Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Coq au vin: Fall ritual
Fall finally arrived in LA this past weekend. The kind of fall that drives us Angelenos to turn on the heater and wear knit caps indoors and break out every single winter-esque accessory in our possession.
In other words, it was 55 degrees.
And… it rained.
I wasn't expecting it when I peeled myself out of bed on Saturday morning, sleep still clinging to my eyes and limbs as I stumbled toward the front door with plans to go running at the beach. Initially annoyed, I was later thrilled at the notion of spending the day in hibernation, cooking, writing and watching terrible ABC Family holiday movies on Netflix. It felt necessary, like my personal rite of passage into the season I've been desperately craving for the past two months.
In the midst of it all, I found myself reminiscing back to my experience of fall as a child. My mom trucking my brothers and I off to the beach in wool sweaters to take photos for our Christmas card, burrowing under the piles of leaves that our Liquid Ambers would deposit on the front lawn, and eating coq au vin.
It was a given. As soon as the temperatures began to dip low enough for us to, you know, wear wool sweaters at the beach, my dad would lug out the giant iron-clad pan. The scent of frying bacon would start to tickle our noses and remain there, intermingled with simmering chicken, for hours while we'd wait in rapt anticipation. We'd gather around to watch him or my mom light the pan on fire - our favorite part of the whole ritual - while we'd sip Coke's because it was the weekend and that's what we did on the weekends.
Coq au vin was one of the few dishes that I truly loved as a child, that I would eat without pushing the pieces around my plate, declaring with a stubborn curled lip that I was "full" after two bites. I savored it, mesmerized by the way the chicken's muddy red wine-stained exterior would give way to flesh as white as snow. Even to my underdeveloped palate that preferred Top Ramen to most of my mother's wholesome home-cooked meals, it felt special, like the beginning of something.
It's been years since the last time I've celebrated fall with coq au vin, but this Saturday, as I sat shivering in my apartment because I refused to turn on the heater, it was all I could fathom eating for dinner. So while the world went on outside attending to Christmas trees and holiday shopping, I roasted pearl onions until the exteriors wrinkled and tanned. I nearly took my eyebrows off lighting brandy-ensconced chicken on fire, and then I waited in rapt anticipation while it simmered away on my stovetop, etching its scent into the walls of my apartment like graffiti.
Like always, it was even better on the second night, and even more so on the third when the temperatures dove even deeper south. But I was ready for it. And ready to turn on that heater whilst huddling on the couch with a fleece blanket and a wool cap.
Fall. In LA.
I could get used to it.
Coq au vin
Notes: This recipe is cobbled together from the bits and pieces I remember from my childhood, along with some procedural and fundamentals that I borrowed from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My approach with this was to cook by feel rather than a strict set of instructions and the results were everything I hoped them to be. My soul was satisfied. I hope yours is too.
20 pearl or boiling white onions (this seems like a lot, but trust me, you'll want more)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 heaping teaspoon thyme, divided
4 strips of lean bacon
2 lbs skinless chicken pieces on the bone (you can use anything - breasts, thighs, legs, though I used breasts in my rendition)
1/4 cup Brandy (or Cognac)
1 1/2 cups red wine (something fruit-forward and full-bodied is preferred)
1 cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste (or a scant teaspoon of Amore tomato paste - my preference!)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 carrots, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 shallot, minced
1/2 lb button mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons flour + extra for dredging
Chopped parsley for serving
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the white onions in the pot and blanch for 1-2 minutes depending on whether you are using the larger boiling onions (my preference) or pearl onions which will only need to blanch for a minute. Drain and let cool slightly and then remove the skins. They should slip right off at this juncture.
Toss de-skinned onions with 1 teaspoon olive oil, a pinch of salt, pepper and some of the thyme. Roast in an oven-safe dish for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally until they start to shrivel and brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Meanwhile, place the strips of bacon in a large, deep, flame-resistant pan (as you will be lighting it on fire and all). Cook over medium heat, watching as they begin to release their fat to flip as necessary. Brown until crisp, then remove and set on a paper towel. Pour some of the bacon fat into a small dish to freeze for later use (this stuff is liquid gold, I tell you), reserving the rest in the pan for browning the chicken.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper and lightly dredge in flour, shaking any excess off.
Turn the heat a notch above medium, then add the chicken to the hot bacon-greased-lined pan. Cook for a few minutes on each side until golden brown. Turn down the heat, add the brandy or cognac, then, using caution and a very long lighter or one of those giant matchsticks, light the liquor on fire, averting your face/eyes to avoid potential eyebrowlessness. Shake the pan back and forth until flames have extinguished completely, then add the red wine, chicken stock, garlic, most of the remaining thyme (leave a pinch for the mushrooms), and the bay leaf. Whisk in the tomato paste, then bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat and cover, letting it simmer away for 20 minutes.
Remove the lid, add the carrots, flip the chicken over, and continuing simmering away for another 20-25 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small dish and combine with 2 tablespoons of flour to make a roux to thicken your sauce when the time comes.
Heat the other tablespoon of butter in another pan over medium heat. Add the shallots, mushrooms, a pinch of thyme, salt and freshly ground pepper, and a glug of wine if it seems dry. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms begin to deflate and brown and release their liquid. Set aside with the onions.
Remove the chicken and carrots from their pan, then whisk half the roux into the sauce. Bring to a low boil, stirring frequently until the sauce starts to thicken. It should coat a spoon, but not be globby, so start with a little roux and add more if needed.
Once the sauce is at its desired consistency, add the chicken and carrots back to the pan, along with the onions and mushrooms. Reheat through until everything is nice and piping hot, then serve, sprinkled with parsley and crumbled bits of that crispy bacon. I prefer mine served alongside roasted fingerling potatoes (more on that later, I suppose, because there are things to be said), but this is also terrific with egg noodles or even mashed potatoes if you want to be completely over-the-top about it. For a low carb version, try simply steamed green beans - not particularly seasonal, but a substantial accompaniment nonetheless.