Perhaps the best loved French dish in America, Coq au vin, has become so iconic it needs no translation. Menus from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon print those three little French words with confidence if not casualness.
Coq au Vin is classically a stewed old rooster from Burgundy. If you lived in Burgundy a hundred years ago, and didn’t want to waste a tough old bird that crowed no more, you would cook it in your famous wine. That’s how the whole dish started. And there are other versions from other French regions – Coq au Reisling and Coq au Champagne. But the Burgundian version – with bacon and mushrooms – turned out to be a sublimely famous combination of flavors, something repeated around the world.
There are issues to recreating a French farmhouse dish in modern times, mostly being that it began as a way to cook old roosters. Few people have old roosters – or old laying hens, also called “fowl” – anymore. A burgundian grandmere might cook that rooster for hours to ease some tenderness into it, but if we did that to a Market Basket chick we would have rubber poultry very quickly. The original recipe threaded pork lardons through the tough meat, not to add bacon flavor but as an additional means of tenderizing the meat as it simmered.
Coq au vin owes its American fame to Julia Child, who included the recipe in her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published first in 1961 and a second volume in 1970. In the early 1960’s only the extreme wealthy, some journalists, and academics had traveled extensively to France. Most Americans were just exiting the great food trend of the 1950‘s: commercially produced, frozen, canned, prepared meals. American kitchens had been updated to be clean, sleek labs in which good moms warmed tv dinners in immaculate ovens.
And then, “voila!” Julia Child, along with Louisette Berhtolde and Simone Beck, published “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” and suddenly Americans wanted copper pots. They wanted to understand wine. The American love affair with French cooking began, and its poster child was coq au vin.
Child knew American cooks would not be using old roosters. Her recipe calls for a 30 minute simmer of chicken in red wine. Truthfully, it is impossible to build the levels the true recipe created this way. To start, an older chicken might be tough, but it inevitably has more flavor. The dish’s complexity depends upon simmering the chicken for 2-3 hours in that pork and Pinot Noir. Some recipes call for marinating the chickens in red wine for days in advance, but most chefs confess it does little more than stain the chicken red and make it difficult to brown as it is too moist. Truthfully, the best coq au vin is made with an old bird – either a rooster or a fowl – that demands long, slow cooking to tenderize it. The flavor starts with the chicken, and builds in that slow process.
The lardons concept gets adapted in dozens of ways. Child uses bacon, but blanches it to remove some of the smoky taste. Others use salt pork or pancetta. The original lardon intention of adding fat to soften the meat seems to have been lost here when we have access almost singularly to fat, tender chickens. The modern coq au vin seems to have honestly become a “bacon-flavored” dish. So be it.
There ARE a few sources on Cape Ann for retired chickens – Seaview Farms, Salt Marsh Farms, Grant Family Farm. It is truly worth trying to find an old bird, if only for the singular earthy, lusty bouquet coq au vin creates in a long simmer. If you have your “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” available, by all means follow Julia Child’s. The recipe below takes the best of many recipes, while adhering to the premise that it’s that old chicken and the wine that matter most. If you cannot find a rooster or fowl, simply reduce the cooking time to 30 minutes, testing for doneness. This is a dish best spent preparing on a slow, snowy day, and best served by candlelight (that wine-dark chicken and those bronzed onions!). It’s a dish that proves winter has its blessings.
Coq au vin
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (to keep the butter from burning)
3 ½ -4 pound stewing hen or roasting chicken), cut in serving pieces
8 ounces good quality bacon, (not smoked, preferably uncured) cut into 1” pieces
freshly ground black pepper
1 bottle hearty red wine, ideally Pinot Noir
One bouquet garni (thyme, bay, parsley tied with twine)
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups chicken stock, more if needed
For the mushrooms and onions:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided)
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3/4 pound pearl onions or white 2” onions, peeled and left whole
freshly ground black pepper
To thicken the sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Melt the butter and oil in a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat. When the butter is hot, brown the chicken on all sides, doing so in two batches if necessary.
- Remove the chicken from the pan and add the bacon. Brown it on all sides.
- When the bacon is browned, add the chicken back to the pan and season with salt and pepper. Pour the wine over all. Add the bouquet garni and the garlic, and pour in just enough chicken stock to cover the chicken. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat so it is simmering, cover and cook until the chicken is tender, almost falling from the bone, 1-1/2 – 2 hours.
- While the chicken simmers, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. When it is foaming, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are nicely browned, 10 – 12 minutes. Season lightly, remove from the heat and reserve.
- In a shallow skillet put onions, 2 tablespoons butter, and water barely to cover. Simmer until water evaporates and onions begin to brown and glaze. Continue to cook in the remaining butter until the onions acquire a beautiful bronze color.
- When the chicken is done, remove the meat to a side bowl. DIscard the bouquet garni.
- Blend the last butter and flour in a small bowl to a homogeneous paste. Add 1/4 cup of the cooking juices into the flour and butter mixture, then pour that mixture into the sauce. Stir it in and let it cook, stirring, until the sauce is thickened. Return the chicken to the sauce and rewarm all.
- You can serve the dish two ways: put the warm chicken in a bowl, generously spoon sauce over it, making sure the bacon pieces land on each serving, and tumble some mushrooms around. Tuck some onions in on the side. Or, you can add the mushrooms and onions to the whole pot, let the dish sit overnight, and serve all as a warm stew the next day.