I knew I had all of the ingredients for coq au vin, but I wasn't sure how much time I had to get it ready before M. got home. And I knew we had about seven different recipes for it, so I was left in a predicament: do I grab the first one I see, or take a few minutes to scan them all to figure out which one is the quickest? Because I wasn't looking for the original version, with the cognac flambé, but just a quick last-minute throw-together version.
I went with the latter, and somewhat fortuitously, the first one I found was called "Quick Coq au Vin." Bingo! That had to be it. But there was something now quite right about it. It called from frozen pearl onions. Frozen pearl onions? Never bought any such thing, so this clearly wasn't the recipe I had played with before.
So I left that book out and kept looking, and low and also behold, the next one was also called "Quick Coq Au Vin." Ahh, mon Dieu! Now, what I should have done right there was to just start cooking, but something struck me about these two menus. They had different pictures, but the fonts looked remarkably similar. One called for chicken parts, the other for chunks of breast meat. But the moving pieces were laid out the same: brown chicken, sauté veggies, deglaze and create your sauce, simmer. So instead of getting to work, I spent a few minutes browsing. And noticed the really weird thing: that both recipes were from the same magazine, one from the original magazine and one from a reprint collection. Same magazine, same title, very similar but completely different.
And that's when I realized that this was one of those dishes that really doesn't have a recipe. It's more of a technique, or a starting point. There's no such thing as having the right ingredients for this, because there is no such thing as "right." One of the recipes called for frozen boiling onions, the other for leeks. One started with bacon to help flavor the chicken, the other was straight-up olive oil. One used the traditional mix of carrots and onions and mushrooms, and the other used red grapes.
But the process was the same. And it's the process that makes the wine sauce that coats the chicken and veggies and soaks into your noodles, potatoes, rice, or whatever side-dish you want to add.
So instead of a traditional recipe, here's a process-centric version with a pick-and-choose ingredient list.
Meat: 1-2 pounds of chicken. Maybe 4 bone-in thighs and 4 drumsticks or boneless breasts, cut into 1-2 inch cubes or strips. Dust with a few Tbs of flour, salt and pepper.
Sauté: 2-3 Tbs of olive oil, or 3-4 slices of bacon plus 1-2 Tbs olive oil.
Veggies: 3-4 cups total, pick from julienned leeks, thinly sliced onions, mushrooms, carrots, maybe a tiny bit of celery.
1 Tbs tomato paste, maybe a few cloves of garlic.
Deglaze: 1 cup red or white wine plus 1 cup chicken broth. (Adjust based on the size of your pan and the amount of chicken and veggies you have.)
A dash of thyme or sprig of fresh thyme. Maybe a couple of Tbs of butter to thicken the sauce.
Chicken with bacon, veggies waiting their turn
Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dredge in the flour. Or, put the salt, pepper and flour in a bag, add the meat, and shake. Whatever.
Grab a huge non-non-stick pan with a lid. (Yes, non-non-stick. You want the chicken and veggies to stick just a little.)
If you're using bacon, fry the bacon, remove the cooked bacon, and add a Tbs or two of olive oil to the bacon fat. Or, just heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Brown the chicken on all sides, then remove and set aside.
You'll have some burnt bits (fond) on the pan. Don't worry about it.
Add the veggies in the order of longest cooking to quickest cooking. Do not crowd the mushrooms! Keep the heat up to medium high and gently stir so as not to bruise the veggies. (I just made up that last part.) Sauté for 3-4 minutes or so, maybe a bit longer for onions and leeks.
Stir in the tomato paste and optional garlic. Sauté for another 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently until the tomato paste is evenly distributed.
Now for the money move. Add your wine to deglaze and scrape up anything that stuck to the pan. Turn up the heat just a skosh, and let the heat and wine soften up the fond so that it gets incorporated back into the sauce. Return the chicken back to the pan, sprinkle with the thyme, and add the chicken stock or broth. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Watch it closely for the first couple of minutes, just to make sure that it doesn't boil over, but after that, you can let it go.
Maybe, if you're feeling crazy, add a Tbs or two of butter to the final product and stir in. Not necessary, though.
Serve over mashed potatoes, egg noodles, or any other starch.