Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Dinner: Coq Au Vin

My favorite way to celebrate the New Year on December 31st is to organize a fantastic 4 to 6 course meal that lasts forever... We usually start with a long aperitif with snacks and canapes, washed down with a Kir Royal or Muscat. I take the time to talk to my friends, prepare the next dish, dance, all in a relaxed candlelit mood.

This year, Juan and I will do just that, the two of us, before meeting all of our friends at a party. I have not yet set the menu, because it's just too hard to choose but I know for sure that it will involve mini individual scallop gratin, a duck and turnip dish and a big cheese plate.

The way we celebrate the New Year in France is not that much different than in America. Many small villages (and there are many!) around France organize a big party for villagers to come to. You usually have to pay between 50 and 100 euros per person and it includes a nice big meal, champagne and the entertainment.

The best memories I have of celebrating the New Year in France come from when I was younger. My parents would rent an apartment in the ski resort of Les Deux Alpes. We would spend the day skiing, then we would end the afternoon by going swimming in the indoor and outdoor pool (and roll in the snow before we dive in the hot water). The best part of the day was the big afternoon snack we'd treat ourselves to with hot cocoa, brioche and Nutella. Hmmm, makes me want to be there right now...! In the evening, we would usually have a big Raclette dinner, followed by a game of Trivial Pursuit. You can't go wrong with potatoes, melting cheese and a variety of ham and salami!

I wanted to share with you this fantastic recipe of Coq Au Vin, as a dinner suggestion for New Year's Eve. My Mom makes it very often during the holidays. It's a great menu choice because it can be made the day before and simply reheated before you eat. All you have to worry about is set the table and ask your guests to bring dessert!

Coq Au Vin clearly spells Winter and France. A coq is a rooster in French, which is what this dish is all about, but it's not uncommon, even in France, to use a chicken. In that case, I usually try to buy a big chicken (about 4 pounds). So no worries if you can't find a rooster at your local supermarket. It won't alter the recipe.

Do not be scared at the prospect of making this very classic French dish. I think too many people believe that French cuisine is not approachable or too hard. You might think Coq Au Vin? Well that sounds way too out of my league! But take my word for it: this dish requires little effort on your part for maximum effect on your guests! They will leave your table thinking you're the best cook ever.

Coq Au Vin will please everyone, even picky eaters. My favorite way to eat a Coq Au Vin is reheated (it only gets better after a few days), along with a plate of fresh tagliatelle. For presentation and color contrast, I do not mix the sauce of the Coq Au Vin with the pasta on the plate. I do it while I eat. My family's personal touch is to offer to the guests a bowl of grated Gruyere or Comte cheese to sprinkle on the pasta, while it's still hot.

Follow these rules:
  • Make sure you take the time to really brown the chicken, even if it means doing it in several batches to not overcrowd the pot. Your patience will be rewarded.
  • Do buy a good bottle of red wine, it makes a difference. Wine suggestions follow in the recipe. If you're not sure what to buy, ask for assistance. Look for a bold wine.
  • Add the mushrooms at the end. Cook them separately.
  • Bay leaf and Cognac are optional in the recipe.
  • Don't worry if the coq au vin looks too purplish when you pour the whole bottle of wine. The color changes as it cooks.
  • Do not overcook your chicken. You do not want it to fall out of the bones. Keep an eye on the cooking process.
  • Check the consistency of the sauce before serving. If it's too thick, thin it out with some low sodium chicken stock.

Coq Au Vin - Serves 4

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large chicken, cut into 8 to 10 pieces
salt and pepper to taste
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced in 1/4 inch slices
2 slices of pancetta (1/2 inch thick) cut in large cubes
4 tbsp of flour
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp of cognac - optional
1 bottle of red wine (bold and dry) like a Pinot Noir or Cote du Rhone or Cabernet Sauvignon
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf (laurel) - optional
1 cup low sodium chicken stock (to reheat the chicken)
About 1 cup low sodium chicken stock (to thin out the sauce if necessary)
1 tbsp of butter (for the mushrooms)
1/2 pound of button mushrooms

On Tuesday, December 30th - (overall cooking time 2 hours)

Pat dry the chicken and lightly season with salt and pepper. In a dutch oven or a big pot, bring the oil to a heat. When it is warm, put the chicken in and brown on each side, on medium heat. Work in batches is necessary. Take your time. It's very important the chicken gets a nice brown color. When ready, remove and set aside on a plate.
Add the
vegetables to the pot, cover and cook for about 4 minutes. Stir often. Add the pancetta and cook for an extra 3 minutes. Add the flour, stir and cook for 3 more minutes, uncovered. Add the garlic, stir and cook for a minute then add the cognac.
Incorporate 1/2 cup of wine at first while stirring with a wooden spoon. Then add the rest of the wine. Add the thyme and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 50 minutes to 1 hour and 10 minutes on low heat. Stir often
. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Remove the chicken, allow to cool and store in the fridge in its own container. Same thing for the sauce (in a container of its own). Refrigerate overnight.

On Wednesday, December 31st - (about 40 minutes before serving dinner):

The next day, pour the chicken stock in the dutch oven or pot and reheat the chicken, on low heat for about 30 minutes, covered. Pour the sauce and vegetables in a large saucepan and reheat on low, uncovered. Meanwhile, in a pan, melt the butter and cook the mushrooms for 10 minutes. Add to the vegetable and sauce. Stir. If you think there is too much sauce at the end, reduce the sauce to 1/3 for about 10 to 15 minutes, uncovered depending on how much liquid you have. If the consistency is too thick, slowly add chicken stock and stir, until you're satisfied.

Serve each person with a piece of chicken, vegetables and sauce over the meat. Serve with fresh tagliatelle pasta (or any wide pasta) or steamed potatoes, on the side, along with grated Gruyere or Comte cheese and fresh French bread.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sweet Little Jewels: Chouquettes

I can't believe I waited that long to share with you all the recipe for Chouquettes - such a flashback to my childhood, and I'm sure for many French people as well. 

Chouquettes are basically like little cream puffs, but without the cream. They are decorated with little sugar pearls on top that make them look like beautiful little jewels. The dough that is used to make them is called a "choux dough" or pate a choux. It's also that same dough that is used to make eclairs, profiteroles, gougeres (on my list of French Fork recipes), choux a la creme...

Un chou in French is a cabbage, and you can see, by looking at them, that they resemble the shape of brussel sprouts. Chou in French also has another meaning since it's a term of endearment for lovers or from a parent to a child; we say "mon chou" or "mon chouchou" or "mon petit chou". Yes it does mean "my little cabbage" but it's the equivalent as saying "my sweetie pie" or "sugar" in English.

Chouquettes are sold in boulangeries all over France. They usually sell them in white paper or cellophane bags. I can't tell you how many times my grandma Meme would surprise me with a bag if these as a treat when she would come to our home. I was over the moon when she would hand me a bag. She would always tell me "tu aimes bien ca les Chouquettes, hein?", or " you do like Chouquettes, don't you?". 

Oh boy do I like them?! I love them!  The only thing that I was missing after making a few batches yesterday, was the coarse pearl sugar we typically decorate them with. It really gives it a lot of elegance and instantly turns them into little gems. But it also adds a little crunch that regular sugar cannot really replace. Oh well. I used powdered sugar instead, to add color and another layer of sweetness and it was absolutely perfect! The taste was exactly how I remembered it: sweet and sublime; The texture soft and moist. Most certainly a crowd-pleasing one bite dessert you will want to have on your Holiday table or make as a giveaway. Believe me, in France children devour them in minutes.

I was tempted to add chocolate before I baked them but I believe that we lack simplicity in our kitchens today. They are yummy jut as they are - there's nothing to add to them. I hope you enjoy them!

Chouquettes (makes about 25)

1 cup cold water

1/2 tsp salt

3 tsp sugar   

1/4 tsp vanilla

7 tbsp butter

1 cup 1/4 flour

4 eggs at room temperature

Glaze: 1 beaten egg yolk 

Preheat the oven at 400 degrees. Prepare a parchment paper on top of a cookie sheet. Make sure the flour is measured and ready to be used. 

In a saucepan, combine the water, the salt, the sugar, the vanilla and the butter. Let the butter melt and the water come to a boil on medium heat, stirring occasionally. When the butter is completely melted, remove the saucepan from the heat and, at once, add the flour. Quickly stir it in with a wooden spoon, until the consistency is smooth. The dough must be detaching itself from the saucepan. Allow the dough to cool for 3 minutes. 

Add the eggs, one at a time. You must incorporate each egg very well into the dough before you move on to the next one. Use a wooden spoon to do that.

With 2 teaspoons sprayed with cooking spray, make balls of dough the size of a big walnut and put them on the parchment paper. Allow some space between the chouquettes as they will expand once they bake. Brush them each with some glaze and sprinkle with some extra sugar. Bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden. When baked, allow the chouquettes to cool on a cake rack. When they're cool, sprinkle them with powdered sugar. 

Enjoy warm or cool. The chouquettes will be better if eaten the same day.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

French Aperitif: Ham and Olive Cake

Holidays are such a wonderful time! With all the parties that Juan and I need to attend, I like to contribute something really French for each. This Ham and Olive Cake is traditionally served in France during an aperitif (drinks served before a meal, along with snacks). It's usually cut in thick cubes, arranged on a platter and served as a finger food. We call it "Cake aux olives et jambon". 

In France, "un cake" is a sweet or savory rectangular-shape dish. Any other size, like a round cake would be called "un gateau". "Les cakes" are very popular in France. This ham and cheese one is the most basic one but there are many other variations possible: adding goat cheese, smoked salmon, chicken, rosemary... There really is not limit to your imagination. Fortunately, I have many "cake" recipes up my sleeves, so I can't wait to share more with you!

They are so incredibly easy to make and so versatile. I love them! This recipe has been my Mom's for decades. She always makes one or two versions of "cake" for Christmas, to serve during the aperitif, while everyone in my - big - family catches up around a glass of Kir Royal. I particularly love the addition of white wine to the recipe. It adds a subtle je ne sais quoi...

The weather was so nice this last Sunday that Juan and I cut a couple slices of my Ham and Olive Cake for ourselves and headed for an outdoor picnic (yes in December!). I put some fresh green salad in a tupperware and mixed a quick lemon and olive oil vinaigrette. It was absolutely perfect! No mess, no plates and delicious.

Stay tuned tout le monde .... I sense a French Fork "savory cake" series coming our way...

** Other French Fork Aperitif ideas**

Ham and Olive French Cake (serves 8 to 12)

6 oz (or a little more than a cup) of pitted and non-stuffed green olives (Manzanilla or anything you like)
2 cups and 3 tbsps of all purpose flour
1 tsp 1/2 of baking powder
1/4 tsp of salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup of whole milk
1 cup of white wine
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1/4 cup of olive oil
7 oz of  smoked ham (like a smoked virginia ham or black forest smoked) cut in 1/2 inch thick
6 oz of Gruyere cheese (if you can't find Gruyere, you could use Emmental, Comte or Beaufort)
1/2 tsp of freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375. Butter and flour an 11-inch long loaf pan. In a saucepan, boil 2 cups of water. Drain the olives, and when the water is boiling, drop them in for 2 minutes, to blanch them (it takes off that briny taste). Drain them and roughly chop them. Set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together. Transfer to a bowl. Combine the eggs, one at a time. Combine the milk, the wine and both the vegetable and olive oil. It gives a very liquid consistency, which is normal. 

Dice the ham into 1/2 inch cubes and combine to the dough. Grate the Gruyere cheese and combine. Finally, add the pepper and olives, combine well and transfer to the loaf pan.

Bake in the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until a knife inserted comes out clean. Because there is so much liquid in the recipe, it will be very bubbly and the blade of your knife will be somewhat wet, but there should not be any uncooked dough. The top should be brown. Don't worry if the inside of the cake looks uncooked. That's exactly how it's supposed to be!

Resist the temptation to unmold right away and allow to cool for an hour. Serve cut in slices for lunch or dinner, along with a simple green salad and vinaigrette, or cut in thick 1 inch cubes, as an appetizer, along with drinks. Enjoy lukewarm or cold.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Food Find: Love Puppies Brownies

In anticipation of Edible Austin Eat Local Week, here's an awesome food find I'm proud to be the first to blog about...

Like Thanksgiving feast was not enough! After relishing every bite of Juan's aunt's buttermilk pie (whoa! That's a mouthful), I was fortunate enough to be contacted by a local company called Love Puppies Brownies last week. They sent me a box of their brownies; a chocolate lover's dream conjugated in 4 flavors: "Make Mine a Double Chocolate", "Hunka Hunka Burning Love", "Peanut Butter Nutcase" and "You Mocha Me Crazy". 

It was hard enough to just take a few bites to leave some for Juan. And they were that delicious that I had to go pour myself a big glass of milk to go along with it - now that's a stamp of approval in my book! My favorite has to be the Mocha brownie. It smelled heavenly of chocolate and coffee and had a wonderful balanced flavor. Definitely the kind of brownie I crave, on those days where I feel like giving myself up to indulgence!

Special thanks to Joel and Chris for their generous gift. You can call or email them to order some for yourself.

Well, I'm back to my ovens - after many weeks of pregnancy sickness - and preparing a French aperitif recipe for my next post. Stay tuned!