We’re both good friends with Peggy Graham. They usually spend time discussing movies and TV, but I guess the conversation must have shifted to food when they last spoke. Struck with inspiration while I scratched my head, Hawkins said, “Do you know how to cook any French food?”
Now I am not sure exactly what Peggy put into Hawkins’ mind as French food, and I would not dare to try any of the exotics like I’ve seen on Julia Child. On the other hand, my simple French dishes such as ratatouille and chicken Marengo have been successful, so I decided to try a French chicken stew called Coq-au-vin, which means chicken in wine.
The original recipe was similar to Marengo, in that it used pieces of a tough old hen or rooster to make the stew. By braising it in wine, the coarse meat was tenderized to please the palate.
I have always-preferred boneless chicken, though many recipes called for using thighs, legs or even whole chickens. The trick with using boneless white meat for any recipe like this one is to cook long enough to infuse the meat with flavor without overcooking to the point where the meat falls apart. We want big chunks of chicken for the recipe, not shreds.
Start off by frying five slices of bacon in the bottom of the five-quart pan. I used a local brand of country bacon seasoned with sun-dried tomatoes. I thought that little bit of flavor gave the dish a slightly Mediterranean flavor. Once the bacon is crisp, take it out of the pan and blot it on a plate covered with paper towels. We’ll use it later.
As the bacon fries, take a good two pounds of boneless chicken breasts and dredge them with flour seasoned with a little salt and pepper. We don’t need to cook the chicken now, just brown it on both sides after the bacon has been removed from the pot. Use the bacon fat at the bottom of the pan.
When the chicken is browned, remove it from the pan and reserve it as well. Any stew just wouldn’t be right without some vegetables. If the pot needs more grease, fry one or two more strips of bacon, and set them aside as well. I peeled and thinly sliced two large carrots and diced two small white onion and sautéed them with two minced cloves of garlic in the grease. Season them with a half-teaspoon of salt and a like amount of pepper.
Here’s where we show off a little. When the onions and carrots begin to soften, take a quarter-cup of brandy or cognac and pour it into the veggies. Carefully ignite the brandy with a long kitchen match or lighter and shake everything well to get a flambé’ going. This wilts and caramelizes the onions as a sweet counterpoint to the dryness of the wine that will be used in the dish. If the onions need to caramelize a little more after the flambé, let them sauté a bit longer. We want them translucent and slightly brown this time out.
As the flames die off, I combined them with a half-pound of sliced white mushrooms. They soaked up a lot of the wine flavor perfectly, and provided a moist counterpoint to the tender chicken.
With the onions finished, it’s time to put the chicken back into the pot. Coq au vin would not be called such without plenty of wine, so I added a cup of Cabernet Sauvignon to the pot. It also needs some chicken broth to make it a good and proper stew, so blend in a cup of chicken broth and stir it well.
Being French food, we need plenty of herbs for coq au vin. A tablespoon of parsley belongs in almost every stew I’ve ever made, but a half-teaspoon of thyme and an equal amount of marjoram gave it plenty of flavor. A pair of bay leaves completed the taste perfectly.
Cover the stew and allow it to simmer for a good 45 minutes. Stir frequently and check the chicken to see if it is fully cooked. It might need a bit more time after cooked to tenderize it a bit more, but again, the key is not to overcook it.
When the coq au vin was ready, I served it over my favorite brown rice and with some thinly sliced steamed zucchini. Hawkins and I could only manage one bowl, or maybe one-and-a-half. It was that hearty. The evening started by watching Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” a modernized and somewhat anachronistic retelling of Shakespere’s “Titus Andronicus.” Then, with all the television writers on strike, not to mention the Christmas hiatus, we decided to finish a show we started earlier in the year, the Sopranos. We’re almost done with the fourth season. For all Sopranos fans out there, we watched the demise of Ralphie Cifaretto as we finished our bowls of coq au vin. Hawkins may have other shows he likes more, but Sopranos is maybe my all-time favorite, so a good time was had by all. Good eating.