Chicken with wine. That’s it.
Of course, with anything, it’s never really that simple. That’s not “it”, not by a long stretch. Just wine dumped on chicken would be lunatic. But, end of the day: those ingredients, indelibly, make it what it is.
Until this past weekend, I’d never cooked it before. Always wanted to; never got around to it. It sounded delicious, but also overcomplicated, time-consuming and maybe not quite worth the effort? But the past couple days happened and, well…seemed like it’d be more than worth the effort, no matter how it turned out.
Just a couple months ago, WINE SPECTATOR asked Anthony Bourdain how he’d like to be remembered, and he said this: “Maybe that I grew up a little. That I’m a dad, that I’m not a half-bad cook, that I can make a good coq au vin. That would be nice. And not such a bad bastard after all.”
Reading that (and having heard Bourdain discuss his affinity for the dish on more than several occasions), I thought it’d be cool if I could make a good coq au vin myself – as a meal, as a tribute, as a reminder. The other stuff he brought up? I’ll worry about that later. Or never.
The task felt a little daunting, but his introduction to his coq au vin recipe in his LES HALLES COOKBOOK made me feel a bit better:
“Another easy dish that looks like it’s hard. It’s not. In fact, this is the kind of dish you might enjoy spending a leisurely afternoon with. There are plenty of opportunities for breaks. It’s durable, delicious, and the perfect illustration of the principles of turning something big and tough and unlovely into something truly wonderful. I know it looks like a lot of ingredients, and that the recipe might be complicated. Just take your time. Knock out your prep one thing at a time, slowly building your mise en place. Listen to some music while you do it. There’s an open bottle of wine left from the recipe, so have a glass now and again. Just clean up after yourself as you go, so your kitchen doesn’t look like a disaster area when you start the actual cooking.
You should, with any luck, reach a Zen-like state of pleasurable calm. And like the very best dishes, coq au vin is one of those that goes on the stove looking, smelling, and tasting pretty nasty, and yet later, through the mysterious, alchemical processes of time and heat, turns into something magical.”
Alright then. What else is there but to get started? I decided to use Bourdain’s recipe directly, while adding and subtracting a few things here and there to fit what I like (And what I could find). Can’t really make it mine if I’m slavish to the “rules”, right? That’s what I’ll tell myself.
1 bottle of red wine
1 carrot, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 onion, cut into 1-inch dice
1 celery rib, cut into 1/2-inch slices
4 whole cloves
2-3 tablespoons of white peppercorns
1 bouquet garni
6 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 whole ~5lb chicken
Salt and pepper
6 tablespoons of butter (as always, I prefer Kerrygold, and you should too)
1/4 pound of slab bacon, cut into lardons
1/2 pound of white button mushrooms, the stems removed
3 shallots, sliced
8 green onion bulbs
GETTING STARTED: DAY ONE
Yep, this is a two-day affair, but don’t sweat it – Day One is pretty easy.
To start, do nothing. That’s right – you can leave the chicken whole for this step, which is neat, because if you haven’t quartered a chicken in, oh, ten or fifteen years, that’s sort of a pain in the ass, and you get to put it off until tomorrow.
So to actually begin, put together your bouquet garni. There’s no real accepted definition of what that is, so to speak, so it basically comes down to combining herbs that you like and/or flavors you want to impart on the dish. This being chicken, I chose a bunch of thyme, a couple large sprigs of rosemary, a bunch of sage, two bay leaves and a hunk of parsley.
Throw that in a huge bowl along with your carrot, onion, celery, peppercorns and cloves. Then lay the whole chicken on top of it. Open your red wine, measure out a cup of it, and set it aside. Pour the rest into the bowl over the chicken and stuff; then, pour the cup you measured out back into the wine bottle and stuff the cork back in. What you’ve poured into the bowl is probably not going to be near enough to submerge the whole chicken; don’t worry about it. You can use more red wine if you want to finish this step, but I like to use chicken stock here to give a little more depth to the marinade. Pour enough stock in that the chicken is about half-submerged. Then cover the bowl with plastic cling wrap and stick it in the refrigerator overnight.
(A NOTE: At some point, roughly halfway through, you’re going want to flip the chicken over in the solution. Oh, that’s the middle of the night for you? Tough shit. You should have planned better. I didn’t force you to make this, you know.)
That’s it. You’re done with Day One. You made it. Celebrate yourself.
The first person I ever remember cooking was my grandmother. And oh, man, could Granny cook.
When I was younger, it was all done for family gatherings – birthdays, holidays and the like. And I marveled at how many things she had going at once. Main dishes, side dishes, sauces. Cookies, cakes, pies. The woman had four fucking burners and one oven. How in the hell she managed to get so much done in an area of about eight square feet will remain a perpetual curiosity to me. It was really something to behold. And never ONCE did it seem too much for her. She had it all under control. She wouldn’t even let anyone help.
But the WHOLE KITCHEN was her base, her zone. You should have seen the way her refrigerator was arranged. Calling it “meticulous” would be a laughable understatement, and also halfway incorrect. That word assumes a careful order. And there was nothing “careful” about the order of Granny’s refrigerator – it was, at best, a tightly controlled, gleefully overstuffed and endlessly chaotic secret government project, like wherever they hid the Ark after Indians Jones rescued it. If you stood just a few feet back, it looked like the world’s smallest and most indecipherably regulated favela.
Because even in the nonsense of it all, SHE knew where everything was and where everything went, and that was all that mattered. And it mattered. Oh, it mattered. In fact: the only time I ever remember my grandmother getting mad at me – seriously, in my whole life – is when I got out a container. of her homemade applesauce (I can’t even get into the wondrousness of that stuff at the moment, but oh my God) and managed to not put it back in the exact same place. Twenty minutes later, a calamity arose. “GEOFFREY? GEOFFREY? THAT’S NOT WHERE THE APPLESAUCE GOES, AND YOU KNOW THAT.”
You may be entertained to learn that her career was serving children. As a public school lunch lady.
One of the things I think about most now is how she kept every recipe on a single, 3×5 notecard. Stained, creased and yellowed from years of battle, she’d take a moment to reread each before jumping into a new (old) concoction. I’ve come to believe over the years that she did this not because she was relearning how to cook each one, but to remember cooking them previously, and how much we all talked and laughed together as it cooked and how feverishly we all enjoyed stuffing our faces with the result. I’ve come to believe this because I find myself doing the same thing with my own recipes.
In later years, I remember her making my brother Kyle and my cousin Justin and me Steak-Umms. If you’re unfamiliar with Steak-Umms, they’re mircothin frozen slabs of low-grade ribeye that you drop in a hot pan and fry up to what can be charitably be described as a vaguely beeflike product. Hobbled by diabetes and gout that quite literally destroyed her feet, she’d limp her way out to the kitchen every afternoon, fry up a couple dozen little sheets of trashmeat, slap them between a plain white roll and call it lunch. Not because we asked her to, but because she wanted to. She’d never once seen cooking as a chore or a duty. She saw it as the best of what she had to give to others. Because there are only so many ways to tell someone, in words, that you care about them. And those Steak-Umm sandwiches were fucking. Delicious.
When I went off to college and had my own place, I made Steak-Umms once. I was passing down the frozen aisle of the Food Lion and spotted them by accident. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I LOVE Steak-Umms.” I grabbed some rolls, went home, threw half a dozen meatsheets in a hot pan, and made myself a sandwich. It was absolutely repugnant. Greasy, flavorless, stupid. And that was when I realized something and learned the single most important thing about cooking food:
The Steak-Umms weren’t delicious because they were any good. They were delicious because Granny loved us.
NOW THE WORK STARTS: DAY TWO
Hey, that chicken isn’t going to braise itself! Retrieve it from the refrigerator, pull it out of the marinade – and hang onto that stuff, it’s the most valuable part of the whole process – and pat it as dry as you can without tearing the skin off. Don’t worry if it has purple spots on it. It’s supposed to. I know it looks weird.
Bourdain’s recipe calls for you to sear off the bird whole and braise it in the same form, but I decided against that. I wanted each piece to develop flavors on two sides. In my opinion, you should at LEAST split the bird in half. But really, you want to quarter it. That’s a bit of a misnomer – as you can see, you end up with at least six pieces of chicken (two breasts, two whole legs, two wings), and you’ll end up with eight if you separate the thighs on their own. But still: I’d do it. There are some great tutorials on YouTube, which I admittedly had to refer to, since it had been at least ten years since I’d done this.
Once your chicken is prepared, salt and pepper it all over. Then, strain the marinade; keep the wine/stock solution in one bowl and put all the solids in another. You’ll still need everything in both.
Now it’s time to decide what you’re going to use to cook this damn thing. At the VERY least you need a deep pan that you can fit everything into. A large, high-rimmed skillet will work, but a Dutch oven is best. As you can see, that’s what I used; yours doesn’t have to be cast iron, but I like that best for these types of jobs. Put it on your stove on high heat, pour in some olive oil and two tablespoons (a “big glob”, if you want to be technical) of butter, and let it sit there until it *just* begins smoking. Then lay your chicken parts in, skin side-down first. If you got a large bird and need two shifts to get all the pieces seared, that’s fine. Couple minutes on each side should do it. Set the chicken aside on its own plate.
Next, dump in the onion, carrot and celery from the marinade. Throw in the garlic. Turn the heat down to medium and let that sauté for about ten minutes and soften up. Use a metal spatula to scrape up all the chicken fond off the bottom. When the onions are golden brown, take a hefty spoonful of flour and coat the vegetables with it. Stir it in good to make sure everything gets an even distribution. You’ll watch as most, if not all, of the pan liquid is absorbed. Throw your chicken back in on top. Drop the bouquet garni in. Then, grab your marinating liquid and pour it over the contents until your chicken pieces are about half-submerged again; make sure the bouquet is fully-submerged. Bring that to a boil, and then reduce to low heat so it simmers. Give it about an hour and a half.
The trickiest part of this whole deal is next.
“Leave me in peace,
I’m all alone with my angel.
She died in a dream
So I could live my life,
But all the lies
That they have told me
They make me wanna shiver.
When I’m lost and I’m lonely
That’s not gonna ease
My troubled mind.” – Noel Gallagher, “Fallen Angel (AKA…Broken Arrow)”
I’ve been rolling these lyrics over in my head constantly over the past few days. This year has been unbelievably hard for me personally, but I’m not in pain. Which makes me one of the lucky ones. If you *are* in pain, I’m thinking about you. And I hope it gets better.
IT’S ABOUT TO GET SAUCY (GOD, I’M SO SORRY): DAY TWO
Bourdain splits the sauce part of this recipe into two pans – a small sauté pan and a small saucepan. But one of the things I learned from him was also the joy of “one pot, one dish” cooking, so I combined the process into the same medium-sized saucepan, and I’m really glad I did.
Heat your naked saucepan to medium-high and throw the lardons in; if you got them plain, hit them with some pepper. They don’t need oil or butter – they’ll cook in their own fat. After ten minutes or so, they’ll be crispy, and there will be plenty of nature’s grease left over. Lay down some paper towels on a plate, extract the lardons with a slotted spoon so the fat *stays* in the pan, and let them drain on the paper towel.
Now, throw in your mushroom caps. Depending on the amount of fat in the pan and the amount of water in the mushrooms, one of two things will happen: the mushrooms will turn nice and golden brown, or they’ll release enough water mixed with the fat that they braise in that mixture instead. Either way, you’ve won. When they’re done cooking, put them with the lardons (though keep them separated on the plate), drain any liquid left in the pan and toss in your shallots and green onion bulbs.
Incidentally, this recipe calls for pearl onions, and I went to three different stores to find them, even willing to settle for the canned ones. No dice. The guy at Trader Joes finally told me they’re seasonal. Who knew, but fuck me, right? Anyway, I decided the shallot/green onion bulb combination was a good compromise.
Let them sweat in the saucepan for a few minutes. Add a bit of salt and pepper. When they’re starting to either brown or become translucent, add either the mushroom/lardon fat liquid back in or just enough water to BARELY cover the onions, along with another two tablespoons of butter. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to low heat and let it cook for a while. You want about half the liquid to evaporate. Once it does, remove the onions (you can put them with the mushrooms) add that leftover cup of red wine from yesterday to it. This next part is optional: I like a thicker pan sauce, so I added a big tablespoon of flour and whisked it in aggressively. If you like your sauce thinner, don’t bother. Either way, let this reduce until the chicken is done cooking.
I forgot to take a picture of this one. Sorry. Use your obviously unlimited imagination to conjure what the photograph of a soupy, brownish-pink melange might look like in this very space.
Almost there, kind of.
The person who *taught* me the most about cooking was my dad. This was largely accidental.
That’s not to say Dad didn’t want me to learn, or was somehow not interested in teaching me. Neither could be further from the truth. It’s more happily accidental in that I don’t think he ever set out to teach me, and I never purposely set out to learn. It just ended up happening organically.
My dad was a traveling salesman when I was younger, so he didn’t cook at home often, and honestly I don’t remember meals he made growing up. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started paying attention, and for no other reason than we weren’t getting along.
I’m not sure I was ever the “angry” kid, but I’ve never not been stubborn and reactionary and convinced I’m right about everything, and that’s not a great personality when you’re immature and your father is also…stubborn and reactionary and convinced he’s always right about everything. But the world seemed to quiet down for Dad when he cooked. He’d be the first to admit he is in no way, shape or form the most artistic guy alive, but he’s very creative and blessed of an adventurous spirit, and as such, he always seemed to enjoy the *act* of cooking more than whatever resulted from it. And I enjoyed watching him do it. But even more than that, I enjoyed that we got along while he did.
I spent a lot of time around a cooking range with my father, and while there were always recipes, they were hardly the most important facet of making a meal. In fact, they were almost annoying to Dad. Boring. Insulting. He was far less interested in what the recipe said than he was delighted in what the recipe could *become*. Peppers got stuffed with odd cheeses and bits of wayward leftovers. Hamburgers became “garbageburgers”; molded in to patties, yes, but strewn with…you know, kind of whatever the hell was laying around the kitchen that day.
On occasion, these dishes were a disaster, and you’d choke down something truly awful, and later you’d laugh about it. But that was very rare. Dad’s blessed with just sort of preternaturally knowing what works and what doesn’t, a talent honed in large part, you may be entertained to learn, by cooking with his grandmother when he was young. And that led to mostly odd dinners of questionable ingredients that ended up being completely amazing, somehow.
And there would be Dad, eating along with us, complaining about how the meat was overcooked or the vegetables undersalted, generally never really being satisfied. But how many dishes are ever perfect? We always got a kick out of him sulking. It wasn’t until I became a writer that I realized he wasn’t sulking as much as wondering what he did “wrong” and how he was going to make it better the next time. Closer to “right”.
This isn’t going to be an essay about “cooking is storytelling”, even though it so often is. I’m just saying: you realize a lot of things the older you get, and you’re always learning, even if you think you’re on autopilot, and one of the most fun things about cooking is experimenting and taking chances by ignoring old ideas or building on old ideas until they’re new ideas. And it hasn’t escaped my grasp that this is true in screenwriting as well.
One other thing Granny taught me that Dad reinforced over and over and over: you can bring happiness to people through cooking. Dad has spent countless weekends over the last 25 years cooking for others, and often on a large, charitable scale. He basically has his own parking spot at the local Ronald McDonald House, where he’s spent an untold number of breakfasts feeding tired, broken, reeling families of sick and dying children a stack of pancakes or a Scotch egg, and treating them to just a fraction of a morning where they feel as though they can afford to relax, and maybe even smile a little bit.
It can be surprisingly easy to forget that food is almost always best when it’s shared, one way or another.
I MEAN, THIS IS BASICALLY THE END: DAY TWO
Again, after ninety minutes or so, your chicken should be brilliantly braised. Go ahead and turn off the heat on your pan/Dutch oven, and use tongs to transfer the chicken to a serving dish.
OK: the lardons, the mushrooms, and the onions? Add them back into the pan with your wine sauce, which should have reduced and thickened now; if you added flour, it’ll be closer to the consistency of gravy. Stir them in. Now, grab a strainer and place it over the sauce. Pick up your Dutch oven and pour some of the braising liquid into the wine sauce. You definitely want to comfortably cover all the stuff in it. If you use a little too much, you can offset it with a touch more flour, but don’t worry about it. When the bacon/mushrooms/onions are just drowned, you’re good. Stir this all together and let it simmer down again for about five minutes.
Then, pour it over the chicken like a delicious dark waterfall. Throw some of the carrots on celery on there if you like. And maybe add some chopped green onion for color and flavor.
You can eat it just like that, or you can serve it over something. Mashed potatoes might be a great way to go? I went with buttered egg noodles, which I mixed the excess sauce in with. That was good. I liked that.
Did I mentioned you just made coq au vin? Congrats, because you did. I’d eat it now. It’s probably really good. It’s at least better than you thought it was going to be, I bet.
I never knew Anthony Bourdain, but I was enthralled by him. He was everything I’m not: hard-living, risk-taking, jetsetting, ruggedly handsome, deeply interested in understanding other people, grown up and effortlessly fucking cool. His death hit me like none other (that wasn’t family or a loved one) that I can remember.
The night David Bowie died, some genius on Twitter made a brilliant point about why we’re so sad when a celebrity dies, and I wish I could remember who it was so I could credit them here. But in a nutshell, the notion was this: maybe it’s not that you thought you knew them; maybe it’s that what they gave to the world helped you better know yourself. That struck me immediately and profoundly as true, and no probably no one represented that for me as completely as Anthony Bourdain.
It wasn’t that he was the best chef in the world; he wasn’t. It wasn’t that he was the best writer in the world; he wasn’t. It’s not that he was the only guy to ever kick heroin and still manage go to around the world boozing and eating and smiling. It was that he was always looking for the next *thrill* in life. And often, he found that in the bottom of a bowl or in the rim of a glass, or the end of a good book or a movie, and almost always around other people. And he had this amazing knack for not only finding the unfamiliar in the familiar, but much more importantly, for finding the familiar in the unfamiliar.
I am afraid of flying. I hate it. It’s the main reason I’ve never left this continent. But if I ever do, it’ll be because Anthony Bourdain convinced me it was not only reasonable to do so, but the duty of those who have the time, the money and the opportunity. That you should give a middle finger to the idea that Where You Live is Where It All Is. And I liked that he made me feel it was OK to love a four-dollar In N Out burger just as much as a $600 multi-course sit-down at Masa. And that food itself is almost never perfect, but depending on the ingredients and the company and the atmosphere, the experience of eating often can be.
Cooking – even at the basic, simple, contained level at which I do it – has become one of the great joys of my life. I love going shopping for ingredients, hemming and hawing about which chives look the greenest or which beer to use for basting. I love the transformational process of it all, lording over a bubbling stew or a quality piece of caramelizing meat. I love that I can take all these disparate elements, wild and unrelated, and turn them into something whole, something that makes sense, if only because it tastes good. And while I am happy cooking for myself, and do it often nowadays, it’s never as gratifying or meaningful as when I share the planning, the process and/or the end result of it with someone else.
I sort of developed a bug for cooking in college, which is something my roommates would probably be shocked to know, because they rarely, if ever, saw me do it. It got sparked when one of our friends in culinary school came to visit and cheffed up the weekend for us. It was cheap and easy and unreal. So I started reading, and I started learning. I rewatched old GREAT CHEFS OF THE WORLD Episodes I’d recorded onto VHS countless afternoons after coming home from high school. I read cookbooks and squirrelled them away. I bought the smallest possible quantities of food and experimented with “dishes” when I was alone. Some were very, very, very bad. Part of learning. But some were quite good, too.
And yet I hid it all away from others, and eventually just stopped any meaningful food-related pursuits entirely. Until a few days ago, I never really stopped to wonder why. But now I think it had a lot to do with insecurity, and having come from and learned under such wonderful cooks before me, and worrying that what I made wouldn’t stack up. That I’d somehow not make others as happy as I had been. And there’s no real reason to labor in a vacuum, is there?
Then, about ten years ago, I was living alone and watching a rerun of NO RESERVATIONS. In this particular Episode, Bourdain made a cassoulet – a duck, sausage and bean casserole that’s long been a staple of French peasant cooking. He shared it with a friend’s family. And for whatever reason, that spark came back. I thought to myself, “That looks complicated as hell. I bet I can make that.” It was. I did. And it was amazing, despite the fact that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just followed along, constantly noting what I might to different the next time, looking for advice when something stumped me. I’ve probably made it on a half-dozen occasions since. Always for others. Better each time.
It’d be impossible to say what a gift it’s been, being given the opportunity to cook for people I love and make them happy, just as my father and grandmother and others did for me along the way. And I never met Anthony Bourdain. We weren’t friends, and there’s a zero percent chance he was ever aware I existed. But he blessed me with this uncommonly good reason to cook, and I know I’m far from the only one to have been so blessed by something he did or just who he was, and I am very, very sad that I live in a world where knowing he had that impact on others, as he certainly must have, wasn’t enough to keep him amongst us.
Part of this…whatever this is, yes, I’m using it to say goodbye to him. But in a way I hope he would have appreciated, it’s also how I’m hoping to tell so many of you that I love you, and I care about you, and I’m glad every day that I get to walk this often-darling little planet with you.
This coq au vin was shared with my brother, who agreed it was pretty darned good. My niece is eight and has the palate of a sleeping donkey, so she passed. Me? I honestly thought I could have used a little more salt earlier in the process. Probably should have started with a different variety of wine. REALLY could have quartered the chicken better.
So, basically: it was perfect.