Coq au Vin Façon du Chef

There is an easy way to make coq au vin and then there is my way. It’s a little more involved, but it will give you a beautifully clean looking sauce with perfectly cooked vegetables and an incomparable depth of flavour. Most recipes will as you to marinate the chicken in wine overnight and I used to do that too, but in my current return to culinary simplicity, I have eliminated that step. It’s not laziness, I just find that it takes away from the chicken flavour. I don’t thicken my sauce until about 30 minutes before finishing. The chicken that is not covered with flour develops a nicer skin texture and the sauce is just much cleaner tasting.

Simmering your chicken in a litre of wine will impart enough wine flavour, trust me. If you should choose to marinate, please boil off the alcohol in the wine before you marinate, because the alcohol will dry out your chicken. Talking about chicken; you really do need the best bird available for this dish. The skinny, floppy supermarket variety will not do at all.

I was lucky enough to have a free range 2.8kg capon for my coq au vin, courtesy of a dear friend. It has a beautiful layer of yellow fat under the skin and a nice tough meat that can stand up to two and a half hours of slow stewing. If you live in France, you will have no problem getting hold of a good, yellow-fatted chicken with thick skin, as long as you have relatively deep pockets. Here in Malaysia, the matter is a little trickier.

Ask your butcher, ask your supermarket, ask your friends and hopefully someone will know someone who supplies free range, proper grain fed chickens. Good Luck in your quest, and if luck is not on your side, buy the biggest, fattiest, toughest chicken you can find and hope for the best.

To make your life easier, there is a complete shopping list at the bottom of this blog.

To Stew the Chicken:
  • 1 large capon, or chicken, at least 2kg
  • 1 litre good chicken stock
  • 250g smoked pancetta, or bacon, in thick slices
  • 1-2 Tbsp duck fat or lard (or oil)
  • 1½ bottles of good, strong red, like Cahors
  • 2 nice, big carrots
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 1 big brown onion
  • 1 whole heads of garlic
  • 2 large sprigs rosemary
  • 1 handful of fresh thyme
  • 12 sage leaves
  • 2 big, fresh bay leaves

Cut your chicken into 10 parts. If you know how to do this, skip this paragraph. First cut the legs off the chicken. Make sure you get as much of the meat on the back as you can. Take care not to pierce or cut the skin. Once the legs have been taken off, split each leg into half along the joint. If you have trouble finding the joint, turn the leg skin down and you should see the joint clearly. Pierce the joint with the tip of the knife and then go from there and it should separate easily. The French cut a piece of the breast and keep it attached to the base of the wing, so whoever gets the wing doesn’t end up with just two small bones. Cut about a quarter off the breast and then separate the whole wing from the carcass. Cut off the wing tips and use them for stock. Keep the rest of the wing in one piece. Now for the hardest part; the breast. Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut through the thin rib bones, then hold the butt of the chicken and the narrow end of the breastbone and break the two apart. Keep the spine part for stock. Place the breast part skin side up and make sure the skin is evenly stretched over the meat. Cut the two breasts apart and then split the bone in half lengthwise. Cut each breast across into two more or less even pieces. Each side of the chicken will thus yield one drumstick, one thigh, one wing with a bit of breast and two pieces of breast on the bone.

Peel the carrots and cut each one into 2-3 pieces. Clean and dry the celery branches and cut them into 4 pieces. Peel the onion and cut it into 8. Wash the whole, unpeeled garlic and cut it in half lengthwise. Cut the pancetta into lardons with each lardon being about as wide as it is thick, and you’re ready to start cooking.

Heat the fat of your choice in a cast iron pot and fry the pancetta in it until the fat has turned translucent and the lardons are just starting to brown. We’re not going for crisp bacon bits here, so don’t overdo it. Remove the lardons and reserve them for the second part of the process. Make sure there are about two tablespoons of fat in the bottom of your pot. Fry your chicken pieces in the hot fat until golden brown. You will have noticed that the chicken has not been seasoned yet. This is intentional.

Recipes always tell you to fry chicken until “golden brown”, but they don’t tell you how to achieve it. Here’s the trick: make sure the chicken is dry before you start frying it. Kitchen towel is best for that, but be careful paper tend to stick to the white membrane of the chicken, so be quick and don’t wrap your chicken in the paper, or you may have to wash it again. Now heat your cast iron pot on full heat for 2-3 minutes before you add the oil, then make sure the oil is smoking hot. Add the chicken skin side down and don’t try to move it. It may stock at first, but once it has fried for a while, it should come loose. Do not attempt to fry all the pieces in one go!

Turn your chicken at least twice, so fry the skin side until just goldenish, then turn it, leave the meat side to sear properly, then turn again and finish the skin side. There will definitely be parts that are more fried than others, but that’s not a shortcoming. Once browned, remove the chicken from the pot and reserve. I fry the legs and wings first and do the beast pieces last. You will notice that the second batch browns faster than the first, so it is good for the drier breast meat to spend less time in the oil than the juicier legs.

With the chicken fried and removed from the pot, add all the vegetables and just give them a quick stir. A light brown edge is all you need, which should take just 2-3 minutes. Some people like to remove some oil from the pot before they put in the vegetables, but I don’t usually bother. Just before you finish the vegetables, add the herbs, stir them in and then pour the wine over. Let the wine boil off the alcohol, then add all the chicken pieces and lastly pour in then stock. You need to add enough to just cover all the chicken. If you have trimmings form the mushrooms in part 2 of the recipe, add them now. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to a good simmer and leave to stew for an hour to an hour and a half until the chicken is about 20 minutes from finished.

Lid or no lid? That really depends on how long your chicken will need and how much stock you have added. I usually start uncovered and finish the last half hour or so with the lid angled on top. Once the chicken is almost done, remove it from the pot and strain the sauce. Discard all the vegetables and herbs and then return the chicken to the sauce base. If you make the dish in advance, you can stop here and refrigerate until you need it. Make sure your chicken is kept in the sauce, though, or it will dry out.

To Finish the Coq au Vin:
  • 1 Tbsp duck fat or lard (or oil)
  • 2 nice, big carrots
  • 10-12 garlic cloves
  • 500g button mushrooms
  • 250g pearl onions or shallots
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste

Peel the carrots and slice them on the bias into 1cm slices. Peel the garlic cloves, but don’t crush them. Peel the pearl onions. If your mushrooms are very small, you can leave them whole, if they are bigger, cut them in half or into quarters. Heat the fat in your cast iron pot and fry the carrots, garlic cloves and pearl onions for two minutes without browning. Add the flour and fry for another minute until the flour starts to brown, then add the tomato paste and stir through.

Pour in the coq au vin sauce base and bring to the boil. Add the chicken and then the mushrooms and simmer for 25-30 minutes until the chicken is very tender. Your sauce should be just thick enough to coat the chicken. Try not to make a gloopy, starchy sauce. You’re aiming for elegance, not sustenance.

Shopping List:
  • 1 large capon, or chicken, at least 2kg
  • 1 litre good chicken stock
  • 250g smoked pancetta, or bacon, in very thick slices
  • 2-3 Tbsp duck fat or lard (or oil)
  • 1½ bottles of good, strong red, like Cahors
  • 4 nice, big carrots
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 1 big brown onion
  • 2 whole heads of garlic
  • 500g button mushrooms
  • 250g pearl onions or shallots
  • 2 large sprigs rosemary
  • 1 handful of fresh thyme
  • 12 sage leaves
  • 2 big, fresh bay leaves
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste

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