Julia Child once described coq au vin as “probably the most famous of all French chicken dishes, certainly one of the most delicious.” But according to legend, it was invented by an Italian. Well, sort of. While Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul, the locals sent him an old rooster with a message around its neck that read “Bon Appétit.” Instead of being irked at such impudence, Caesar ordered his cook to prepare the bird in wine and local herbs and invited the Gauls to dinner.
A more likely story is that coq au vin was created—like so many other classic French dishes–out of necessity. The “coq” or cock was a rooster, which had lost his crow and was consigned to stew for a few hours before becoming family dinner. While its origins are lost in time, the dish has become identified with Burgundy, and particularly with Beaujolais, where it is on the menu at every bistro in the region.
As with many French culinary classics, making coq au vin can seem a bit laborious. In The French Family Feast, author Mireille Johnston takes six pages to go through the recipe from introduction to serving. Coq au vin does take some time, but it doesn’t have to be as arduous as Johnston might lead you to believe. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. And it’s not as if Caesar (or Julia) were looking over your shoulder every minute.
Let’s start with that bird. Instead of a rooster, get a stewing chicken weighing six to eight pounds. It has great character and holds up to long cooking and reheating. (Coq au vin is as good or better the second day, which makes it a great do-ahead dish for company.)
If you can’t find a stewing chicken, use chicken legs, which is what Phillipe Roussel, chef of Montparnasse restaurant in Manhattan does, though he gets special Giannone chickens from Quebec, Canada (available through D’Artagnan, 800-327-8246). I haven’t tasted chicken as meaty and delicious since my first coq au vin in the Burgundian town of Bresse, where the chickens are so revered they’re individually numbered.
As for the wine, while Burgundy would seem the logical choice, Roussel uses Zinfandel. “I like the flavor and it’s not too aggressive, not too tannic or acidic,” says Roussel, who also likes the exuberant fruit in Zinfandels. With these three criteria in mind you could also use Burgundy (or a California Pinot Noir), Cru Beaujolais, or Rhone wines such as Cotes du Rhone. I’ve also successfully used a lighter styled California Cabernet Sauvignon and a young (Crianza) Spanish Rioja. As is the custom with so many wine-laced dishes, it’s traditional to drink the same wine you cooked with, though you might cook with a cheaper version and save a better one for the meal.
Now that we’ve got the bird and the wine, the two most important ingredients, we can begin. What follows is my adaptation of Roussel’s recipe.
In the old days, those roosters needed all the help they could get to become tender. So it was customary to marinate them for up to 48 hours Though Roussel follows tradition, most modern versions don’t. I took the middle ground and marinated my stewing chicken for 24 hours with excellent results. (Chicken legs from younger birds can marinate for less time.) But if you want to take the lazy man’s way out and not marinate at all, you’ll still get a coq au vin that’s good enough to serve to your mother-in-law (assuming she’s not from Burgundy).
One hour before you start to cook, remove the chicken to a sheet pan lined with paper towels and dry the chicken thoroughly at room temperature. I got this idea from Kevin Gibson, chef/owner of Castagna in Portland, Ore, who lets his chicken dry over 24 hours in the refrigerator. “It colors the sauce better after you’ve browned the chicken,” Gibson says. “You don’t get that mottled skin.” (This is also a good way to get nicely crisped skin on roasted duck, by the way.)
Browning the chicken in oil—a step I sometimes rush, but always regret later on—is important because it gives color and flavor to the chicken as well as the sauce. So take your time.
Though Roussel doesn’t do it, flaming the chicken with Cognac after browning is traditional and adds depth of flavor—not to mention a little excitement! Make sure you’re not wearing any flowing robes and that your shoulder-length hair is tied back. Add 1/4 cup Cognac (more is not better here) to the pan, then pull it back and tilt it so the flames from the stove ignite the Cognac. After a minute or so, the flames will burn out.
While the chicken is browning, sauté a chopped onion, celery rib and two carrots until lightly browned. Then combine the chicken with the sautéed vegetables, bouquet garni, a bottle of wine, and two cups of chicken stock (reduced from four cups). Roussel uses veal demi-glace (available in better supermarkets), which gives the sauce a sheen and richness that reduced broth doesn’t.
Roussel finishes cooking on top of the stove. But Ken Duckworth, chef at Maison Robert in Boston, suggests that coq au vin cooks more evenly in the oven. I agree, especially if you’re using a stewing hen, which takes about two hours at 350 degrees. (Chicken legs take half that). Using the oven also allows you to use the stovetop to prepare accompaniments without distraction.
Take care not to overcook the chicken. “The meat should still be tight (firm). Not falling off the bone. Otherwise it’s unattractive,” Gibson says. And don’t add salt until you’re ready to finish the sauce on the stove. Reducing the liquid while you finish the sauce concentrates the natural salts. Salting too early can mean a dish that’s too salty.
Bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions are customary embellishments for coq au vin. They can be sautéed, one after the other in the same pan, while the chicken cooks in the oven. Six ounces of bacon, ideally slab bacon, are cut crosswise into ½-inch wide lardons. Mushrooms, about eight ounces, are traditionally the simple button variety. But don’t be afraid to experiment. Roussel uses shiitakes. Kevin Gibson, chef/owner of Castagna in Portland, Ore uses fresh morels and puts dried morels in the reduced broth. I’ve also seen recipes including dried porcinis. Pearl onions are a bit of a pain to peel, so I prefer shallots (halved or quartered if too large). You can mix these all together once they’re cooked, and keep them warm until you’re ready to assemble the final dish.
Once the chicken is done, remove it to a platter and cover it with foil to keep warm. Strain the sauce through a sieve into a bowl, pressing out all the juices from the vegetables and bouquet garni. Don’t rush this step either. There is lots of flavor locked in the vegetables and herbs.
Reduce the sauce until thickened enough to just coat the back of a wooden spoon. If you’ve used reduced broth instead of demi-glace, you may want to thicken the sauce by whisking in one tablespoon of softened butter mixed with one tablespoon of flour. (Old-fashioned recipes call for the chicken liver pounded in brandy and the blood of the chicken to thicken the sauce.) A knob of butter adds a final gloss.
Both Gibson and Roussel serve coq au vin with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. “They have better flavor and color,” Gibson says. I also like Yukon Golds pureed with parsnips, fennel, or celery root. Steamed fingerling potatoes and wide noodles are also good accompaniments. Roussel mounds the mashed potatoes in the center of a large soup plate, then sticks the piece of chicken into the mashed potatoes. The sauce, bacon, mushrooms, and onions are poured over and around the chicken and mashed potatoes, and the dish is garnished with rosemary and thyme sprigs.
With a savory coq au vin and equally delicious wine, you’ve got a meal fit for Caesar.
This appeared originally in Wine Spectator magazine.