A Kitsch Recipe

The ubiquitous 60s dish, Coq Au Vin, recently made an appearance on my Sunday Lunch Menu. I was preparing it for my mother and my husband and was eager for them to eschew any preconceptions they had had in their minds about the dish being a lumpy, vinegary monstrosity, one that has been adapted by the ready-made sauce brigade who have rendered the dish of it’s original rustic, delicious charm. However, it is true to say that until you try a dish made properly, by hand, you won't find the jarred sauces intolerable. After that though, you will never want to go back.

The origins of Coq Au Vin are hazy but fascinating. Elizabeth David was writing about this recipe in the 50s but it goes back much further than that. It has evolved over many years as part of French country cooking but it is said - and somehow all legends begin in ancient Rome - that the dish was prepared for Julius Caesar after conquering the Gauls, who had in turn given him an old cockerel for his trouble. Traditionally the dish is cooked for many hours in the wine because Cockerels take a long while to tenderise but the flavour is returned to you tenfold. Unfortunately, this is no longer common practise in this country although certain butchers will supply you with an old rooster.

Having never made the dish before, I already had an idea in my mind how to prepare it to please the guests. My Mother in particular remembered it from restaurants she had visited in the early 70s and seemed to have taken a dislike to it, probably after sampling one of the aforementioned aceto concoctions. This would have been in the good old days of Chicken Cordon Bleu (which, my husband makes superbly), Spaghetti Bolognese and Prawn cocktail: small, frozen prawns engulfed in a sauce loosely referred to as Marie Rose. In truth, mayonnaise tinted sickly pink with tomato ketchup. Shredded Iceberg lettuce was then smothered in this mixture and the whole dish was then garnished with some sliced lemon, tomato or cucumber. The American’s do prawn cocktail completely differently, serving the prawns independently of the sauce, which just so happens to be a peppy piquant sauce, which completely shies away from mayonnaise. I have to admit though that I enjoy both equally, particularly with fresh brown bread and real butter. The tacky prawn cocktail of my childhood has since been superseded and made cool by adding such twists as Wasabi paste and Dijon Mustard and served in uber-hip Martini glasses. Sometimes I still crave the sickly, pink prawns and force my mother to make them, stuffed inside Vol-Au-Vent cases.

70s revivalism or not, instinct told me that the combination of free range, organic chicken breasts (my concession, the cut of chicken is your choice), baby onions and button mushrooms, first bronzed in frothy melted butter, then simmered slowly in an unctuously sticky, richly reduced red wine and herby sauce had be a winner.

Never one to make life easy for myself, I began preparing the meal Sunday morning, with less trepidation than someone preparing their first ‘gourmet’ meal should have...it really is a very simple dish to make but tastes so much more complex than it’s few simple ingredients belie. Really it is not so far detached from the English Beef Stew or Hungarian Goulash.
I was working from no less than three individual recipes; the simple Elizabeth David one from French Country Cooking, a Tamasin Day-Lewis one from Simply The Best and yet another recipe, source unknown, culled from the Internet. I precociously pulled elements from each of the recipes to produce the dish that I wanted to produce in my mind, and whilst working from two cookbooks and a computer print-out sounds ridiculous, once I had read them through several times I was ready to go it alone. Firstly, I fried some good quality smoked back bacon, in a pan with some butter until browned but not splinter crisp. After enlisting the help of my husband to peel the several dozen baby onions (or so it seemed), I simmered them in boiling water for a couple of minutes. This softens them up so you don’t get a pickled onion crunch later on. I actually reckoned on 6 onions per head, but they proved to be such a desirable delicacy that several more won’t be any great trouble (except to the person peeling them). Drain them thoroughly, then sauté until they brown, in some melted butter. Throw in some finely chopped garlic and thyme. Add some whole button mushrooms and brown those too. Put these in the dish you intend to cook the whole lot in and keep warm. This stage of the dish can be prepared some time in advance if necessary. Add some more butter to the pan, not smokingly hot as you don’t want the butter to burn, and fry off the chicken breasts which you have first lightly dusted with flour seasoned salt and pepper, until brown. Add these to the dish with onion/mushroom mixture. Now the sauce. I used the same pan that I had cooked the onions, mushrooms and chicken in because they will have left a delicious sticky residue in the pan which will flavour the dish. To this add 300ml red wine. I used an extremely cheap Beaugolais which my husband said tasted like vinegar, I told him that I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money of an expensive bottle of wine that wasn’t going to be drunk although I will happily spend three times as much on Organic meat than meat of dubious origin. This is a disparity I will happily live with and expensive wine is to be quaffed, expensive meat to be scoffed (not to mention the clear conscience from knowing that your chicken has had a happy life). To the wine add 300ml of chicken stock (homemade is best, but supermarket prepared stock is also OK. Don’t use stock cubes though). Add some more Thyme, chopped Parsley, a finely chopped onion and garlic, season and reduce down until the winey taste has stopped tasting alcoholy and instead tastes rich, full flavoured and downright savoury. Only you can tell if the sauce tastes as you want it to. Add more seasoning if necessary, pour over the chicken/onion/mushrooms, ensuring that they are well swaddled in the sauce, cover with foil and place in the oven for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked.

I have a confession. I reduced the sauce down too much so I had to serve it in a gravy boat to be poured over the chicken/onions/mushrooms. It was still delicious though and I served it with braised baby gems and new potatoes done in the French style, Pommes Fondants (1oz butter melted in a large bottomed pan, add the peeled new potatoes so they form a single layer: they need to slowly brown on all sides whilst retaining a soft, fluffy interior). The meal was declared a success although my husband would have preferred his chicken cooked in the sauce. Still, there’s no pleasing some people.

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