When Life Hands You Lemons...

You know the rest (make lemonade)! But here's my newest discovery: When life hands you a Heritage chicken, make coq au vin! I received two precious Heritage chickens and roasted the first. The flavor was exceptional but the skin, one of my favorite parts, was like shoe leather. Also, the meat was a bit too chewy for my taste and my mother the dentist made sure that I have all my teeth and in good shape! So my thoughts turned to a dish I haven't had in a long time: coq au vin. In fact, the last time I had it was in the Loire valley when my dear friend Nadège Brossollet made it for Hervé This (before he became father of molecular gastronomy) and me many years ago. Nadège told me that the dish was created in this region and that she was making the classic version with le vraie coq (ie a rooster).

Another friend, Lydie Marshall, who owned the renowned French cooking school À La Bonne Cocotte, in New York City, once told me that coq au vin was the birthday dish she made for her husband Wayne as his birthday was in August when they were in their home in Provence and had access to "le vraie coq." I suggested she write an article called "Coq au Wayne," and then laughed my head off, but I don't think she thought it was half so clever as I did or at all funny for that matter!

Coq au vin is prepared by simmering the chicken pieces is a flavor broth with vegetables and an entire bottle of red wine. It is the ideal treatment for tough old birds and the older the bird the more flavor, so I suspected this would be the perfect solution for my second Heritage chicken and indeed it was. I served it with home-made spinach noodles and a lovely Bordeaux (though Burgundy is traditional) Carrauded de LaFitte 2002 recommended by Ben Gilberti when he was wine writer at the Washington Post some years ago. Should you want to make this glorious timeless dish, I do urge you to order a Heritage chicken but I'm sure it would still be quite delicious using a good quality commercial one.

Coq au Vin

1 whole chicken, preferably Heritage, cut up, breasts cut in half lengthwise
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 celery stalks, cut into large chunks
1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
1 bottle red wine
1 bouquet garni (8 sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf wrapped in cheesecloth and tied) Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups Veal or beef stock
12 cups pearl onions, peeled
8 ounces smoked bacon, diced
1 pound small white mushrooms or larger ones cut in half
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a large bowl, combine the chicken, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, wine and bouquet garni. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours.

Strain the chicken and the vegetables from the marinade, reserving the liquid and separating the poultry and vegetables on a large sheet pan or two bowls.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

Fry the bacon in a large ovenproof casserole or Dutch oven over medium-low until crisp. Remove it with a slotted spoon to a medium bowl. Set it aside, reserving the fat in pan.

While the bacon fat is still hot, add the chicken, in batches, being sure not to crowd the pan. Raise the heat to medium and brown evenly and deeply on all sides, about 4 minutes per side. Set the finished pieces to the side.

Drain the bacon fat, reserving 2 tablespoons. Add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the same pot, and when hot add the reserved vegetables and sauté over medium heat until they soften and begin to brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the flour, stirring again for about 2 minutes. Add the reserved wine marinade and, as it bubbles up, use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot and incorporate any flavorful bits into the broth.

Preheat the oven to 325˚F/160˚C Simmer the vegetables and broth until the liquid has reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes, and then stir in the stock. Add the chicken and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pot and set it in the oven for 1 hour. If using a Heritage chicken remove the breast and continue cooking for 15 minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the rest of the ingredients: Blanch the pearl onions in boiling water for 1 minute. Peel and remove the root end and cut an x into the base. Simmer the onions 4 to 5 until tender/crisp. Drain and set them aside.

In a skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons of reserved bacon fat. Add the mushrooms to the pan and cook until brown, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove them to the bowl with the bacon.

Add the blanched pearl onions to the pan, sautéing until they too are brown, about 5 minutes. Add them to the bowl.

Remove the chicken from the braising liquid and strain the contents of the pot. Pick out the carrots and add them to the bowl with the bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. Discard the rest of the vegetables.

Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil and lower the heat to reduce the liquid at a slow boil, stirring often. When it is reduced by about half, and a nice thick sauce consistency, return the chicken to the pot along with the bacon, onions and mushrooms. Cover and return it to the oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle each portion with the chopped parsley.

Note: save all bones and the carcass and make an unforgettable chicken soup!