Monday, January 05, 2009

Butchering the Art of French Cooking

Ok, I'll confess here and now. I am deeply obsessed with the idea of culinary school since reading The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. It was a real upbeat way to end my 2008 reading year. I love cooking and baking. I love watching the Food Network--especially the shows which make things that I'd never in a million years dream of making. This mainly includes the Barefoot Contessa and Alton Brown--the Contessa because everything is faaaaab-ulously full of cream and butter or lamb and Alton because, despite loving him even more having met him, everything seems rather complex--lots of weighing, lots of getting the timing just right. I am devoted to Top Chef and Sunday nights I tune in to see Iron Chef America just because it's the only thing on.

But having read Knife, I decided that in 2009, I should try some new and much more complex dishes culinarily speaking. Or perhaps old dishes that I'd never given thought to. Or maybe just try to find the best recipe for something we take for granted. This year, I'll be on the quest for the perfect biscuit, for instance. My husband absolutely loves eating biscuits, and having watched Feasting on Asphalt and seeing them stop at the biscuit place in Washington, GA had me dreaming of a big, buttery incredible biscuit.

So one of my culinary goals this year is to determine what the perfect biscuit recipe is and bake it to perfection.

However, the question at hand was preparing a complex dish I'd never attempted before, and I turned to Flinn and her recipe for Coq Au Vin et Thym. My experience with coq au vin has been limited to the coq au vin fondue at The Melting Pot. I knew it had something to do with roosters and wine, and making a kind of stew out of them. I have a vague idea that perhaps it was a dish French peasants ate when they ran out of good chickens--they got the crustiest old rooster, slaughtered it, and stewed it to make it palatable. If that's true or not, I'm not sure, but I think I heard that.

[A side note: I won't be posting the recipes here on the blog. There are probably 10 billion copyright laws I'd be violating. If you want the recipe, I'd suggest getting the book at the library or asking me for it in a pinch. In the pictures, you'll see what's involved, but I will leave the specific amounts out in the interest of not being sued.]

So, my goal for Sunday was to make coq au vin. I read through the recipe, wrote down the ingredients and headed for the store.

Problem number one of the day: the ABC store is not open, and this recipe called for brandy. Two tablespoons seems like a significant amount. The General and I are not big drinkers however, and I can count on the thumbs of my feet the number of hard liquor beverages I've had in my life. I have some bourbon in the cupboard which I use for my infamous New Years and Easter ham, but I have no idea if bourbon and brandy are even remotely related. I hemmed and hawed about it and finally decided that I had no choice but to omit the brandy in case the bourbon did bad things to the dish.

Fortunately, however, I can buy wine at my local grocery store on Sundays. Otherwise, this entire project would have come to a screeching halt. Flinn recommends a dry red wine, preferably French, preferably Syrah. Now, again people, I'll be honest, I wouldn't know a Syrah from a Shiraz from a Chardonnay. So I wound up spending a good bit of time in the wine aisle looking for a bottle of Syrah. Eventually, I stumbled upon Red Bicyclette, which had the benefit of a) being from France and b) being a Syrah and I bought it. If it is a good wine or not, I cannot tell you, although half way through this project, I was slightly tempted to take a sip of it!

Ok, next find was pancetta. (Flinn offers that unsmoked bacon would also be acceptable.) I have never purchased pancetta before, have never cooked with it before. However, on New Year's Eve when I was shopping for provisions, I happened to notice that my local Giant had pancetta, so I went and grabbed some. Unfortunately, that stuff is EXPENSIVE!! To purchase the quantity I needed cost nearly $10, and I did not buy that much! Still, all in the name of culinary genius. I added fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and went and got my chicken thighs and chicken STOCK, not broth. Chicken has also gotten quite expensive these days and though I was buying thighs, which are typically cheaper than breasts, I still balked just a bit.

As for the serving, Flinn recommends either noodles or mashed potatoes. I picked up some No Yolk egg noodles for me and 4 cheese mashed potatoes for the General.

I got home, unpacked the groceries and got to work.

Voila mes ingredients!

Now, I will admit, this whole thing took me a heck of a lot longer than necessary for a couple reasons. Number one was that I was taking pictures along the way to document on my blog. I wanted everything arranged nicely enough that at least you could see what I was up to and what everything looked like, plus I figured it would be easier to cook if everything was ready like on TV and I could just start dumping stuff into the pots.

Number two was that I bought the wrong chicken.

What I read in the directions was that I needed to buy chicken thighs. This is precisely what I did. I got a value pack, since I needed a lot, and I used my food scale and measured out the correct weight in chicken. There were 2 thighs left in the pack, and I tossed them into the fridge. Then I turned back to the recipe and noticed, with a bit of horror, that what I actually needed were boneless thighs. Darn it! Well, no time like the present to learn how to remove bones from chicken thighs. The first two thighs came out looking as if they'd been at Normandy. But after that, I must say, I got the hang of it and while they didn't look as good as they could have, especially after I finished skinning them as well, they didn't look awful. Unfortunately, I now had a full pound less of chicken than expected, and even after taking out the bones of the 2 remaining thighs, I was nearly 3/4 of a pound short.

"Ahh, who cares?" I thought. I put the chicken aside and began working on the other ingredients. There was A LOT of chopping to do, as I was basically creating a mirepoix, a mixture of carrots, onions, and celery. I did the celery first, and did my best to make it pretty uniform--how hard can it be, I reasoned. I failed spectacularly. I wound up going back through everything and and chopping up the big pieces so they were more in line with the smaller ones. Then I turned my attention to the carrots. Carrots are a pain to cut. I was dangerously close to slicing up my fingers. They are rolly and when you slice them, the little discs shoot off everywhere. (I don't cook much with carrots due to the General's culinary demands--usually I bite up the baby ones and feed the big ones to the rabbit!) As you get to the thicker part of the carrot, it gets harder and harder to slice. They took quite a while to do. The onions proved the adage in the book from whence it got its name: sharp knives don't squeeze out the onion juices and make you cry. I do not have a sharp knife. Thus I was crying. Slicing mushrooms was mercifully easy.

The pancetta offered its own challenges. This particular pancetta was incredibly thinly sliced, and offered a lot of resistance to being diced. Because I don't have the world's best knife, apparently, the pancetta caught on the blades and simultaneously tore and stuck, creating a dandy of a mess. Finally, I decided to just make do with it kind of sliced and resolved to get myself a quality knife for further culinary adventures. Though I did consider just taking scissors to it, which I think would also work quite well.

Here's everything prepped for cooking!

All of this chopping, deboning, skinning, slicing, and dicing made my arms and back sore, and for the first time I was really aware of how physical a process cooking could be! But I was aware of it in a good way, and the soreness actually felt good--like a virtue of accomplishment.

So, the first thing to do was to heat up some olive oil over high heat and season the chicken with salt and pepper and then brown it in the oil. It was HOT in that pan and that chicken hit with a sizzle. It browned up pretty quickly. What I had expected to use was my big kitchen tongs to turn it, but I quickly discovered that a silicone spatula was much easier. If little bits of chicken were clinging to the bottom, I could easily scrape them up with the spatula, and the one I have is good up to 500 degrees, so it wasn't in any danger of melting. It also allowed me to conserve utensils so I didn't have even more dishes to do--although I definitely created a lot for myself!

Once the chicken was done and set aside, I threw the pancetta into the pot. I was of a mixed mind about it--I guess I expected it to smell more bacony or something, but it didn't. It didn't smell bad, it just smelled different and I started to get nervous that maybe I wouldn't like the flavor of it. But in for a penny, in for a pound. After the pancetta had browned up a bit, I added the mirepoix and cooked the veggies until they were tender (sorry this picture is fuzzy!). I put in the wine and garlic and chicken stock and herbs and eventually put the chicken back in.

And this is when I started to get really nervous. As I said, I've never eaten coq au vin. There were no pictures of it in Flinn's book, and I don't have any French cookbooks. So I was taking it on faith that it looked like it was supposed to. And what it looked like to me was a chicken bloodbath. I stared at it in horror and revulsion. By now, I had been cooking for the better part of two and a half hours, and this is what I have to show for it?! I think I have made a terrible mistake! But it was too late to turn back. All we could hope for was that it would all come out right in the end.

I've created a monster!

I slapped a lid on it and threw it in the oven. By now it was 5pm and it had to sit in the oven for a good 2 hours. This was a long time, but gave me a chance to run a load of dishes through the dishwasher and get the last remnants of the meal ready to eat. While the chicken was happily stewing away, I cleaned the kitchen top to bottom, cooked up the remaining mushrooms and onions, and made a pan of mashed potatoes and a pan of egg noodles. By the time it was time to eat, our mouths were watering. It smelled SO GOOD. I pulled it out of the oven, and I have to admit, I was still not too impressed by how it looked, but it looked better than it had going into the oven, so that was a plus in its favor.

The finished product

I mean, honestly, is it supposed to be that soupy? Should it have a saucier sauce? It was quite runny.

Well, who cared anyway? It smelled DIVINE! We could not wait to eat. I started dishing it up onto our plates, trying to present it nicely. Because we have so many picky eaters, I did not stir in the additional mushrooms and onions as it suggested, instead just serving them on my plate with my own coq au vin. I did drizzle a bit of the wine sauce over everything so we had a bit of the wine to make a nice flavor.

Bon appetit!

And then it was time for the ultimate test: OUR FIRST TASTE!

Michael dug in first, and I was still a bit reticent as to whether I'd like it, so I let him take the first bite.

"Oh my God, wow!" he said, sighing contentedly. "This is fantastic!"

Believe it or not, this is the face he makes when he likes something!

"It is?" I asked, not daring to hope, and then took my first tentative nibble.

Was it ever. Holy cow, it may well be one of the best things I've ever eaten. It was certainly some of the best food I've ever cooked in my life. I took a bigger bite. I was filled with pride. I had made this, me, little ole me! We shared a toast to ourselves entering year ten (ten!) of our relationship and then we pretty well ceased talking and focused on eating. At one point, The General pulled something out of his mouth and said, "What is this?" I said, "That's celery." And do you know what!? He popped it back in his mouth and swallowed it!!! He ate everything on his plate--carrots, onions, celery, the works. The chicken was so tender you literally could not stab it with your fork without it falling apart. Instead, you had to kind of scoop it up and eat it. Fantastic! The General absolutely loved it as much as I did, and has even requested it in his lunch!

I got home from work tonight, and I was like, "I just want more coq au vin for dinner" and so that's what I reheated and ate. It's honestly amazing. After dinner last night, we sat down with the book again and looked through it to pick our next recipe. I'm going to try making Kathleen's quiche. That recipe is on Kathleen's website at I will modify it for The General--I'll make the tomato and onion for me and make him one with the leftover ham from New Year's. I have a feeling it'll be spectacular.

I learned a lot from the experience--things like reading the recipe and getting the correct ingredients, not waiting till Sunday to get hard liquor, and that I need a good knife! It was definitely a great start to a year I hope is filled with culinary delights. I also hope that any wealthy benefactors out there who might be reading this will consider paying my tuition for culinary school. :-) This was such a fun project to embark on, I really enjoyed myself cooking this meal and pretending to be a chef if only for a few hours. I have a feeling cooking "fancy food" will turn into something I enjoy more often than just on my birthday!

7 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Talmadge said...

I cannot think of Julia Child without the image of Dan Ackroyd's parody in the '70s on SNL. "I've cut the dickens out of my finger!"

Sera spent maybe three hours at JC's kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian during our visit up there in '03.

Feasting on Asphalt - we've watched that one a couple of times. I loved the Miss. River series. And biscuits .... mmmmmmm .... two best I've ever had: 1) Dick Russell's BBQ in Mobile, Ala., and 2) Moose Cafe in Asheville.

PS - I guess a Happy Birthday is in order??

Kate/Susan said...

Mike's birthday is on the 21st of this month! Mine's not till August. Not sure who you want to happy birthday, but it's him who earns it this month :)

Talmadge said...

I wondered.......

Please forgive; it takes time for birthdays to enter my crusty skull -- it might've been a good 4-5 years before Nettie's birthday finally bonded with a brain cell.

Meanwhile, you and Mike are still in the Plinko rack. ;-)

Anonymous Me said...

That looks phenomenal--I'll have to give it a try! Red Bicyclette is actually one of our favorite "go-to" wines, and it also works great in cooking, so great pick! :-)

Cindy said...

I love cooking new things. I also love watching America's Test Kitchen on PBS. I've found several good recipes off of there.

Jeff always says that we never have the same thing, EVER! He's very much a same food kind of person. I grew up eating the same things every week, so I want variety.

Lauren said...

That dish sounds wonderful...

A good knife makes a world of difference...we splurged on Wusthof Classic with the gift cards we got for the wedding and they are SO nice. Expensive, but worth it.

(Of course, I just realized I gave you our old knives...I hope there were a couple of OK ones in the mix!)

Elizabeth said...

Do you have the book "The Best Recipe"? It's one of my favorite cookbooks -- America's Test Kitchens/Cook's Illustrated has tested a bunch of different recipes and picked a "best" one. They also explain what makes it best and how they tested, which makes it Big Nerdy Fun to read. Anyway, be a good stepping stone in your quest for The Perfect Biscuit! Let me know if you don't have it and I'll copy the part on biscuits for you.

Re: Cutting up carrots: If you slice them through lengthwise before chopping, then you get a flat bottom surface so they don't roll around. Saved my fingers many times! Great for all round choppables.