I’ve been meaning to do a recipe by Julia Child – an absolute stalwart of 20th century American cooking – for a while, but other things kept cropping up. Truthfully, I also felt a little daunted by her recipes, which seemed to go on for pages.
Child co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, but it was initially rejected because, at over 720 pages long, the publisher thought it read too much like an encyclopaedia than a recipe book. This was especially problematic given its target audience: inexperienced household cooks trying French cooking for the first time.
French cooks Beck and Betholle had collaborated with Le Cordon Blue trained Child because they wanted to create a French recipe book that would appeal to American audiences. It was hoped that Child would be able to offer appropriate translations and alternatives to ingredients that were hard to come by in America. To ensure the recipes could be replicated by anyone, no matter how inexperienced, the three authors placed a great deal of emphasis on precise measurements and detailed instructions. This approach helped make the book a success in the end (that’s putting it mildly: it sold over 100,000 copies within 5 years and spawned multiple editions), but at the cost of brevity and ‘lightness of touch’, which are now highly valued by
lazy busy cooks like me. Hence my apprehension.
The Julia Child approach
In the end I shouldn’t have worried. The recipes may be long but, like the woman herself, they are also straightforward. In preparation for cooking Child’s Coq au Vin, I did a little bit of research and watched a clip of her making crepes to get over my irrational fear that everything she made was fiddly. She moved fast, but her approach to cooking was essentially the same as I’d grown up with: bung stuff in a pot in the right order, whisk it up a bit, and cook simply. There were no fancy gadgets used, no careful dressing of the plate with alarming smears of sauce or foam, no discussion of “dressing the plate” at all, actually. As the woman herself said about nouvelle cuisine: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”
In interviews she came across as friendly and warm, and when I read she had coined the phrase “a party without a cake is just a meeting” and advised those who were wary of using lots of butter in cooking to “just use cream” instead, I knew I could follow her recipes with wholehearted confidence.
Coq au Vin…
…Is a dish that was made for autumn. It’s rich, it’s comforting, it’s hearty. It’s something my dad tries to make every year once the weather turns, but he calls it chicken stew and his usually includes half a tin of beans, or an opened jar of olives in an effort to “use them up”. Though dad’s chicken stew is delicious (see, I can be nice about my family!) it’s not always 100% authentic, and I’m fairly sure it’s a recipe he follows from his own instinct rather than Julia Child’s version.
I found Child’s instructions a little bit confusing initially as the ingredients were only listed as and when they were being used, rather than all at the start. This made shopping for them a bit frustrating; I had already been down the veg aisle to get garlic when I realised I’d need to return to it for onions, so I continued in the one way system until I could loop round to collect them. Aha, I thought, butter next. But then I read on and realised I’d need to go back again to collect herbs. Cue more shuffling down aisles I didn’t need to visit in the name of Being A Good Citizen. Okay, sure, a sensible and methodical cook would have prepared the recipe in advance so they could see what they needed from the shop before they arrived but we all know being sensible or methodical isn’t quite my style; I’ve clearly inherited my dad’s ‘see what’s in the house and stick it in a pan’ approach to cooking.
Julia Child’s version
To start with I sliced bacon into lardons and simmered it in water for 10 minutes. Child’s instructions were very exact – there wasn’t any of this vague ‘cook for approximately the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice, or until the bacon turns a dark shade of taupe and seems cooked-but-not-too-cooked’ malarky. It was the absolute opposite to some ancient and medieval recipes I’d done before, where no clear instructions were given at all, and I almost felt ungrateful for begrudging its rigidity.
Once simmered, the lardons were sautéed in butter and then removed from the pan. The chicken breast, cut into chunks, was browned in the fat of the lardons which were then re-added to the pan and cooked together for 10 minutes. I added 70ml of cognac to the pan and winced as I followed instructions to “avert your face [and] ignite the cognac with a lighted match.” I tried to set the dish on fire five times, but each time the match just fizzled out. Eventually I gave up and reconciled myself to the fact that I was just going to have to put up with the extra alcohol content. Shame.
After abandoning my attempts at flambéeing (which would have inevitably ended up with me losing my eyebrows anyway), I added wine, chicken stock, and other bits and bobs and left the lot to simmer for a while as I focused on the brown braised onions that Child recommended be served with the chicken. She recommended using pearl onions, which I couldn’t get hold of, so I used shallots instead. As well as onions and a sprig of parsley to garnish the plate, she also suggested serving the dish with sautéed mushrooms but I didn’t because, well, gross (and we also had some broad beans to use up instead.)
At this point I want to say that the house smelled like 1960’s France but I think, given the lack of cigarette smoke in the ingredient list, it probably didn’t. It still smelled bloody amazing, though.
When the chicken was done I took it out of the pan and placed it on a serving dish, covered with foil to keep it warm. I boiled the remaining liquid until it reduced to about a pint. I added some blended butter and flour – a beurre manié, apparently – to the liquid and whisked until it was thick enough to coat a spoon. The thickened sauce was poured onto the chicken, which was surrounded by onions, and served.
In a conclusion that will surprise exactly no one, this was delicious. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, probably because it felt like over 50% of it was just alcohol or butter. The chicken was tender and fell away in chunks and the bacon just melted into the background. The sauce was thick and rich – tomato-y and winey – which only highlighted how buttery and sweet the onions were as an accompaniment. The whole thing was divine. Seriously. I know I can be a bit OTT, but it was. The next day it was still just as good eaten as leftovers and I actually had a mini argument with my husband when I realised he’d eaten more than his half.
Would I make this again? Do you have to even ask? True, at times it felt a little like I was cooking with a benign drill sergeant, and I was definitely much more tired by the end of it from double checking and the exact timings. I also found it a bit odd that the ingredients popped up when they were used, rather than listed at the start, because it made me feel like I was playing a stressful round of at-home Ready Steady Cook – suddenly lurching to get the flour out the cupboard and weigh it out whilst peeling shallots or whisking sauces. Overall, though, it was worth it.
P.S. No, I haven’t seen the film…yet.
Julia Child’s Coq au Vin
For the Coq au Vin
1kg diced chicken
56g soft butter
700ml red wine (Burgundy, Beaujolais, Chianti)
235ml chicken stock
1 dessert spoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
Sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
For the braised onions
450g pearl onions or shallots
1.5 tablespoons butter
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
120ml of beef stock
1 bay leaf
Sprig of thyme
- Remove the rind from the bacon and cut into lardons.
- Simmer in 900ml of water for 10 minutes. Remove and pat dry.
- Fry the bacon in 28g of the butter until brown.
- Remove the bacon and add the diced chicken to the bacon grease. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and fry until brown.
- Return the bacon to the pan with the chicken, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
- Add the cognac and, if you like, set it on fire. Good luck.
- Add the wine, chicken stock, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaf and sprig of thyme and cover and cook for 30 minutes.
- Begin on the braised onions. Heat the oil and butter in a pan.
- Add the onions, whole, and cook for 10 minutes, coating them well.
- Pour over the stock, add the herbs, and cook for 40 minutes until the onions are soft but still hold their shape and most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Begin on the beurre manié. Mix the flour and remaining 28g of butter together to form a paste.
- Remove the chicken from the liquid and place on a serving bowl. Continue cooking the liquid until it has reduced to about a pint’s worth of liquid.
- Whisk the beurre manié into the liquid until it thickens enough to coat a spoon.
- Pour the thickened liquid over the chicken and serve with the onions.