Friday, January 24, 2014

Our ghastly purple dinner, or coq au vin

It started out well enough, and I had such good intentions.

My aim for the evening was to make, finally, really, successfully, coq au vin. It is a classic French dish of course, chicken in red wine, the very name of which reminds me of my high school French class. I seem to remember we planned an authentic French dinner as a kind of celebratory good bye to senior year and all that, and one of the items some brave soul was going to prepare was coq au vin. Somebody else volunteered to make buche de Noel. I daresay she is still at it.

I aimed to make le coq now, despite previous, downright routine, unhappy experiences with the entire point of the dish and the evil nemesis of my kitchen career, braised chicken pieces. Why shouldn't I try one more time, since I had as my guide the superb Madeleine Kamman, and her enormous New Making of a Cook? On page 834 she offers "Un coq au vin soigne," A well-prepared coq au vin. Of it she says in a sidebar that this "authentic and old recipe, made without any shortcuts," came to her from her great aunt, a professional chef trained by a chef, born in the 1820s, who had reputedly worked "in Careme's kitchen."

Careme! What a blessing also that I happen to own the Winter 1971 issue of the old hardback magazine Horizon, which includes Morris Bishop's article on Marie-Antoine Careme. He ought to step into my culinary hall of fame anyway. This was the man, chef de cuisine to Talleyrand, Czar Alexander, the Prince Regent of England, and Baron James Rothschild in succession, who revolutionized what must have been still very medieval cooking habits in aristocratic European kitchens. Careme banished smothery brown gravies and clashing spices from the dinner table, serving instead perfectly cooked meats in their own juices, seasonable unfussy vegetables, and fresh fruits. He also invented nothing less than "that feather-light paste that is one of the noblest expressions of French genius." Bishop does not elaborate, but he means puff paste.

So I felt encouraged. Madeleine Kamman's recipe, descended in the fourth generation from the master, requires two days if you want to do it right. It begins with a sauteeing of small white onions, pancetta, and then mushrooms -- each separately -- all to be set aside as garnish until the real cooking is done on the second day.

On that day, you saute carrots, onions, shallots, garlic, and parsley stems in clarified butter, set them aside and then make a reduction of their drippings along with Primary Veal Stock, itself an achievement, and two bottles of red wine. Then you brown the chicken legs in more butter, and add the wine reduction to them to finish cooking them. As they cook, you dry out slices of fresh bread in the oven, and then fry them in more clarified butter in preparation for serving.

When the chicken legs have finished cooking you remove them to a platter, thicken the cooking juices with a buerre manie ("handled butter" -- equal parts of flour and soft butter mashed together and added to a sauce), add yesterday's saved mushroom garnishes to the sauce, and heat all through. Then you strain the garnishes out of the sauce, place them around the chicken pieces, and process the sauce in a blender with one-third of a chicken liver and 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche. When this new sauce is smoothly pureed, you strain it into a new saucepan and flambe it with a quarter cup of heated cognac. (I presume this cooks the chicken liver.) Then you ladle the sauce over the chicken and garnishes, and serve everything up with the fried bread slices.

Oui, bien sur, as we used to say in French class. Of course I simplified the recipe, and of course the chicken pieces were both underdone and partly rubbery, and of course I should have known better from the get go. There are other ways to use up tired bottles of poor quality red wine. Why don't I start a vinegar barrel? And yet, I fail to see how even Careme's version can avoid the most horrific effect of coq au vin, which is red wine's rendering of chicken meat purple. This is before it turned color. Shade your eyes:

It got worse. Even my side dish for the night emerged from a purple hell. I reasoned that for all the work of preparing coq au vin (pas) soigne, I may as well go easy on myself in other departments and make use of a leftover cauliflower creation which had been pretty good the night before, and which sat expectantly in the refrigerator. I had simply drizzled the whole thing, nicely steamed, with melted butter and chopped walnuts. Unhappily, the walnuts dyed the cauliflower a faded blood-brown color overnight; and so the whole dinner was purple, dreadful dreadful dreadful purple.

The accompanying wine? I forget. Does it matter? Madeleine Kamman suggests a cabernet franc. I'm sure that would be fine.

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