Classic French Cooking: Coq au Vin

There is almost nothing better (and yes, I know I say this all the time) than chicken and mushrooms in a red wine reduction in the winter. I’ve got to warn you – done properly, this dish will take two + hours (depending on how proficient you are with a butcher knife) to prepare. But the flavor and elegance of the dish are well worth it, especially if you have someone special to share it with.  Oh, and did I mention that you get to flambé?  

1 whole chicken

5 slices thick, center-cut bacon

20 red pearl onions

1 clove garlic

1 fresh bouquet garni (several sprigs each of thyme, rosemary and parsley)

1 package dried morels

¼ cup brandy

2 cups red wine (a Chambertin or a Macon are recommended from that culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, but a good-quality burgundy will serve you well also) 

For the Beurre Manie (yes I will tell you what this is if it’s not obvious):

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon flour 

For a perfectly timed dish, you need to follow the steps in the order presented. Trust me.  Read through them once, and take a deep breath. Classical French cooking is nothing to fear- do it once, and you can do it again. Steps one and two must be done in tandem- rinse the morels, cut a few pieces of chicken, rinse the morels again, back to chicken, and so on, until both the chicken and morels are ready. After that, follow the recipe as normal… ok, go! 

1.) Put the dried morels to soak in a cup of cold water. You will need to change the water and rinse the morels up to six times before they are clean enough for cooking. In between rinses, lift the morels out of the water with a sieve, being careful not to disturb the sediment that has settled to the bottom. When the water is clear, they are ready to use. Gently squeeze out excess water and put them on a clean towel to drip dry. 

2.) You need to section your chicken into pieces- two legs, two breasts, two thighs, two wings. If you have never done this before, I really recommend you open your copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques now, but I will try my best to describe this process to you… it’s not that hard. But please use the sharpest butcher knife you own- you should be able to cut a piece of paper cleanly with it. It needs to be this sharp, otherwise you will absolutely cut yourself badly (fortunately I speak from near-misses, and not first hand experience). First, remove the wings from the bird by slicing through the skin and the meat around the joint with the body, then wiggle the wing away from the body until you can feel the space in between the joints with your knife. Cut the wing free through the joint, then cut the wing tips off and set those aside for stock. Next, remove the legs, using the same method. Then you need to remove the breasts and thighs from the chicken by running your knife along both sides of the backbone. Lay it flat on your cutting board, and remove the thigh from the breast by cutting through the joint (this will look obvious to you). Clean up your pieces by trimming away any loose skin and meat. Save all of the bones and trimmings in the freezer to make stock with. Again, Jacques Pepin’s book has much better instructions, complete with step-by-step photos, so please consult it if this part seems daunting to you. 

3.) To prep the onions, cut the ends off and peel away the skins. Peel and dice your garlic. 

4.) Okay, now that the chicken, morels and onions are prepped, the hard part (and probably a half hour) is over. Let’s start cooking. Cut your bacon slices in one-inch pieces and put them to fry in the largest sauté pan or stock pot you have (one that will hold eight pieces of chicken- if you don’t have one, use two pans and equally divide all of the ingredients between the two. Crowding the chicken will ruin the dish, so this is important). 

5.) Once the bacon is nearly cooked (just a few minutes), add your pearl onions and sauté for a few more minutes, until everything is starting to look golden-brown.  

6.) Add your chicken pieces, skin side down. When they have browned nicely (5-6 minutes), flip them over. Sprinkle the morels and diced garlic on top, and top everything with the bouquet garni. Cover and sauté over a brisk heat until the chicken is golden-brown on the second side.  

7.) Remove the lid and skim off any fat that has risen to the surface. Now comes the fun part- you get to flambé! But, flambé responsibly—have your red wine measured out and handy (the wine will extinguish the flames) and for god’s sake, do not lean over the pot as you light the brandy—it will ignite with quite a flare. Pour the brandy evenly over the chicken, and ignite it with a long-handled lighter or match. Let the flame burn for just 10-15 seconds, and then pour the wine over the chicken to extinguish the flames. Let the chicken cook in the wine for a little over an hour, until everything is tender and smells so good you can hardly stand it.  

8.) While the chicken is cooking, make your beurre manie. A beurre manie is simply equal parts of flour and butter mixed together and used as a thickener. All you have to do is use a fork to smash the flour into the butter until well combined. (You can even make up a whole stick of butter this way and freeze it on a baking sheet in little individual clumps. Once they’re frozen, put them in a freezer container, and then you will always have pre-made beurre manie to thicken your reductions, sauces and stews with).  

9.) At the end of your cooking time, remove the bouquet garni and discard, then remove the chicken to a serving platter. One small piece at a time, whisk the beurre manie into the red wine still in the pan. Stir constantly to prevent any clumps from forming. You are looking for a loose sauce- you may you use all the beurre manie, or just a portion- this is your individual preference. Once the sauce is suited to your liking, pour over the chicken, and voila! Tres bien!  

Okay, a couple of notes:  

You might have noticed that this recipe does not call for any salt or pepper. As a salt-addicted American, I was skeptical of this fact at first as well. But it doesn’t need it—the saltiness of the bacon is more than enough, and there are so many flavors at play here—the woodsy, smoky flavor of the morels, the warmth of the brandy, the richness of the wine, the freshness of the herbs, well you can see it just doesn’t need it. If you don’t believe me and you add it anyway, you will ruin this dish. And if you don’t think you’ve ruined it, you’ve burned off you taste buds ages ago and… well let’s just say I feel sorry for you.  

Fresh herbs. I’m sorry, but you cannot use dried herbs in this dish. It just won’t taste the same. You should be growing these three very basic herbs with absolutely no hassle in your kitchen window already. And this is the dish you will use them in. It called a bouquet garni for a reason.  

Morels, yes they are expensive… to be perfectly honest, you will likely spend $15-$20 dollars on an ounce. Yes, I know this is three times the cost of the chicken, but it’s worth it. Morels are my favorite mushroom, and they are worth every penny (especially for a dish like this). Treat them like the luxury they are – it would be preposterous to have them on the table every day, but once in awhile we need a treat. If you can’t obtain morels, or really don’t have the cash or (gasp!) you don’t like them, you can use button mushrooms instead. But believe me when I say you will be missing the soul of this dish if you do.  

I know a few of you are going to groan and cry at the prospect of jointing an entire chicken. But if you read this blog often enough, you know I’m going to tell you this—if you’re going to cook, cook. Take the time and enjoy it—joint that chicken! It’s an easy skill to learn (easier with Pepin’s instructions rather than mine J) and it will serve you well. And you’ll gain kitchen confidence- truth be told, the first time I jointed a chicken with a knife was the first time I made this recipe. It took me a little longer then I expected, but I did it correctly (and if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well), didn’t injure or maim myself and I felt amazing when I was done. I had always thought it was impossible to do (I grew up in a pre-packaged chicken pieces household too) but it’s all about the knife skills, folks. If I can learn it, so can you. And what’s better than a dish you put your effort and love into? (Okay enough of me waxing poetic over cutting up poultry). 

It goes without saying that you should purchase and use the best ingredients you can afford—organic, healthy, top-quality stuff. This is especially true for the brandy and the wine. Go for the top shelf brandy- yes it’s expensive, but every grown adult should have a good bottle of brandy in the house anyway, so it’s high time you got a bottle. And the wine? I’m all about locally produced wines (because I’m a go-local fanatic) but I also believe in sustainable trade, so treat yourself to the luxury of a great French wine (or Italian olive oil, Spanish cured ham, fair trade coffee, etc.- whatever the case may be) every once in a while. If you’re going to go all out with classical French cuisine, get the wine to go with it. You’re going to taste it. (And drink what’s left at the table!). 

I think that coq au vin stands well all by itself, but you can serve it with a wild mushroom couscous or crusty French bread (that goes so well with so many things) if you are so inclined. Both are nice accompaniments to the sauce. Oh, and I recommend serving it on a Saturday. Spend the afternoon cooking, have a long, leisurely, candlelit meal with someone you love and then… relax.

3 thoughts on “Classic French Cooking: Coq au Vin

  1. My husband followed your recipe for Coq au Vin for a French-themed dinner party we had last weekend.
    This was the most delicious Coq au Vin I have ever eaten in my life (I’m 48) and our guests were AMAZED!
    Thank you for this wonderful recipe and all of your advice. Cous cous went very well with it. Christine and John Triska, Bayside, CA (North coast)

  2. Brilliant! Back in my college days I lived in France (French major) and never had a bad meal. My favourite dish was coq au vin, and for years I’ve been looking for the perfect recipe, without success.
    Well this evening, I finally found it! It was everything I thought coq au vin should be, fresh and delicious. I realized that everything truly needs to be cooked together (some recipes have you preparing ingredients separately in another pan…NO)
    A word to the cook though, pay close attention to the caution given when lighting the brandy over the chicken. It truly flames!!
    If anyone finds anything better, I’d love to hear it, but this is definitely the real thing.
    Bon appetit!

    Pauline in PA

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