Coq au Vin – More Than Just a Chicken Dish

Coq au Vin

Photo Credit: Will Clayton

When you hear the words “coq au vin” your mind is immediately filled with images of a French culinary masterpiece that only the best chefs can create. For the longest time, this was exactly true. Today, however, with the intervention (and translation) of artists like Julia Child, it has become fairly easy to make coq au vin in your own kitchen. Now you can serve chicken for you Sunday dinner and know that it is more than just an ordinary casserole.

Coq au Vin in the Past

Today, coq au vin can be described simply as a chicken dish braised with mushrooms, bacon, and wine. Burgundy is usually used for this dish, but Riesling, Beaujolais, Champagne, and other wines are also used in many kitchens across France.

In the past, however, cooking coq au vin was a rather more complex operation. David Leite’s article in Leite’s Culinaria, , Coc Au Vin, gives a clear picture of how this casserole was prepared in the past: “…Many of the versions of this dish floating around when Madame Child was learning to cook in Paris were based on ancient recipes that called for a rooster or cock (coq) well past his crowing days. A rooster who’s no longer cock of the walk has flesh that’s incredibly flavorful and sufficiently sturdy to stand up to the frying, simmering, and yet more simmering required by this fricassée. In addition, the cockscomb, feet, head, and kidneys were tossed in for good measure. Blood was also added to the pot for a little thickening power and that oh-so-français touch, which put the dish over the top…”

Simplifying Without Compromising Flavor

Julia Child, the American icon of French cooking, simplified the process and made it possible for people to serve coq au vin without having to go through the trouble of slaughtering a rooster for its blood, kidneys feet, head, and cockscomb. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she succeeds in giving the dish depth even without chicken blood and the broth that comes from stewing a past-its-prime rooster for hours.

As Leite puts it, “…Julia knew (actually, I’m assuming things here, but I like the intimate familiarity and the ring of “Julia knew”) that getting an old rooster and a cup o’ blood ain’t exactly easy. So she tried to squeeze as much flavor as possible into this recipe, published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as the rendition published in the redux years later. She smartly calls for brown chicken stock, which is a homemade stock made more robust in taste and color by first searing the chicken pieces before simmering them. It’s a simple and easy way of adding extra depth and complexity. Considering you’ll be sitting down to a rooster-less, bloodless coq au vin, it’s still be pretty darn tasty…”

Julia Child’s Version of Coq au Vin

Julia’s simplified version of this French chicken dish calls for ½ cup very thick-cut bacon, olive oil, 3 ½ to 4 ½ pounds chicken, 1/4 cup Cognac, salt, freshly ground pepper, bay leaf, thyme, onions, flour, two cups red wine, garlic, tomato paste, mushrooms, and the homemade chicken stock which is made by first searing chicken pieces for better flavor.

Her procedure calls for using a heavy-bottomed casserole to sauté the bacon in olive oil. Once the bacon fat has been rendered, the pieces are to be removed, and the chicken pieces are to be browned. Once the chicken is thoroughly browned on the outside, the wine is poured into the casserole and allowed to boil. For those who are adventurous enough, Julia Child suggests igniting the sauce and letting it flame for about one minute while swirling the pan to burn off the alcohol. Once that is done, cover the casserole with its lid and the flames will get extinguished.

The onions, salt, pepper,, bay leaf, and thyme are then added, and the casserole is allowed to simmer gently for about fifteen minutes. Child then sprinkles flour over the chicken pieces, turning the contents of the pan so that the flour is absorbed by the sauce. Wine, garlic, tomato paste and mushrooms are added and everything is allowed to simmer for half an hour or until the chicken is done.

Pairing your Coq au Vin with Wine and Dessert

In Matching Food and Wine’s Four Favourite Wine Matches for Coq au Vin, Fiona Beckett recommends red Burgundy, a southern Rhone or Lanqueoc red, a pinot-noir (in the style of Burgundy), or a serious Beaujolais. As for dessert, something fruit based would probably work best. A good example would be Amaretto peaches with honey whipped cream and biscotti crumbs or pears poached in wine. Coq au vin, even in its simplified form, is a rich dish so you might even just settle for fruits and cheese while savoring the robust flavors of your French meal.

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