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We're thrilled to introduce Sunday Dinners, a new biweekly column from our own Tom Hirschfeld featuring his gorgeous photography, stunning Indiana farm, and mouthwatering family meals.
This week: teaching an old bird new tricks.
I was in the mood to tinker. I had been thinking a lot about Coq au Vin, which was weird since I pretty much always found the dish muddled. It's one of those stews that cooks so long it is hard to distinguish any one real flavor, but I guess I was thinking about it because it was such a classic French farmhouse dish, and the one French dish that most Americans had heard of vis-à-vis Julia Child. It had been a long time since I had made it, years in fact, and I had to wonder, knowing my cooking skills had improved considerably since then, if it might not be better this time around.
I decided I would patiently wait on Sunday. Then I would get my classic French cuisine on, put on some pre-1930s jazz, and start the day by making Pain de Campagne, clarifying butter, peeling carrots, and trimming pearl onions. I would spend the day in the kitchen, my happy place, with a fire in the fireplace and the girls and their Momma just an eyeshot away playing games at the kitchen table.
It used to be I would only let Vivian name the chickens Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner so she wouldn't get attached. That way, when anyone asked her a chicken's name, she would answer appropriately depending on which chicken was being pointed to. Nevertheless, over time she developed a disliking for the roosters and only wanted to eat them. She had been telling me for a month we needed to eat Rusty. Rusty has been a good rooster though, and age was his pardon this time around. I would cull a younger bird.
If I was going to do this I was going whole hog, so I set in by air chilling, in the fridge in the garage, a 24-week-old rooster that I just brought back from the processor along with a few geese and ducks that I had also raised. They needed a little hang time so the natural enzymes in the meat would do their thing and tenderize the birds a bit — after all, there was no need to rush into this thing.
The flavor profile of a rooster is what interests me. It is different, wildly different — wild might be the closest term, though maybe not exact. No, it isn't gamey, it's unctuous, and the breed I butchered, a Black Langshan, is dark, darker than turkey thighs, with extremely rich meat that's even sticky like braised short ribs or beef cheeks. It's something that many Americans have never eaten.
Never eaten because rumor has always foretold of a tough, virtually inedible bird. I am here to tell you that if you raise your heritage breed rooster to optimal butchering age, it will be far from inedible, and more like incredible. Now, that doesn't mean you are going to roast it in the oven at a high temperature until it is dry and tough, but rather that you are going to fit the right cooking method to the right type of bird. With a rooster, you want to braise it.
The meat sizzled as I gently laid the it into the hot clarified butter, but it didn't splatter. It didn't splatter because it was air chilled, so when it hit the oil excess water didn't spew and pop grease everywhere. The skin became very brown and crispy. I added the mirepoix. The smell was ridiculous as the chicken fat mingled with the butter and vegetables. I scraped around on the bottom of the pan getting at all the little brown and tasty bits. The wine sizzled when it hit the bottom of the pan deglazing the rest of the stuck on goodness. Then the glug glug glug as the whole bottle of wine emptied. The house was starting to smell so good. The wine reduced and I added the stock. I went over to the table and sat down with the girls to play a game of Clue, my stomach grumbled.
Coq au Vin
3 1/2 pound rooster or fryer, quartered
1 bottle burgundy or pinot noir
2 onions, peeled, trimmed, and quartered
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
2 celery stalks, washed, trimmed, and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 leek, top only, rinsed (save the whites for another dish)
6 thyme sprigs
5 curly leaf parsley sprigs
5 cups rich goose, duck, or chicken stock
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
piece of parchment paper cut into a round to fit the pot
8 smallish carrots, about 1/2 inch round, peeled and trimmed
8 boiler onions, peeled and trimmed
a healthy handful of mushrooms, if they are large cut in half and scored
8 ounces slab of unsmoked bacon or pancetta