Wednesday, January 16, 2008
When I was growing up, French food was not for comfort. It was fancy, like: scary waiters and morsels of brains and other ground-up innards, and wines that you had to be French to like.
Luckily, now we know French people like comfort too, so we can drink spicy jammy wines and make things like Coq au Vin, one of the greatest comfort foods I know. But, here's what I've learned about coq au vin: it has to be made with a real farm chicken.
This is how I learned this: My friend Meg set up this thing at my son's school, where a farmer brings his van by every couple of weeks. If you were on the ball and placed an order the weekend before, you go and pick your kid in the cafeteria and then you go around the corner and pick up your food. I usually get (when I am on the ball): a whole chicken, a dozen brown eggs (you can get white, too, which are probably great, but I am sentimental about brown eggs), a couple pounds of the farmer's crazy-good chicken sausage and maybe some of his spare ribs. In the warmer months he hooks up with other producers and offers baked things, produce, honey, and even raw milk. But this time of year it's just meat. Have you heard about how Michael Pollan says you should know the name of the person who produces your meat? My guy's name is Jay.
When I am on the ball, that is. Which I am not always. So I often forget to place an order, and actually sometimes Jay is not on the ball and his schedule is erratic and not helpful. It is the absolute antithesis of the Walmart experience, for better and worse. Almost entirely for the better, but they do run out of things or give you not exactly what you ordered. Like, they forgot your brownies, or you get whole wheat bread instead of multi-grain or your produce is a little mushed up.
Whatever. It's fine by me, especially because the meat is really really fucking good. It's so fucking good it actually merits an expletive, even from prim New Englander me. So last week I made coq au vin. I've made coq au vin -- which is basically chicken-wine stew -- lots of times, but not recently. It killed us this time. It was so fucking good. We were all eating it, kids, grownups, everyone. Our pets were going insane because they could smell it and it was driving them crazy. We were putting this cultured butter from Vermont Butter on French bread and dipping it in the sauce. Even the kids were doing this. It was like a medieval feast. We couldn't believe how fucking goddamn good it was.
And it got better, as coq au vin is known to do, the next day. The next night, after work (I get home late 2 nights a week, after kids are in bed), I heated up the last little piece of chicken in the last little bit of sauce and ate it with some leftover couscous, and it was like the most luscious, silky, salty, smoky, delicious dish I could imagine. It was pure comfort. "You should make that all the time," Chris said. (Chris is a skinny guy who forgets to eat lunch sometimes and tends to eat things like aloe vera and cacao beans, so when he is moved by the taste of something luscious, it is really saying something.)
So I did. Only I missed the farm order, so I went to this new ultra fancy market in my neighborhood, Union Market, which is like the porno-fantasy of grocery stores. It is everything you ever wanted in a grocery store. It is a grocery store dressed up in silks and spandex with cleavage and cool platinum hipster jewelry. It's like Whole Foods boiled down to its most elitist delicious essence.
So I figured, Why not go there? I bought a Murray's chicken, a couple onions, and, uh, a few other things, not to be mentioned here. Then I bought a cheap bottle of Bordeaux on my way home and got to work, making the coq au vin.
Here's what I did different from the first time: used fennel instead of celery. Used a $10 Bordeaux instead of a $10 Syrah. Used an industrially-raised chicken from Murray's instead of a farm-raised chicken from Dines Farms. That's it.
It's not that it sucked. It was fine. It was really, really good. But it was not sublime. It was not pure sexy luscious comfort food. It was a world apart from the coq au vin we had with one of Jay's chickens, which probably spent a longer life eating bugs, and running around and growing gamy muscles than the antibiotic-free but not much else chickens from Murrays. And you could tell. You could totally, completely tell.
If you make coq au vin -- and you should, especially when you've got a day to let it sit and mellow -- try it with a farmers market chicken. You can even ask the guy at your farmers' market if he has any older chickens. And if you're going to do that, you might as well find out his name.
COQ AU VIN
1 chicken, cut into parts (save giblets, neck and carcass) (Not the liver; it clouds the stock. Chop the liver and give it to your cat, and she will really love you.)
1/3 cup pancetta, cut into matchsticks
2 large carrots
2 ribs of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbs flour
1/2 bottle red wine
a few sprigs of thyme
a few bay leaves
1/2 stick of butter
2 big handsful of baby bella mushrooms (white mushrooms are fine, too)
1. Put the carcass, giblets, neck, one onion (cut in half), and one carrot into a large pot of water. Simmer while you work on the rest.
2. Cut the chicken into parts. Salt and pepper generously.
3. Heat the pancetta and 3 tbs butter in a heavy-bottomed pot, stirring occasionally so it doesn't burn. When the fat on the pancetta is mostly rendered, just as it is beginning to brown, remove and place in a large bowl. Add half the chicken pieces to the pot. The goal here is golden brown skin, so keep an eye on them and jiggle now and then to make sure they're not sticking, and don't take them off too soon. When they are ready, place in the bowl with the pancetta, and do the next batch.
4. Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery and carrot. When the chicken is gone, add the chopped vegetables to pot and let them cook until the onion is transulcent. Add the garlic.
5. Add the chicken and the pancetta to the pot. Sprinkle the flour on top. Add the herbs. Add a few ladlesful of the stock, which is now simmering away on the next burner. Add the wine, and then enough stock to cover the chicken. Simmer for about 45 minutes.
6. Wash and slice the mushroom. Saute in a big knob of butter until golden. Add to pot.
7. Remove the chicken, and let the juices cook down a little. (Not too much or you won't have enough to dip the bread into!)
7. Ideally, let sit for 24 hours. Serve with couscous, or really good bread with really good butter.