Nigel Slater's perfect coq au vin recipe (2024)

Read the plate. Does the food on it have integrity, do the ingredients belong together, does the recipe ring true? Or is it, like so much modern cooking, a mess of ingredients that are out of sync and have no affinity with one another. I love a recipe that really works, where you feel there is something unequivocally right about it. Where the cook has remained true to the dish, to its provenance, its history, its soul.

I feel that way about coq au vin. The story is there for all to read. The chicken, the garlic, the bottle of wine, the long, slow cooking time. Such a recipe wreaks of its history and its place in the life of those who invented it. You can see how the whole thing worked for them, how the dish slotted into the farmer's life, its place in the landscape.

Sadly, sometimes recipes fall out of favour, buried under an avalanche of new and passing fancies. It's absurd, of course, that a dish that has stood the test of time and lined a million happy bellies, is sidelined in favour of something whose charms will rub off within a month or two, but it happens to the best of them. This does not mean that our cooking should stand still, it is simply that it annoys me when a good dish is tossed aside in favour of the here-today-gone-tomorrow recipes that come at us like confetti in a gale.

This is the case with coq au vin. Yes, it is a fancy name for a chicken stew, but made with a gamey, strong-boned bird, some aromatic bacon, juicy little mushrooms and a bottle of half-decent wine it is as good a weekend lunch as you can get. The sort of good-natured food that will fit in with us rather than us having to plan our day around it; the sort to eat off plain white plates on a paper tablecloth. The sort whose juices you mop up with bread and a plain, garlic-scented salad. In other words, a sound recipe that makes all the right noises.

There is a branch of cookery that says you can mess around with a classic recipe and it won't matter. You know, make a patently French recipe with Australian wine or swap a herb or a vegetable to suit what you have available. Where I am the first to say we should cook to suit ourselves, our intuitions and appetites, I also believe that a classic recipe should be just that, a classic. To mess around with it would be to misunderstand it, to somehow downgrade it.

Apart from the odd time-warp brasserie, you will be hard-pushed to find coq au vin in Paris, let alone in Dijon. Even then, you might find that some upstart chef has added his own signature. For which you can read buggered it up. Yes, let's be inventive, letting a recipe breathe to suit our ingredients and our current fancies, but let us also respect time-honoured recipes. There are few things quite so enjoyable as a model dish cooked with sincerity and respect.

I once worked in a restaurant that, at the time, was considered to be the best in the land. At least several of the guides thought so. The chef patron had learned to make this dish in France, he understood its roots. We made coq au vin every week (believe me when I say that this is one of those dishes that improves, rather than deteriorates, after a few days in the fridge). I have never made it better than I did under his beady eye, but then we made it with the dregs of the glasses and bottles from the customers' tables. So whether it was the quality of the local birds, the excellent wines or that soupçon of saliva from each glass that made the difference I will never know.

The bird

The older the bird, the richer the sauce. Have a word with your butcher: once you tell him you want a chicken for long, slow cooking he might be able to order a more mature bird for you. Best hunting grounds for older birds are traditional butchers, farmers' markets and mail order. With their access to fresh air, free-range birds have had the opportunity to build stronger, thicker bones than anything kept indoors, and will make a more sumptuous sauce.

The wine

Much is made of using good quality wine in cooking - a fruity, big-flavoured wine will obviously add more interest than a thin, cheap one - but there is no need to push the boat out. It doesn't have to be from Burgundy or, I suppose, even French, but I would feel uncomfortable using anything else. A loud, inky Beaujolais will do the trick.

The aromatics

Most classic recipes call for onions and carrots only, but I always add celery or celeriac, too, for its earthy notes. Big fat French onions, the sort that dangle on strings from bicycle handlebars, are what you want for the backbone of the stew. Tiny, tight-skinned button onions are correct for adding nearer the end but are infuriatingly difficult to find when you want them. I have used small, firm shallots before now and got away with it. A little bunch of fresh thyme and a few bay leaves are really all the herbs you need here, otherwise the dish will become confused.

The bacon

It just isn't coq au vin without some fat, juicy strips of green bacon. The rashers with which the British are obsessed are too thin - if they don't burn, they'll disintegrate. What you need is a solid lump that you can cut into thick strips. Pancetta will do nicely.

The accompaniments

Whenever I have eaten this in its natural habitat it has always come with wide, flat noodles, and I see no real reason to alter that. My usual choice is to plump for steamed potatoes, for the simple reason that I like to squash them into the gravy with my fork.

The recipe

Serves 4.

a large chicken, jointed into 6 or 8 pieces, giblets and carcass saved

an onion, a carrot and a few peppercorns for the stock

150g pancetta or unsmoked bacon in the piece

30g butter

2 medium onions

a large carrot

2 ribs of celery

2 cloves of garlic

2 tbsps flour

2 tbsps cognac

a bottle of red wine

4 or 5 small sprigs of thyme

3 bay leaves

40g butter

12 small onions, peeled

200g small mushrooms

boiled or steamed potatoes, to serve

Put the chicken carcass, its giblets and any bits and bobs of bone and flesh into a deep pan, cover with water, add an onion and a carrot, half a dozen whole peppercorns and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer until you need it.

Cut the pancetta into short strips; they need to be thicker than a match but not quite as thick as your little finger. Put them, together with the butter, into a thick-bottomed casserole - one of enamelled cast iron would be perfect - and let them cook over a moderate heat. Stir the pancetta from time to time - it mustn't burn - then, when it is golden, lift it out into a bowl, leaving behind the fat in the pan.

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and place them in the hot fat in the casserole, so that they fit snugly yet have room to colour. Turn them when the underside is pale gold. The skin should be honey coloured rather than brown - it is this colouring of the skin, rather than what wine or herbs you might add later, that is crucial to the flavour of the dish. Lift the chicken out and into the bowl with the pancetta. By now you should have a thin film of goo starting to stick to the pan. This is where much of your flavour will come from.

While the chicken is colouring in the pan, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrot, and wash and chop the celery. With the chicken out, add the onions and carrot to the pan and cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the onion is translucent and it has gone some way to dissolving some of the pan stickings. Add the garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, as you go. Return the chicken and pancetta to the pan, stir in the flour and let everything cook for a minute or two before pouring in the cognac, wine and tucking in the herbs. Spoon in ladles of the simmering chicken stock until the entire chicken is covered. Bring to the boil, then, just as it gets there, turn the heat down so that the sauce bubbles gently. Cover partially with a lid.

Melt the butter in a small pan, add the small peeled onions and then the mushrooms, halving or quartering them if they are too big. Let them cook until they are golden, then add them to the chicken with a seasoning of salt and pepper.

Check the chicken after 40 minutes to see how tender it is. It should be soft but not falling from its bones. It will probably take about an hour, depending on the type of chicken you are using. Lift the chicken out and into a bowl.

Turn the heat up under the sauce and let it bubble enthusiastically until it has reduced a little. As it bubbles down it will become thicker - though not thick - and will become quite glossy.

Return the chicken to the pan and serve with the potatoes.

Nigel Slater's perfect coq au vin recipe (2024)
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