30 December 2013

Coq au Vin: Frugal French at its Best


A dozen or so years ago, my husband and I discovered the joys of a quiet Christmas day, just the two of us, snacking, reading napping the day away.

I spend part of Christmas Eve preparing finger food, and we nosh on that until Christmas dinner, eaten about 5 or 6 p.m. is ready. Dinner is sometimes ham or chicken, sometimes even salmon (we're not overly fond of turkey).

I've made Chateaubriand a time or two but was looking for something different this year. My husband took the lead and pored through this cookbook, my father's favorite. Coq au vin was my husband's suggestion. We try to keep holiday meals - every meal, really - simple and prepare as much as we can in advance.

The recipe in my father's cookbook looked easy. Coq au vin can be as complicated as you want to make it. Here is a slow-cooker version I want to try.

But I draw the line at spending a whole lot of time in the kitchen on a holiday, especially when new books are always waiting under the tree for me.

As is often the case with old French cookbooks - any old cookbook - the instructions were brief. There was no ingredient list; that was buried within the pithy instructions.

Coq au Vin 
  • 4 chicken breasts
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter
  • 4 slices bacon
  • brandy or
  • 4 large onions, quartered
  • 12 large button mushrooms
  • 2 gloves garlic, crushed
  • 8 ounces brandy
  • 4 large carrots, chopped (mine were slightly par boiled)
  • bouquet garni
  • 16 ounces red wine (I used this Cote du Rhone)
Brown the chicken in a skillet with butter and bacon. Add onions, mushrooms, carrots and garlic, adding brandy and setting the dish aflame. (Note: I add the last of my Calvados, purchased in Paris in 2007, and skipped the flames.) Next add the wine and the bouquet garni (you can make your own) and cook uncovered over medium heat for at least an hour, longer if the chicken does not seem fully cooked. Because the wine will color the chicken, you may want to have a meat thermometer on hand; chicken must be cooked to 165 degrees.

The original recipe called for setting aside blood from the chicken to use as a thickener. I used cornstarch, with moderate success.

We were pleased with the results. The chicken was moist and tender, and the vegetables pleasantly sweet and wine soaked. The dish really tasted of rural France, I thought.

Coq au vin is an excellent rustic dish that needs little embellishment, even on Christmas. Some people love a holiday dinner table that is quite literally - to use a cliché - groaning under the weight of four vegetables and three starches along with numerous side dishes, all supporting ham, turkey, beef or even all three. Not to mention several desserts.

I prefer a simple approach. Coq au vin, which includes mushrooms and onions and often carrots as well as chicken and wine, is a complete meal. All it needs is a crusty baguette and a green salad with tomatoes and olives. And a good wine for drinking.

And that is what we had for Christmas dinner.

I forgot about dessert. But sometime around 5 p.m., before setting the table, I ventured out on our side porch to plug in the lighted wreath. There on the garden bench was a small box containing melt-in-your-mouth fudge. I know who the fudge was from, and I thank this dear friend, for he provided our Christmas dessert.

We had plenty of food left over. The day after Christmas, I cut up about a cup of chicken, prepared some pasta, and made a small casserole with leftover Alfredo sauce, carrots, mushrooms and some peas. Topped with cheese and crouton crumbs, it was a humble and unpretentious meal - which is how coq au vin began, too.

That night I made chicken paté with another chicken breast, adding one hard-boiled egg, mushrooms, minced red onion, parsley, grainy French mustard, sea salt and a bit of mayo. Great with a baguette.

Finally, I tossed all the leftovers in a pot and made soup stock, adding ham, lentils, and leftover cold potatoes. This I froze for the cold winter nights ahead.

For there will surely be many of those nights. Winter has come early to the Upper Midwest.

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11 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Tourtiere for a French Canadian Christmas

From 2006:

A decade ago, when I started writing a weekly food feature for a local newspaper, my first topic was tourtiére, the French Canadian meat pie that is an integral part of Christmas Eve. I wanted to personalize the assignment with a nod to my culinary heritage.

I don’t recall a single Christmas Eve without meat pie. My grandmother made it, then my aunts. Now I make it, though I will admit to skipping a few Christmases when time was scarce.

Traditionally, tourtiére is served following midnight or Christmas Eve Mass. My great-grandmother, whom we all called Mémere, washed it down with Champagne. Grandma Annie liked it with Mogen David (likely preceded by her Seven-Up and brandy “highball”). I like a nice Cabernet or a Shiraz with hints of berries and spices.

There are many different versions of tourtiére. Our family tradition is just fresh-fround pork, onions and seasoning. I have two recipe cards, one in my mother's tidy backhand and the other in Jane's slap-dash printing. They just called it "French Meat Pie."

Tourtiére a la Plourde-Laurin Famille

Three pounds ground meat: I like a combination of fresh ground pork and ground chuck
One large onion, minced
Dash nutmeg
Dash allspice
Dash freshly-ground pepper
Dash sea salt
1-2 eggs
1/3 cup cracker crumbs, a hefty pinch of flour or cornstarch

Prepare your crust. Again, I used this pate brisée recipe from Lucy's Kitchen Notebook.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown the meat and onion in a large skillet. Season with pepper and spices. Set aside; you can make this ahead and keep it refrigerated.

Pat your bottom crust into a greased pie plate. Before adding the meat, blend in an egg or two, depending upon the size of your pie. I also add the salt and thickener at the last minute. The eggs keep the pie from crumbling, too.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. I use an egg wash on the crust.

You may serve tourtiére warm or cold. It pairs well with a vegetable side dish, like green beans, carrots or Brussel sprouts and a salad that has a dash of sweetness, such as a pear-blue cheese salad, or perhaps one with apples or cranberries. Cole slaw and applesauce offer a more casual alternative. I treat meat pie as I would a pasty, which my husband's Cornish ancestors ate.

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09 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Pain au Chocolat Pudding with Cranberries

Cranberries, not apples, are Wisconsin's No. 1 fruit crop, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers' group, and these tangy red nuggets are responsible for creating 3,400 jobs in the Badger State. This year, they are especially plentiful, and in fact, more than half of the world's cranberry supply comes from Wisconsin. 

This heavenly concoction of cranberries and chocolate is my all-time favorite posts. From 2006:

In the 1990s, I worked in advertising and public relations in a larger city. One of my jobs each fall was to write copy for a small bakery that specialized in Christmas desserts and cheesecakes.

The owner, a San Francisco native who knew her sweets, offered fabulous fruit-and-chocolate combinations laced with rum and bourbon and dappled with nuts: Dark chocolate and pumpkin, bittersweet chocolate with cherry, milk chocolate and raspberry and many, many more.

Unusual flavor pairings were not as common as they are today. I was not only intrigued by the imaginative flavor marriages, I began to crave sweets. Usually, I succumbed, at least once. Fortunately, the bakery offered dessert by the slice.

It's that time of year again. I had a lot of hard French rolls from LaBrea Bakery in my freezer and a bag of cranberries and I wanted to use them up. I adapted this dessert from Epicurious. The original calls for six cups of torn-up croissants.

Pain Au Chocolate Pudding with Cranberries
  • 6 cups stale bread, rolls or croissants, cut into bite-size cubes
  • 1-2 cups milk, depending on how hard the rolls are
  • 5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate baking chips
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh or unthawed frozen cranberries
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar or fructose
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into bits
  • pinch sea salt
If bread or rolls are hard, soak them in milk for about an hour.

While rolls are soaking, butter a shallow baking dish or casserole dish and chop cranberries.

Once the rolls have softened, break them into small pieces and arrange half in one layer in baking dish. Layer with chocolate and then cranberries. Top with remaining rolls, shiny side up.

Blend eggs, sugar, milk, cream, vanilla, and salt and pour slowly and evenly over bread. Dot pudding with butter bits and sprinke with salt. Chill for at least an hour.

Bake for about 45-50 minutes, until top is golden brown and bubbly.

Note: If sugar and calories are not an issue for you, serve this with a hot sauce made of heavy cream and chocolate or concoct one on your own. I think an orange-chocolate sauce would be nice.

The pudding is sweet, but the cranberries provide balance for the chocolate.

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07 December 2013

A Post Revisited: Why is the Classic Daiquiri so Hard to Find in the Upper Midwest?

A recent spate of Facebook postings about "classic" drinks got me thinking about how frustrated I am whenever I order a daiquiri. I rarely drink them in winter, but I might. I might. 

So why not share a true classic with you, just in time for the holidays. Because lime is great anytime of year.

From 2008:


My mother always told me the daiquiri was the classic ladylike drink for summer.

I took that to heart, and for years the daiquiri was my favorite summer drink. It fell out of fashion for a year or so when I favored rum and coke and receded some years later when I discovered sangria.

But like an old friend, the daiquiri keeps coming back and no birthday is complete for me without a daiquiri.

Only I've found the classic daiquiri is getting hard to find. These days when you order one, you are generally asked what flavor.

Classic, please, I respond. The bartender stares at me.

"I want a plain daiquiri. You know, one made with lime," I say.

The bartender consults with a coworker and eventually I get something approximating a classic daiquiri. Often it misses the mark.

The Purist's Daiquiri

• 1 1/2 oz light rum
• Juice of 1/2 lime
• 1 tsp powdered sugar

Pour ingredients into a shaker filled with ice. Shake. Strain. Pour.

It doesn't get any easier.

Yeas ago, a boyfriend asked me if I wanted a banana daiquiri. No thanks, I said. I tried a strawberry daiquiri once. Never again.

Thank goodness I married a purist.

Postscript (2013): Two years ago I finally had my second strawberry daiquiri. It was spring and I was feeling open minded. Not bad, but no classic.

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05 December 2013

A Visit to the Market in Old Québec City

We marked the start of autumn this year with a short visit to Québec City.

We climbed Cap Diamant, and then rode the funicular a great deal. It is a great deal: For just a few dollars you can save your legs and get a wonderful view of the harbor and the St. Lawrence River. But that's another post.

A highlight of our week was a visit to the Old Port Market in the lower town.


We always book hotels with mini bars so we can have a small refrigerator in our room. This allows us to try local cheese, sausage and other perishable specialties and saves money on meals out.

We always buy apples, or some other fruit, too.


There is obviously a French gene for food presentation. Look at these pretty leeks all in a row!


When I saw these glossy eggplants and peppers, I immediately wanted to make ratatouille.


We walked to the market early in the morning, and were on our way to the upper town by 9:30 a.m. for more sightseeing and fresh air. Thus the market was uncrowded. But a few people had the same idea we did.


There is no better way to shop local than to visit a farm market when you travel.

Since my father's family is from the Québec area, I kept wondering if any of the growers were distant cousins.

I love visiting the countries of my ancestors.

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