Coq au Vin

Coq au Vin

Bless Butter, Cream and
Simple French Fare
The New York Times, October 16, 2002
By Nigella Lawson

"Does anyone really eat French food anymore?

You may think I'm joking. I'm not. Even in France, they seem to be losing their appetite for the stuff. During my last visit to Paris, every soi-disant hip bistro was churning out carpaccio and fettuccine au beurre — and this last as a side dish, of all things.

Of course, in the French countryside they are not so unpatriotic, but the old, fondly held belief that you cannot eat badly anywhere in France, however so humble the little hole-in-the-wall establishment may be, is no longer truly tenable. The great edifice of la cuisine Française is crumbling. But you have to love the French: their confidence may have taken a knock, but their glorious trademark self-esteem is undented. From their perspective, you see, this decline is all our fault. And they have a point. Part of the demise of French cooking is due to the pre-judices of the modern Western world. All that fat, those eggs, so much heavy cream and cheese: this is not what we want cluttering up our plates and clogging up our arteries these days.

Now, I make no pretense that these are my concerns. I'm actually on the side of the French here, and this week's recipes, for coq au vin and a traditional apple tart, reflect that. Moreover, I have never quite understood why there is among us such disproportionate fear of fat and dairy. For one thing, the jury is still out on whether these foodstuffs are indeed harmful to us. (I rather suspect that if we were such fragile creatures, so minutely susceptible to the fuel we choose to run on, we would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long, long time ago.) And for another, the crucial element must be portion size. Ever notice how chic Parisiennes eat pastry for dessert and still fit into their size 6 tailleurs?

They eat a slice of cake at dinner and that's it. They do not, as many of the rest of us do, skip dessert and then, back at home, mooching about the house at midnight, devour half a cake.

Meanwhile, a recipe stipulates a quarter of a cup of heavy cream and every non-Français has a fainting fit. But this recipe may make enough to feed eight - and really, how much harm could a couple of teaspoonfuls of cream do?

French food observes none of the current dietary proprieties, and when it has, as with the now outmoded nouvelle cuisine, the food begins to lose its point and dwindles into mere plate decoration.

That, too, may be our fault, but no matter. It happens. And that's the trouble.

French food falls foul on any number of complaints: it's either too fatty, too fussy or just plain takes too long. Cuisine grand-mère may be wonderful, but even grandmothers do not want to stay in the kitchen anymore, larding and basting  and stuffing and rolling all day long.

Food is no less impervious to fashion than any other part of our cultural life, and so it follows that we view cooking differently depending on the age in which we live.

These days we adhere to the Italian model, which is to say we believe in taking the best ingredients we can find and doing as little as possible to them. This is in absolute contradistinction to the old French way, which enshrined the belief that cooking was a transformational act: any foodstuff, no matter how humble, could, through loving attention, long hours of simmering and a great deal of skill (and butter), be turned into something heart-stoppingly delicious. French cooking pays homage to the cook, not the food.

But that, you could argue, was then. And if now it is alarmingly easy to eat badly in France, there are other reasons, too. The heart of good French cooking does not lie in haute cuisine. The great restaurants, wherever they are, can stay great, all fancy ingredients and cloches à go-go. But what matters is what happens in the back streets, all those little family-run places which are beginning to exist only in the nostalgic memories of wistful Francophiles. The young no longer want to go into the family business, earning a pittance while working long hours in a job that offers neither glamour nor independence.

Furthermore, French food can continue only as long the French feel that it is their noble birthright. When the national minister of culture - as indeed happened some years back — exhorts food producers and housewives to go into schools to demonstrate to pupils the greatness of French cooking, you know that something is amiss.

Of course, I am English, and therefore tainted by the longstanding antipathy between our two nations. Still, I take no real pleasure in France's culinary crisis. Real French food is everything home cooking should be: comforting, transporting, with a reach that far extends the pettifogging, constraining vagaries of fad and fashion.

True, there is no novelty in a coq au vin, but that is also what I love about it. As you sear some cubed salt pork or pancetta in a pan, soften some shallots and simmer chicken in a deep, velvety red wine, your kitchen smells of the promise of good food, and it doesn't disappoint. The dish is not pretty — the red wine does have a way of tingeing everything a bruised and purplish hue — but this is food for the stomach and the heart, not the photo-op.

And for all who fear that French cooking requires long hours in the kitchen, you should know that perhaps the greatest contribution to the dessert menu ever made, a crisp, flaky, buttery apple tart, is perhaps one of the easiest.

Unroll a sheet of store-bought puff pastry, slice a few apples and arrange them on top, stick it in the oven and see why French cooking was for so long held to be the greatest on earth.”  

Coq au Vin

10 ounces shallots, or 2 medium yellow
onions, sliced or chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, more if needed
6 ounces salt pork or pancetta
in 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
4 cups whole button mushrooms, or
large mushrooms, halved
3 1/2 pounds free-range organic
chicken, cut into 10 pieces
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
 1/4 cup brandy
1 bottle Burgundy or other
rich red wine
1 bouquet garni:
one 3-inch piece leek,
one 3-inch piece celery,
3 sprigs parsley,
2 sprigs thyme
and a bay leaf, tied
in cheesecloth)
Salt and pepper

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil; pour water over shallots, then peel, and set them aside. Place a large casserole over medium heat and add olive oil and salt pork. Sauté until pork begins to crisp, 3 to 4 minutes, then add shallots. Continue to sauté until shallots are lightly browned, about 10 more minutes. Transfer mixture to a large bowl with a slotted spoon; set aside the
unwashed casserole.
2. Place a medium skillet over low heat, and melt butter. Add garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until mushrooms have softened. Add mushroom mixture with slotted spoon to salt pork and shallots.
3. Place chicken pieces in a large freezer bag or a large bowl. Add flour, and toss until chicken is coated. Return casserole to medium-high heat, When
pan is hot, brown chicken in batches, adding olive oil if pan looks dry. Do
not crowd pan, and turn pieces as needed until well browned on all sides. Transfer chicken to a plate, and set aside.
4. Shake any excess flour from freezer bag into casserole, and scrape bottom with a wooden spoon. Pour in brandy, then stand back and carefully ignite with a long match. Slowly stir in the whole bottle of Burgundy. Bring liquid
to a boil. Return chicken to casserole, and add salt pork, shallots and mushrooms. Add bouquet garni, and stir to mix well. When liquid returns
to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 1 hour, and season
with salt and pepper to taste. Flavor improves if cooled and refrigerated
overnight; reheat thoroughly before serving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Copyright The New York Times Company