On a wintery evening in St. Paul, MN, I peeked into my parents' fridge to discover a good-looking local, farm-reared, really n' truly free-range chicken thawing in the fridge so I thought I’d give it the Julia Child treatment: douse it in booze and call it Coq au Vin.Julia instructs that one use a frying chicken, by which I suppose she means one on the less-than-plump side. Mine would do fine, having lived a life of active pleasures. But I don't get why she didn't recommend a rooster. My French ain't so good but, uh, doesn't cock = coq? I suppose it's simply the dearth of roosters in the modern marketplace.
I wasn't super-careful with all the steps and ingredients and so I can't properly judge the recipe by my ho-hum results. I still don't get why I needed to bring two whole quarts of water to a simmer to gently cook the bacon in BEFORE gently frying it in butter. We figured the two-step cooking process was meant to reduce the amount of fat -- but two quarts is way more than is necessary for 3 to 4 ounces of bacon, don't you agree? Weird. Impatience and rumbling tummy drove me to simmer the bacon for half the time in half the water (no biggie, I'm sure). Another problem was that pearl onions were simply not to be had in the five-block radius, so used thick slices of red onion.
The only liquor store that could be reached in the white-out conditions had no cognac, a key ingredient, so I substituted a $12 bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. Eh, close enough. My parents don't go much for the "young, full-bodied" French red wines, so I dug out a South African cabernet sauvignon blend from their cellar.
I was so psyched for the part of preparation when I would pour in the cognac-cum-brandy and, "averting [my] face," as Julia recommends, watch it go up in flames. So excited, in fact, that I forgot that crucial step: "ignite ... with a lighted match." Whoops.
I rushed the cooking, even though I knew I ought not have. Poor little drunken chicken was assaulted by a near-rolling boil. The finished product smelled delicious but fell flat in the mouth. The flavors hadn't blended together well and the drumstick (my favorite) was a bit tougher than I would have liked. Slower cooking would have solved that one. My dad's friend recommended that I add shallots, which I tossed in with the mushrooms and onions, but it didn't do the trick. She cooks her vegs in with the sauce which makes loads of sense but since Julia doesn't do it that way, I didn't. Wish I had. After we'd finished, she sat back and said, "Well, I can say without equivocation that my coq a vin is much better." Touche.
I'm not going to bother posting a recipe. I used the one that Julia wrote with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). But if you want to make coq au vin some snowbound Sunday afternoon, I recommend Nigel Slater's musings and recipe (wish I'd read it before I dove in). I'd love to hear about your experiences with this classic dish and other "cooking with Julia" stories!