On a recent Saturday at the University Farmer’s Market, I noticed that the kids at Seabreeze Farms had four roosters for sale. Now this may not seem like any great cause for notice, but in my experience it is pretty rare to be able to get your hands on a rooster.
During the time I lived in Paris in the early 1990’s, the restaurant where I worked the longest was a family-run auberge called Le Coq de la Maison Blanche. This restaurant is (still) located just outside the Périphérique (the freeway that rings central Paris) on the route that leads from Paris’ Place Clichy toward the Basilique Cathédrale Saint-Denis, where the kings of France traditionally went to launch a war or to be buried. The food at Le Coq de le Maison Blanche has always been very tradition, hearty, cuisine bougeoise. The trademark dish of the maison is Coq au Vin, or rooster stewed in red wine.
In France, even today, its not that difficult to find a real rooster for sale. I’m talking about a big, tough old bird that weighs in at around 6-7# without feathers but with its head and feet. This is how the roosters arrived at the Le Coq de la Maison Blanche. A rooster of this sort has kidneys as big as a hard boiled egg, flesh that is purple-red and a smell that brings the barnyard very close. The legs on these roosters were so full of tendons, that to make them eatable, it was necessary to pull them out before marinating (the method for achieving this task depended on the fact that the roosters still had feet; I have been told that a description of this method is less than appetizing, so I will not say more). A minimum of 36 hours of marinating in lively young pinot noir from Burgundy was a necessary precursor to their cooking. It is for exactly this sort of rooster that the method of simmering in red wine was developed, a bird so full of flavor that the main task is to tame the taste, not amplify it.
The roosters from Seabreeze farms were not of the same cloth as the angry old buzzards we used at the Coq de la Maison Blanche and I have to say, in general, thats a good thing. These relatively congenial birds weighed in at a more conventional 3-4# and were displayed without head or feet. They have darker flesh than a roaster, almost like an all-dark meat chicken, but still fairly mild. The musculature is different as well, with stronger, longer legs and a smaller breast. One gets the feeling that these roosters have lived relativity short but happy, non-stressful lives on Vashon Island. Very promising raw material for a Coq au Vin, the first I have made in over 20 years.
Coq au Vin is a dish with a long, long pedigree. Like many of the iconic dishes of France (pissaladiere, piperade, cassoulet, garbure), there are as many recipes for it as there are cooks who make it. As is often the case when making a dish of this sort, I turn to Paul Bocuse for advice. Bocuse is not only the Michelin 3-star chef who I consider to be the most grand-motherly in his approach, he also comes from Lyon, right in the middle of the region where the dish is thought to originate (depending on who you believe, Coq au Vin is originally from Burgundy or from the Beaujolais region, which explains why some recipes call for the use of pinot noir, others for gamay. Coq au Vin de Fleurie is a well know version).
Like all good grandmothers, Paul Bocuse’s recipes generally traffic in generalities rather than specifics. Here is the general method according to Bocuse’s “Le Cuisine de Marché”:
The rooster is cut up as one would when making a fricassée. The pieces are marinated with good, solid red wine, carrots, onions, garlic, bay, thyme, parsley, black pepper, and cloves. This is left to marinate in the fridge for at least 24 hours.
In the meantime, you make up a nice stock from the carcass. Note that this stock has already been strained and is in the process of reducing a bit for better flavor.
Some recipes for Coq au Vin call for the final thickening of the sauce to be done with the blood of the bird…somewhat problematic with a farmer’s market bird that has been bled. Instead, Bocuse helpfully suggests using the pureed liver of the rooster. To use the liver, I gave it a quick sauté with a few slices of shallot, salt and pepper, then deglazed with brandy, pounded the cooled liver in a mortar, and forced it through a sieve with a bit of butter. All this can be done during the 24 hours of marinating.
The traditional garnishes for Coq au Vin are lardons of unsmoked bacon (called panchetta in Italy or ventreche or poitrine salée in France), small onions glazed “a brun” and white mushroom caps. Like most grandmotherly dishes, Coq a Vin is meant to be cooked in one pot. The process begins with browning off the lardons and the onions at the same time.
When they are done, it is the turn of the mushrooms.
Now comes the serious rooster cooking. The pieces of marinated rooster are removed from the marinade; the vegetables and wine are saved separately. The pieces are patted dry, dredged in flour, then browned quickly in the bacon fat.
When the pieces are all nicely browned the vegetables from the marinade are added to the pot along with the red wine and enough chicken stock to just cover the chicken pieces.
The whole is brought to a boil, skimmed well and then the heat is reduced, the pot covered and left to cook very gently until the rooster is tender…Bocuse says sagely that one should expect this to be about 45 minutes but that longer times are possible, depending on the bird. Good point.
The onions, lardons and mushrooms are added for the last 20 minutes or so of cooking
Now most of the hard work is done, so I took the opportunity to begin the hour of apero with a Kir…what else with food from Burgundy?
When the chicken is cooked through and the legs are tender, the only remaining task is to finish the sauce. In general, this involves thickening since the cooking liquid will not be quite at sauce consistency. Two options here: 1) Thicken with a bit of corn starch or with beurre manie (soft butter worked together with an equal weight of white flour 2) Reduction. In general, I prefer reducing the sauce to consistency, to avoid adding the flavor of the thickener. On the other hand, if the sauce must be reduced too much to achieve the correct consistency, the sauce can seem tacky, sticky and overly strong tasting (not to mention the risk of having too little sauce to go around, heaven forbid!).
In this case, the flour from the browning of the chicken pieces had already thickened the sauce a bit, so it seemed to me that only a small amount of reduction would be required. Whether you choose a thickener or reduction, it is a good idea to remove the pieces of chicken before thickening, as their presence makes it difficult to evenly distribute the thickener, and if you leave them in while reducing, they will likely get dry and overcooked.
Now all that is left is to cook the side dish with which you will serve the rooster and finish the sauce. I chose to serve my Coq au Vin with brown rice, simply boiled and seasoned, although buttered noodles would be more traditional.
As far as finishing the sauce, the liver butter is stirred in off the heat until fully and uniformly incorporated. As away, recheck the seasoning before serving and correct with salt and freshly ground pepper as needed.
I have to say, the result really warranted the effort. A wonderful, hearty dish for February.