It all started with the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau – the third Thursday of November.

Our wine scribe Jim Walker wasn’t content to just savour the nascent wine. He felt compelled to wrap it in a party. And what to serve at the party? Why coq au vin from neighbouring Burgundy of course. Treading dangerously into Nigel’s territory, he shares his recipe for this marvellous concoction. Jim assures us that there will not be a cookbook.

Before attempting this traditional Burgundian dish, please be aware that it involves a great deal of time and effort to concoct . . . but I assure you that it will be worth it. Also, buy the best ingredients and avoid the temptation to take short cuts. One of the neat things about coq au vin is that you make it well in advance of the party and can reheat it at the last minute.

The origin of coq au vin is lost in the mists of time. But the best story I have heard goes something like this. Long, long ago Julius Caesar was inspecting his recently conquered territories, what is now Burgundy, when he decided it was time for a feast. He commanded his new subjects to present him with some meat suitable for the occasion. As the story goes, the not too subservient or too impressed locals selected a few old roosters and unceremoniously tossed them at our friend Julie. Rather than lop off a Gallic head or two (which surely he was entitled to do), he ordered his entourage of cooks to gather up the freshest local produce and show the locals that the Romans could, in fact, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (please forgive the rather shaky analogy). Voila … coq au vin.

‘The’ source of plump juicy capons in Toronto

Let’s get down to the task at hand. There are two distinct stages in the creation of coq au vin. The first is the marination of the coq. The second is the assemby of the final masterpiece. This will feed at least eight people, unless one of them is your cousin Ralph; in that it will be six.

Marinating le coq

The hero of this dish is le coq, which is called a capon in these parts of the world. Don’t let anybody talk you into chicken – this is not poulet au vin! Go to a good butcher and ask him or her for a select capon. Those living in the Greater Toronto Area can find excellent ones at Upper Cut Meats in the St Lawrence Market. Capons tend to be quite large, in the range of six to 15 pounds. The recipe assumes a nine-pound specimen, so adjust the measures of the other ingredients accordingly. I hate to add this, but high-quality roasters (chickens) work well too, as would pheasant. Ask the butcher to remove the backbone and to cut it into eight nice big pieces that are easy to cook and serve.

Ingredients for the marinade

  • 1 9-pound capon
  • 3 bottles of French Burgundy (don’t be cheap – for about $25 a bottle you can get very decent Pinot Noir that hails from Burgundy, France. Don’t scrimp. This is Coq au vin, not Neutered Rooster of Cheap Swill from who knows where!)
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 3 celery stalks, sliced
  • 2 large carrots, peeled, sliced (most carrots have little or no taste – try to find local ones that have some zing to them)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, peeled, flattened (for you neophytes, peel as best you can, place clove, ie, one section, under a big, broad knife and whack it with the side of your fist. Then get rid of the junky stuff (particularly the center, pale green core which causes some people to have an upset stomach) and save the rest. Your hands will now smell bad. Rub them on stainless steel, like the nearby kitchen sink (I do hope you are doing all this in the kitchen) and then wash with soap. Your phalanges will now be smelling sweetly again.
  • 2 teaspoons whole fresh black peppers (not old rotting ones that have been festering in your pepper mill for the past four years!)
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (this goes in after the cooking part – don’t forget)
The price is right

Get a large pot. Something that you will eventually be able to put the capon and all the other stuff into – say a foot in diameter and eight inches deep. Bigger won’t hurt, but smaller could get messy. Dump (real chefs would say combine) one and a half bottles of wine, celery, carrots, garlic, onions and peppercorns (not the olive oil) into it.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “What about the rest of the Pinot Noir?” Ole Jim thinks of everything. Go to the cupboard and get yourself a big wine glass. Pour yourself a generous glass. Seal up the bottle and retain for later. I do hope you bought good stuff. If not, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Bring the stuff in the pot (not in your glass) to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for five minutes. Cool completely and then mix in the olive oil (I hope you were paying attention and didn’t do this earlier). Put the capon pieces into two or three self-sealing large plastic freezer bags and then fill each with the marinade (the stuff from the big pot). Refrigerate for at least a day and up to two days, turning the plastic bags over several times.

Savour the last of your second bottle of wine secure in the knowledge that you have done a masterful job of phase one, marinating le Coq.

Creating the masterpiece

Your Coq has been marinating in his vin for about two days now and its time to prepare him for the feast. This next part is arduous, so get your glass (which I trust you have thoroughly cleaned since your initial assault on the Pinot Noir), open the third bottle and pour yourself a full measure.

Ingredients for the assemblage

  • 1 pound thick-cut bacon slices, cut crosswise into strips (probably best to get this from the butcher – he/she deserves the business for cutting the capon correctly and it will be much better bacon)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 3 large shallots, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 4 large fresh thyme sprigs
  • 4 large fresh parsley sprigs
  • 3 small bay leaves
  • 3 cups low-salt chicken broth (it’s too tough to find capon broth)
  • 6 tablespoons butter (salted)
  • 1 and a half pounds of assorted fresh wild mushrooms (such as cremini and shiitake (cut off the stems) – avoid the magic kind)
  • 30 or more one-inch diameter pearl onions or boiling onions, peeled
  • a bunch (as opposed to a little or a lot) of chopped fresh parsley

Take a slug of that wine, because here we go. Using tongs (fingers are fine, but don’t tell anybody), transfer the capon pieces from the marinade to paper towels to drain; pat dry (sort of). Strain marinade, save vegetables and liquid separately (don’t throw anything away).

Heat (medium-high) the oil in a heavy large pot (wide enough to hold the capon in a single layer). This is probably the same pot that you made the marinade in and hopefully, like the wine glass, you have cleaned it. (If you have too much capon for one pot, get a second one and divide everything equally into both).

Add bacon and sauté (fancy chef-speak for fry) until crisp and brown. Resist the urge to pilfer a few bits – bet you can’t! Using a slotted (any kind of holes will be just peachy) spoon, transfer bacon to a small bowl. Pour off all the excess bacon fat and then add the capon pieces, skin down, to the drippings in the pot. Sauté (frying is fine too) until brown, about eight minutes per side – make sure it has a nice brown hue (not Hugh) to it. Transfer capon to a large bowl. I keep specifying the size of the bowl but suffice it to say the bowl must be big enough to hold everything you are transferring to it.

Now, and I really do hope you saved them, transfer the vegetables reserved from the marinade to the pots. Sauté (you should be familiar with this concept by now) until brown, about ten minutes. All this sautéing has no doubt made you thirsty, so go ahead and pour another glass of the Pinot Noir.

 Mix in the flour (to the pot, not the PN), stir for two minutes. Get a whisk (okay, this could cause you rookies a problem – this is not like a mini-broom – it’s a handle with a bunch of wire loops attached to it) and use it to gradually blend in the reserved marinade liquid – please tell me you saved it. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Cook until sauce thickens (don’t panic if it doesn’t thicken too much, everything will work out fine – have another swig) whisking occasionally, about two minutes.

Mix in shallots, garlic, herb sprigs and bay leaves, then broth. Return capon to the pot(s), arranging skin side up in single layer, if possible (don’t fret if not, everything will work out fine – have another slurp). Bring to a simmer (once again for the rookies, simmer means when bubbles are occasional bursting up and the liquid is kinda jiggling); reduce heat to medium-low. Cover the pots and let simmer for twenty minutes.

Using tongs (fingers will not work this time!), turn the capon over. Cover and simmer until tender, about ten minutes longer (now you won’t be able to tell for sure that the capon is tender, but after all this cooking, trust me, it is). I’d say its time to refill your glass. You’ve earned it.

The masterpiece simmering on the range 

Melt four tablespoons of the butter (not all six – you’ve got to save at least two tablespoons for another step to come) in a heavy, large, deep skillet over medium heat (don’t let it burn). Add the fungi; sauté (remember, same as frying) until tender – about four to six minutes will do just fine, turning frequently (the mushrooms, not yourself although after all that wine this might be happening anyway).

Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Melt the remaining butter (goodness, I hope you saved some) in the same skillet (no need to    clean). Add onions (peeling these little devils is a real pain – a trick is to cut off the end where the roots were and then dump them into boiling water for a minute or so – then plunge them directly into cold water and then the outer layer of skin should come off fairly easily – best to buy them already peeled) and sauté (fry – after all you’ve consumed, you might have forgotten) until beginning to brown, once again, about eight minutes. Transfer the onions to the plate alongside mushrooms (I hope you read ahead and got a big enough plate); save the skillet.

Time for a bit more Pinot. If the third bottle is gone, that’s okay. Have your sous-chef trot down to your local wine provisioner to buy another bottle. (They can scrimp a bit at this stage cuz you’ll never notice the difference). In the meantime, using tongs not fingers, transfer the capon onto the plate (ha, did you get one big enough – if not, that’s okay, just get another plate!). Strain the sauce from the pot(s) into the skillet, (this is definitely a two-person task – if there is too much liquid for the skillet to hold, do it in two stages) pressing on solids in a strainer to extract as much sauce as possible.

Take as much of the carrots, celery and onion glop left in strainer as you can (try to eliminate the peppercorns) and mash it in a bowl (a handheld electric mixer is a big help) and then mix the resulting pulp into the stuff in the skillets. Bring sauce to simmer, scraping up the browned crusty bits (but leave them in sauce). After five minutes or so, return the sauce to the pots. Add the onions to the pots and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover the pots and cook until the onions are almost tender (of course you don’t know, so the standard eight minutes will be just peachy). Add mushrooms and bacon (I do hope you haven’t gobbled up all those delectable little lardons!). Simmer uncovered until the onions are very tender (you can tell this time because the outer layers will start peeling off) and the sauce is slightly reduced (now, how on earth can you tell if it’s slightly reduced? – you can’t, just do this for twelve minutes). I do hope your sous-chef has returned with your wine because you no doubt need a wee dollop at this juncture.

Okay, we’re almost there. Tilt the pots and spoon off excess fat from the top of the sauce. There won’t be too much and anything you miss will be easier to identify later when everything cools down. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. I find it takes quite a bit of both to get everything just nice. Now, return the capon to the sauce. Chill uncovered in the fridge and then cover and keep chilled (I would explain why you leave the pot uncovered at first, but after all that wine you will be in no condition to fathom the concept of vacuums!). About an hour or so before your guests arrive, rewarm over a low heat.

Serving your masterpiece

Let the coq au vin-infused festivities begin

I find it best to do individual servings. Place a morsel of capon into a deep bowl and ladle the sauce and vegetables over it and sprinkle on the fresh parsley. You might choose to place some mashed potatoes, parsnips and/or sweet potatoes in the bottom of the plates to add a bit more substance and soak up the liquid. Accompany with crisp, fresh baguette (wretchedly difficult to find outside of France) and a simple green salad. And, of course, serve some good red Burgundy (Beaujolais Nouveau is quite appropriate as well). Be a sport and get the good stuff. After all that work you deserve it and your guests will be most appreciative. Besides, your hangover will be better by now and its time to work on another one. You’ll see why Caesar was pleased with his silk purse!! Oh, good news – the leftovers can be reheated and are perfect for lunch the next day; or can be frozen and enjoyed anytime over the next month or so!!

Bon appetite! Jim

Featured image: A simmering pot of le vrai coq au vin

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This is Jim’s 74th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.

5 replies »

  1. Merci, M. Moorcroft. Big Julie would be so very pleased that you approve. As I vaguely recall, you also appeared to enjoy the accompanying fruit of the Burgundian vine. Cheers! Jim


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