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While I was on my 3-week trip to Europe, I read 5 books. Of them all, Sgt. Reckless: America’s War Horse by Robin Hutton, was by far the best story, a true story about an American Marine. Many books have been written about Sgt Reckless, this rather nondescript, small Mongolian mare that was purchased by American forces in Korea in the height of the war. She was reared as a race horse, but she spent her career as an heroic soldier for our military, saving countless lives as she willingly delivered munitions from one place to another. Everyone who came in contact with her loved her. She became a regular soldier, mostly so they could requisition food for her. Sometimes she survived on next to nothing to eat. She aimed to please, and please she did, as in one 24-hour period she ferried ammunition up steep slopes (too steep for soldiers to climb) and she did it all by herself. When the Marines unloaded her cargo, she immediately worked her way down for more. She knew what she was supposed to do. She was highly intelligent, amazing many people over the course of her life. If you love animal stories, you’ll love this one. Have a Kleenex box nearby.

When I load a book onto my Kindle, I don’t keep a note about where or how I heard about it. Did someone suggest it to me? Did I read about it on amazon’s site? I wish I kept track. Hence I don’t know why I ordered Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter by Sara Taber. Probably the title intrigued me. And the book was interesting, I’ll give it that. Sara Taber grew up in places all over the world as her father, actually a spy, but commonly called a diplomat for the State Department, wherever he was stationed. Much of the book is about her inability to fit in. She was always the new girl in school, or the neighborhood. She was shy. Didn’t have a lot of self-confidence. She lived in Taiwan, Washington, D.C., The Hague, Malaysia (Borneo) and Tokyo. I probably missed a couple in there. She learned to love moving. She adored her father, and some of the story is about his career, though she only learns as a teenager what he really did for a living. Part of the book is her coming-of-age story, part angst about herself and yet she eventually finds success as a writer. And she is a very good writer – a kind of lyrical style. She repeats herself a bit too often and a few words were repetitive throughout. But overall, it was a very interesting read.

For years I used to read a travel column in the Los Angeles Times by Susan Spano. She wrote wonderful stories about her travels. I envied her life. One time she visited Paris for awhile, writing a series about eating and living in France. When that series ended, she didn’t want to come home. So she stayed. And she wrote for other publications. She’s written several books (one on divorce [hers] and another on divorce from the man’s point of view). This book, French Ghosts, Russian Nights, and American Outlaws: Souvenirs of a Professional Vagabond compiles some of her newspaper stories and she weaves in some new ones as well. She’s quite an outdoors woman – loves climbing mountains. I certainly admire that about her. One of the stories was so cute I read it aloud to my group of traveling buddies as we sat around in our Lyon, France flat having a glass of wine one evening. If you enjoy travel writing in general, you’ll enjoy reading this one.

Another really riveting story, one I could hardly put down, is The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. My friend Joan recommended this one to me. Most likely  you’ve never read anything about Chinese immigrants living in South Vietnam during the war there, right? Neither had I. And you have to keep track of who is who, and the politics of the time. The Vietnamese don’t like Chinese people, so there’s that going on. The Chinese man runs an English school somewhere near Saigon. He has a right hand man who may or may not be what he appears to be. The Chinese man has a son who gets himself into trouble. Oh, webs woven every which way. As I said, I could hardly put it down. Will make a very good book club read.

And lastly, and probably my least favorite, but it certainly tops many charts for its pulp factor, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. The premise, a letter written by the husband, is found by the wife, supposedly to be opened after his death, but he isn’t dead, and she opens it anyway. Out springs Pandora’s box. It’s like Peyton Place on steroids. Oh my gosh. How much calamity can happen in a few pages. I wasn’t impressed, but it made for a good airplane read, I suppose.

IN THE POWDER ROOM: Our guest half-bath has a little tiny table with a pile of books that I change every now and then. They’re books that might pique someone’s interest even if for a very short read. The Art of Travel, a collection of essays about traveling (it’s not a how-to), gathering a variety of stories of some historic authors and where and why they traveled; The Greatest Stories Never Told; and Sara Midda’s South of France; also Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages (just the cutest book – with a miscellany of things – letters, grocery lists, notes, reminders, confessions the author discovered hidden inside the books he purchased for his used bookstore).

 

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My blog's namesake - small engraved sterling silver tea spoons that I use to taste 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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