Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christina's Kitchen in Budapest: Coq Au Vin

Hungary is a cook's paradise, with fresh produce from around the European Union and delectable meats available at markets and grocers everywhere. Also, while most Hungarian wines taste delicious and are well-priced (eat your heart out, Charles Shaw), there are also so-so table wines that work perfectly as guilt-free cooking wines, priced as low as $1 a liter.

My first week here, I was beside myself when I discovered the holy grail of budget cooking at my local supermarket: A whole chicken for the equivalent of $3. See, back home in Washington, D.C., I tried to buy farm-raised, cage-free birds, and the only place I could find one for under $2 a pound (at the Farm Womens Market in Bethesda) would regularly sell out by noon, so I'd settle for more expensive ones at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, savoring every last shred of back-meat and crunchy bone.

So to find a whole hen - even a scrawny one, probably no more than 3 pounds - for 600 Hungarian forints, I thought I'd found nirvana.

Then I cooked it, making a spicy curry with tomatoes, onions and diced potatoes, and the bird wouldn't get tender. So I cooked it some more, letting the potatoes turn to mash and the sauce reduce to paste, and still the meat was rubbery, hard and dry. I was terribly disappointed, even though my tolerant beau ate it enthusiastically and even took leftovers to work the next day.

I turned to the experts, posting a question on the Washington Post Food section's Free Range chat, hoping that one of my former colleagues might offer some suggestions. And they did: Editor Joe Yonan wrote, "Indeed, if you're stuck with a tough old bird, you need to be stewing or braising instead of roasting... Remember, coq au vin was originally/traditionally made with coq -- cock, or rooster -- for that very reason."

I did a little research online, coming up with some great explanations of coq au vin (including one cook who suggested sourcing actual roosters in order to find the toughest bird). I tried out a few different recipes and was rewarded on my first try with a delectable stew that left me scrounging for the cheapest, scrawniest chicken every time I go to the store, just to have an excuse to make another coq au vin.

Here's my version of the dish. The recipe's utterly flexible, so you can add or subtract veggies, mushrooms, bacon and wine to taste. Best of all, for a purple-food lover like Sasha, a cheap-o red wine tends to turn the entire dish into a violet masterpiece, right down to the bones.

One whole chicken, skinned and quartered (roughly 2 to 4 pounds)
Three to six carrots, peeled and chopped in 1/2 inch disks
Three to six celery stalks chopped in 1/2 inch crescents
Two to three onions, quartered
One to three garlic cloves, smashed
One or two bay leaves
One sprig each of parsley and thyme
One bottle of cheap red wine (it doesn't matter how bad it is - it's said that the quality doesn't affect the stew, as long as you cook it long enough)
One quarter to one half pound of bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces
One cup of mushrooms, in 1/2 inch slices

1. Put the chicken, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and herbs in a big bowl, then pour in enough wine to cover it all. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the fridge overnight or all day (give it at least 6 hours to let the wine work its tenderizing magic).
2. When you're ready to start cooking, remove the chicken, veggies and herbs from the bowl, and set aside the liquid. Pat the chicken pieces dry.
3. In a large skillet or pot, crisp the bacon pieces, then remove them from the pan and drain them on paper towels. Brown the chicken in the bacon fat. Work in batches to avoid crowding the meat.
4. Return all the chicken, carrots, celery and herbs to the pan, and pour in the reserved wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and let the mixture simmer for an hour or more, until the chicken is cooked. Add water, chicken broth or more wine if the sauce reduces too much.
5. After an hour, while the chicken is still cooking, use another skillet to brown the mushrooms, onions and garlic with a little butter. Add them to the chicken, then toss in the bacon pieces.
6. Sprinkle in some salt and pepper to taste and serve your coq au vin over rice or pasta, or just with some crusty bread.

(Photo by Jay Dater)

Whole Chicken on Foodista


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