25 January 2006

Coq au vin — the real thing

Last week Intermarché advertised a special on coqs — roosters. For a few months, I had been noticing them on sale at the Saint-Aignan market on Saturdays, and I kept saying I'd like to buy one and make a real coq au vin one day. Well, the timing was right, and here was my opportunity.

Just before Christmas there were some kids selling pony rides
out in the Intermarché parking lot over in Noyers-sur-Cher.

I'd never noticed coqs in the butcher counter at Intermarché before, so I figured the advertised special must be a limited-time offer. The sale started on Tuesday, but I didn't get over to the store until Thursday. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking the coqs would all have been sold by then, and I would be out of luck. That's what has happened several times with other advertised products — ducks, for example. But this time my luck was good — there were three big roosters sitting in the butcher's refrigerated counter, and the line wasn't long at all.

The roosters were on sale for 3.20 €/kg. The butcher picked one out, put it on the scale, and then looked vaguely in my direction and said « C'est combien, les coqs ? » I pointed to the paper sign hanging over the display and told him the price. He looked at it himself. « C'est pas cher ! » I agreed it was a good price.

I also ordered two shrink-wrapped turkey legs (thigh and drumstick) for Collette's breakfasts. They were only 2.20 €/kg, and they were enormous. I was thinking, really, I could make coq au vin out of a couple of those. But no, I wanted to use a real rooster for the first time and, besides, Walt likes the white meat on the bird. There's no white meat on a turkey leg.

This coq was on sale at the market in Saint-Aignan on New Year's Eve.
As is customary, it is being sold with the head and feet attached.
It's the same price as what I paid at Intermarché, but the
supermarket bird was all prepared for cooking.

The Intermarché rooster I bought weighed 3.47 kg — that's just short of 8 lbs. It was a big beast. The label stuck on the breast said Coq à mijoter — stewing rooster. In North Carolina, we used to get stewing hens. They needed to be cooked for a long time, because they were tough old birds. A couple of times here in Saint-Aignan, I've bought what I thought was a chicken (un poulet) only to realize when I got it home that it was a hen (une poule). A poule requires long, slow cooking. Otherwise, it's tough.

The Joy of Cooking (1997 edition) mentions stewing hens and other large chickens that are called roasters, which weigh 5 to 7 pounds. But there's nothing in the book specifically about roosters or coqs. About stewing hens, the book says that the usual treatment is to stew them slowly for a long time but, it says, "no matter how they are cooked, the meat is dry and distinctly stringy." That's not a ringing endorsement.

This is the coq I bought at Intermarché.
The longer knife in the picture measures 10½ inches (26 cm).
That might give you some idea of the size of the bird.

Ginette Mathiot, in Je sais cuisiner (1970), has a recipe for coq au vin that uses a jeune chapon — a young capon — weighing 1.5 kg. A capon is a rooster that has been castrated and fattened up. My rooster was not a capon — capons are much more expensive — and it weighed more than twice what Mathiot's young capon weighed. When I looked up coq au vin in another favorite French cookbook, Cuisine pour toute l'année (1969, 1991) by Monique Maine, I found a recipe that called for a jeune coq, with no indication of weight.

I figured the 8 lb. rooster I had bought was not all that young, especially since, according to the label, it needed to be stewed.

Then I went to the Larousse Gastronomique (1938), one of the bibles of French cooking. I looked up coq, and what I read was this: « Synonyme culinaire du poulet dans certains apprêts : coq au vin, coq en pâte, etc. » — "A culinary synonym for chicken in certain recipes..." The recipe for coq au vin given just below that explanation, and which is said to be based on an ancient recipe (d'après une recette ancienne), says to "cut into six pieces a young chicken from Limagne." Now I knew that I hadn't bought a jeune poulet de Limagne, whatever and wherever that is. (Turns out it's a place in the Auvergne...) Here's a site giving some history and recipes for coq au vin.

What I had was an old stewing rooster. If the Joy of Cooking's warning about stewing hens applied, it was going to be dry and "distinctly stringy" no matter how long I cooked it. This wasn't working out as planned. Even Julia Child's recipes, in the books of hers that I have on my shelves, call for using a frying chicken to make coq au vin. Frying chickens are young birds.

The coq cut into seven pieces. I went on to cut the breast in half,
which I managed to do with a big Chinese meat cleaver.
I made stock with the back and the wing tips.

I didn't see any alternative except to go ahead with my plan anyway. I went to the supermarket on Saturday and bought two bottles of inexpensive red wine from Cahors. I wanted a wine that was strong and full-bodied, and that would stand up to the tough bird I was cooking. Cahors wine used to be called vin noir — black wine — because it was so dark in color compared to the wine made in the nearby Bordeaux area. Bordeaux red wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, whereas Cahors wines are made with what are widely known as Malbec grapes -- known in the Loire Valley as Côt, and in Cahors itself as Auxerrois. Around Saint-Aignan, people serve Côt/Malbec wines with hearty dishes like venison stew and bœuf bourguignon.

I also bought about 400 grams of smoked slab bacon — poitrine fumée — which I cut up into big chunks. I like to cook the smoked meat in the wine sauce along with the poultry, because I like that flavor. Many recipes for coq au vin call for cooking the chicken in the wine with onions and carrots and then serving the smoked pork bacon, sauteed separately, as a garnish, along with some sauteed pearl onions and sauteed mushrooms.

The rooster pieces here have been browned in fat.

I'm still working on using up that 5 kg (11 lb.) bag on onions I bought at Ed a couple of weeks ago, so I decided I could do without the pearl onions. I started by slicing up 5 or 6 medium onions and cutting a couple of big carrots into chunks. I sauteed all that in some duck fat (yes, I still have some in the refrigerator, but I could have instead used butter or vegetable oil or a combination of the two). Then I took the vegetables out of the pan and put in the pieces of smoked bacon to give them a good sauté.

Meanwhile, I cut the coq up into eight pieces — two wings, two drumsticks, two thighs, and two breast pieces. When the pork was cooked, I put it in the bowl with the reserved onions and carrots and then I put half the chicken pieces in the fat to brown at a fairly high temperature. It was kind of messy, but I used a big high-sided pot for the browning to keep fat from spattering all over the kitchen. When the first batch was done, I put in the second batch of rooster pieces and browned those. I made stock using the leftover rooster back and the two wing tips.

The rooster pieces after they have cooked for about two hours
in the wine sauce with bacon, vegetables, and seasonings.

I did all this on Saturday afternoon in preparation for Sunday afternoon's dinner. When all the rooster pieces were browned, I put everything back in the pot — onions, carrots, bacon — and poured about a bottle and a half of the dark Cahors wine over all of it (I had to save some out to taste). I added a good pint or more of the rooster broth I had made, along with enough water to cover everything, so that it was bathing in liquid. I threw in a couple of big garlic cloves and three good-sized bay leaves (off the tree in the back yard — what a luxury to have those bay leaves for making this kind of dish). A grind of black pepper, a big pinch of dried thyme, and it was ready to cook. I put it on a burner at medium heat and let it simmer for about two hours.

It was getting to be time to go to bed. I transferred the rooster pieces into a big baking dish and poured over them as much of the sauce as would fit. The whole thing would sit overnight and then cook for another few hours in oven in the morning. Problem was, the dish wouldn't fit in the refrigerator. So I had to cover it with a lid and take it down to set in on the cold stone floor on the front porch, which is glassed in but not heated. It sat there overnight. I put the rest of the sauce in a bowl in the fridge.

The rooster pieces after the first cooking and the quart
of stock I made with the back and wing tips.

The next morning I got up and turned the oven on at 8:00. I went downstairs and fetched the baking dish. I put it directly into the oven, which was getting hot. After an hour or so, I turned it down to medium. I checked to see if the liquid in the dish was boiling, and it was. Then I turned it down again and let it cook at a fairly low temperature until noon.

While it was simmering in the oven, I washed and sliced a pound of white button mushrooms, and then I sauteed them in butter. When they were cooked I added them to the dish in the oven, along with some of the sauce from the fridge to make up for what had cooked away, and then I let all that simmer for another half hour. I figured that would be enough simmering to tenderize the rooster — or at least I hoped it would be tender, despite the opinions of the doubting Thomas who wrote the Joy of Cooking.

And was it ever good! It was the best coq au vin I've ever made. It was definitely not a mistake to buy that big bird. The bacon chunks were big enough so that they did not melt into the sauce. If you cut up and used sliced American bacon in the recipe, you wouldn't find the bacon pieces at all after such a long cooking. Get slab bacon if you can find it. The onions had pretty much disappeared, but the chunks of carrot were still intact.

We had the coq au vin for lunch with pasta (macaroni) and a big green salad. The wine sauce was salty, but not overly so. That was the bacon. We started by eating a piece of breast meat. It was tender and succulent — not at all dry or stringy. Then we tried a piece of thigh meat — it was even better, tender and moist, as I suspected it would be.

I'm sorry I didn't take any pictures of the finished dish, but sometimes you're just too busy eating to feel like fiddling with a camera.

Today we had coq au vin for the third day in a row at lunchtime, without being tired of it. Yesterday, we made French fries to serve with it — that was a treat. Today we had it with the rest of the macaroni. And a big green salad each time. I should point out that those three meals didn't include the drumsticks, the wings, and a good portion of the sauce containing bacon, carrots, onions, mushrooms, etc., which we put in a container in the freezer for later. That'll make at least one more big meal, if not two.

Next time, I'll buy one of those coqs they sell at the Saint-Aignan market. I'm sure it will be just as good, if not better. I'll be able to add the head and the feet to the stockpot.


  1. I certainly enjoyed reading this post. It was like reading a mystery. I couldn't wait to get to the end to see how it all turned out.

    A happy ending! Yay!

    Sounds like a lot of work, though. So, I won't be making this any time soon.

  2. I had a lot of trouble with the formatting -- fonts and font styles -- as I was doing this topic. Had to do it all over again from scratch after finishing the first time. Google's Blogger software is not ready for prime time -- I may get myself kicked off for saying that.

    You think you were happy it turned out OK! So were we. It was fun to do though.

  3. Oh my, this sounds yummy. I have a recipe for "coq" au vin that uses cornish hen (and it's good, too). Be sure to take a picture of the broth with the rooster feet in it -- I'd love to see that!

  4. Amy, I will be sure to take a picture of that. I don't think I've ever seen cornish game hens here in France.

  5. Amy, maybe you'll see this: they do have the equivalent of Cornish game hens here in France. They are called "coquelets" -- small, young roosters. I saw a chef on the Cuisine TV channel cooking one just yesterday.

  6. Ken, this is a great post and very heartening. I recently tried to cook a stewing hen, and it was an unmitigated disaster. This looks and sounds wonderful - I've made "coq au vin" many times, but always with tender young chicken, never with a rooster. If I ever get my hands on one, I've got this post bookmarked.

  7. I haven't had a lot of luck with stewing hens either, but as you said, if you boil one a long time you get good broth. When they are on special at the supermarket, I use them to make broth and then feed the chicken to the dog.