“A chicken in every pot.” So said King Henri IV of France, in what would become a famous political promise of general welfare, from peasants on up. Out of Henri’s famous promise grew a dish, one of several that are recognized the world round as quintessentially French: coq-au-vin recipe. This is not to say that Henri had chicken stew braised in wine in mind when he made his proclamation, but this dish has come to be associated with the idea behind the quote. It is a simple dish to prepare (here is the original coq au vin recipe by French chef Paul Bocuse), inexpensive, and utterly delicious.
WHAT IS COQ AU VIN?
The basic components of coq-au-vin (literally “rooster in wine”) are chicken on the bone and wine (traditionally Burgundy, but in theory one could use anything, with Riesling popular in Alsace). The recipe is not dissimilar from another of the well-known traditional French dishes, boeuf bourguignon. Both begin with sautéed onions and garlic in butter, then add meat that should be browned, and finally include mushrooms and some fatty bacon (lardons), before pouring in enough wine to cover the meat. Then it’s a simple matter of letting it braise, low and slow. This is best prepared in a Dutch oven, like a Le Creuset pot if you want to go all-French, and can be made either on the stovetop or in the oven, so long as the pot is covered. The longer you cook, provided the contents of the pot remain moist, the richer the flavor and the softer the meat. It is as fool-proof as cooking can get, which means that even I, who cook with ten thumbs, can do a pretty good job with it.
Braised stews have long been a peasant favorite because they make an elaborate, wholesome meal out of whatever ingredients you can afford or scrounge together. Any root vegetables can be added, any cut of meat can be used, even tough cuts (as in beef bourguignon, which require long cooking to become tender)—the very fact that the dish is “coq” au vin and not “poulet” (chicken) au vin indicates its peasant origins, for rooster meat is much tougher than chicken, requiring long slow braising to make it edible, whereas chicken could be cooked a short amount of time and be delicious. In practice, low-income families could throw any ingredients they have available into a pot of water, if there was no wine handy, and transform it into a filling stew.
THE ORIGINS OF COQ AU VIN
The precise origins of coq-au-vin are unknown. Because surely people have braised chicken in wine since ancient times, it would be a surprise to find a specific origin moment. An 1864 cookbook called Cookery for English Households offers a French recipe called poulet au vin blanc (chicken in white wine), which is a parallel to traditional coq-au-vin. But the recipe really grew famous thanks to Julia Child, who is almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing French cooking in the United States. Along with other clichéd but delicious classics (escargots, sole meuniere, beef bourguignon), coq-au-vin was featured in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and the spinoff television show, The French Chef, bringing this hearty traditional dish into the homes of Americans who might otherwise have never been exposed to French cuisine.
While the recipe is simple, there are a few tricks that I learned in the process of preparing this dish that “kick it up a notch.” If you marinate the chicken in wine overnight, the meat impregnates with flavor. Sautee onions and garlic and lardons with butter in the bottom of the Dutch oven first, then remove them once the onions are browned and set them aside. Then, in the empty pot that retains the oils and crusty bits from the sautee, throw in the chicken at a high temperature, so that it browns on all sides. Only then return the onions, garlic and lardons to the pot. This insures that everything is nicely brown, which would not be the case if all the ingredients were crowded into the pot at once. With all the ingredients in the pot, add the wine until the chicken is covered. Choose a wine that you would be happy to drink—you can use a cheap one, but better, richer-flavored wines will add more to the dish. But here’s a trick. Chicken is so much softer and quickly-cooked than rooster that the original recipe (even Julia’s) must be tinkered with, if you indeed use chicken as opposed to tough-but-flavorful rooster. You can get away with cooking chicken for much less time, and over-cooking it can result in the meat disintegrating into the gravy. This will still taste good to dip your bread in, but it isn’t coq-au-vin proper. If you are using fresh chicken, follow the same instructions, but only cook the chicken in the wine for a shorter time, less than an hour. Julia’s recipe is a 20th century update on the classic, aimed at the high-end French restaurant experience. She does not encourage you to braise the chicken at all but only brown it, cook it through, then remove it and only then add wine to the pot and let that braise with the onions, mushrooms and lardons, in order to produce a thick gravy to spoon over the chicken. If you want to get fancy and old-school, once the dish is cooked through, you can pour out some of the remaining gravy and heat it gently in a saucepan, thickening it with chicken blood (you do have a vial of chicken blood ever at hand in your fridge, don’t you), then pour it like a sauce over the chicken and vegetables.
Once Sunday comes around, fire up some coq-au-vin. From Henri IV to Herbert Hoover, Sunday stew is the thing to do.