would have been greeted with bread and salt.
It’s potato day. I’m a Canadian mongrel, made up of semi-equal parts English, Ukrainian, Romanian and not-sure-what-else. If you ask me my ethnic background, though, I’ll say “Ukrainian”. After all, I’m short and round. It fits. Mostly, I like vodka, but to be quite honest, it makes me fall asleep. In the middle of the party. I don’t know on which of my other heritages to blame that particular party quirk, but I’m sure my Ukrainian ancestors roll over in their graves watching me doze on the couch while the fête rages on around me.
Did someone mention potatoes?
In honour of potato day, I turned to my Ukrainian Daughters Cookbook. For real. According to the cover, it’s a “Canadian bestseller”, published by the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada, Daughters of Ukraine Branch, Regina, Saskatchewan. I have the eighth printing, from 1992. I made the Potato Bread. According to Ukrainian Daughters, it’s “a delicious fine-textured bread with a crisp crust”.
There’s something about the smell of bread baking, isn’t there? Jim is a reformed Cathoholic. Once, early in our relationship, he was sleeping over on Good Friday. Fasting, but sleeping over. It was a rare day off, so I made bread. I think I made 8 loaves: some plain, some with cheese, some with garlic. Jim, fasting, ate none. The next day, while I was at work, Jim ate an entire loaf of bread. He ate it with butter. He ate it with jam. He just ate it. I sort of think bread is why Jim proposed. I know it’s why he bought me my KitchenAid stand mixer.
Potatoes are actually pretty darned bland when you get right down to it. Funny that they should evoke such a passionate reaction in so many cultures. What about the good ol’ baked potato, for instance? Jim likes his tossed onto the barbeque about 20 minutes before the steak. No butter, sour cream, bacon bits or chives for him; the potato’s role is to soak up the juice from his extremely rare steak (ugh).
Then there is the perfect Italian pillow of deliciousness: gnocchi. Basically the Italian “pierogi” (a misnomer, really; the proper word is “varenyky” or варе́ники, but don’t trust the Ukrainians, Cheemo must be right). I had my gnocchi (yes, hand-made. can’t you tell?) tonight with a brown butter sage sauce. An adaptation from one of Mario’s recipes.
Jim had his potato exactly how he liked it. I guess I should come clean now. We often have two dinners at our house. I don’t like to eat four-legged animals. Jim does. Due to an unfortunate university experience, Jim likes neither varenyky nor gnocchi. We did, however, share a salad tonight.
And for dessert, some Ukrainian Daughters potato bread, finely textured with a crisp crust. I had a slice with some hazelnut honey from honeyshop. Jim had his with raspberry jam. Not sure if they were my mom’s raspberries, or his mom’s. He’s a bit of a jam hoarder, actually.