…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!
It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries. Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin. In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing. Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.
So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale! Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get. They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.
Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection. She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen. In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her. But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.
I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half. Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong? I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen? Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh. This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding. However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.
The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene. As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf. The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce. Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce! I think I was more upset about it than anything.
That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left. I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so. It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them. At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body and flavor to my sauce. I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).
I’m still not sure what happened with the meat. I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled. If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.
P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley. Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!
In Detroit’s Eastern Market, there is a restaurant called Russell Street Deli, a space twice as tall as it is wide, with about 8 tables where people sit communal-style, elbow to elbow. They come faithfully for lunch to indulge in classic deli treats like corned beef on rye, or vegetarian delights such as the roasted vegetable sandwich. On Saturdays, the line for breakfast (with specials culled from the market’s seasonal offerings) winds out the door and spills onto the sidewalk. In addition to their above-par sandwiches and omelettes, Russell Street is particularly known for its wonderful soups. I should know, because years ago I worked there for several months, first at the soup station, and later as a waitress. Back then, a cup of soup often stood in for breakfast, and provided fuel for the frantic pace of busy lunch shifts.
The soups are typically made vegetarian or vegan, with the option of meat for those who want it, so they are appreciated by all. One of the soups, Black-Eyed Pea with Collard Greens (with or without ham), was a combination that I had never tried before working there, but has since become a favorite and something I make at home fairly regularly. I do make the non-veggie version more often at home, but I’ll give the recipe both ways. (Recipe is my approximation and does not reflect the actual restaurant recipe, although to my taste buds I have come pretty darn close.) Given the recent spate of warm weather here, I hesitated to post this, thinking no one would give a hoot about soup at this point (and apparently I’m not alone in thinking this could be the last soup of the season), but then I remembered that this is Michigan, and for all we know it could be snowing or sleeting tomorrow and a hot bowl of soup could be just the thing.
I served this with cornmeal drop biscuits from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, and they were wonderful for sopping up the broth. I never thought I’d be the type to whip up biscuits for a weeknight supper, but these were super easy and fast (I cheated and used the processor instead of cutting in the butter by hand). We also ate the biscuits as part of dessert, with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, as a rustic sort of substitute for shortcake.
Black-Eyed Pea & Collard Green Soup à la Russell Street Deli
1 lb dried black-eyed peas, rinsed and picked over
2 bunches collard greens, washed, stems removed and cut into 1-inch ribbons (you want about a pound after they’re all trimmed)
3 small or 2 medium cooking onions, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large celery stalk, diced small (not crucial, but I had some in the fridge)
3-4 quarts veggie stock, chicken stock or water+ ham hock (see notes)
salt & pepper to taste
optional: 2 cups diced ham
Notes: I made this just after Easter to use up some leftover Easter ham, but again, the veggie version is a worthwhile (and of course healthier) alternative. If you’re not vegetarian, but just don’t want to buy ham, I’d suggest using chicken stock for the cooking liquid. If you’re using the ham, I suggest using water plus a ham hock as the cooking liquid, but the other stocks would work fine too. The total amount of liquid you’ll need will depend on a couple factors, such as how dry your beans are and how low a simmer you can maintain. As for seasonings, the amount of salt you add will depend on your choice of stock, so just start tasting towards the end of cooking and add as needed.
Directions: Heat the bay leaf and stock or water + ham hock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, in a stockpot or Dutch oven, sweat the onions and celery in a little vegetable oil, adding the garlic a few minutes in. When they begin to soften, add the beans and simmering liquid. As the beans cook, if you are using the ham hock, you may need to skim the surface occasionally to remove any scum. (I know, at this point the vegetarians are either laughing at us or going “ewww, scum?”…) Cook uncovered at a gentle simmer, stirring from time to time, until the beans are nearly fully cooked. If the liquid gets too low at any point, top it off with a little water or stock- you want the beans to be covered at all times, and the end result should be brothy, not overly thick.
When the beans are almost done, remove the ham hock and bay leaf, then raise the heat slightly and add the diced ham and collard greens. Simmer until greens are fully wilted and tender, about 10-15 minutes. (Collards can take a longer cooking, if you prefer to put them in earlier; just make sure not to overcook your beans.) Check for salt and pepper, adding as needed, and serve. I love to season this soup with a dash of Frank’s Red Hot and/or a sprinkle of apple cider vinegar.
One of my favorite foods for its sheer versatility is the egg. Whenever the fridge is bare and I’m at a loss for what to cook, I can always count on eggs to be there for me. Take Monday night, for example- I was staring at a fridge full of not much, wondering what the heck I was going to eat. I had a bunch of eggs to use up that were left over from my Daring Bakers cake (I couldn’t use them because one of the yolks had broken into the whites) but no veggies or anything to make an omelet. I remembered when I was a kid, my mom used to make egg drop soup a lot, but I had never tried making it myself. I thought, how hard could it be; you just simmer a broth and then whisk the eggs in, right? I didn’t have any stock though so I used miso. I grated some carrot into the soup, smashed a garlic clove and threw that in there too, and cut up a couple sheets of nori to add something green. Pretty soon I had a soup that (I’m not gonna lie to you) looked sort of like vomit, but tasted really good. I used a lot more egg than I think would be typical, which gave the soup this unctuous, velvety texture. I stirred a little hot sauce into my bowl and dug in. I did not take any photos because it was seriously kind of scary looking but now that I know how tasty and easy it is to throw together, I plan to come up with a proper recipe that will use less egg and consequently (I hope) look more presentable.
The other egg dish I present to you was much more photogenic! Last Friday Marvin invited some friends over for dinner and made a delicious veggie ”lasagna” that used slices of eggplant in place of noodles. (It turned out really well, by the way.) The next morning, I made eggs, incorporating a bunch of leftover odds and ends from the previous night’s dinner: fresh locally-made ricotta, some spinach, roasted red peppers, and best of all, these luscious oven-roasted tomatoes he’d picked up as part of an antipasto course. Imagine tomatoes with super-sweet, concentrated flavor, marinated in olive oil with herbs… somewhere between sundried and fresh. I could have eaten them all single-handedly, but restrained myself. [Update: check out this post for a recipe for roasted tomatoes and a roasted tomato tart.] Anyway they were great in the omelet because I just chucked them in the pan, marinade and all, and used that as my cooking oil. I made the omelet quasi-fritatta style, where the veggies were cooked in with the eggs and then the whole thing got folded around a filling of ricotta, a little parmesan and some basil. I make omelets quite frequently and never bother to write about them, but those marinated tomatoes and the fresh ricotta turned this into something special. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I’m working on some other projects at the moment that are keeping me out of the kitchen, but hopefully I’ll be able to post some new recipes soon. I’m planning on re-creating the chicken enchiladas from El Azteco, a restaurant in East Lansing where I worked in college. I went there the other night for dinner and it stoked my craving for their chile verde sauce!
Girls’ Night In
Usually I don’t have much time to cook on weeknights, let alone preparing something worthy of a guest, but last week was an exception. Last Sunday I had planned on making dinner for myself and Marvin and had bought a couple small chickens to roast. But as I was finishing up my grocery shopping, I got a call from a friend who had free Neil Young tickets for that night! Luckily Marvin was understanding and not too disappointed about not getting his chicken dinner (or if he was, he took it in stride) so I went to the show. A couple days passed and I still hadn’t cooked the two chickens sitting in my fridge, all nicely salted and seasoned… I put in an eleventh-hour email to my friend Amanda and luckily she was game to join me. She showed up after work with a bunch of flowers for the hostess (always appreciated!), and we opened some wine and chatted as I got things ready. We had a simple but satisfying dinner of chicken, an eggplant-tomato concoction (sort of an experiment… but that’s another blog post), green salad, bread, Camembert, and some Côtes du Rhone to wash it all down. I can’t prove this scientifically, but I know the food tasted much better with her there for company.
I usually only roast one chicken at a time and use my cast iron skillet, which I love for this job since you can heat it on the stovetop, sear the bird and then put it in the oven. It also lends itself well to making a pan sauce when you’re done (just don’t grab the handle without a pot holder, as I did once… ouch). This time though, I decided to use my swanky All-Clad Petite Roti roasting pan that I got a couple Christmases ago- I was feeling guilty that it doesn’t get enough use. As you can see from the photo, it just fits two chickens side by side. Hey, as long as you’re turning on the oven, might as well make enough food for the week!
I’m not going to give a recipe for roast chicken, since there are enough out there already, and besides, I use different instructions each time and it always turns out fine. As long as you stick with a reputable cookbook, I think the quality of your bird will have a lot more to do with the outcome than the recipe. That said, I do follow Zuni Café Cookbook author Judy Rodgers’ advice of salting your bird at least 24 hours in advance, and have found that it does wonders for keeping the meat moist AND seasoning all of the meat and not just the surface. This and the classic French preparation of stuffing herbs under the skin (sage, marjoram, thyme, and rosemary) are the two factors I don’t usually stray from. I happened to have a few lemons this time around, so I did add a whole lemon to each bird… just cut the lemons in half, squeeze some of the juice into the cavity and then stuff the halves in there. It wasn’t too strong; it just gave the chicken a nice subtle lemon perfume. While the chickens were roasting, I opened the oven a couple times to splash some Sauvignon Blanc into the pan to make sure the drippings wouldn’t burn. After the birds were done roasting, I let them rest on a platter loosely tented with foil while I made a simple pan sauce- just cook some finely minced shallots right in the roasting pan along with the juices, adding a splash more wine if necessary and cooking for a couple minutes over medium high to reduce the sauce a bit. (If your roasting pan is unwieldy you can transfer the operation to a smaller saucepan, but I didn’t find it necessary.)
As good as the chicken was that night, I had lots of leftovers, so Saturday afternoon I did a double project of taking all the meat off the chicken carcasses for chicken salad, and making chicken stock with the remains. I picked most of the meat off the bones, but left a little of the harder-to-get-at bits to flavor the stock, like the wing meat. I then put the two carcasses in a stock pot (plus one that I’d had in the freezer… I always save them up until I have 2 or 3), added cold water just to cover, cut up 3 carrots, a couple onions, a couple celery stalks, some peppercorns, a little fresh parsley, and brought to a very gentle simmer. I like to add salt when the stock is close to done; that way you don’t run the risk of having it cook down and be over-salted. Simmer about two hours- if it tastes weak, let it go a bit longer. When it’s done, fish out the large pieces with a slotted spoon and discard or compost; strain the stock into containers with a fine-mesh strainer and/or a strainer lined with cheesecloth. I don’t mind if my stock is cloudy so I never bother with clarifying it and I don’t worry about whether I stir it while it’s cooking. (If this matters to you, any good classic cookbook should have instructions on how to make your stock clear.) I like to divide it up into several small containers so I can freeze some and have some in the fridge. After it chills, remove the solid layer of fat on top and discard or save for frying or roasting potatoes… yum.
Chicken Salad Secret Weapon
For my chicken salad, I also hesitate to give a “recipe” because I make it differently each time depending on what I have at hand and it’s very much a taste-as-you-go operation. I do like to use shallots, celery, some kind of fruit (usually diced apple or dried cherries), and some nuts, either walnuts or pecans… Chopped fresh herbs are always nice too, if you have them. Other times I make a more Mediterranean version with Kalamata olives and roasted red or yellow peppers, or even artichokes. The key to my chicken salad, though, is in using the remainder of the pan drippings to moisten the meat (I credit Judy Rodgers for this idea, too). Another one of Judy’s tips is to leave your meat on the bone until you’re ready to make your chicken salad; otherwise it will dry out and pick up odd flavors.
Assuming your drippings or pan sauce have been refrigerated, scrape any fat from the top and warm the drippings in the microwave on low power until they are liquid again. Stir this into your diced meat before adding your other ingredients. You can then get away with adding very little mayo and still have a very moist (and extra-flavorful) salad. If you’re serving your salad on a bed of greens, reserve a little of the pan juices to add to your vinaigrette. I usually add lemon or vinegar to my chicken salad to counter the richness of the drippings, and because I love a touch of acidity. This time around, I soaked my shallots and dried cherries in a couple tbs. sherry vinegar (substitute balsamic or red wine vinegar). This achieves two things: takes the “bite” out of the shallots, and plumps the cherries, giving them a nice tart/sweet flavor burst when you bite into them. (If you’re using apples, soak them in apple cider vinegar.) I served this as a weeknight supper for myself and my mom, on a bed of leaf lettuce and frisée, so I ended up getting lots of mileage out of those two birds… not to mention the dishes yet to come when I use up all that chicken stock! I’m already plotting a risotto, a Spanish-style soup, and more…
Much of what gets cooked in my house is a result of opening the fridge and cupboards, feeling like I have “nothing to eat”, and the challenge to make something good out of what I do have on hand. I pride myself on being resourceful enough to almost always be able to come up with something worth eating, even if the pantry is close to bare.
Another factor in these impromptu meals is not wanting food to go to waste. Last week I was in my familiar mode, squatting in front of the open fridge (I can just hear my mom saying “Close the door, you’re wasting energy! Nothing’s going to magically appear in there just from you staring at it!”) when I noticed some mushrooms I had bought that were fast on their way to becoming slimy and inedible.* I also had some leftover grilled cabbage** from the last warm day of summer, as well as some tofu and a bag of spinach, so I decided to make a stir-fry.
In my arsenal are a few indispensible items that assist me greatly when throwing a meal together. Do yourself a favor, go to your area Asian grocery store and pick up the following: toasted sesame oil (the dark brown stuff), sriracha sauce and/or chili sauce (a.k.a. “Rooster Sauce”), soy sauce if you don’t have any, rice wine or Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine), and rice vinegar. (You can find most of these at a regular supermarket, but they cost about twice as much and you deprive yourself of the pleasure of checking out all the other unusual products they have to offer.) Even if you aren’t able to get to the store to get fresh ingredients such as ginger and garlic, these condiments are more than sufficient to give some punch to a last-minute stir-fry.
So, my stir-fry consisted of: sliced mushrooms, diced tofu, spinach, shallot, and grilled cabbage, seasoned with soy sauce, a few drops sesame oil, some chili sauce, and some Shaoxing cooking wine. The veggies are obviously not the “typical” stir-fry veggies, but the point is that you can make a stir-fry out of just about anything if you flavor it well. The end result was a delicious one-dish meal that was probably one of the healthiest things I’ve cooked lately.
*A tip on mushrooms: If you have mushrooms that are a little old and starting to get slimy, just peel them. Turn them upside down and grab the skin at the base of the cap. Give it a tug and it should easily pull away, leaving you with a nice clean dry mushroom cap. (You may have to use the assistance of a knife, but you’re not actually cutting, just pulling the skin off.) French cooks always peel their mushrooms instead of washing them, so they don’t become waterlogged.
**Grilled cabbage is AMAZING- thanks to my friends Steve & Sarah, the BBQ masters, for turning me on to this. Just thinly slice a purple cabbage, toss it with some olive or veg oil & salt, and put on the grill in something like this (mine looks like a skillet with a long handle, and we use it all the time for grilling veggies. Much easier than skewering them.) Once the cabbage is done, you can toss it with a vinaigrette (homemade, please!) and serve it as a room-temp salad/side dish. Last time they had a BBQ, I made an Asian-style vinaigrette for the cabbage with veg oil, a few drops sesame oil, a little dijon mustard, a little soy sauce, and some rice wine vinegar. The entire bowl was devoured in short order. One great thing about this dish if you’re having a BBQ is that cabbage is really cheap, and one cabbage will make a large side dish!