Every year when the weather starts to turn from summer into fall (usually right around my birthday), I get excited about all of the soups, stews, and braises that lay ahead. As much as I love the bright flavors of summer, nothing quite satiates my hunger for comfort food like that which is served hot and cooked slowly. So, even though the weather hasn’t quite figured out which season it is yet (DC is still experiencing days in the 80’s with annoying humidity), I am diving, head-first, into fall – starting with my Coq (or in this case Poulet) au Vin.
In France, Coq au Vin is typically made with an old rooster, generally because the meat of a rooster is much tougher than that of a hen and it must be braised to become tender enough to eat. You could also use a capon (castrated male chicken), whose flavor is said to be superior to a young hen. However, I’m a gal on a budget who lives in the real world of chain grocery stores and full-time jobs, so when I score a whole chicken on super sale I am pleased as punch and more than happy to help the plain little bird become a tender, silky plate of goodness with the recipe that follows.
As Andy and I were on the verge of licking our plates at the end of this meal, we got to talking about how wonderful and versatile chicken really can be. It’s the most ubiquitous protein on the American table, but I think somewhere along the lines it’s gotten a bad rap for being dry and flavorless. The reality is that if you treat it right, chicken can be your best friend and very often the answer to “what’s for dinner”. Plus, if you get creative with your preparations, you can basically always find some cut of chicken on sale when you go to the store. Me? I’m partial to any form that’s bone-in, skin-on, but I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for the boneless, skinless varieties as well, not to mention the packages of chicken backs that I buy for $1.25 a piece when I want to make a ton of stock. I think it might be safe to say that I have a love affair with chicken. BIG surprise.
Okay, so onto the actual cooking part of things….
There are a couple of things that you can do ahead and keep for regular use that will make this dish sing – and both of them have to do with not throwing things away that you would normally discard. Number one is to use homemade chicken stock. As revealed in Chicken Stock Sundays – How to Cook Like Your Great Grandmother, I am the girl who keeps chicken bones in my freezer so that I can periodically make stock in large batches and keep it frozen in plastic quart containers. Every time you cook chicken (the bone-in variety at least), pop the bones in plastic zip-top bags and keep them in the freezer until you have enough for stock. Follow the directions in the above post. You won’t be sorry.
Number two is keep bacon drippings in your fridge at all times. Everyone knows that everything is better with bacon – and when you slowly cook bacon, so much of that salty, cured flavor is rendered out with the fat and. In my humble opinion, it’s a damn shame to waste it by throwing it out. So, when you cook bacon on the stove, be sure to save the fat! It’s as easy as letting it cool a bit and then pouring it into a small container with a top to keep in the fridge. Pour slowly to avoid the teeny tiny bacon bits at the bottom. Use a little bit here and there when frying or sautéing to amp up flavor.
Now onto a couple of tips that really make this recipe work:
1) When you’re browning the chicken, do everything in your power to keep yourself from moving it or checking on it while it does so. You’ll risk tearing the skin as it sticks to the pan or, worse, not getting that great crust to begin with!
2) Make sure that when you add the liquid to the chicken to begin the braise that you cover it completely – especially the breasts. If you make sure they’re covered with liquid you’re more likely to end up with silky, juicy meat.
3) Don’t over season or you’ll end up with a dish that is too salty. Much of the flavor comes from the sauce that is reduced after the chicken is done cooking, which also concentrates the flavor of the salts. Take care to make sure that your chicken and onions are seasoned, but don’t worry too much about the liquid until later.
4) Malbec or syrah, with their more purpley than red hues, will give the best color to this dish. Pinot noir might be too light in flavor and a cabernet sauvignon or merlot, while lovely, just doesn’t seem as appealing.
5) Use your cast-iron, enameled Dutch oven if you have one. If not, any large, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid will do.
Without further ado, here’s the recipe. It’s not nearly as complicated and time consuming at it looks… I promise. I usually serve this with some form of potato and glazed mushrooms and pearl onions (recipe also below.
Coq au Vin with Glazed Mushrooms and Pearl Onions
One whole chicken, 2-2 ½ lbs, cut up into 8 quarters (watch Jacque Pepin butch a chicken here!)
¼ cup olive oil
1-2 tablespoons of rendered bacon grease
½ red onion and ½ yellow/sweet onion, thinly sliced
½ cup cognac
3 cups red wine (preferably malbec or syrah)
1-2 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves, fresh or dry
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
¼ stick of butter
1/4 cup flour
Sea salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and bacon grease in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Pat chicken dry and season lightly with sea salt and pepper, then place skin side down in the hot oil and brown on medium high heat. Work in batches if necessary to ensure that chicken browns and does not steam. When skin side is browned, turn and brown back side for 1-2 more minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Turn heat down to medium low and add thinly sliced onion to pan, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Cook onions, stirring frequently, until soft and lightly browned.
When onions are soft and slightly sweetened, about 5 minutes, deglaze with cognac and return chicken to pan, skin side down. Add red wine and chicken stock, making sure all of the meat is covered, then add bay leaves and thyme. Put lid on pot and bring to a low simmer for about an hour. Chicken can cook up to 2 hours for deep flavor as long as liquid is continually added so the chicken remains mostly covered and continues to braise. Halfway through cooking, flip chicken so the skin side is up then replace the lid and continue to cook.
When chicken is finished braising, remove it from the pan and set aside, tenting with foil to keep it warm. Strain sauce through a wire mesh sieve and let sit for 15-20 minutes, possibly in the refrigerator, so that the fat will rise to the surface. Skim the majority of the fat from the liquid and return to pan. Taste for seasoning, but do not add additional seasoning if it seems slightly under seasoned. Simmer the sauce on low for 10-15 minutes until reduced slightly. Use room temperature butter and flour to make a “beurre manie”, or an uncooked roux by using a fork to mash them together into a smooth paste. Whisk bits of the butter and flour mixture into the sauce until completely combined and the sauce is slightly thickened. Add chicken back to the pan and return to a simmer until all components are heated through. Serve immediately.
For Onions and Mushrooms:
1-1 ½ cups peeled pearl onions (frozen are fine as long as they are completely thawed, drained, and towel
1 cup of cremini or baby bella mushrooms, cut into quarters
1 ½ tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2-4 cups chicken broth or stock
Sea salt and pepper
Splash of cognac
Melt butter and olive oil in a small saucepan until butter foams, add onions, season with sea salt and pepper and sauté on low, shaking the pan frequently to turn, until they are browned on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside. Add a bit more butter to the pan, the season and sauté mushrooms the same way. Return the onions to the pan and throw in a splash of cognac (and feel free to flambé if you like!), letting the liquid reduce and alcohol burn of. Then you begin to add the stock a little bit at a time, just as if you were making risotto. Add a ladle full of stock and simmer until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Repeat this step 3-4 more times until the onions and mushrooms are soft and flavorful. Serve with Coq au Vin