Originally, the true French Coq Au Vin (sometimes incorrectly spelled as Coq A Vin or Coq O Vin) was a country recipe, using the cockerel when he was getting a bit too elderly to, ahem, perform his duties. By then he would be a bit of a tough old bird, and needed a long, slow cooking in wine to tenderise.
Nowadays, unless you keep your own flock, cockerels are harder to come by, so you’ll probably make this with chicken, and none the worse for that. As always, I plead with you to avoid intensively reared poultry, and use a free-range bird. It’s not only much better for your karma (or however you measure your morality) but will actually taste immeasurably better too.
You would traditionally make this with a whole bird, jointed or not, depending on which recipe you follow, and I have done either many times, but I have been inspired by fellow food blogger Dom at Belleau Kitchen who has posted some great recipes using chicken thighs. Chicken thighs are cheap in a “wow, that’s a bargain” way, rather than cheap and nasty: they are full of flavour and very meaty, and two will make a good portion per person.
An equal inspiration is the always wonderful Elizabeth David: she made a career out of searching out true and authentic recipes, and this is adapted from the one in her classic “French Country Cooking”, which in turn was based on a very old recipe: frankly, I think this is the best Coq Au Vin recipe you will ever find, and therefore, apart from suggesting the use of thighs, I have fiddled with it hardly at all, which is unusual for me, although I have added garlic, which was strangely absent from her recipe.
You can order Elizabeth David Classics: "Mediterranean Food", "French Country Cooking" and "Summer Cooking" here
Some old recipes include the use of the bird’s blood: unless you have slaughtered your own, this is unlikely to be available. I have never used it, so I can only guess that you would add the blood towards the end of the cooking, and that it would need a fairly careful sieving to get rid of any coagulating lumps: doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Elizabeth David’s recipe does not use the blood anyway, so let’s ignore it here.
There are many variations that also use lardons of bacon, perhaps, and some suitable herbs. By all means use them if you wish, but I like the true, uncomplicated flavour you get here.
Although there are several stages to this recipe, all are very easy, so don’t let it put you off. Take your time, open another bottle of wine, and sip away while you wait. You can cook this solely on the stove top, or, if it’s more convenient pop it into a low-to-medium oven (gas mark 4/180C/350F) after the browning and initial cooking
Ingredients (serves four)
One good free-range chicken, jointed or left whole as you prefer, or (my suggestion) eight, good, meaty chicken thighs.
Chicken giblets, if available (you can sometimes buy them frozen, which would be fine here)
Twenty button onions, peeled and left whole
Twenty button mushrooms, of a similar size to the onions, wiped clean and kept whole
Five or six cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
One bottle of good red wine (Miss David suggests Macon, Beaujolais or Chateauneuf Du Pape) but any good, rich red wine that you like will do – it doesn’t even have to be French. It does not have to be a wallet-buster, either, but remember the old adage that if the wine isn’t fit to drink, it isn’t fit to cook with.
Another splash of red wine for the onions (less than half a standard glass)
A glass of brandy – around half a tumbler, rather than a typical bar spirit measure
3-4 oz/85-110grams of butter
A splash or two of olive oil
The juice of one lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A pinch or two of sugar
You will also need: a good, lidded stove-proof casserole dish or similar (I use a cast-iron pot), and a large, heavy based frying pan to cook the onions and mushrooms.
Season the chicken (inside as well as out, if using a whole bird) with the salt, pepper and lemon juice. Melt half the butter with the splash of olive oil, which will prevent the butter burning, and brown the chicken all over. Add the whole garlic cloves around half-way through this process, allowing them to soften and take on a little colour. Remove the garlic and keep it to one side if it shows signs of beginning to burn. Add the glass of brandy, and flame it. When the flames have died down, add the bottle of red wine and return the garlic if you have had to remove it. Bring to the boil, uncovered (this evaporates off the alcohol), then reduce to a very slow simmer, add the giblets if you have them, and cover. This is the stage at which you can transfer to the oven if you wish.
Chicken thighs or joints will need around 45 minutes – if you are using a whole bird, probably around an hour and a half. Chicken is one of those meats that either needs the minimum cooking to bring it to the safe temperature (75C/170F) and then serving while it is still juicy, or a lo-o-o-ong slow cooking, until it is very tender and almost starting to fall apart – anything in between, and it will toughen up and be chewy. So, the minimum times, as suggested above, or at least twice as long if you want to start it early and leave it to its own devices while you get on with the rest of your day.
Once the chicken is simmering in the wine, get on with the mushrooms and onions.
Cook the onions gently in half the remaining butter, (with another little splash of olive oil) and once they have softened and taken on a little colour, add the splash of red wine and the sugar. Turn them gently in the pan until the sugar has melted, the wine evaporated, and the onions glazed. Remove from the pan and reserve.
Wipe the pan, melt the remaining butter in yet another drop or two of olive oil, and gently sauté the mushrooms until they have taken on a little colour and any liquids produced from them have evaporated. Remove from the pan and keep to one side.
When the chicken is nearly ready, remove the giblets if used, and add the onions and mushrooms. When ready, remove the chicken, and carve if you’ve used a whole bird – keep warm. If the sauce is not quite thick enough, raise the heat and let it bubble and reduce – if you wish, add a little beurre manie, which is a paste made of equal quantities of butter and plain flour (you will only need an ounce or two/30-55grams), and let cook out for a few minutes.
Plate the chicken, and pour over the sauce. You could serve this on a large crouton of fried bread, or with noodles, rice or almost any kind of potatoes you like. A salad on the side would be nice, or, in the colder months, perhaps a simple veg like green beans, broccoli or peas. You will also want some nice crusty bread to mop up the juices.
You could, of course, adapt this Coq Au Vin recipe for the slow cooker – I would still suggest cooking the onions and mushrooms separately and adding them towards the end, and do brown the chicken first: it makes all the difference to the look and flavour of the dish.
You could also easily make a vegetarian version: either use your favourite meatless chicken substitute, or veggie sausages, or use some really good mushrooms in place of the chicken: big flat field mushrooms, or Ceps, if you can find and afford them – I would still use the button mushrooms, too, as the contrast of texture and flavour will be great.