Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Accidental Coq au Vin

I did not begin the week intending to make a coq au vin. But as so often happens, things kept pointing me in that direction. First, it was our turn to receive the chicken from the farm subscription we share with my sister and her husband. So there sat the bird the last several days, chilling in a bowl in our refrigerator, demanding some kind of attention. Then I noticed my wife, for no particular reason, had purchased some cipollini onions at the grocery store. ("I just thought they looked good," she shrugged). Then there was the half-used slab of bacon, not particularly well wrapped, just laying there in the fridge on top of some jars of Thai curry and such. Before you can say "Le Creuset" I was pulling one of my favorite books off the shelf in search of an "authentic" coq au vin recipe.

Why do I use quotes around the word authentic? The word seems to have come under a cloud. Or is it that we just question the true origins of everything these days, as if good food can't merely be good on its own terms, it must also have a certifiable pedigree? The fights are endless. For instance, how can a tomato pizza really be authentically Italian, when the Italians didn't even have tomatoes until they were brought from the Americas in the 16th Century? So I suppose you could question whether a French coq au vin is truly "authentic" if you consider the possibility that the original chicken came from, say, Armenia, and was first cooked in wine there. So, to be more precise, I guess I should say I was looking for a method of cooking coq au vin as we know it, namely, from somewhere where the cooking of coq au vin is not merely sport, not something people do occasionally to get their picture on the cover of a food magazine, but serious business going back a long, long time. That's why I reached for my copy of Mourjou.

If you love cooking in the fashion of people who really care about what they eat, who obsess over the freshness of the products they cook with, who cook in a manner that has been passed down for generations--if you care, in other words, about preparing food to be enjoyed for its fullness of flavor and in its own good time, then this is a book you should own. The complete title is, Mourjou: The Life and Food of an Auvergne Village, and it was written by a Brit expatriot named Peter Graham, who, besides writing books, also directs small films and writes about travel and art and psychoanalysis and a number of other things that make his life seem perfectly pleasant and sane. At some point more than 20 years ago he picked up and moved to this tiny village, Mourjou, in the province of Auvergne in south-central France, a sometimes mysterious place where lush valleys co-exist with dormant volcanoes, where a verdant landscape dotted with small herds of lazy cattle is cross-hatched with deep canyons and snaggle-toothed mountain peaks. There are also small villages such as Mourjou where ancient customs are still kept, where neigbhors nose around each other's kitchen gardens and where family recipes are guarded like state secrets. In particular, I treasure books like Graham's because books like Mourjou just aren't being written much anymore. Remember? We're all too busy to read well-written prose about food. We're just here for the recipes, or so they say...

Anyway, I thought Mourjou might be a good place to look for a coq au vin recipe and--Bingo!--I was right. In fact, Mr. Graham writes a nice little takeout on the means and methods of coq au vin, including an amusing explanation for why, throughout the text, he chooses to use the French word--coq--rather than the literal English translation. "I use the word coq because it is a way of avoiding the problem, in English, of the word 'cock', "Graham explains paranthetically. So I will follow Mr. Graham's lead.

The first issue to be surmounted, as usual, is which version of coq au vin to adopt. This is no less a problem for Mr. Graham. "Coq au vin is a dish, like potee, which is found in slightly differing versions all over France," he writes. (There we go again, the authenticity thing.) "There is even a slender tome called Coq au Vin, which contains sixty-one slightly differing recipes for the dish." Several regions of France lay claim to the "original" coq au vin. And even in the province of Auverge, there are disputes over which ingredients should go into a proper coq au vin and how it should be cooked. "Should it include the fowl's blood as well as wine? Should the lardons be smoked or unsmoked? Should the sauce be thickened with beurre manie and/or the mashed-up liver?" There are even questions about whether the bird should first be marinated in wine and--perhaps the most troubling question of all--must the fowl in question be an actual coq (meaning an older male), or can we use--perish the thought--a plain old ordinary chicken?

Graham doesn't say, exactly, how he resolves these dilemmas. He really ducks the question entirely (no pun intended). Perhaps he is guarding someone else's family's recipe secret. He does acknowledge some trouble finding an actual coq, even in his adopted village. He sometimes succedes by visiting a local farm. The wine, he says, should be "a dark earthy wine made on the hills overlooking Clermon-Ferrand." Then, after describing how the farmer's wife, Nicole, must be persuaded to charge for her time plucking and preparing the bird, Graham simply launches into a recipe. I just have to assume that Graham has resolved all the aforementioned issues to his personal satisfaction. So his is the recipe I've followed, more or less. Note: This dish needs to marinate 24 hours before cooking, and is even better if you give it another day to rest in the refrigerator after it has been cooked. You do the math.

Serves 6 persons

Graham calls for a coq "at least two years old." But if you can't find one of those, he will allow "a very large free-range chicken of the highest quality," about 4 1/2 pounds.

2 ounces lard, or, in my case, the grease from several slices of fried bacon (I didn't want to buy a whole tub of lard).

15 pickling onions (I used about a dozen cipollini onions of various sizes)

3 1/2 ounces salt pork, diced large

6 ounces button mushroom (I substituted cremini mushrooms)

For the marinade:

1 bottle dark, full-bodied red wine (I used a French Syrah from the Camargue area near Nimes)

bouquet garni: two sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, 2 sprigs winter savory (I omitted the savory--couldn't find any), 1 bay leaf

2 carrots, quartered

2 large cloves garlic

large pinch salt

freshly ground pepper to taste

As in most braises of this type, the meat is first marinated, then dried and browned in oil before all of the ingredients are assembled in the pot and placed in the oven.

Cut the coq (or chicken) into pieces: legs, thighs, breasts. Cut the breasts in half. Remove as much fat as possible and remove the skin from the breasts and thighs. Place the pieces of bird in a non-reactive bowl or pot, pour the marinade over it. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.

The next day: Preheat oven to 250 degrees

Drain the poultry well, blotting any leftover moisture with paper towels. Save the marinade with its solids. Meanwhile, in a heavy pot, heat the lard (or bacon grease) over moderately high heat. Brown the poultry pieces well on all sides, in batches if necessary. Remove and set aside. Place the salt pork and onions in the hot grease, turning occasionally until the onions are golden. (If using cipollinis, they must be blanched in boiling water first, the skins removed.)

Remove the pot from the stove. Pack the poultry pieces, onions, salt pork and mushrooms into the pot. Pour the marinade with its solids into the pot. Place pot in oven and cook 2 1/2 hours, or until chicken is very tender but not falling off the bone. (Note: Graham calls for 2 hours cooking in a 350 oven, but I think 250 degrees is amore appropriate braising temperature to avoid overcooking.)

Allow the pot to cool. Remove all the poultry, onions and mushrooms and place on a baking sheet, separating and discarding the carrots, herbs and other solids from the marinade. Strain the cooking liquid into a separate container (you could use a grease separator at this point to remove most of the grease). Cover the cooked coq au vin and refrigerate it and the cooking liquid overnight.
The following day, skim fat off the surface of the cooking liquid. To serve: Reheat coq au vin in 250-degree oven. While this is reheating, chop the fowl's liver finely, removing any gristle. Just before serving, drain the cooking liquid through a strainer into a blender and blend it with the liver until smooth. Place the liquid in a small pot over medium-high heat on the stove and cook until somewhat thickened. Pour the hot liquid over the coq au vin as it is going to the table.

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