Somewhere down the line, my dad decided coq au vin was going to be one of the few dishes that he cooks. There are pancakes, and there’s coq au vin. He has a special braising dish just for it. He uses his scientific acumen to test and retest his methods and ingredients. He uses chicken thigh meat, browned lovingly in bacon fat. He uses whole button mushrooms, pearl onions. Then he drowns the whole thing in a bottle of Charles Shaw Two Buck Chuck. Okay, so this, and the use of chicken stock is not for the purist, but it’s still tasty. And while he has perfected his recipe mostly in my absence, I still think of coq au vin as a special meal I ate growing up. It’s comfort food, food I associate with home.
It’s also something I rarely make myself.
Perhaps it’s because roast chickens seem like perfection to me, because I have a mild allergy to wine, or because when I do make coq au vin, some desire to improve upon it always leads me astray. Even restaurants seem like bad luck. Ann and I went to the Happy Rooster for its much-praised coq au vin, but it wasn’t even on the menu. It’s like the perfect coq au vin has always been out there, taunting me, until I make it again and screw it up again.
Most recently, the urge to try struck me in the meat section at the Ardmore farmer’s market. In honor of the holidays the Amish carried fresh capons. The “coq” in coq au vin is rooster, and a capon is a rooster, albeit a castrated one, so that seemed like a step toward authenticity. Apparently, farmers don’t believe that gender is a social construct, so castrating roosters is supposed to make the birds less “aggressive,” and so less active, less gamey and more fatty. Just the thing to improve on perfection. And at only 3$ a pound I told Ann, how could we resist? But when the Amish guy heaved the bird onto the scale, we realized the smallest bird weighed fourteen pounds. We only had our two mouths to feed, so we took a pass.
It was probably all for the best. I couldn’t find any coq au vin recipes that called for capon, or for that matter rooster, or even just a bird larger than four pounds. Not long after however, Ann consulted with her parents about food for the holidays, and suddenly I’m back on again, now making coq au vin for six on Christmas Eve. Ann’s mother had even poked around and found a local butcher that carried capons. Ann’s parents, Newt and Marge, live out in the country so I imagined some impeccable local bird that roamed free, probably in the butcher’s own backyard. It led a happy life on organic feed until the butcher’s deft axe separated it from its life just as it previously separated it from its testes.
So there we were, driving up to rural Pennsylvania for the holidays, with my red Le Creuset pot and dreams of the perfect coq au vin simmering away in a country kitchen.
When I first met Ann, she told me she lived in “Montrose . . . or really Elk Lake, twenty minutes outside of Montrose”. She seemed to anticipate a blank stare, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her. “Montrose is thirty minutes from Tunkhannock,” and after another theatrical pause: “You’ve heard of Scranton, right? Its about an hour from Scranton”. In my defense this was just after I had moved east, and Scranton was not yet associated with “The Office,” or Joe Biden indelibly linked “Scranton” and “hardscrabble” in the nation’s consciousness. So the only landmark I recognized was “Pennsylvania”. But now I know. That’s where Ann’s from. An hour outside of hardscrabble, on a rural road that has no name.
Ann’s parents live on a no longer functioning dairy farm. Most of the private farms in the area have closed down, so there isn’t much in Elk Lake other than a school. Its one of those single-level affairs that houses everyone from K-12 under the same roof where kids huff glue and dream of one day making it to the bright-lights, big-city atmosphere of Hazelton or Carbondale. But during the winter, none of that matters. Snow covers up the town’s imperfections, leaving a landscape of Norman Rockwell’s imagination, dotted with grain silos, little chapels, walls of stacked slate and the timid deer who have narrowly survived hunting season. It looks like Christmas, more like Christmas than any storefront display or suburban nativity scene re-enacted by inflatable snowmen and animatronic reindeer. And it’s just the kind of place I’d want to make a bubbling coq au vin.
And just the kind of place I’d want to bring Anthony Bourdain. Foul-mouthed, enfant-terrible, Travel Channel shill, Anthony Bourdain, smuggled in through a cookbook with a brown paper-bag cover. Ann encouraged me. She downloaded Kitchen Confidential from audible.com so we could put ourselves in the mood during the drive.
Bourdain is that unique incarnation of the French paradox, the slim French chef. How does one run a meat-centric, fat-loving Brasserie, and yet stay fit and fashionable as a television celebrity? If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know the answer: French cooks do lots of smack. Lots of other drugs too.
We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to ‘conceptualize.’ Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Pot, Quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we’d send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet city to get.
So the real question is, why wouldn’t you want to bring him along for Christmas at the in-laws?
I turned to Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles” Cookbook, because French food sounds fancy enough for an occasion like Christmas Eve, but as Bourdain reminds us, most French food is born out of the country. Its not made by chefs of haute cuisine but by ingenious farmers who made the most of what they butchered, right down to the offal. Dishes like campagne de pate make us think of the Cordon Bleu, and we’re used to Food Network ingénues making people feel like they deserve a blue ribbon just because they manage to make a little cold meatloaf. But not Bourdain. “Oooooh . . . pate, I don’t know.’ Please. Campagne means “country” in French—which means even your country-ass can make it.”
It also seemed to fit. Anthony Bourdain is all about meat and butter. Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) is also all about meat and butter. At the family breakfast, there is no either/or fallacy when it comes to choosing bacon or sausage for breakfast; it’s always bacon and sausage, often ham, and sometimes a pork chop. It all comes from the same wonderful, magical animal, so really it’s one kind of meat. Cooked in butter.
Best laid plans and all that. Turns out that “Marge’s butcher” was just the meat section of the local chain store. And while yes, they did carry capon, it was lodged in the back of the freezer where it probably got caught in the great chill of the late Pleistocene era. It was frozen solid and would have to be chiseled out carefully if one were to keep the specimen intact. It was also one of the same commercial capons that I could get from the Superfresh back home, and as I have subsequently learned with research, commercial capons are “castrated” through hormone injections (not by a deft axe). So you wouldn’t want to feed it to a foodie or a farm family. In addition, the “bacon ends” I bought in lieu of slab bacon ended up being tufted with blue mold, and the closest thing to a pearl onion I could find was about the size of a tangerine with a thyroid problem.
The bird was only seven pounds, but it was still a problem when it came to thawing and marinating. The fridge in a NEPA kitchen is always full. The local grocery store, after all, is twenty minutes away, and during the holidays you want to make sure that you’re well stocked in case you’re snowed in. Even so, Marge tends to go a little overboard. For example she has fourteen bottles of salad dressing, many of which are well beyond their expiration date. One year, Ann went through and threw them all out. Marge seemed appropriately thankful, but as soon as we went out, she went through the garbage and put the bottles back in the fridge. Even after they’re all cleaned out, the Marie’s Bleu Cheese dressing bottles will find new life in the cabinets as recycled glassware. Fortunately, the NEPA family home also comes with a traditional NEPA garde manger, also known as the garage. Given the recent snow, it held an almost perfect 36-38 degree temperature for both thawing the bird and letting it marinate in a magnum’s worth of Beaujolais. (The only french wine I could find. Probably not the best choice, but I have seen recipes use almost any kind of wine, including a Riesling white for Alsace coq au vin).
These are the kinds of challenges I’m accustomed to, the kind that I feel good about solving. I was also prepared for Marge’s electric stove, which usually only had one or two elements that really got up to full temperature. I had visions of taking the pot down to the basement and McGuyvering something on the woodstove, the way Newt has cobbled together his own custom smoker and deep-fat fryer out back for cooking turkeys. I mean, if nothing has to be jerry-rigged during the process, it wouldn’t be cooking, would it? But when I walked in to the kitchen, I discovered that it had been thoroughly de-rusticated. The orange Formica countertops were still there, but a new glass induction stove had been set in it. It looked like something used for making airline food on a stealth bomber.
I should be pleased with this development. No, I am pleased with this development. But having a modern stove turned out to be the one contingency I couldn’t work around. I’ve never actually used an induction stove before. I didn’t even know if you could use cast iron pots on it. Would it scratch? Break? I remembered something in the Le Creuset instructions about not using pots on induction stoves, though it turns out that’s just for the pottery ones. I also didn’t know what the temperature settings were like. The fact that there was a separate dial for “simmering” probably should’ve been an omen of things to come, but I didn’t pay attention. I was confident after browning the bird that I had it all figured out, because at least there, you don’t need points on a dial: you just turn up the temperature as high as you can without the steam turning to smoke or without the sizzle turning to spatter. And at that point, the bird was glorious. It was a nice purple-bronze with pale crescent moons from where the bird had rested on top of chopped celery.
But I got cocky. I had a nice conversation going in my head with Anthony Bourdain, who was commiserating about the local grocery store, and admiring the bird, and so I left him to go take up my other favorite holiday past time, couch-surfing. By the time I came back to the room, my steadily simmering braise turned into a steady boil. I didn’t bring a probe thermometer with me, so I waited through the recommended cooking time hoping that it was “tender, the juice from the thigh running clear when pricked”. But the juices were not only clear, they were invisible. There were no juices. And imaginary Bourdain was turning surly, telling me how 95% of chickens in the country are “clearly the result of insensitive and murderous overcooking by food-hating orangutans”. I quickly pulled the bird out of the pot and set it aside to cool, but it was too late. Imaginary Bourdain rattled on, like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. (link)
If you can’t properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron. Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself. You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks. Turn in those clogs, too.
I hung my head in shame, but I didn’t resort to hanging. I left the apron back in Havertown with the thermometer.
The “pearl onions,” also fell short of perfection. The one thing that struck me as an interesting innovation in the Les Halles recipe was the pearl onions. They were cooked separately in a saucepan, covered with water and a disc of parchment paper rather than a lid. The parchment paper, I gather allows the water to slowly evaporate away while still keeping the little onions in a sauna so they don’t get dried out. The onions are supposed to be done when the water is all gone and the onions are thoroughly caramelized. Throw some red wine into the pan, deglaze and dump the contents into the pot. But as I said, I had no pearl onions, and simply quartering them didn’t do the trick. They were still too large, so covering them in water meant too much water. I cooked and I cooked, but the water never drained fully away. It made a nice onion broth, which I added to the pot, but there was none of the good brown bits on the bottom of the pan to give the sauce a little extra depth.
Beckett says “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better“. I’d like to add to that “Fail Glorious,” because if you’re going to go down in flames, you should be doing something really ridiculous. But this wasn’t glorious. This was a run-of-the-mill failure. Edible but a little tough, rich in wine flavor but not much else, just damnably ordinary.
Truth be told, the mission was probably doomed from the start. I’ve done a little more research on capons since then, and I realize that they are decidedly not a “more authentic” choice for coq au vin. The whole purpose of coq au vin is to mask the gamey flavor of a rooster with red wine and to let the connective tissue of an old bird simmer down to make a sauce that is thick and glossy. It’s about turning weaknesses into strengths. Caponization takes away the very qualities that make braising necessary in the first place. So I wasn’t being “more authentic,” I was just being more expensive. In retrospect my dad’s coq au vin is more appropriate to the spirit of the dish. Using all chicken legs gives you all the dark meat and connective tissue that you need. And while the mix of Charles Shaw and chicken stock may seem sacrilegious, it still tastes like home.