The Gleeful Gourmand: Coq Au Vin Rouge

Friday, March 27, 2015

Coq Au Vin Rouge

There aren't many things in life that I'm able to label definitively as "the best I've ever had." But when it comes to the best meal I've ever had, there's only one that comes close. This is not to say that all the other meals haven't been spectacular, or that they've somehow been subpar. It's just that this particular one edged out all the others.

I don't remember the year, but I remember we were celebrating, most likely my birthday, because I remember that there was Champagne (my favorite). We were eating at CanCan Brasserie here in RVA, my favorite restaurant. If you've never been there, CanCan is a wonderful French restaurant that is huge, and always bustling. It looks like a beautiful French bistro, and the service is excellent. I mention all this because I believe a meal is enhanced and influenced by everything around it: the music, the service, the wine selection. I had their Coq Au Vin, which was served on a bed of bleu cheese polenta. I'm not exaggerating when I say that every single bite was a revelation in taste. Surely a dish like that must take years to perfect, and understand; otherwise, how could something taste so unbelievably delicious? I remember feeling so satisfied at the end of the meal, and so incredibly sad because the last bite was gone. If it wasn't unseemly, I probably would have picked up the plate and licked it. In my food dreams, it's this dish that dominates.

As most of you know, every year I make a New Year's resolution - although it's more like a New Year's challenge - to tackle dishes that seem daunting, and find out if I can do it. So far I've had great success. Coq Au Vin was this year's challenge.

It just so happened that for Valentine's Day, my husband signed me up for a great cooking class, Cooking With Wine, and Coq Au Vin Rouge was on the menu. I was excited to see this dish made close-up, especially by a professional. But while his technique seemed interesting (he marinated his chicken overnight in the wine with onions, carrots, and garlic), and it certainly looked good, I was very disappointed by the taste. The chicken was terribly bland. There was nothing special about it. And for all that hard work, I wondered how his dish could taste so one-note. Part of the problem was that he didn't use bacon at all, and in my favorite meal of all time, I definitely remember my eyes rolling back in my head at a bite of bacon and sautéed pearl onion together.

There was, of course, only one book I could turn to, and that was Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Predictable, I know. But there I was, poring through the recipe, step-by-step, and was pleased to find that some of the extra steps I already knew how to do, and found them easy enough to accomplish like braising the pearl onions, and browning the mushrooms (TIP: I did both of these steps at the same time a few hours before I made the main components. Put them in a dish and cover, and stick them in a fridge). However, they want you to render the bacon, just like in the Boeuf Bourguignon (by boiling the lardons first for 10 minutes, and then throwing them into the pot). This time I refused. Ain't nobody got time for that.

This young Beaujolais was also delicious to drink with the meal: light and tart.

The smells coming from the pan were divine, and I could see how everything was working. I ended up substituting Cognac for Brandy, since it's what we had in the house (and Google said it was fine), and I even got to set the pan on fire. This was a little nerve-wracking for me, since the last time I set a dish on fire was pre-kids for a Christmas dinner. It was a crown pork roast stuffed with pears and all sorts of lovely things, including Cognac. I did set it on fire, but also set the cutting board on fire too and nearly burned down the kitchen. I also set my own legs on fire during the prep of last Easter's dinner, but that's a different story for a different time.

Setting food on fire is fun. I think I got a little too much glee out of setting the chicken ablaze (while averting my face as they suggest), and snapping pictures. The kitchen did not burn down, so I proceeded.

Coq Au Vin en flambé, y'all!

The only thing I had a really hard time with was that after a certain point of adding all that wine (3 cups worth) and rich chicken stock (at least one cup worth) into a cast iron skillet already burdened with a lot of chicken pieces, making the sauce was hard to do. Trying to mix in the tomato paste, garlic, and thyme was a trick I didn't master well.

The same thing goes for adding in the beurre manié (a paste you make of flour and softened butter), to thicken the sauce. I realize now I should have just taken the damn chicken out of the pan, but I was in the zone and also in a hurry since no less than three members of my family kept popping into the kitchen to demand when dinner was going to be finished.

The teacher at the cooking school I attended said that the sauce should be able to "nape," or coat the back of the spoon. So did the Trois Gourmandes. But try as I might to reduce, it just wouldn't go. They specified that it should "lightly" coat the back of the spoon, so that's what I settled for. In the end, I don't know if it was thick enough or not.

Coq Au Vin Rouge, fresh from the stovetop.

But oh. My. Goodness. The taste was extraordinary. That sauce. I could take a bath in it. I could drink it, again, if it wasn't so unseemly. I chose a young Beaujolais for the base of the wine sauce, and it was perfect. Tart, yet sumptuous. I served the whole thing over CanCan's inspired bleu cheese polenta, but since it was the first time I'd ever made polenta (from a box of instant polenta, you heard it here first), I could have done a better job. I should have added some butter, maybe some pepper, and definitely more bleu cheese (I only threw in two big handfuls - it needed more).

The family loved it. I watched in complete fascination as my three kids, who can be quite picky about most tried-and-true things we put in front of them, devoured it. I enjoyed it too...but. It wasn't CanCan's. It was delicious. But not quite there. Whatever chef made Coq Au Vin Rouge that evening surely was working with a little magic. But that's probably what makes a "best-ever" meal best-ever. If you could easily replicate it in your own kitchen, I'm guessing it would most likely lose some of its inherent magic.

I can't put the recipe on my site because of copyright issues, but as always, if you want to try your own hand at Coq Au Vin, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a wonderful book to start with. If you don't have your own book, you can find the recipe by clicking here.

Traditional Coq Au Vin.



Kirsten Oliphant said...

That looks beautiful and delicious and I'm going to make you make it for me the next time we hang out. TRUE STORY.

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