Coq au Vin

“I love a recipe that really works, where you feel there is something unequivocally right about it. Where the cook has remained true to the dish, to its provenance, its history, its soul. I feel that way about coq au vin. The story is there for all to read.” - Nigel Slater

“I wondered when you’d get around to making this.” - L

We’re well into spring and because of this I’ve been looking around trying to find those hearty recipes that I want to make before the lighter, fresh meals of summer come along. Maybe a Spaghetti Bolognese with oxtail and pork shoulder, or a stew of some kind. I remember reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s article entitled “Red Wine & Old Roostersin which he wrote that he had eaten coq au vin maybe 200 times in his life. My mind was blown. It wasn’t his keeping score that was the shock, nor the amount of times he partook, but that I never had. I mean, come on, I’ve eaten haggis, beef pattie and coco bread, and even tripe & fatty flank pho. Delicious cultural favourites. Why no coq au vin? It’s good hearty fare, proper brave food. I had no excuse.

What the heck is this coq au vin, anyway? I found out that although considered very old (there is a well-known myth of Julius Caesar being a fan) one of the earliest recorded recipes for it, according to American food-historians Mary and Philip Hyman, was published in Edmond Richardin's periodical L'Art du Bien Manger in 1913. The method though, that of tenderizing tough meat (like an old rooster) by slowly simmering it in wine or broth is a practice that goes way back to the ancients. The reason it took until the nineteen-hundreds before anyone wrote it down was that before that century cookbooks only dealt with fine cuisine, explain the Hymans. I guess that left home cooking traditions to pass down the way 90 percent of all recipes are—by word of mouth, mother to daughter. I wouldn’t have that benefit, I would have to scour my books.

First off from Steingarten I learned what not to do. Don’t get wrapped up in the long and twisted arguments of a Bresse rooster (i.e. coq) vs poule vs poulet vs coquelet vs chapon. Avoid at all costs the question of whether dealcoholized wine counts as “vin”. I am the type of person who gets really wrapped up in that kind of semantic hooha and would get very little done in the way of cooking if I dwelt on it. Julia Child, in the Art of French Cooking, says that the dish can be called “coq au Chambertin, coq au riesling, or coq au whatever wine you use for its cooking.” She suggests a young, full-bodied red such as “Burgundy, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, or Chianti”; Rombauer & Becker ask for “dry red wine”; I went with Sola Nero Red because it was what I had in the cupboard. So I guess my creation could be called coq au Sola Nero Red.

OK, my first step was to find a recipe that would be reasonably within my skill level (which is about a scant skill). I found out right off that Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook was right out, if only because I didn’t have a couple of days to work with, I wanted to eat that night. I found plenty of recipes that are “simple,” or “quick,” I didn’t think I could trust the authenticity of flavour from a stew that is thrown together in an hour. I would love to have tried Nigel Slater’s version, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a possibility as was Rombauer & Becker’s Joy of Cooking. As with many important decisions the choice is inevitably made for you. Julia and Nigel called for cognac which I didn’t have. So I had the recipe, next I needed the ingredients.

Our first stop was Clement Poultry from Newcastle, Ontario. They have a table in the St Lawrence Market and their grain-fed, antibiotic-free chickens are particular favourites. Each week we buy a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. So, along with our usual stock of chicken I purchased another 4 pounds of Chicken Thighs and Legs. Just south of Clement is El Gaucho Chorizos, they have been around for 35 years and although they sell through other outlets, the St Lawrence Market is their main location. The double smoked bacon there is wonderful and was my choice for the lardons for this attempt. Everything else, onions, mushrooms, al, I already had. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

This dish does take quite a while to do, hours—seriously. But they’re easy hours. Meditative dishes. It makes sense now that I think about it. I always felt that this had to be a difficult dish to make, but come on, it’s a wonderful peasent dish, I doubt french mothers would be whipping this supper up if it was something you needed an degree to attempt. I did dishes along the waywhile things browned, or simmered. I dirty dishes the way kids dirty their knees, completely unconscious. Occasionally I would watch the squirrels run amok around our backyard. Then I would rattle some pots every now and again so L would think I was working harder than I actually was. It was great to let my mind wander as I stood, seasoned, and stirred.

I should note that after over a decade and a half of vegetarianism L has returned to eating meat again. She still has issues with certain meaty things and we are careful to buy what we call “happy” animals. Free range, organic, antibiotic free, and responsibly raised and slaughtered. It costs more and involves asking your butcher more questions but we feel it’s worth it (not to mention the fact that the meat tastes better). Another difficulty is that L prefers not to eat off the bone. Veins and gristle are not as enjoyable for her as they are for me. So when the meat was done and I removed it to a platter I pulled all the meat from the bones thus making it more L friendly.

In the end as I poured that reduced red wine and beef stock sauce, glistening over the chicken, onions and, I understand why I wanted to spend those hours here. A quicker, TV dinner version of this creation wouldn’t, couldn’t equate to this gem of a dish. Hearty hearty. Those hours collapsed. L and I stood over the platter just looking at it, smelling it. Heavenly. Nigella Lawson correctly wrote that ”real French food is everything home cooking should be: comforting, transporting, with a reach that far extends the pettifogging, constraining vagaries of fad and fashion.” I was taken there with this dish.


4 pounds chicken parts
4 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into lardons
1 cup chopped onions
½ cup chopped carrots
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups Sola Nero Red (or a
good dry red wine)
1 cup beef stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried oregano (or marjoram), crumbled
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1-2 cups pearl onions, peeled
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons minced parsley (for garnish)

Cook bacon lardons in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until brown then remove to a seperate plate.

Season chicken parts with salt and black pepper. In batches, brown both sides of the chicken pieces in the bacon fat in the Dutch oven, about 7 minutes or so. Remove them to a plate.

Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat then add the chopped onions and carrots. Stir occasionally until soft, around 10 minutes.

Stir in the 3 tbsp of flour. Reduce the heat to low. Cook the roux until it begins to brown slightly, stirring on and off. This should take about 5-7 minutes.

While stirring add the wine (Sola Nero Red), beef stock, tomato paste, bay leaves, dried thyme and dried oregano. Crank the heat to high and bring the sauce to a boil, stirring constantly.

Return the bacon and chicken to the pot. If there is any accumulated juices add that too. The sauce will cool slightly because of the meat, so return the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the liquid barely simmers. Cover. Cook for 25 to 35 minutes or until the breasts register between 160 -165°F and the thighs register between 170 -180°F.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat when the foaming stops add 1-2 cups of pearl onions, peeled (L doesn’t like them so I used 1 cup, adjust the recipe for those you love). Cook the onions, stirring often, until just tender and
lightly browned then add the sliced mushrooms. Continue stirring until the mushrooms release their juices then remove from heat.

OK, championship round here, closing in on the end. Remove the chicken parts to a platter and cover with aluminum foil to rest and keep warm. Find and discard the bay leaves.

Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat and reduce until thick and syrupy, using a spoon to skim off the fat as it comes to the surface.

Dump the skillet of mushrooms and onions with their pan juices into the Dutch oven sauce and heat through. Season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

Pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with minced parsley.

Look. Smile. Eat.