when life hands you a tough hen…

…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!

It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries.  Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin.  In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing.  Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.

So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale!  Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get.  They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.

Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection.  She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen.  In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her.  But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.

I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half.  Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong?  I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen?  Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh.  This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding.  However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.

The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene.  As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf.  The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce.  Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce!  I think I was more upset about it than anything.

That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left.  I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so.  It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them.  At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body  and flavor to my sauce.  I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).

I’m still not sure what happened with the meat.  I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled.  If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know!  Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.

P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.  Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!

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6 responses to “when life hands you a tough hen…

  1. I had real coq au vin in Paris, and yeah, you probably can’t replicate it with ingredients found in U.S. supermarkets. But frankly… I’ll take our double-D girls here, rather than their old cocks. … One thing you should try, though, is to make authentic pommes purées. That’s the thing I remember most about the coq au vin meal in France. I think they use a ricer and like a pound of butter, but that shit is like the smoothest, silkiest mashed potatoes you’ll ever have in your life. And lumpy mashed potatoes are still amazing, so pommes purées are like heaven!

    • I don’t make mashed potatoes often but do use a ricer when I occasionally make them, and you’re right, it makes a world of difference in the texture!

  2. I had a very similar experience with a hen from the same farmer. I’m afraid they’re much better suited for making stock. I was also able to retrieve about a half cup of rendered fat from the bird.

    • Darn, I should have known to consult you beforehand! I agree it makes an amazing stock, but I usually just use “spare parts” for stock rather than a whole bird. Although, I suppose when you price it out, $6 for a vat of really good stock probably isn’t bad.

  3. Still giggling about the “double-D supermarket cousins”!

  4. Sorry you took a spill and spilled your sauce. Yikes.
    I have had better luck than your unfortunate bird with said farmer’s frozen hens, but I used my slow cooker — low, slow and all day long. That’s how I like it. Wait, what were we talking about?

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