Coq au vin, the ubiquitous French bistro dish, has been popular in the States since the 1960s. Yet most of the time it’s a disappointment. The sauce is often thin and acidic, a weird purplish color, and the chicken itself is hard and dry. The problem is that by the time the sauce has sufficient depth and weight, the chicken is way overcooked. What’s gotten lost in translation is that the dish was traditionally prepared with an older stewing fowl, not with our four-pound commercially raised chickens.
There’s a way around that. It is an unorthodox preparation, suggested by the great cook and author Elizabeth David. Probably coq au vin is a weekend meal, but the care and time it takes are worth the effort. One final note, you must use a strong unsalted chicken stock for this recipe to be a success. Nothing else will do.
1 quart strong unsalted chicken stock
1 bottle red wine (something with body that you would also be pleased to drink, such as a merlot or malbec)*
2 tbl tomato paste
3 cloves garlic
several branches thyme
* Thierry Tritch, the executive chef at the Everest in Chicago, is from Alsace. He makes a marvelous dish, Coq au Riesling, prepared with the region’s famous white wine.
4 pounds chicken, bone in, cut into serving pieces.
Separate the wings and quarter the whole breast. Also separate the thigh from the drumstick. Knock the anklebone off the drumsticks. Often the butcher will do all this for you. You could also use 2- 3 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs.
4 oz bacon, cut into lardon; don’t use bacon that is too heavily smoked or it will take over the whole dish
1 lb mushrooms, sliced; cremini mushrooms are a great choice or use julienned shitake caps
½ lb small round onions; frozen pearl onions work great here
¼ cup minced parsley
If you want to thicken the braising liquid you have several choices:
This is how it was originally done. The blood of a rooster was saved in a jar with a little cognac to prevent it from clotting. The reduced braising liquid was whisked into the blood and warmed, although never allowed to boil. If you want to experience this today you’ll need to go to a place that sells live poultry. I used to see Sicilian grandmothers in the live poultry store I frequented in the Bronx bringing old mayonnaise jars to collect the blood. I’ve never tried it.
3 tbl flour kneaded with 3 tbl soft butter, whisked into the sauce a tablespoon at a time. Simmer for a few moments before serving.
Wondra Flour (pre-cooked flour)
Use 2 to 4 tbl Wondra flour to every 3 cups of liquid. Whisk in just before serving.
If you like, pour yourself a glass of wine and then put the rest in a saucepan with the chicken stock, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half and then strain.
In a sauté pan, render the fat from the bacon lardon. Reserve the bacon and sauté the mushrooms and small round onions in this fat until they pick up some color. Put mushrooms, onions, and bacon together and set aside.
Brown the chicken. Often the cook is instructed to do this in a cast iron skillet or heavy sauté pan. However, I find it a lot easier to do in a hot oven. Preheat the oven to 450°. On a sheet pan, separate the light and dark meat so you can easily take out the breasts and return the legs to the oven, as they take a little longer to cook. You want to remove the chicken from the heat when the skin is golden and the meat is half way done, around 15 to 20 minutes.
Put the cooked chicken and the reduced sauce base into a heavy lidded casserole and cook covered for 15 minutes. Add the bacon/mushroom/onion mixture and cook for another 15 minutes. If you want, thicken the sauce with one of the liaisons. Complete the dish by checking the seasoning and adding the minced fresh parsley.
If you have time, prepare the coq au vin up to the point just before thickening the sauce a day before you plan to eat it. At point of service, remove any fat that’s congealed on the top. Gently re-warm the dish to a simmer and add a thickening liaison and the parsley. Coq au vin is great with mashed potatoes or French bread and a salad that contains some bitter greens…..maybe a bite of something chocolate for dessert.
Cooking for One
If you have some strong salt-free chicken stock in your freezer, reduce it with red wine (50/50, wine to broth). Add sautéed bacon, mushrooms and onions, continuing to reduce until the sauce becomes almost glazy. Swirl in a little butter at the end. Use this to sauce an oven-roasted chicken breast. Serve with crusty French bread and a salad or sautéed green beans and you will have a perfect entrée for one.