Today, a story.
I was recently preparing one of my favorite dishes, coq au vin, and, while trying to remember how long it had been since I'd last cooked it, recalled one of those kitchen moments I'd much rather forget.
Coq au vin is French poverty food at it's best. It is a simple country stew meant to be made with an old rooster; a tough, chewy, dry bird. This is slowly cooked with some bacon, a bit of onion, and a few mushrooms, all in red wine until the meat is tender and succulent. Like most French poverty food, the dish has been elevated to fine cuisine – modern versions call for young, fat hens, rich French reds, eshallots, and morells – an expensive mushroom that has a delicate smoky flavor and a firm, spongy texture.
I can't fault those ingredients, but I must admit I love the simple version. I find a dish where a combination of so many cheep ingredients becomes a deeply satisfying, special experience to be nothing short of magical.
I had all of these things in mind when I visited my parents a few years ago. It was my first trip home to the States in over two years, and my wife and I were coming for Christmas. To celebrate the occasion I wanted to cook a warm, filling, family meal that everyone would enjoy. We bought a lovely, large boiler of a hen, a handful of button mushrooms, half a dozen pearl onions, a small slab of spec, and the cheapest bottle of red we could find.
A home I broke down the chicken: drumsticks, thighs, wings, breast. I roasted up the bones and made a simple brown stock. I lovingly peeled and halved the onions, gently brushed the mushrooms clean.
The plan was, as with all braises, to season and brown the meat, remove it from the pan, and then lightly brown the vegetables and render some of the fat from the spec. In order to get good color on the meat, one must start with a blindingly hot pan so that when the meat makes contact it does not cool the pan significantly. If the pan cools too much, the juices from the cooking meat simmer, boiling the meat rather than searing it, and the result is a chewy, gray, flavorless chunk of protein.
I was not about to let this happen. My pan, my parent's pan, actually, a wide, stainless steel, heavy bottomed, chrome-like thing of beauty, was hot. Stinking hot. I had the chicken pieces to the left of the stove on a plate, seasoned and ready to go. Spec, onion and mushrooms in separate bowls behind. Olive oil in a jar to the right.
I poured the oil into the white-hot pan, turned for an instant to grab the first two pieces of chicken, and the oil ignited.
I don't know if you've ever had the pleasure of experiencing an oil fire. They start with an air-sucking “WHUMP” and, once going, enter a sort of positive feedback loop, where the heat from the fire causes more oil to reach burning point, which increases the flame, which increases the heat, which causes more oil... you get the idea. I know a fair deal about how oil fires act. I've started several. They happen often in commercial kitchens, so often that recently, when our entire six burner stove top burst into flames, we all stood back, arms crossed, and calmly asked each other “What do you think we should do now?”
I wish I had that sort of decorum standing at my parents' stove. Instead, I momentarily froze, watching the flames first lick and then curl around the tiny extraction fan that extends over their oven. When I snapped to, my panicked jabbing in cupboards and drawers for the pot's lid did little to assure my family that all was, in fact, under control. When I did find the lid and smother the flames I was greeted with a giant wave of the other endearing feature of an oil fire: choking, putrid smoke.
Burning oil smells like a combination of melting plastic and smoldering hair, and my covered pot was emitting the stuff in EPA-violating volumes. I, afraid I was gassing my entire family, rushed the pot out the back door, down the steps and plunged it deep into the snow.
I stood there, stocking-clad, adrenaline-mad, listening to the pot scream and hiss as it nestled into the snow bank, in a sort of disbelieving shock. Sure, fires happen. Admittedly, I didn't handle the situation perfectly, but it could have been worse. The house was still standing; no one was hurt. The pot was going to need a good clean and might not ever be quite as shiny, but it wasn't destroyed. All of these things I could deal with.
What kept me standing with my back to the house long after the pot was cold and the smoke had cleared was one thought revolving in my rattled head, like a mantra : “I do this for a living. For a living. I do this for a living.” And I knew that some time, soon, since the sun was setting and it was beginning to snow, I would have to go back in and face my parents, who must by now have decided I was the most incompetent chef in the world.
We all had a good laugh about it over dinner, especially since it was the second time I'd started a kitchen fire at my parents' house in the same week (I'll tell you some other time). Thankfully it was tasty, otherwise it would have been a lot of unnecessary drama. Still, I'm sure no one remembers the meal quite like they do the pre-dinner show.
This time around my oil didn't quite reach flash point, even given the distraction of embarrassed recollection. Lucky, too, because I've no snow available in which to extinguish the pot.
Something about this photo makes me think about continental drift. Of great masses sliding past one another, ancient secrets being subducted, new ones bubbling forth, all around the dinner table.
This dish is technically a daube – a type of French stew that is in a broth rather than a thickened sauce. Hence, no instructions for reducing the sauce or adding flour. It's meant to be soupy.
Coq au vin
1 chicken, broken into legs, breasts, wings, and bones
200g mushrooms, buttons, flats, portabello, whatever, cut to equal size
10 pearl or pickling onions, peeled and halved
100g spec or salt pork, cut into 1 cm cubes
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 sprig thyme
300ml (approx) cheap red wine
Start by making a bit of chicken stock. Preheat oven to 200º C and roast the chicken bones on a tray until brown. Remove from tray, add a splash of red wine to the hot tray, using the wine to scrape loose any stuck on bits. Place the bones and the contents of the baking tray into a small pot. Cover with cold water and simmer 1 hour. Strain, discarding solids. You should have roughly 1 cup of stock.
Alternately, you can buy chicken already broken down and ask the butcher for some bones to roast for stock. Easier still (but not quite as good) you can just buy some chicken stock.
Reduce oven to 160º C.
Place a heavy-bottomed, stainless steel pot large enough to hold all ingredients onto high heat. Season the chicken pieces and, using a little olive oil, brown the meat on all sides. Remove from pan. Reduce the heat, add the bacon, cook for a minuet, then add the onions, mushrooms, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf. Lightly brown, stirring occasionally.
Return the chicken to the pan along with the stock and enough red wine to just cover. Put a tight-fitting lid on the pot and braise in the oven anywhere from 1-3 hours. Check the meat periodically by pulling on the drumstick bone gently. When it feels as though it is pulling away at the thigh joint, the dish is done. Adjust seasoning and serve with mashed potatoes or rice or pilaf or bread or whatever you've got.
One more thing. I've heard popular chefs and T.V. cooks parroting the phrase “never cook with a wine that you would not drink.” While this is a noble sentiment, it is neither practical nor is it often practiced. I've not yet worked in a restaurant (and I've worked in a few fine-dinning joints) where we cook with anything but big casks of cheap red and white. Trust me here, save the good stuff for drinking.
Today, a story.