I enjoy cooking, and I love cookery books. Cookery books are a way of traveling the world, of entering other cultures and histories; they are a form of play and a source of pleasure. Thinking about food, talking about favourite recipes and those chefs who, one feels, one has come to love and understand, feeds the intimacy and attraction between lovers and partners; cooking together recreates and revitalises the human bond between us.
If you are like me, however, you will need to read a new recipe several times before you feel you have gotten the hang of it, and are prepared to commence operations. Why is this so? Well, last night I had a call from Jono, in London, asking how to make chicken stock, and asking for the recipe for coq au vin. As I talked him through the proceedings, the light went on: most cookery books tell you what ingredients to use; they tell you what to do and how to do it. But they do not – and this is generally true, I think – they do not help you to understand what you are doing. You follow the ‘recipe’ quite literally; and if you are a trained chef no doubt you know exactly what is going on – but, until you stop and think about it, unless you stand back and consider the steps and the processes as a whole, you are merely a monkey imitating what human beings do.
So here is how I explained Robert Carrier’s coq au vin, from his Great Dishes of the World, to my son, over the telephone last night to London:
First: the ingredients:
1 chicken, cut up into pieces.
3 tbs butter
2 tbs olive oil
125g good bacon
12 button onions
12 button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs parsley
4 tablespoons brandy or cognac, warmed
1/2 bottle red wine
1 lump sugar
1 tbs butter and 1 tbs flour, blended together
A further 2 tbs parsley, for garnish
The first thing you’re going to do is sautee the vegetables in a nice bath of oil, butter and bacon fat. Melt the oil and butter together, and lightly brown the bacon, to flavour the mix. Then add the onions, cook for a bit until they are glossy and take on a little colour, then add the mushrooms. Sautee gently until the mushrooms have browned, then remove all the vegetables and set aside in a warm place.
The next thing you’re going to do is sautee the chicken pieces in the same oil and fat. You want the pieces to ‘stiffen’ nicely in a coating of seasoned of flour, so you need to handle them carefully, without breaking the surface of the flour or puncturing the skin. First you roll the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour, shake off the excess, and then slip them gently, using tongs, into the simmering oil. Turn them over when done on one side, taking care not to puncture the coating, and brown nicely on the other side. As each pieces is done, remove and set aside, until you have browned all of the pieces.
At this point you reassemble the dish and get ready to pop it into the oven to bake. Return the mushrooms, onions, bacon bits and chicken pieces to the casserole, together with all their juices, and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper (I’d use Maldon salt) and add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf and parsley. Cover the casserole and put it into a moderate oven (180 centigrade) until almost tender.
Now for the final step – the vin component of the coq au vin. Remove the chicken pieces (remember, they have been baking nicely in their coating of flour) and the vegetables and bacon once more from the casserole, and skim off any excess fat from the liquids left behind. Put the casserole back on the stove, turn up the heat, pour in the brandy, and light it. Allow the brandy to burn for a minute or two and then extinguish it by pouring in the wine. Add the lump of sugar, bring to the boil, and reduce to half the original volume. Thicken this sauce with the butter and flour mixture, adding it one small knob at a time and whisking to make sure it is properly dissolved and blended into the sauce.
Finally, put all the chicken and the vegetables back into the casserole, with the wine sauce, cover, and allow to simmer in a very slow oven until you are ready to eat. Garnish with finely chopped parsley.
See – it’s easy! So what time should we come over for dinner?