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Coq au vin

Coq au vin is a favorite dish of mine, and it's perfect for a relatively informal dinner for six. It can be made a day or two ahead of time, which is always great if, like me, you like to cook and you like to serve dinner to friends but you don't like to do both on the same day. Even without having to think of the main dish, I had plenty to do the other night before everyone arrived.

The whole point of coq au vin is the soup-sauce in which the chicken braises. For this reason, I serve it with a good, sliced-up baguette. Noodles sound like a good idea, but they don't soak up juices, and rice and potatoes are not much better. It would not be totally insane to strain the dish and discard the solids - so long as you had a good piece of bread.

When I started cooking, coq au vin was, like boeuf bourgignon, an unimaginably sophisticated dish that must be very tricky to make. Looking at the recipe that Julia Child and her colleagues give in Mastering the Art of French Cooking I, I see now that it's far from challenging, but that's not what I should have thought thirty-odd years ago. I chose the breezy recipe given in Classic Home Cooking, definitely the one cookbook in my collection that combines a high degree of interest with great usefulness. (Even so, I wish that I'd glanced at Mastering first.) It was only "later" that I read the fine print: "Serves 4." Happily, I'd bought more chicken and mushrooms than I needed; I already had extra shallots.

Coq au vin is built upon a sautÚ of chicken. Browning pieces of chicken in fat launches the creation of the soup-sauce. To facilitate this important step without leaving the chicken skin stuck to the bottom of the pot, make sure that the pot is hot. I set the empty pot over very high heat until it sends up a smell. Then I turn the heat off for a few minutes. Because all the meat can't be browned at once, it's important to let the fat regain its heat after removing browned pieces. Also, take the time to wipe each piece of chicken dry with a tea towel - and then remember to put the tea towel in the laundry bag!

But before you heat up any pots and pans, you'll want to prep the dish. It is just plain foolish to chop mushrooms, peel shallots, and slice pancetta when you ought to be watching the chicken. So do the chopping first.

Finally, choose a good wine. Just because it was on hand, I used a bottle of Cahors the other night. It wasn't ideal, but it was very tasty. You may use white wine if you prefer it, I'm told, but I've never encountered such a version.

For four people - and I don't see why you couldn't simply double this for eight, which is how many you ought to cook for if you're planning on six - you'll need a nice long baguette, three pounds of chicken pieces, eight shallots, a little more than half a pound of mushrooms, and half a bottle of wine. If you're like me, you'll stick to chicken legs alone.

Coq au vin

Adapted from Classic Home Cooking (Dorling Kindersley, 1995), p. 159

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon oil

3 pounds (1.5 kg) chicken pieces (or more)

4 thick slices of bacon, cut into strips, or 1 thick slice pancetta, cut into strips

8 peeled shallots

1/2 (250 g) pound sliced mushrooms (or more)

1/4 (30 g) cup flour

1 1/4 cups (300 ml) broth

1 1/4 cups (300 ml)  red wine

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

1 parsley spring

1 large garlic clove, crushed

salt and pepper

parsley for garnish

Melt the butter and the oil in a large flameproof casserole. When the butter stops foaming, as many chicken pieces as the pot will hold without any touching, and cook them for 10 to 12 minutes, until they've browned all over. Remove the pieces as they're cooked with a slotted spoon, and drain them on paper towels.

When all the chicken has been browned, spoon off the excess fat, and add the bacon, the shallots, and the mushrooms. Cook them over high heat, stirring often, until they're golden brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon and,  drain them on more paper towels.

Bring the broth to a simmer while toasting the flour in the casserole. When the flour has begun to brown, add the broth and stir the sauce until it thickens. Gradually stir in the wine. Return the meat and vegetables to the pot, and add the herbs and seasonings. Bring the pot to a boil, cover it, and slip it into a 350║ (180║) oven for from 45 minutes to an hour.

When the dish is cooked, you may want to transfer it to a serving casserole, which will take up less room at the table and not look half-empty. Don't forget the baguette!

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