…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!
Confession time: I’m not much for TV food personalities (I don’t even have cable!), but when I was first really getting into cookbooks, I was pretty into Nigella Lawson. There was just something in her breezy “if I can do it, anyone can” manner that was very appealing, and I enjoyed reading her cookbooks as much as I did cooking from them. Nowadays, I’m at a point where most of her recipes (with the exception of baked goods) are things I could whip up on my own without having to consult a cookbook. But there are a few dishes that have stuck with me and become part of my regular repertoire.
This soba noodle salad is one such dish. I’ve made it for countless potlucks and barbecues, and almost always get asked for the recipe. The two great things about it are that it’s ultrafast to make, and that it’s pretty healthy as far as “pasta salad” goes. The original just calls for noodles, scallions and sesame seeds (in addition to the dressing), but I’ve taken to add-ins such as the peapods pictured, or carrot matchsticks, or any raw veg you see fit, really, to make it a bit more salad-y and substantial.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour, which can also make this salad a good gluten free option if you substitute tamari or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for the soy sauce (I’ve been told tamari usually does not contain wheat gluten, but check labels!). It’s also vegan. I’m not gonna lie, it’s not really substantial enough to have as a main dish, but it makes a great component to an Asian-style meal. We had it the other night as part of a Japan-esque motley dinner of salmon sashimi with yuzu juice, an heirloom tomato, tofu and shiso salad from the Momofuku cookbook, and a mess of stir-fried purple-tinged leafy mystery greens we bought from one of the Asian produce vendors at Eastern Market.
8 oz dried soba (buckwheat) noodles
¼ cup sesame seeds
3-5 scallions, sliced thinly on the bias
6 tsp soy sauce (or sub Bragg’s Aminos for gluten free)
2 tsp honey (non-honey-eating vegans, just sub brown or regular sugar)
2 tsp rice vinegar
2 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
optional: 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
optional: additional vegetables, such as peapods or julienned carrot pieces
Notes: The soba noodles I buy come in little 3.5-oz bundles (see photos), so I just use two bundles- close enough. The ginger is optional but a nice touch if you have some on hand. If you’re using additional vegetables, depending on quantity you may want to lightly salt them or toss them in a bit more soy sauce prior to adding them to the salad. This recipe doesn’t make a huge quantity of salad, but it can easily be doubled if serving more than a few people.
Directions: Put a large pot of water on to boil. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry nonstick skillet over low heat, taking care not to burn them. Remove from heat when toasty and fragrant, and allow to cool. Combine all the dressing ingredients (including the ginger, if using) in a large bowl and mix well.
When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the noodles and stir them so they don’t clump. The noodles will cook VERY quickly- test for doneness after 3 minutes. The package instructions (and Nigella, in her version) say 6 minutes but in my experience this yields gummy, overcooked noodles. As soon as the noodles are cooked through, drain in a colander and immediately rinse with cold water until thoroughly cooled. Shake to remove excess water. Toss the noodles in the bowl with the dressing. Add the sesame seeds, scallions, and any other vegetables and toss again to distribute. If you have time, allow the salad to sit for 30 minutes or so before serving for the flavors to develop.
For my newly-minted book club, I had the ambitious idea that not only would I read a food-related book a month, I would also try to post a recipe or two from said book. June’ s book was Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton; go here to see the book review and discussion. (I actually made the dish a couple weeks ago, but time has a habit of slipping away from me these days, hence the delay in posting.)
It wasn’t hard to choose a recipe out of this book- I went with Ants on a Tree (not to be confused with Ants on a Log, an entirely different animal) because the author constantly refers to it as his family’s favorite dish, and it’s the one thing his daughter has been willing to eat even through her pickiest phases of toddlerhood. It’s a Szechuan (or Szichuan, depending on your fancy) noodle dish consisting of seasoned ground pork (the “ants”) and bean thread noodles (the “tree”), and it would give me an excuse to use some of those Szechuan peppercorns I bought a while back at Penzey’s.
The nice thing about this recipe, and one reason I imagine it’s become a favorite at the author’s dinner table, is that it’s pretty easy to throw together. I’m sure after making it a few times and having the seasonings memorized, you could whip it together in a matter of 30 minutes or less. I love highly-seasoned food, so I did enjoy this dish; my only difference of opinion is that I found it a little too “decadent” (see my note below re: oil) to want to consume it on a regular basis. Also, I wouldn’t consider this a one-dish meal since it’s just meat and carbs with no veg, so I made a batch of my Chinese-style kale to eat alongside the noodles. We had leftovers, which I would venture to say tasted even better in my lunch the next day.
Making this dish led me to ponder having my own hungry monkey someday, and wondering what his or her unwaveringly favorite food would be. Until then, I’ll just have to live vicariously through the Amster-Burtons, and raise a forkful of noodles as a salute to Iris and her international palate.
8 oz. ground pork
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs hot bean paste (sometimes sold as spicy bean paste, or hot bean sauce)
1 tsp cornstarch
6-8 oz cellophane (bean thread) noodles
1-2 tbs peanut or other neutral oil (see notes)
2 scallions, white & light green parts only, thinly sliced (the darker tops can be sliced and used as a garnish)
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chili, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chicken stock (canned or from concentrated bouillon is fine)
1 tbs dark (mushroom) soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns (see notes)
Notes: You may try to see if you can get away with using less than the 2 tbs oil called for in the original recipe, as I found the end result to be a little on the greasy side (perhaps the pork I used had a higher fat content than what the author normally uses). Also, the Szechuan peppercorns are listed as “optional”, but if I was of a mind to leave them out, I’d just make a different dish instead; in fact, I would even suggest upping the amount to 1/2 tsp if you’re feeling gutsy.
Directions: Put some water on to boil. Meanwhile, combine regular soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the cornstarch. Add the sugar, hot bean paste and pork, stirring thoroughly to combine. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Place the noodles in a large bowl and when your water comes to a boil, pour over the noodles to cover. Soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain in a colander.
Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes. (You really want to break up the pork as small as possible, or the meat will all sit at the bottom of the dish, negating the whole “ants on a tree” thing.)
Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce and Szechaun pepper. Cook, tossing the noodles with tongs or two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and the pork is well distributed throughout the noodles. Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately, garnishing with a few chopped scallions if desired.