Tuesday, November 06, 2012

the James Beard project :: Coq au Vin

James Beard:

an American hero

James Beard was a culinary icon, an authority on American cuisine who was ahead of his time.  Chefs and home-cooks alike consider him the founder of American cuisine as we know it: a melting pot of global techniques and flavors that characterize the very core of the American people.  He first instructed Americans on French styled cuisine, along with his colleague, Julia Child.  At a time when America was misguided by the new magic of processed foods, Mr. Beard sought to reconnect people with traditionally prepared continental dishes.  It could be argued that he began America’s culinary re-birth a few decades before it became popular in today’s chef-celebrity climate.  There is not a cook, or frankly an eater, who has not been touched in some way by the father of American cuisine.

Above all, James Beard valued culinary education for regular Americans. To that end, he wrote many cookbooks (click here for a complete list).  He also took part in America’s first cooking show on NBC.  Later in his life, James Beard began his own cooking school where he taught for 30 years until his death in 1985.

One year following his death, the James Beard Foundation was established for the purpose of preserving the spirit of his life, a life full of travels and culinary passion.  It is located in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the brownstone that James Beard called home. Today the JBF runs this house as the only American food history center, honoring his life and the development of American cuisine at large.  The foundation celebrates notable established and emerging American chefs, awarding them for exceptional regional restaurants, life achievements or leadership.  Also recognized are cookbooks, blogs, & films.

Alexander Young:

Chef Alex has a full calendar. Most days are double booked.  It's impressive that he gets it all done - managing Zingermans’ Roadhouse, running Cornman farms, cooking for private parties, planning special event dinners, plus donating his time to teach and cook for events in the Dexter and Ann Arbor schools systems. Like James Beard, Alex’s passions extend beyond the kitchen itself to include culinary education and community outreach.

In 2011 the James Beard Foundation awarded Chef Alex the “best chef in the Midwest” for Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Passion about traditionally-prepared full-flavored foods is not only the Zingerman's way.  It is how Alex thinks, cooks and lives.   In July of 2012 he was nominated to the James Beard core of chef activists, as a recognition of the work educating children in the local school systems. In September he was inducted to be a chef diplomat of the American chef corps at the White House.

Today, I am honored to bring a part of this busy chef to you.  Together we'll begin a blog series entitled The James Beard Project.   I will bring you Alex’s versions of recipes from the new essential James Beard cookbook that was released on October 30th 2012.  We hope to bring you multiple episodes with recipes and superior photos/video provided by Peter Leix Productions.  What a fun way to spend my morning -- with these two gentlemen celebrating the vision and passion of James Beard by setting time aside to discuss and prepare his recipes.


(check out the video at the end of this post to watch Alex prepare the dish)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
one 3 ½ lb chicken, quartered
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup cognac
one 750 ml hearty red wine
bouquet garni (1 sprig fresh flat leaf parsley, 6 whole peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, tied in rinsed cheesecloth
12 small white onions peeled
three ½ inch thick slices salt pork
12 mushroom caps

for the beurre manie:

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour

Chef Alex chose this recipe from the new cookbook because it epitomizes traditional cooking of James Beard- an autumnal harvest meal fit for a fancy guest or suitable for a home cook in the middle of the week.  This spirit is embodied in many of James Beard’s recipes.  

Coq au vin is a dish like many I’ve seen Chef Alex cook in his own home kitchen.  Flavors are layered in thoughtful steps to create a total depth from which it is almost impossible to pull out individual tastes.  

Traditionally coq au vin was a way for peasants to use an old rooster, hence coq (cock) au vin (wine).  Braising is the best method to tenderize the tough older bird.  Alex loves these recipes where there is a story to be told about the traditional methods.  It makes the dish more alive when you can connect it to its past.

When we entered the back kitchen at the Roadhouse, Alex had the ingredients set out in mise en place.

The chickens were whole, so his first step was to break them down into eighths.  I’ve watched him do this before, but I was again amazed at the ease and speed, the way the knife danced around and seemed to be drawn magnetically to the joint.   He was careful to preserve the oyster, a small single bite on the back - arguably the best bite of a chicken.

If, as a home cook, you can save time by buying your chicken already in pieces, feel free to do that.  Breaking it down yourself gives you more opportunity to save the back or the wing tips for making stock at a later date.

We were lucky to cook with California Olive Ranch Olive Oil, a favorite here at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. It has a strong flavor without being too assertive, green and fruity but not bitter or biting.  

Although the recipe doesn’t call for it, Alex started with a fair bit of this buttery olive oil to a “smokin’ hot pan” and added butter to it when the oil was almost about to smoke.  

To these fats, Alex added the well-seasoned chicken pieces, carefully browning them on both sides. He was careful not to crowd the pan. In your home kitchen, brown it in two batches if necessary.  

While the meat was caramelizing, Chef Alex prepped the other veg. The garlic, carrots, and celery came directly from the ground: 9 miles away at Chef Alex’s Cornman farms in Dexter, Michigan


When the 2nd side of the chicken was half browned, Alex added the lardons, cubed Cornman farms pork belly.   Again, as in all one-pot dishes, the timing was critical for proper layering of flavors, browning the chicken then adding the pork at just the right moment.  Alex used discipline, intuition and his five senses to create depth of flavor with these layers. Unfortunately this cannot always be captured in a written recipe.

Although the chicken was very nearly cooked, we still had the opportunity to add flavors.  Alex added the chopped onions first, giving them sufficient time to caramelize and sweeten.  Next he added a touch of salt to the onion to help develop the saute.  When the onions were ¾ cooked, he added the garlic.  In this preparation we didn’t want the garlic to stew because it would create a different taste. We wanted it to saute.  Therefore, it was essential that the garlic hit the hot oil, not the moisture that had been extruded from the onion.  

When the garlic was partially cooked (but not browned) he added the Tantre Farm shiitake mushrooms, stalks of celery plus their dark green leaves roughly chopped, and 4 large carrots roughly chopped in thirds.  This lowered the temperature of the pan, so that the garlic did not burn.  At this point Alex salted the veg while it all sauteed.   

After a few minutes of saute, he added a heavy pour of the cognac and let that reduce by 50 percent.  Next, he added one bottle of red wine and the bouquet garni and stirred to get the fond from the pan.  I’m sure you’ve heard this many times, but I can’t let it go unsaid: Cook with a wine that you drink.  This sauce is based on the reduction of wine.  If you don’t enjoy a glass of it, you’re going to like the intensified reduction even less.

We covered the pot and put it in a 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes, until the chicken was totally cooked through.  However at this point, there was still a fair bit of liquid in the pan.  Historically the sauce was thickened with the blood of the rooster right at the end of preparation, just before serving.  But James Beard calls for a beurre manie - a classical thickening technique.  

For a Beurre Manie, it’s important to start with room temperature butter.  It will make your job much easier.  Combine equal parts butter and flour and stir until they are totally homogenized.  Chef pointed out that the sauce in the pan has to be boiling when you add the Beurre Manie, and then you must make sure that you simmer the liquid long enough that the raw flour taste is cooked off.  Using this thickener at the end of the cooking allows for an additional depth of flavor.  If you were to flour the chicken at the start, before browning, the wine would not permeate the meat during the braise in the same way. Instead, the flour would bind to the meat’s surface and interfere with the flavors penetrating the meat.  

Once the beurre manie has successfully thickened the sauce, Alex added quite a bit of freshly ground Telicherry pepper.  In Alex’s words, a dish this rich wants wants a “heavy bite” of pepper at the end.

Serve this dish with your favorite starch- rice, mashed potato or even just a loaf of crunchy bread.



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