Sunday, May 6, 2018

Coq au Riesling (Sautéed Chicken in Riesling Sauce)

For many years now I have been teaching a couple of classes that feature what I consider to be typical French bistro food:  Beef Daube, French apple tart, pot de crème, profiteroles with strawberry ice cream, tarte flambée, etc.  In the spring, I like to teach a class that includes a classic from the Alsace region of France:  Coq au Riesling (or Sautéed Chicken in Riesling Sauce).  Although this dish does not include ingredients that I typically associate with spring, I think the floral and acidic character that the wine gives to the sauce goes particularly well with asparagus.  So even though it is probably more often served in its homeland during the winter months (with red cabbage and spaetzle), I find myself thinking about it during the early, cooler days of spring.

Chicken in Riesling is an example of the classic, regional sautéed/braised chicken dishes that one finds all across France.  The method or preparation—brown, moisten and simmer—is fairly universal.  What separates each from the others—giving each its unique character and flavor—is the use of local and traditional ingredients.  In this case the particular wine (a dry Alsace Riesling) and a sauce enhanced with bacon and cream. Almost every version of this dish I have ever encountered also includes mushrooms.  And all include onions of some kind—most often pearl onions or leeks…but you will also find versions that use sliced shallots, or even just diced yellow onions.  I have seen versions that include carrots, but this seems to me to be an anomaly…and not very much in keeping with the fact that this is a “white” stew and really should be made with all white, beige/brown and pale green ingredients.

A finished half recipe...

I have posted two other recipes for French chicken sautés:  Poulet Basquaise from Southwestern France…and Poulet Valléed’Auge from Normandy.  Comparing these three examples is instructive.  It of course shows the similarity of method (mentioned above)…but it also shows how the personality of each dish is affected by how and when the “garnish” ingredients are added.  In the Chicken in Riesling the mushrooms and leeks are added at the beginning so they are cooked with the chicken…and remain in the sauce for service.  This way of incorporating the garnish lends a slightly rustic quality to the dish…and results in a dish that is a harmonious blending of the flavors of all the ingredients.  

In the Basque recipe (at least the version of it that I made) the peppers and ham that are cooked with the chicken are strained out before the sauce is finished.  Freshly cooked peppers and ham are then added just before service.  This creates a complex and refined sauce for a dish where the chicken, peppers and ham all have a distinct voice in the final dish.  

The Norman dish is a great example of one that straddles these two styles.  The mushrooms and shallots are cooked with the chicken…and left in the dish.  Then, freshly sautéed apples are added at the end with the cream.  This method gives the apples a prominent place in the final dish. 

I imagine there are cultural and practical reasons that these dishes came together in their respective styles...unfortunately I'm not familiar with the "whys."  As a cook though, I am fascinated by the differences in the results.

Of course I can’t end this post without commenting on the wine.  All Rieslings are not appropriate for this dish.  Riesling is a German grape.  But it is also grown in Alsace (which touches Germany…and due to its history is a bit of a cultural and culinary crossroads of the two countries).  German Rieslings are almost always sweet.  French are always dry.  This dish is French and should be made with a French-style dry Riesling…not a sweet German-style. You don’t have to use a French Riesling as long as the one you use is dry.  To make sure you are getting a dry one, look for the following on the label:  “Qualitätswein Trocken” on German bottles, “Dry” from Washington State.  Any  Riesling from New York State should be fine…and most Australian Rieslings from Clare Valley or Eden Valley will be dry as well. (Ask your purveyor if you are unsure.)  And finally, whatever you purchase, make sure you purchase enough so that you will have plenty to drink alongside this delicious dish.  It is of course the perfect match.

Coq au Riesling
(Chicken in Riesling)

2 slices thick cut bacon (2 to 3 oz.), cut cross-wise in 1/2-inch pieces
2 to 3 T. butter, divided
8 oz. white button mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 leeks (one if they are very large), white and pale green parts only, halved, sliced cross-wise into 1/2-inch pieces and rinsed in several changes of water—you should have 2 cups prepared leeks
1 1/2 c. Alsace-style Riesling (see note)
1 T. vegetable oil
A 3 1/2 lb. chicken, cut up (see note) or 3 lbs. chicken parts of your choice
Several sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
3 or 4 parsley stems
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 T. minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
lemon, if necessary
Salt & Pepper

Ingredients for a half recipe...

In a straight-sided sauté pan or wide enameled cast-iron pot, render the bacon over medium-low heat until crisp.  Remove the bacon to a plate and increase the heat to medium-high.  Add enough butter to the pan to make 2 T. fat (if the bacon was very fatty, you will not need to add any butter).  Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft and browned—about 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low and season with salt.  If the pan seems dry, add a bit more butter.  Add the leeks to the pan, along with a pinch of salt and cook until wilted, stirring frequently.  Don't let the leeks brown.  When the leeks have softened a bit (after about 5 minutes), add about 2/3 of the Riesling (a cup) to the pan and reduce by a third.  Set aside.

While the bacon, mushrooms and leeks are cooking heat a tablespoon of butter along with the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan set over medium-high heat.  Pat the chicken dry and season generously with salt and pepper.  Add the chicken to the pan, skin side down, and brown all over, in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan.  Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle.  When the chicken is golden brown and the skin is crisp and well-rendered, transfer the chicken to a plate and pour off all of the fat.  Deglaze the pan with the remaining Riesling…bringing it to a simmer, reducing (by a third to a half), and scraping the browned bits off of the bottom of the pan as the wine reduces.

Add the deglazings from the pan the chicken was sautéed in to the pan with the leeks and mushrooms.  Return the bacon and the chicken (skin side up), along with any accumulated juices, to the pan.  Bring the contents of the pan to a simmer and add the thyme, parsley stems and bay leaf.  Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid.  At this point you may either reduce the heat or transfer the pan to a 325° to 350° oven.  With either method, the goal is the maintenance of a gentle simmer.  You will note that there is only a small amount of liquid in the pan—perhaps coming a quarter to a third of the way up the sides of the meat and no more. 

When the white meat pieces are cooked through (to 150° or 155°…after about 15 minutes), remove them to a plate.  Continue to cook the remaining chicken until very tender and cooked through (a skewer inserted in the meat will not encounter resistance going in, or “grab” coming out)—another 10 to 20 minutes or so.

Remove the dark meat pieces to the plate with the white meat.  Remove the thyme, parsley and bay and discard.  Add the cream to the pan and bring to a simmer.  Simmer until the sauce has thickened slightly.  Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper and a little lemon, if necessary.  Reduce the heat to very low, swirl in the parsley and return the chicken to the pan.  Cover the pan and briefly allow the chicken to heat through. 

Coq au Riesling is traditionally served with Spaetzle, rice, noodles or steamed potatoes.

Serves 4 to 6

  • Riesling is a German grape. In Germany it is almost always made into sweet wines. French Rieslings from Alsace are always dry wines. This dish requires a dry Riesling. French Rieslings can be very expensive…and, in the states, sometimes difficult to find. You may use any dry Riesling for this dish. When looking for a dry Riesling, choose one labeled as follows: Alsace, “Qualitätswein Trocken” from Germany, “Dry” from Washington State, any from New York State, and most Australian Rieslings from Clare Valley or Eden Valley. 
  • The chicken may be cut into 4 or 8 serving pieces (or you may use parts, as noted in the recipe). For these "Sauté-style" stews, the French traditionally cut the chicken into 8 pieces—2 legs, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces. The four breast pieces are obtained by taking each split breast and cutting it cross-wise into 2 equal pieces. You may also simply cut the chicken into quarters—2 leg-thigh joints and 2 breasts. For both methods, the first joint of the wing may be left attached to the breasts. My preferred way to prepare this dish is with 2 breasts plus 3 leg thigh-joints or 6 thighs. I remove the breast meat from the bone before returning it to the pan to reheat it for service. The dish will then serve 6, each person getting a third of a breast and one piece of dark meat. 

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