Food for Thought
Chicken From Scratch
When the roosters get tough, the tough make coq au vin
Every coq au vin recipe I've read assumes that nobody will really go to the trouble of finding a tough old bird to cook. That's why you'll find cooking times of 30 minutes, which is a crime against gastronomy. Even with a store-bought, spoon-tender bird, that's not enough time for the red wine sauce to fully come together and impregnate the chicken with flavor.
After witnessing one too many of those sessions, I boiled a large kettle of water and brought it to the garlic patch. Then I caught Rusty, which was easy, because mean roosters run at you.
Rusty was a mean old rooster from a three-bird flock that also included a postmenopausal hen named Annabelle, who hadn't laid anything in years, and a submissive rooster named Marco Pollo. Suffice it to say, the eggs were not flowing.
Those three were all that remained of a flock that had been relentlessly pared down by wild animals. As the flock dwindled, Rusty ran out of young hens to harass. His thoughts turned to Annabelle. He would hold the old girl down while he did his business.
After the business of killing, plucking and gutting him, I rinsed Rusty in cold water, then brined him overnight in saltwater. The next day I drained and rinsed him and let him rest a few days in the fridge, covered, until his rigor mortis loosened up. Do not skip this step, as a fresh-killed chicken will be rubbery and awful.
Here's my coq au vin recipe, based on what I did to Rusty. It’s simple: no bouquet garni, no butter and flour, and I often don't use pork fat. If you want a fancier recipe, try Nigella Lawson's: nyti.ms/NigellaCoq.
Put the bird in a baking pan in the oven at 350. While it bakes, prepare the following: chunks of carrot, parsnip and potato; whole garlic cloves; chopped onions; thyme, bay leaf, pork fat (or bacon, or not). Turn the bird once or twice for even browning.
Mix the above items with olive oil, remove the chicken from its pan and spread the veggies into the pan. Replace the bird, lower the temp to 300, and continue cooking. Turn the bird if necessary, and stir the veggies a few times. When the vegetables have developed a light brown crisp, remove the whole business from the oven and let it cool. If it's a tough old guy, remove the skin—it’ll probably be too tough to eat. Note all the bulging muscles you didn't know a chicken even had.
When in doubt, just add more wine and keep cooking.
Pull and cut the coq into five to 10 pieces, and put them in a large pot along with the roasted veggies and juice from the pan, as well as some mushrooms (I used dried morels and porcinis, as well as fresh buttons) and a bottle of red wine. Everybody says Burgundy, so with Rusty I used Burgundy. But when I make it with deer, I use Franzia Cabernet without issue. (I call the dish “buck au franz.”)
Cover the contents of the pot with equal parts water and wine, and simmer. Season with salt and pepper and maintain the liquid level with additional water and wine as necessary. The longer you cook it, the thicker the sauce gets as everything merges together. Coaxed by the wine, fatty flavors leech from the cartilage and bone, reducing the need for butter and pork. All of the veggies, especially the potatoes, begin to disintegrate, which thickens the sauce in lieu of flour. Simmer at least an hour. When in doubt, just add more wine and keep cooking.
People serve it with all kinds of filler, like bread or pasta, but I reserve all my belly space for coq au vin.
After we ate Rusty—and boy, was he delicious—Marco Pollo and Annabelle enjoyed a brief period of peace. Two weeks later, she died on a cold night, my first chicken to ever to die of natural causes. Sadly, she never got to meet the new brood of chicks, chirping inside under the heat lamp the night she died. They're all so cute now, but surely some of them will turn into assholes. Yum.