FOOD WISE: The demise of Coq au Vin

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Julia Child's Coq au Vin

I figure I’m safe telling this story to all of you. Most of us in Liberty Hill are country folk, understand the cycle of life and where the hamburger, steak or fried chicken we eat comes from. If you are sensitive to this kind of thing, or are a member of PETA, you might want to check back in next week.

If you’ve been reading my column, then you know that I have plenty of animals at my house and one of them is an ornery old rooster. His name is Coq au Vin. Well…it was Coq au Vin. What happened, you ask? I’ll get to that.

First let me tell you about how he came by his name. When I decided I wanted to start keeping chickens a few years ago, my patient and loving husband bought lumber, rolls of chicken wire, feed, heat lamps, and hay. Together we built a sad, lopsided chicken coop, but we were excited and proud of ourselves. It would certainly do the job. Then we went on down to the feed store to pick out some chickens. I specifically wanted Americana’s because they lay colored eggs. My friend, Cheryl, told me they lay eggs that come in delicate hues of pink, blue, green and ecru. That’s right! They lay Easter eggs. I also wanted one called a fuzzy chicken and a silky just because they are interesting. My husband, always the pragmatic type, wanted bard rocks because they lay huge eggs. What we didn’t want was a rooster.

The gal at the feed store was very knowledgeable and helpful. As I described the kind of chickens we wanted, she knew exactly which breeds I was talking about and pointed them out to me. If you’ve ever raised chickens, you already know that the chickens you get at the feed store are usually only a day or two old when you buy them. We picked out and paid for the ones we liked, took them home, fed and watered them, cared for and raised them, and waited  – somewhat impatiently – for them to grow big enough to start laying.

Here’s the thing about chicks; you can’t tell if they are going to grow up to be hens or roosters. The first time, we were lucky and only got one rooster. When it was time to add to our brood, we went through the same process again, and again got one rooster out of the bunch.

The problem was that this rooster was “cra-cra,” as my daughter would say. It’s a good thing he was pretty because all his synapses weren’t firing. Plus, he was mean as the day is long. I couldn’t let him in the coop with the hens because he would try to kill them or at least severely abuse them. Plus, he crowed all day and ALL night!

So I did what any self-respecting chef would do…I named him after food. It was both a name and a threat. You know, like “Keep on crowin’, Coq au Vin, cause that’s what you’re gonna be soon. Right in my big Le Cruset pot with you,” I’d say. I guess Chefs have kind of a strange sense of humor sometimes. I once had a whole tank of fish I called sushi. Anyway, Coq au Vin was sentenced to live outside the coop, never to get his groove on. Everything was rocking along fine and I took some satisfaction in the fact that Coq au Vin was living a life of abstinence and frustration, since his continual crowing was waking me up several times a night.

Then the day came that we decided to move into the greater downtown Liberty Hill area. We knew Coq au Vin’s time had come. Now, I am certainly a self-confessed, ultimate carnivore, but I also believe that we must show compassion and act as humanely as possible in our consumption of animal sources. The Native Americans had it right. Take only what you need. Kill cleanly and quickly. Respect the life that gave itself for your sustenance. I was sure I knew the perfect occasion. You see, one of my mentors from culinary school was moving away. Who better than a 30-year veteran Executive Chef to enjoy and appreciate an authentic preparation of a traditional Coq au Vin?

At this juncture, let me take a moment to explain Coq au Vin, just in case you haven’t heard of it before. Coq au Vin is probably the most famous of French dishes. It literally means rooster in wine. Traditionally, it was a peasant dish made of an old rooster. The reason an old rooster was used is this was the food of the poor man and he needed the rooster to perform his duties until he was too old. At that point, not willing or able to let food (even if it was old, tough and stringy) go to waste, they would eat him. Since an old rooster is pretty tough, the way to make him tender was to braise him a really long time in wine. Nowadays, it’s pretty hard to get one’s hands on an old rooster, unless you’re me, so the modern day preparation most often calls for chicken thighs and leg quarters as it contains the most collagen to thicken the dish. Now you understand why I called him Coq au Vin? It’s a sick joke, I know.

D-day finally came and all the preparations were made. Picture the scene. The real trick was to catch him, which we finally accomplished after about 45 minutes. Now comes what I call the John-Morgan-leave-it-to-Beaver-learning-moment. My husband, John, uses these occasions to teach our grandchildren some sort of life lesson, so he has my seven-year-old grandson, Brendan, helping him. The rooster is doing that thing that reminds me of Anne Boleyn rehearsing for her beheading. In case you’re not as much of a history nerd as I am, in the days before her execution, Queen Anne would practice laying her neck out on the block to decide which way showed her neck to it’s best advantage. One swift blow and it’d all be over but the chicken dance. Boy, did we underestimate how stubborn Coq au Vin was. He got up and walked away like nothing happened. Concerned that he had only injured him, John got his gun to put the rooster out of his misery. Meanwhile, I’m in the background yelling “Shoot him in the head. Don’t ruin the meat!” Finally the deed was done.

The next evening we had a wonderful last meal of Coq au Vin, Fettuccini, bread with Tapenade and a great summer salad, with my mentor chef before his big move. The rooster had been brined for 24 hours, flambéed with cognac and braised for several hours with wine, cremini mushrooms and cippolini onions, resulting in a thick, rich fricassee type stew. That stubborn old rooster never did get tender, but how many people get to experience Coq au Vin in the authentic way, like they did in France 400 years ago? And I learned some things I might try differently next time. So it was a wonderful meal despite the obstacles and in some strange love-hate kind of way, I miss Coq au Vin. I encourage you to make your own memories with this Coq au Vin recipe, straight from the great Julia Child.

Chef Reneé is an award-winning, classically trained chef. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens — no more ornery rooster. 

Coq au Vin

Serves 4-6

4 ounces pancetta, chopped (use bacon if you can’t find pancetta)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ½ to 3 pounds of chicken legs and thigh quarters

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup cognac (use brandy if you don’t have cognac)

3 cups red wine, such as Pinot Noir (save the 4th cup for the chef to drink)

1-2 cups chicken stock

½ tablespoon tomato paste

2 cloves garlic, smashed

½ teaspoon fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1 pound pearl onions, peeled

¾ pound mushrooms, quartered

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish

1. Sauté pancetta in the 2 tablespoons of butter, slowly until browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Dry the chicken pieces thoroughly with paper towels. Brown the pieces in the hot fat from the pancetta/bacon. Remove the chicken pieces and the pancetta to a large casserole or pot. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes, turning once.

2. Uncover and pour in the cognac. Off the flame and averting your face, ignite the cognac in the casserole and shake the pan back and forth until the flame subsides. Add chicken stock to just cover chicken. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic and herbs. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for about 25-30 minutes, until the chicken is tender and juices run clear when the meat is pricked with a fork. Remove chicken to a platter and cover loosely with foil.

3. While the chicken is cooking, in a separate pan, brown the mushrooms in 1 ½ tablespoons butter and 1 ½ tablespoons oil. Set aside. Repeat this procedure with the onions.

4. Simmer the chicken cooking liquid for a minute or two, skimming off the fat. Then raise the heat and allow the liquid to reduce to about 2 ¼ cups. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf. Blend together the 3 tablespoons of flour with the 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk the paste into the hot chicken braising liquid. Bring the liquid back to a simmer for a minute or two, just until thickened. Add the chicken, bacon, onions and mushrooms back to the braising liquid and simmer together for 4 to 5 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.