Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Thanksgiving Break 2011, Part IV: Farmington Hills

I think it's safe to claim the number three (and, in most cases, all other odd numbers but the number one) as one of the more common numbers in gastronomy. For example, plating involves three main elements (plate, food, and arrangement); basic multi-course meals include an appetizer, entrée and dessert. And further still, the typical healthy plate (2) contains an organisation of three foods: 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch, and 1/2 vegetable (check out this site for healthy meal planning). Carrying on with this trend, my Thanksgiving break included a trio of cooking days, the third of which took place in Farmington Hills. From grade school and high school to the college years, my Saturday evening was spent with friends I met while at Albion-- Tony, Christina, and Andy. Tony had also been among the group of us who met for early Friday shopping after Thanksgiving and after back and forth discussions for a few days prior, we settled on a rather ambitious menu (yes, I know there are only four dishes...) which in total took about 90 minutes to complete. Now if we could just master five in 60...

The first dish to focus on was coq au vin which, in its most elemental form, is chicken cooked in wine. Never having made it before, I took some time earlier in the day to figure out a combination recipe; the recipe that follows combines four recipes, the main template belonging to Julia Child. In addition, I have borrowed elements from Alton Brown's technique (though my version, and many others I have found, don't take nearly as long as what he's suggesting), Tyler Florence's use of bacon, and "Simply Recipes" contributor Elise's easy-to-follow approach. Using a deep pot (or whatever vessel you'll be cooking the chicken), we begin first and foremost with rendering the bacon fat from six slices of bacon (julienned into 1/4"-1/2" wide pieces). Some recipes include the addition of water during the cooking process or to outright blanch (i.e., in this case, to remove the salt but keep the flavour) the bacon prior to frying it up, but I'm personally a fan of the natural saltiness. This can translate to a potentially oversalted dish in the end, so just be mindful of it (e.g., use less salt if you prefer toward the end of the dish).

As this is going, heat up a small pot of water; as you wait for it to boil, cut off the rooted ends of a bag (about 16-20 pieces) of white pearl onion. By the time you're done prepping the onions, the water should be boiling. Add the onions to the water and allow them to cook for a few minutes or until the outer skins look like they're ready to peel off. Carefully (they will be hot), take them out of the water and deskin the onions. If you essentially pinch the top of the onion, it should slide easily from its outer layer. By this point, the bacon should be done crisping; scoop them out, leaving the rendered bacon fat. Brown the deskinned onions in this fat. Scoop these out as well once the exteriors have browned and the onions are somewhat soft.

Here, it's especially great to have more than one person in the kitchen helping out with this dish; otherwise, just be sure to prep everything (mise en place!) so that the cooking process runs smoothly solo. As the onions are prepped and cooking, lightly flour your chicken pieces. For this dish, I cooked much more chicken than any of the recipes of similar quantity called for; we cooked six thighs and six drumsticks. Once floured, brown the exterior of the chicken in the bacon grease (which at this point will also have traces of onion flavour) on medium heat. The goal here is to literally see entirely browned pieces of chicken and to begin the cooking process; the goal is not to fully cook the chicken as there will be plenty of time to do that in the steps to follow. Similar to searing steak, browning the chicken will help keep the juices in as the chicken fully cooks.

As the chicken is browning, mince 2 large cloves of garlic, wipe clean and slice about 1-2 c mushrooms, slice half lengthwise about 1/2-1 c baby carrots, and cube seven redskin potatoes. Many recipes suggest sautéeing the vegetables as part of the prep work; I didn't do this and found everything to cook very nicely in the end. I should also note that the vegetable quantities don't matter so long as you have some representation of each; feel free to adjust quantities to preference (i.e., use less/more mushrooms depending on your taste buds). With the vegetables prepped, you're now ready to assemble your cooking vessel.

First, add to your pot about 2 tsps each dried Italian seasoning (didn't have any thyme), a heaping tablespoon tomato paste, salt, and ground black pepper, the minced garlic and a cup of stock; typically, this would be chicken stock, but as we were just following Thanksgiving, we used turkey stock (rendered turkey fat and ingredients for a mirepoix) that Tony had prepped the night before. Next, add 2 c young red wine (we used a 2010 Chianti).

Give this a stir and as the first layer, add all the chicken thighs. On top of these, add the pearl onions, mushrooms and carrots.

For the next layer, arrange the chicken thighs in a circle, against the inner perimeter of the pot; in the center of these, add the potatoes. Top everything off with an additional cup of the young red wine (take note, you're using nearly a regular sized bottle for this recipe). Cover everything with the lid and allow everything to cook for at least half an hour.

The coq au vin now going, Christina and Tony turned their attention to the mushroom risotto which takes about half an hour to cook, as well. While they worked on that dish, Andy helped me out as I put together dessert. Following all the trial and errors from Friday's meal, I had six egg whites I needed to use. And when I hear egg whites I think of either meringue or angel food cake; as I've attempted meringue before, I thought I'd try my hand at a proper angel food cake for the first time (I say "proper," as I had forgotten I actually attempted this much earlier in this blogging journey, with limited success; what follows is for a half batch, combined from these recipes: 1, 2, 3 and 4). This being said, we began preheating the oven to 350 °F and Andy started whisking the whites to soft peaks, as I combined 1/2 c cake flour, 1/2 c confectioner's (i.e., powdered) sugar, and a pinch of salt; sift this dry mix three times. As the egg whites move beyond the foaming stage, add 1/4 c confectioner's sugar and 3/4 tsp cream of tartar (side note: you can find this in the spice aisle of your local grocery store), and continue whisking until you get to soft peaks. Of course, you could use a mixer to do this, but going old school works just as well (along with teaching you patience, humility, etc.).

The egg whites now as one mass, dust (with a sifter, etc.) the surface of the whites with a thin layer of the dry mix and fold these together. With the first dusting, also add 1/4-3/4 tsp vanilla extract (depending on strength of flavour). Continuing this dusting and folding technique until everything is well incorporated.; note that forcing too much of the dry ingredients into the egg whites at one time comes at the risk of deflating them and creating a denser cake. With everything combined, transfer this (now) batter into an ungreased fluted pan and then into the oven for about 25-35 minutes or until it passes the clean toothpick test.

At this point, the it's time to check on the coq au vin; remove the lid and take in the delicious smells. Leaving the pot uncovered, continue cooking the coq au vin for another 15 minutes. If you have more time, allow it to cook longer to cook out more of the red wine taste. The risotto also nearly complete, Tony began working on his endive and radicchio salad with diced red pear and walnuts cooked in butter and brown sugar.

By this point, the coq au vin is nearly finished. As the final minutes tick, make a beurre manie (essentially an uncooked roux of 1 1/2 tbs. each flour and softened butter blended to a paste). Carefully take out the chicken pieces (I say carefully because you don't want to lose the skins nor do you want to destroy the tender meat which can easily fall off the bone) and transfer them to your serving dish. With a slotted spoon also take out as many of the vegetables as you can; be especially careful with the potatoes so as to not accidentally break them.

Everything now out, finish the dish by thickening the sauce. (In the meantime, cover the chicken and veg with tin foil to keep everything warm in this process.) Add to the liquid in the pot the beurre manie and stir until the sauce is smooth. Then, add two dried bay leaves and allow the sauce to reduce by at least 25% (about 7-10 minutes). After the sauce has reduced to a desired consistency, spoon this over the chicken and vegetables. As shown in the lead photo at the top of this post, garnish the coq au vin with the bacon cooked earlier and crumbled for textural contrast and freshly chopped parsley for both colour contrast and a bit of brightness to the palate. The cake should be done by this point; when ready, take the cake out of the oven and out of the pan to cool on a serving plate. For the topping to accompany this cake, empty a bag of frozen mixed berries into a pot with about 1/4 c apple juice. Zest 1/2 a medium-large lime, and add this and the juice of the entire lime to this mix. To finish off the flavours, add about 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon. Give this a stir and then bring the mix to a boil; at that point, lower the heat and allow everything to simmer for about 15 minutes (in this time frame, you could finish your first course). What you end up with is a familiar berry sauce with a touch of the Christmas season built into the sauce itself (this can be altered, of course, by not adding any lime or cinnamon, or by using lemon and sugar instead).

While everything above has been presented in cooking order, this was of course by no means the order in which we actually enjoyed the dishes. As such, the summary of our meal was as follows: mushroom risotto cooked in homemade turkey stock; 

coq au vin with pearl onions, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, and bacon; 

endive and radicchio salad with pecans and red pear; 

and angel food cake with a sauce of mixed berries, cinnamon and fresh lime. For the complete album of this great dinner, click here.

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