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French classic, humble origins

Coq au vin makes the most of simple ingredients

Coq au vin at Les Zygomates. Executive chef John Paine uses Giannone poultry from Canada. Coq au vin at Les Zygomates. Executive chef John Paine uses Giannone poultry from Canada. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / March 2, 2011

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Coq au vin, which sounds fancy, isn’t. In this French classic, chicken simmers in wine with nuggets of browned bacon, tiny onions, and mushrooms. It’s a lovely, warming dish similar to its close cousin, boeuf bourguignon (beef in wine), which makes good use of simple ingredients.

“These traditional French dishes were developed from what was available,’’ says John Paine, executive chef of Les Zygomates in the Leather District. Families who lived off the land had an aging rooster (coq in French), bacon curing in the cellar, mushrooms foraged from nearby woods, onions dug from the field, and plenty of cheap, local wine.

Today, cooks simmer a roasting chicken for less time. “If you start out with better products, you get better-tasting results,’’ says Paine, who uses Giannone poultry from Canada. He marinates the bird in wine and aromatics. “It’s traditional and helps flavor the meat, but it’s not really necessary.’’

Most of the ingredients need to be blanched or browned, or both, before going into the pot. Pearl onions are boiled briefly to make it easier to peel them. Blanching bacon extracts some of the salt and smoke. “The dish shouldn’t have a smoky American bacon flavor to it,’’ says Paine. Brown the bacon, onions, and chicken in butter or bacon fat, he says, which gives them a rich, caramelized flavor.

In Alsace, France, the popular chicken in wine is coq au Riesling, named for the prominent varietal produced in the region. Raymond Ost, chef and co-owner of Sandrine’s Bistro, who hails from Strasbourg, explains that after simmering the chicken in white wine and chicken stock, he finishes the dish with a dab of crème fraîche. “We use mushrooms, but no bacon or pearl onions,’’ says the Cambridge chef.

Catheline van den Branden, executive director of the French Cultural Center in Boston, follows the recipe her mother made for special occasions, incorporating tips from a friend, who advised using an enameled cast-iron casserole, such as Le Creuset. Heat circulates well in hefty vessels, but other sturdy pots work fine. The friend, who comes from Burgundy, also insists the recipe include marc de Bourgogne, a spirit from her region. American cooks can use cognac, a more widely available brandy. After browning the chicken, pour the cognac over it, and light it with a match. The alcohol adds depth to the finished dish.

Van den Branden also tucks a piece of cinnamon stick and whole cloves into her herb packet. On occasion, she stirs a small square of dark chocolate into the sauce at the end to counter the acidity of the wine. For cooking, van den Branden uses an inexpensive pinot noir. “We’ll drink something better from Burgundy,’’ she says.

While the classic coq au vin meant collecting ingredients around the farmhouse and cellar, today’s version begins with a long shopping list. From start to finish, the dish will take a few hours to assemble and simmer. “If I invite you to my home for coq au vin, I’m opening up my home and heart to you,’’ says Van den Branden. “It’s a labor of love.’’

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.