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Coq au Vin: a Mediterranean Treat

February 29, 1996|FAYE LEVY | Levy is the author of "Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook" (Warner Books)

When I traveled around France, I discovered how popular coq au vin really is. I found this homey dish in bistros and in roadside restaurants (routiers) throughout the country.

Because the basic formula is the same--the bird is browned, then cooked with wine, baby onions and mushrooms--I was surprised at how much the taste of the dish varied from one region to another. I enjoyed sampling coq au vin in Provence, where the sauce clearly benefited from the robust red Rhone wines. I loved coq au vin in Alsace, where it was often made with Riesling and accompanied by noodles that absorbed the tasty sauce.

But the best coq au vin was the one I tasted in Lyon. It was made with the wonderful free-range chickens called poulets de Bresse from the neighboring area.

As a souvenir of my gastronomic "tour de France," I bought a cookbook named "Le Coq au Vin." The author, Roger Lallemand, told me that he believed the origin of the dish was Auvergne in central France, a region that, curiously enough, is not known for its wine.

Strictly speaking, coq au vin is made with an old rooster, but today a younger chicken is often used. To adapt this classic for quick cooking, use chicken breasts rather than legs; they cook faster. The fact that breasts are lower in fat is another advantage. Use chicken pieces with skin and bones, because boneless breasts cook too fast to be braised in a sauce.

We tend to think of chicken in wine as a uniquely French dish, but it is popular in several other Mediterranean countries. Cooks in Italy and Spain, both large producers of wine, also pour their favorite drink into their chicken casseroles. So do the Greeks, who add raisins, cumin seeds and a dash of cinnamon to the sauce for an exotic touch.

Latin cooks know that something special happens when you simmer a chicken in wine. The bird acquires a pleasant taste and aroma from the slightly tangy dry wine. At the same time, the flavor of the wine becomes mellow and is enriched by the chicken's essences as it slowly reduces to a sauce.

You might come across recipes for coq au vin that call for expensive wines, but most chefs agree that it's better to reserve the finest bottles for drinking and to use reasonably priced ones in the pot. Still, the wine contributes the major flavor to the dish and makes cooking and dining more interesting. Change the wine, and the dish will have a taste that's not quite the same as your last coq au vin.

One of the most important lessons I learned in France is not to use wine alone for braising a chicken but to blend the wine with another liquid to cut its acidity. Chicken stock and broth are preferable, but vegetable broth or even water can be used. If you cook the chicken with only wine, the sauce might turn out too tart. To enhance the spirited character of the dish, I sometimes add a splash of Cognac to the pan after sauteing the chicken, a trick I picked up at the Academie du Vin in Paris.

Sweet vegetables such as carrots and onions (which become sweet in cooking) also moderate the flavor of the sauce, as do garlic and such herbs as thyme, bay leaves and parsley. Although old-fashioned French recipes make use of lardons of salt pork to enrich the sauce, they can be omitted for lighter cooking. In some variations of coq au vin, such as French chicken with prunes and Greek chicken with raisins, the sweetness of the fruit balances the wine's acidity.

Traditional accompaniments are boiled potatoes or rice, but I find that baked sweet potatoes or butternut squash also are delicious with the chicken and its sauce.

CHICKEN BREASTS WITH RED WINE AND RAISINS

For a different kind of coq au vin, try this sweet-and-sour Greek version with cinnamon and cumin.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts, washed and patted dry

Salt, freshly ground pepper

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup dry red wine

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2/3 cup chicken stock or broth

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1/3 cup raisins

1 1/3 cups frozen pearl onions, optional

1/2 teaspoon sugar or to taste

Heat oil in Dutch oven. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Place chicken in pan and brown in batches over medium heat, transferring browned pieces to a plate. Discard excess fat, leaving 1 tablespoon in pan.

Add garlic and saute over low heat few seconds. Add flour and cook, stirring, about 30 seconds. Add wine, stirring until smooth and scraping in brown pieces. Bring to simmer, stirring. Stir in tomato paste. Add stock, cinnamon, cumin and raisins. Mix well.

Return chicken to pan along with juices from plate. Add pearl onions and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally (turning pieces once to coat with sauce), until chicken is tender when pierced with knife, about 20 minutes.

With slotted spoon, transfer chicken and onions to platter. Cover and keep warm. Skim fat from sauce. Season sauce to taste with salt, pepper and sugar. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

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