I met Julia Child in person when I was the doorman at the Harvard Square movie theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1990s; she and her husband came there to see all of Woody Allen's movies when they debuted. They were BIG people! I don't mean fat – I mean BIG! Both of them were over six feet tall and very broad shouldered. They were also very polite and modest.
So when I got it into my head to make one of Julia's signature dishes, coq au vin, I knew I had to make it her way. I was prepared for chicken so cooked it would fall off the bone and come apart…but this chicken was sturdy yet thoroughly done, even next to the bone. I enjoyed this dish far more than I'd expected! I knew it would taste well, as I knew and enjoyed all the ingredients separately…but I was surprised at how well they come together into a delicious whole. I understand this is a common reaction for people trying coq au vin for the first time – and I can see why! This is quite wonderful, and coq au vin is definitely one of those dishes where the whole is far more than the sum of its ingredients.
And another thing: I'm also very pleased that this classic dish is prepared especially and intentionally with dark meat, namely chicken thighs and drumsticks. (This is because it is meant to simulate the "tough, sinewy" meat of a rooster as opposed to a hen.) It's a pleasant change of pace from the ten thousand dishes out there that only use "boneless, skinless chicken breasts"…which also happen to be among the most expensive cut of chicken you're likely to find. I regularly substitute leg quarters for "boneless chicken breast" in nearly every dish I make that calls for it, and with only one exception the substitution has not detracted from the dish at all. (The one exception was when I made chicken alfredo for my co-workers, especially at the request of my manager.) The heavy red wine blends in well with the rich taste of the dark meat, and that's why this dish is best served over a "lighter" base such as egg noodles.
Pans needed: 1 large sauté pan or cast iron dutch oven, at least 12 inches in diameter, with lid (the lid is important); separate saucepan or stock pot to cook egg noodles; metal bowl or dish to reserve cooked pork.
In a large cast iron pan (12 inches) or dutch oven, sauté the pork until the fat is rendered and the pork is cooked but not crisped. Remove the pork to a side dish and leave the fat in the pan. Turn up the heat to medium high and add chicken, not crowding the pan; turn frequently to brown nicely on all sides.
When the chicken is browned, pour the cognac into the hot pan, shake the pan a few seconds until it is bubbling hot, and ignite the cognac with a match. Let it flame for a minute, swirling the pan by its handle to burn off the alcohol. Extinguish the flame with the pan cover.
Season chicken with kosher salt and pepper; add bay leaf and thyme. Add carrots and celery. Place onions around the chicken. Cover pan once again and cook slowly for 5 minutes. Turn over the chicken and cook another 5 minutes. Uncover the pan; sprinkle on the flour, add butter, turning the chicken and onions so the flour is absorbed. Cover the pot once again, and cook 3 to 4 minutes more, turning once or twice.
Gradually stir and swirl in the wine so that the chicken is nearly covered. Turn heat down to medium-low, enough to bring the liquid to a simmer. If there is not enough wine, add chicken broth to reach the proper level so that the chicken is almost covered. Add in the cooked pork, garlic, and tomato paste.
Cover and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. At this point, uncover the pan and let it simmer another 15 to 20 minutes. This will reduce the cooking liquid to a thicker sauce.
As the uncovered chicken is simmering (while the sauce is thickening), prepare your egg noodles in a separate pan. Boil noodles in salted water until al dente, drain into a colander, place noodles onto dish as a base for serving the chicken.
Finally, add mushrooms to the chicken and sauce, stir in, and simmer for another 4 to 5 minutes to cook the mushrooms. If the sauce is still too thin at this point, raise the heat while the mushrooms are cooking and boil it rapidly to concentrate.
Serve over rice.