Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Coq au Vin for 50

My 'day job' office has a once or twice annual potluck. This potluck is serious business; we have a potluck committee for crying out loud.  We're talking table cloths, charcuterie platters, chafing dishes, culinary themes,  and pre-set conceptual menus - made by the people for the people with no company money involved. The term 'potluck' almost seems too quaint for what we do - think 'food event'.  I suppose to prove the point, my contribution was a proper coq au vin. For 50 diners.  A tall order.

I don't take simple one-pot peasant food like this lightly. I attempt to refine the dish at every step of the process. The first step, as is everything with my cooking, was research. What makes a good coq au vin? Or perhaps more rudimentarily, what is coq au vin? 

The Burgundy region of France has produced some amazing and iconic dishes. Almost all of these include the famous red Burgundy wines; beef Bourguignon among one of the other classics of the region. The very oldest versions of coq au vin involved using an acutal coq, or an older rooster. This was a way of dealing with male chickens that had gotten a bit old - a long slow braise to break down their tough, and sometimes dry flesh. Moreover, these older birds would produce a lot of natural gelatin, which creates a rich unctuous sauce. A typical Burgundian garnish of fried lardons, baby onions and sauteed mushrooms are added. Fast forward to the Toronto in 2012 and finding an old rooster is not that easy. The Rhode Island reds which I cooked a few weeks back would probably be perfect contenders, but I have a budget for this meal and as much as it pains me, I needed to use standard grocery store birds - which are almost always, young and fatty hens. So I will have to work with these kinds of chickens. Two of the recipe in my collection, namely, one from My French Vue by Shannon Bennett, an excellent Australian chef and Anthony Bourdin's Les Halles cookbook call for a whole chicken to be cooked almost poule au pot style in wine. As much as this would produce a nice rusticity to the dish, there are exactly two problems with the approach - the breasts. Chicken breast meat, and especially young commodity chicken breast meat does not braise well. Older birds, capons and heartier breeds would work (even a turkey could be inserted) - but not the chickens you see in the grocery store. The breasts would become stringy, and paradoxically, a prolonged immersion in a liquid medium will actually dry them out. Trust me, I've tested this theory plenty of times. My solution: don't use the whole bird, just the leg quarters, broken down between thigh and drumstick.

I've examined several other recipes including Julia Child's, Felicity Cloakes (Guardian UK), Nigel Slater's and several from French culinary texts that profess to be the most authentic. One aspect of the older recipes is that the bird is marinated in the wine overnight. Again, I don't think this is a good move. I think acidic marinades actually ruin meat and seem to result in a dry finished product.  The approach I settled on was closest to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's in which he dispenses with the pre-cooking marinade and instead suggests cooking it one day in advance and letting it rest in the sauce overnight - a sort of reverse marinade. Anyway, with all this in mind, this is what I did:

I've adjusted this recipe from 50 down to six servings. I got a pot on the heat and poured in a whole bottle of French table wine. I used a table wine because another of the historically interesting aspects of this dish is that it served as a way to use local wine that was not particularly fancy or exportable, but certainly drank by the locals. Don't use an expensive Pinot Noir (despite many recipes calling for it). I think a relatively inexpensive French drinking wine absolutely captures the spirit of this recipe. I used, L'Epayrie rouge - a wonderfully drinkable plonk from Bordeaux. Then, add the following to the wine: two cloves of garlic, two onions, two carrots and two ribs of celery all chopped chunky, three or four sprigs of thyme, a few bay leaves and a few whole pepper corns. Then bring the wine to a boil, then down to a simmer and then after about five minutes, turn it off. You should be getting some really good aromas happening in the kitchen. Never use raw wine when cooking meat - it needs to be cooked off, even if just a little.  This recipe will require about four to six leg quarters, with the drumsticks separated from the thighs. If you're a little crazy like me, you will clean up the drumsticks by cutting of the end of the bone, and scraping back the meat to create a kind of 'lollypop' of chicken - this makes for a much nicer presentation (and allows the bone marrow to ooze out during cooking, further enriching the sauce). Then season and brown the chicken  (in batches if necessary), and then set aside. These grocery store birds are super fatty, so you don't even need to add oil, just put the thigh skin side down in the dry pan and bring the heat up slowly; they will produce plenty of their own fat. Once done, drain almost all the fat, and then deglaze the pan with some of your simmered wine from the other pot. Then put all the chicken into an oven proof dish. (Also note  that I did not dust the chicken with flour. Almost every recipe calls for this, but I have found that pre-floured meat, at least in this circumstance, can result in a stodgy sauce that thickens far too quickly. A sauce can be addressed with far more precision if the thickening is down after the fact.)

Once the chicken has been browned and the wine has been simmered and infused with the aromatic vegetables and herbs, get them all together in an oven proof vessel. Toss everything around in the wine. Then take a small block of pancetta (with rind removed) say about four or five ounces and bury it amongst all the chicken. This bit of cured pork belly will slowly release it's salt and fatty flavour throughout the cooking process. Because it's a braise, it needs to be covered, and the best way to do this is the French 'cartouche' method. That is, take a some parchment paper and cut it to the dimensions of the inside of the vessel (so that it rests on top of the cooking meat). Then cut a few holes in it to release some of the steam. This prevents the liquid from burning off too quickly, then foil over it, or cover with lid (whichever way works for the vessel you're using). Then into a 325 F oven for about an hour and a half.
Cooked and ready to be put to bed in the fridge over night (excuse the horrifice phototgraphy)

After an hour and a half, The chicken should be super tender. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Then carefully remove all the chicken (along with the block of pancetta) from the cooking liquid and set aside on a plate to cool - the chicken skin can slip off or the meat can fall off the bone at this point, so be careful when handling. Once all the chicken and panchetta has been removed, strain the cooking liquid into a large glass (or transparent) vessel and place it next to an open window or in the fridge for about ten or fifteen minutes - this will allow the fat to rise to the top and any grit and solid impurities to settle on the bottom (and will be visible because the vessel is transparent). Discard all the vegetables - they have done their job. When the braising liquid has cooled sufficiently, skim the fat off that top and then pour again through a strainer into a clean pot. Bring to a hard boil and reduce by one-third (taste constantly to make sure the saltiness stays in check). Once reduced, add some beurre manié (flour kneaded into cold butter), one teaspoon at time to thicken until it can lightly coat the back of a spoon. Then set the sauce aside. Then you need to create the garnishes, some additional pancetta cut up into lardons and fried off, some blanched and peeled pearl onions, sautéed in butter and flambéed with brandy (I used whiskey because it's the only liquor I had - it worked great, but keep a fire extinguisher handy - my wife hates when I flambé, but the kids love it- as along as they keep their distance!). Finally, in the remaining bacon fat and butter in the pan, fry off some simple sliced button mushrooms.  One last thing to do before assembly - take the chicken and place on a cookie sheet and get under a hot broiler. Braised meat needs this last bit of scorching to bring back the colour that was lost in the braising process. Just get those skins crisping up a bit, and then out. Cut up that bit of braised pancetta that was put to the side and get everything into a dish (chicken, onions, mushrooms, bacon and sauce). Put in the fridge overnight, and then gently reheat the next day for serving - excellent with steamed herby and buttered potatoes.
A lot of work, but worth every step. Not one bit of chicken was left after the hordes of the pot luck descended on it.

In the chafing dish at the event, cell phone photography at it's best - two toned chicken in blue and yellow. Uck.


1 comment:

  1. Any way I can get the recipe for 50? I would like to make it for a crowd at my church.