Barefoot Bloggers: Coq au Vin

I’ve been gone for awhile. I know. I’m terribly sorry. Did you miss me? Because I’ve certainly missed this little blog of mine.

We returned from our trip out west almost two weeks ago now, and since then I just haven’t had much worth talking about in here. I failed you utterly by neglecting to take pictures of the small Thanksgiving feast that J and I made on the eve of our departure, and then added insult to injury by completely forgetting to pull out the camera on Thanksgiving Day. Its really a shame, too, because where our little feast for two was slightly sophisticated, creative, and involved a bit of experimentation, Thanksgiving dinner with J’s parents was unfussy, down-to-earth, and simply delicious in a very classically American way. Both were great, but sadly, a Thanksgiving post will have to wait until next year.

Aside from that, we’ve cooked very little recently that’s been interesting. The holidays are rather kicking our rears, in terms of money, energy, and creativity, so we’ve sort of just been plugging along for the time being. But, the Barefoot Bloggers march on, unhindered by the coming of Christmas craziness, and I have a new recipe assignment to share with you today.

Bethany of this little piggy went to market chose Ina’s recipe for Coq au Vin for the first December challenge, and I was very excited to see it. Coq au Vin is, as the name suggests, a braised dish of chicken and red wine, and is one of those classic dishes that I feel like every cook worth their himalayan pink sea salt ought to be able to make, and I don’t know if I’ve ever even eaten it before. Its been on my “to try” list for quite awhile, and I love it when the BBs give me an excuse to knock something off of that list.

That being said, I suspect I may have screwed this recipe up with my typical substitutions and omissions, because the end-product was entirely underwhelming. Tasty, to be sure, but nothing special. I feel guilty saying that we probably wouldn’t make this again since I didn’t really follow the recipe, so maybe someday I’ll give it another shot and actually follow the directions letter by letter, but I suspect I may just revisit the Coq au Vin thing with another recipe.

But, I digress. Lets start at the beginning, shall we?

Ina’s recipe begins with chopped bacon sizzling away in a dutch oven. We didn’t do this, which may have been our first mistake – I tend to discount the flavor of bacon as nothing but salt and smoke when cooked in a dish rather than on its own, but obviously its more than that, and the liquid smoke I added to the braising liquid in an attempt to compensate really didn’t do the trick.

Instead we went right ahead to searing the salt-and-peppered chicken pieces in some oil instead of the leftover bacon fat we would’ve had if we’d followed the recipe. We used chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken broken-down, and here I think was another mistake in judgement. A) We didn’t make it to Iavarone this week and couldn’t get those great Bell & Evans thighs, so we had to use some sub-par supermarket chicken instead, and B) I didn’t get the chicken out of the freezer early enough and did not have time to brine it, which is not called for in the recipe but which always, ALWAYS improves chicken’s flavor. That aside, J got quite a nice sear on the skin, and it was all I could do not to tear the skin off of the thighs, finish cooking it in the pan, and then scarf it down, because lord do I love crispy, salty poultry skin.

After the chicken had been properly browned, it was removed from the pan and the vegetable flavor base was added – thinly sliced onions, carrots cut on the bias, and a few minced cloves of garlic. These got slowly sauteed to soften them and bring out the natural sugars to caramelize a bit.

Now here comes mistake number three: Ina calls for brandy or cognac to be used to deglaze the pan. We drink neither, and so we have neither, and I was not about to buy a whole bottle for one recipe. So, I substituted sherry. And its not that it tasted wrong in the finished dish, but I just can’t help but wonder how different it might have been with the brandy/cognac instead.

I scraped up what bits of brown had collected in the pan with the sherry and let it cook off almost entirely before adding back the chicken pieces. Then, in went a heavy cup of red wine and chicken stock, and since I had to use a cabernet sauvignon in place of the requisite burgundy – it is shockingly hard to find around here – well, that was probably mistake number four. A couple of sprigs of thyme and a sprig of rosemary for extra herbal flavor went in on top, the cover went on, and the whole thing went into the oven at 250 degrees for about half an hour.

While the oven did its thing, I sliced up a whole package of baby bella mushrooms and sauteed them in some melted, unsalted butter with just a bit of salt, pepper, and worcestershire sauce, and somehow I even managed to screw this up. I salted them too early, and ended up with a whole crapload of liquid in the pan. Normally I know better than that. I think my cooking mojo must’ve phoned it in that day or something, because really, this more than anything else was just pathetic. I should never be draining half a cup of liquid from a pan of sliced mushrooms at this point in my cooking life.

When the mushrooms were cooked, all that was left was to mash some flour into some butter to create an instant clump-free thickener for the stew when it came out of the oven, and then all we could do was wait.

After 30 minutes in the oven, the chicken was still very pink in the thickest parts.

Truthfully, I wasn’t surprised. Half an hour at 250 for chicken on the bone just didn’t seem like it could possibly be right, even if you are intended to finish the cooking on the stovetop. If it wasn’t enough for me with only three pieces of chicken in the oven, how in the world could it work for an entire bird’s worth?

So, I turned the temp up to 300 and put it back in for 15 minutes, and this time it looked like it was cooked correctly. Out of the oven and back on the stovetop, where the herbs got removed and the mushrooms and a handful of semi-thawed frozen pearl onions got added to the pan. Let that bubble away for a few to heat up the onions, and then in went the butter/flour mash. Stir stir stir to help melt the butter and thicken the sauce evenly, cook a few minutes more to eliminate any potential for floury flavor, and dinner is served.

Not very pretty is it? Its hard to make any sort of stew really look attractive… thick brown gravy makes even the tastiest dish look like dog food. And honestly, it was tasty. Could’ve used a bed of egg noodles or a heel of crusty bread to sop up the gravy, but that’s neither here nor there. What it wasn’t, was exciting. It wasn’t revelatory. It wasn’t anything I didn’t feel like I’d eaten a hundred times before. Would any of that had changed if I’d actually followed the recipe? Well, maybe, but who’s to know. All I know is that next time I feel the hankering for a stew with red wine and mushrooms (and, well, bacon), I’m making beef burgundy. Because that’s basically what this was, sans beef. And I think the beef is better.

Its ok Ina, I still love you. I’ll blame this one on my insatiable need to tinker. We’re still cool.

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