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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Chicken, on November 18th, 2009.

coq au vin in bowl

A few weeks ago I attended a cooking class of Julia Child’s recipes. Everything was very tasty. And all fairly labor intensive too. In the course of conversation the instructor mentioned that she’d heard Ina Garten’s recipe (from her book ‘>Back to Basics) was also very good, and perhaps less time consuming. So I decided to try it out. I bought chicken thighs only, both bone-in and boneless; that way I’d get some of the good flavor from the bone. I didn’t have any of the tiny boiling onions, but I did have some regular onions that were very small, so I ended up quartering them (through both ends so they’d just maybe hold together during the cooking – they didn’t). I had carrots, red wine, and a pound of mushrooms. And thyme. And cognac, pancetta and chicken broth. So I was able to put this together – not exactly in a flash – but certainly more quickly than with Julia’s recipe.

In the book, Ina Garten explains in the preface to the recipe that she worked for a long, long time finding a coq au vin that would suit her, tasted right, and was easier than the more extensive French method. Her goal was to get it to taste as good as beef is in the bourguignon style dish. Finally someone suggested she take the bourguignon recipe and just adapt it to chicken. That she did, and this is the resulting recipe.

First the pancetta is sautéed in a bit of olive oil. It’s removed, then the chicken pieces are dried, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and browned in the oil. Then they’re removed too. Carrots, onions are added, until they caramelize a little bit, then garlic is added in, finally the cognac is added and ignited. All the chicken and pancetta are returned to the pan, then red wine is poured in, with some chicken broth (I use Penzey’s concentrate for all my chicken broth needs anymore – takes up a small space in the refrigerator), and some fresh thyme. I used my Le Crueset pot, so it was lidded and the pot went into a 250 oven (yes, really 250) for about 30-40 minutes, just until the chicken is no longer pink inside.

coq au vin in potThere’s the pot just out of the oven. The chicken is succulently soft and the veggies are still holding together at that point. I removed the bone-in chicken thighs to a bowl to cool slightly (and eventually I removed the bones and skin, just because it’s easier to eat). That chicken went back into the pot.

I made a roux (softened butter and flour mixed together between your fingers) and dropped those pieces into the stew, which was back on a very low heat on the stovetop. It took just a couple of minutes for the sauce to thicken up just some.

Then I heated up a large nonstick skillet, added some butter and sautéed the mushrooms (smaller ones were left whole – larger ones thickly sliced) until they were just barely tender. If they’re done over a fairly high heat they don’t ever get mushy from fluid. They were poured into the stew pot and just stirred in. I tasted the broth/sauce. For me it needed nary a grain of salt or pepper. I have reduced the amount of salt called for in the recipe because I think it would have been overkill. It was sublimely perfect as is.

The chicken was absolutely marvelous. Divine. Perfectly tender. Not dry. And the sauce? Oh my. I wish I had a bowl full of it. There was nothing else to do but sprinkle on some finely minced parsley (not in the recipe). And eat. And eat.
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Coq au Vin (Ina Garten’s version)

Recipe By: Ina Garten’s Back to Basics cookbook
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: According to Ina’s recipe, this serves 6. Usually a 3 1/2 pound chicken would serve 4, so I upped the servings. I used chicken thighs – a combination of bone-in and boneless. In Ina’s book recipe (this one came from the Food Network site), the Cognac is ignited when it’s added to the pan. I don’t know why that step was removed from the online version.

4 ounces bacon — or pancetta, diced
2 whole chickens — each cut in 8 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound carrots — cut diagonally in 1-inch pieces
1 whole yellow onion — sliced
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup Cognac — or good brandy
1/2 bottle dry red wine — such as Burgundy, (375 ml)
1 cup chicken stock — preferably homemade
10 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons unsalted butter — at room temperature, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 pound frozen small whole onions
1/2 pound mushrooms — cremini, stems removed and thickly sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon.
3. Meanwhile, lay the chicken out on paper towels and pat dry. Sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. When the bacon is removed, brown the chicken pieces in batches in a single layer for about 5 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove the chicken to the plate with the bacon and continue to brown until all the chicken is done. Set aside.
4. Add the carrots, onions to the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the Cognac, ignite it with a long match and STAND BACK until the alcohol burns off. Turn off any fan when you do this step. Add the bacon, chicken, and any juices that collected on the plate into the pot. Add the wine, chicken stock, and thyme and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is just not pink. Remove from the oven and place on top of the stove.
5. Mash 1 tablespoon of butter and the flour together and stir into the stew. Add the frozen onions. In a medium saute pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and cook the mushrooms over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until browned. Add to the stew. Bring the stew to a simmer and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serve hot.
Per Serving (recipe assumes you consume all the skin and bones, so it’s way too high): 970 Calories; 68g Fat (65.9% calories from fat); 70g Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 359mg Cholesterol; 768mg Sodium.

A year ago: Yellow squash & zucchini “linguine” (a side vegetable)
Two years ago: Pink Sangria

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  1. Joanne

    said on November 19th, 2009:

    A good friend of mine went to a book signing by Ina Garten and surprised me by sending a signed copy of her new cookbook to me here in Geneva. I was like a little kid looking through all the recipes! One of the first recipes I made was the Coq au Vin. I followed the recipe and the results were amazing!!! My husband and two sons absolutely loved it and were vying over who would get the leftover portion. It’s funny that I read your blog this morning as I was thinking about making it for friends this weekend.

    I agree, Joanne. This Ina Garten recipe is just the best. I will become my forever go-to recipe from now on! . . .carolyn t

  2. cristina

    said on December 2nd, 2010:

    Hi, I was wondering if your sauce for Ina’s coq au vin was more like a soup/broth or was it more like gravy consistency. After I added the roux (her exact measure), and cooked down a bit, it still seems rather like soup consistency. Though it is delicious. Just wondering about it.

    Hi Cristina – it’s been awhile since I posted that recipe (and I’ve made it just once), but yes, I think it was a bit thin. If you prefer it thicker, make just a bit more of the roux. I might do that myself next time! . . . carolyn t

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