A couple of weekends ago I spent the morning butchering a batch of roosters. Or, I spent the morning fighting off nausea, helped pluck the feathers off two roosters, and then watched as others butchered and gutted and cleaned and prepared the rest of them.
Word of wisdom: don't butcher chickens if you are already nauseous, especially if it's your first time.
It all feels very silly now. I have wanted to be a part of a butchering day for a while. There is a bit in me that likes the idea of being able to kill the animal I eat, but mostly, there is just the craving for experience--for that the romantic edge of melodrama and morbidity. I understand sacrifice. I was a vegetarian for a while in high school and college, but I came back to meatland though the gateway meat: pork. I decided that as long as the animal is treated well and is respected, and as long as it eats as well as I do and so on, I don't have a problem killing and eating it.
Unless, of course, I'm pregnant and nauseous and hungry, and my feet are tired and the poor, soaking-wet dead bird smells bad. Then I just want to go home, take a long shower, and burn my clothes. But really, before I scare off those of you who-have-not-yet-butchered, and before this post becomes a catalyst for a vegetarian boom, let me say that after a week of distance from said butchering, and after cooking the man-bird for hours.on.end. I am back to meat-eating land, and loving it. That's what a good dinner of coq a vin will do, as well as a few showers and some good sleep.
Let me give you the whole picture. Pacific Star Gardens is the farm of choice. The farm is located about a mile out of town. I can take one street all the way from my side of town to the other side of town and follow that street out until it becomes a county road. It is the road I drove to Davis in high school, and the road I drive on still.
Pacific Star Gardens is my neighborhood farm. We pick berries there during the summer. We get our (chicken and duck) eggs from them. We pick up a veggie box every Tuesday. This is the box that (re)introduced me to okra this summer. And even though this winter I have become highly skeptical of sunchokes, PSG keeps winning me over: last week we got two bags of dried beans (exciting! beans!), and for some reason this was enough to wipe away any bad memories of baked sunchokes (with a still-mooing steak).
These people are idealists, like me. And troopers. Only, they actually do something about their grand ideals. They've been farming to one degree or another since the 1970's, and PSG as an official entity is now in its twentieth year. They do the Community Supported Agriculture thing, and they have a nice, organic u-pick for all-things-berry. They have chickens and ducks and some turkeys too, and I've now had it all. And it is all good, but I like them especially because, as I said, they are neighbors. This is one of those farm-consumer relationships that everyone in the locavore world is talking about, where your opinion might actually matter. Silly, non-idealist example? They settled on this particular butchering day in part because I said I was available.
So the butchering? Well, obviously, I asked for it. I've decided to try another round when I'm not so pregnant. Because not only was I nauseous, but my sensitivity to the gun-shot was ridiculous and my olfactory glands were in complete over-drive. After three hours, I was more than done. I am a pretty sensitive soul as it is, but I swear I can do better than this. So we'll try again next year.
And the chicken? And the recipe? After the initial shock that the bird was taking sooo looong to become edible (the recipe said one and a half hours, the bird took four to get edible and I cooked it another 2 to become meltingly delightful--a total of six hours), I realized this is going to have to become a regular winter occurrence around here.
I cooked the bird in stages. The first three hours were one day, and though I had planned to serve it that night, I opted out of starving my family and fed them a dinner of sides: the German Butterball potatoes and bacon-onion sauteed collard greens (incredible, recipe follows too). That night and the next night too the coq a vin hung out in my fridge, because I was afraid of it.
But then my sister-in-law paid us a visit around noon after it had chilled for those two days. She brought me flowers, we ate lunch and tea and cake (the lemon one I've been keeping from you), and then when it came dinner-making time and she was still here and we were all still amused, I brought out the much-feared pot of coq a vin. We made braised leeks and the potatoes and collards again, and even though I didn't want to, I followed the directions for the coq a vin and reduced the liquid.
The result was everything a slow-cooked meal should be. And the balance of all the dishes I thought were fabulous. It was the coq a vin, but it was also everything combined: the company, the flowers, the hard work, the knowing where every vegetable came from and how the bird looked before it died, and the simple combination of the menu. Bacon, everywhere. Flavor, everywhere. Potatoes that were so good I ate one standing up in the kitchen with only a little pinch of salt. I never do that.
So, my recommendation? Make this for Valentine's Day for your sweetheart. This is the kind of meal whose end is pure paradox: you take this hard, old, barely edible bird, and you make it a lover's dish. It is so rare a dish now--as finding aged roosters is not as easy as it used to be--that it has become special. Coq a vin is in the same genre as Boeuf Bourguignon. It is simple enough--browned chicken, wine, and herbs, et cetera, et cetera, cooked to within an inch of its life and then a sauce that is reduced even more. The hardest thing I made that evening was the braised leeks. The braised leeks! And even that was obviously only difficult because I had never cooked leeks as a dish in my life, and I burned some of them.
When I do this again I will change one thing. I will start the cooking earlier. I'll do none of this two-day bath in the fridge nonsense. I will start the bird just before lunch and let it cook low and slow until the rest of the meal is ready. This change will ensure enough extended life for the leftovers. And the second showing, I must agree with the original recipe writer, is almost better than its first.
The Dinner:Coq a Vin
Collard Greens with Onion and Bacon
and the next day: (Second Showing) Coq a Vin Soup
Coq a Vin
adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book
Try and get your hands on a real free-range rooster. Their flavor is incomparable. The slow cooking fixes any issues of in-edibility due to toughness. If you cannot get yourself a rooster though, a large chicken will do, though you will need to adjust the cooking time to at or just beyond 1 1/2 hours. Also, I used a leftover batch of mulled wine in place of the red wine, so if you have any, feel free.
1 rooster, giblets and neck included (mine was 5 1/2 pounds)
8 ounces bacon, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
8 ounces pearl onions, blanched and peeled (or 1 medium onion, quartered)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
1/2 wine glass brandy
2 cups red wine
2 cups chicken stock
a bouquet garni of parsley stalks, bay, and thyme
4 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch lengths
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup diced tomatoes, juice and all
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced and lightly sautéed in butter
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
beurre manié (equal parts white flour and butter, made into a paste)
Hack at --I mean--joint the rooster into 5 pieces: 1 back, 2 thigh/drumsticks, 2 wing/breasts. Save the back for making stock later (with the rooster's bones) and set the rest aside.
Brown the bacon in a little butter and oil. Place the cooked bacon in the large casserole dish you will use to cook the rooster. Use an enameled cast iron pot if you have it. Lightly brown the onions in the bacon fat, drain off, and add them to the bacon. Dredge the chicken with the seasoned flour and brown in the same pan, adding more oil and butter if it gets dry. Let it get nice and caramelized, deep and dark without ever burning. Pour over the brandy and, taking care not to set your eyebrows or the ceiling on fire, tip the pan towards the gas flame and let it catch. When the flames and the drama have ceased, transfer the chicken pieces and any juice left in the pan into the pot.
Return the pan to the heat and deglaze with the red wine, scraping free any tidbids and morsels still stuck to the pan. Let the wine come to a boil and the pan's sides and bottom get good and clean before you pour the bubbling wine over the chicken. Repeat this process with the stock to get a jump start on the cooking time (with hot liquid) and just in case there is anything still stuck to the pan.
Add now the herbs, tomatoes, celery, and garlic to the pot with the chicken and bring to a simmer on the stove. Transfer to the oven and cook at 250° F for any where between 1 1/2 and 6 hours, depending on the size and age and general orneriness of the bird.
Strain the saucy stock into a clean, wide pan and reduce by half, boiling rapidly. If you think the sauce is a little thin still, whisk in a little beurre manié. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the casserole contents to the finished sauce, plus the mushrooms, and bring to a simmer again. Serve with the boiled potatoes, collards with onion and bacon, and braised leeks, if you like. Enjoy!
Braised Leeksfrom Louisa Weiss' fabulous book, My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes)
6 large leeks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup sliced shallots
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2-2 cups chicken broth
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel off the tough outer layer(s) on the leeks and trim the roots, leaving the root nub intact (so they don't fall apart like mine did). Cut each leek in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly between each of the layers. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper.
Heat a large pan over medium-high heat. Pour in half the olive oil and then place the leeks, cut side down, into the pan without crowding them (I did this in two batches). Be careful they don't crisp too quickly. Sear them for 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown. Turn them over to cook the other side for 3-4 minutes, then transfer them, cut sides up, to a gratin (or Pyrex-style) dish.
Pour in the remaining oil into the saute pan and cook shallots over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shallots just begin to color. Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour this mixture over the leeks.
Put the dish in the over and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the leeks are fork-tender. Enjoy!
Collards with Onion and Bacon
1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1/2-inch strips
2-3 bunches collard greens, washed well, stemmed, and chopped
salt, if needed
In a large frying pan (with a lid) brown the bacon. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the greens and cook with a lid until wilted, then remove the lid and sauté until they loose their vibrancy and are completely tender. Check the seasoning. I've been known to add more salt. Serve hot.
Boiled PotatoesDon't take this recipe as an insult--I had no idea it was so easy to boil potatoes. I had never done it before until the night of the coq a vin. So for those of you who are like me, here's how to do it. If you are making potatoes for another menu and don't want 3 pounds of boiled potatoes on your hands, by all means, cook only 1 pound, or 2 pounds. I give this amount because it matches perfectly for leftovers. That's all.
3 pounds new potatoes, preferably German Butterball
1 tablespoon salt
Put potatoes in a large-ish pot and cover with water by about an inch. Add the salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until fork-tender, about 10-15 minutes, depending on size. Drain and keep warm until ready to serve.
(Second Showing) Coq a Vin Soup
Remove any leftover meat from the bones, chop, and place in a soup pot. Reserve bones to make stock. Add to the meat the leftovers from the coq a vin dinner: saucy stock, collards, potatoes, and leeks, chopping the potatoes and the leeks into smaller pieces first. If you do not have leftovers, whatever the reason, add to this other good things, perhaps, as Hugh himself suggests, just a handful or two of orzo. Let simmer a few minutes to let the flavors blend (or to cook the pasta), and serve with hearty slices of good bread, toasted, maybe, and slathered with butter, if you like. Enjoy!