All this time we’ve spent talking about wine is making me hungry.
I love wine. You’ve probably noticed. But I am a firm believer in wine being served as part of a meal. One of the reasons I am not completely taken with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Pauillac Bordeaux or Mendoza Malbec is that these are wines that serve a very specific purpose, and don’t offer much in the way of versatility. Alternatively, you can serve Pinot Noir with just about anything, from grilled salmon to roast rack of lamb. But lovely as they are, there’s really only one thing you’re going to be doing with these full-bodied, intensely flavored beasts.
There’s a saying in Argentina. “We don’t have a cuisine, we have beef.”
Some of, if not the, absolute best steak in the world comes from Argentina. Coincidentally, so does the best Malbec.
A Brief Aside.
Malbec has kind of a cool history. Nowadays, it is a minor grape in Bordeaux (more prominently used in neighboring Cahors, where it is called Côt*), but there was a time when it dominated the vineyards in that most prestigious part of France. And then Phylloxera struck.
This nasty son of a bitch made its way to Europe in the 1800s, piggybacking on ships heading home from the New World and devastated the overwhelming majority of the vineyards there, including those in Bordeaux. This little shit is a ninja - you don’t even see him as he’s sucking the juice out of the roots of the vine until it’s way too late to do anything about it, so it was a long time before vineyard owners could even figure out what was killing their vines, never mind how to stop it**.
By the time the plague was finally eradicated (or at least greatly diminished), the damage was already done. The vineyards of Bordeaux (and throughout most of Europe) were almost completely destroyed. But the Bordelais are a strong-willed people, and so they set to task replanting the land. Merlot grows a little more easily (and its silky, plummy style was very popular at the time) than Malbec, and so it took prominence, and today very few vineyards in Bordeaux work with Malbec at all.
But the story of the grape has a happy ending. Malbec made its way over to Argentina, and specifically to Mendoza, where it flourishes. And with good reason. This is a wine that is full-bodied and intensely flavored, with lots of cool stuff going on. You’ll find hints of tobacco, leather and black licorice alongside ripe black fruit. The best Malbec will also have a lively, balancing acidity, which helps make them such great wines to serve with a meal, and specifically a meal consisting largely of Argentine beef. But the wine is so heavy, and generally so tannic***, that it is likely to completely overwhelm any dish lighter than beef (or possibly lamb).
And why would you spend all that time cooking something, only to drink a wine that’s going to make it so you can’t taste your food at all?
Cooking with Wine.
People have been cooking with wine ever since there’s been wine. So, y’know…pretty much forever. Wine, even simple wine, has such a variety of complex flavors that it’s easy to see why so many recipes call for it. Like spices, it is often used to tie a dish’s flavors together. Does that pasta sauce you’ve been making taste a little bland? Toss in half a glass of that wine you’ve been drinking while you cook (you are drinking wine while you cook, right?). Are you worried that steak you’ve been marinating since last night is going to be too peppery? Put in a little wine and leave it alone for another couple of hours.
You want to impress the shit out of someone? Take that bottle you were going to serve with dinner, and drizzle a little bit onto the main course five minutes before you take it off the stove. You’ll look like a savant for perfectly matching the wine and the meal.
But these are simple things to make a meal pop. What we want to do is make a dish to make the wine shine.
So let’s make Coq au Vin, a fairly common rustic dish with a long history. It’s alleged to have been a favorite of Julius Caesar, and legend tells that he developed his love for it during his campaign in Gaul.
As such, there are many variations on how to prepare Coq au Vin, with Julia Child’s probably being the most famous. But this is my column, so we’re doing it my way****.
Start with the Wine.
This is a chicken dish, so we don’t want to go with anything too heavy. But it’s also a hearty winter dish, the kind of meal that is perfect on a cold night, so we definitely want to go with a nice warming red. Pinot Noir is a fine choice, because it’s light enough to not overwhelm the chicken, but I tend to drink sturdier reds this time of year. I’m a big believer in seasonality (I live in New England for a reason), and come the spring I won’t go within a mile of those earthy rough reds, so I relish the opportunity to enjoy them now.
I’d also like to offer a word of advice when it comes to pairing food and wine: if it grows together, it goes together. In the case of our Coq au Vin, a dish very likely originating in the south of France, I suggest picking a bottle from the same region. The Languedoc and Provence will offer great, sturdy reds that will do nicely, and even an inexpensive Vin de Pays d’Oc will work wonders, but I really love the way something from the Rhône valley pairs with the dish.
Now, conventional wisdom says that you should only cook with what you drink, so put that box of Franzia Merlot back on the shelf. However, this does not mean that you should be cooking only with $100 Châteauneuf du Pape (and if you are, then do you need someone to take care of your summer house during the off season? Hit me up). So I suggest going with a nice Côtes du Rhône. These tend to hang out in the $10-$15 range, and provide both tremendous value and ready accessibility. And though there are something like a dozen grapes that are allowed to be used in Côtes du Rhône wine, the stars here will be silky lush Grenache and peppery Syrah.
I’m Getting Hungry!
Alright, let’s get to cooking. You will need:
Like two hours to kill.
You know that unsalted European butter you bought for Bill Norris’ Hot Buttered Rum? A couple tablespoons of that.
A couple of thick strips of bacon, chopped.
Pearl onions (this bit’s important…you can substitute a lot of other things, but don’t screw around with the pearl onions). Like twenty of them. Maybe more. These are delicious.
An onion, chopped.
A carrot, diced.
A couple of garlic cloves, crushed, sliced, diced, whatever. Made into tiny bits that don't make your eyes water when you bite into them.
1 ½ tablespoons of flour.
Half a bottle of red wine.
About a cup of chicken stock.
A dash of Bouquet Garni (if you don’t have any, use Herbs de Provence and a Bay Leaf, and if you don’t have those then…I guess try to reverse engineer Bouquet Garni? Godspeed, dude).
A dash of salt and pepper.
And a huge pot.
Okay, first things first. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Melt the butter and cook the bacon until it’s nice and crispy. Try to avoid eating all of it. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon and let it drain on paper towels. Put in the pearl onions and cook over medium heat until they’re golden, then take those out and drain on paper towels (usually I put everything that needs draining into the same large bowl, because I’m lazy, and my kitchen is not that big, and I don’t want to use an entire roll of paper towels draining bits of food).
Add mushrooms and cook until they’re nice and brown. Mushrooms tend to suck up butter and bacon fat real quick, so toss in some olive oil if it looks too dry. When they’re ready, take them out and let them drain. Add the chicken legs (by the way, you’ll need about six of them) and cook them on medium-high until they’re browned on all sides. Then, you guessed it, remove and let them drain on paper towels.
Add your chopped onion and carrot and garlic, and cook until slightly brown, then add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Do lots of stirring, otherwise you’ll just have to scrape the pot clean later and nobody wants to do that. Then stir in the wine and chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Put in all of that other business you’d set aside, the bacon and chicken and mushrooms and delicious pearl onions, then add the bouquet garni and salt and pepper. Cover and cook over very low heat for like an hour.
Spend that hour watching an episode of House of Cards, I’ve heard that’s pretty good.
Take out the chicken and vegetables and boil the sauce for a few minutes to thicken it, then put the good stuff back in.
Okay, now comes the most important part, so pay attention. Eat that sucker up, and enjoy.
*The name ”Malbec” is actually a bit of a gag. Thanks to its thick skin, the grape tends to provide tremendous extraction, producing a wine that is deep purple, midnight blue and inky black in the glass (one of the reasons it is still used as a blending grape). This extraction also has a tendency to stain lips and teeth. Hence Côt becomes Malbec, a pun that roughly translates to “Bad Mouth.”
**They eventually realized that American grapevines, which had evolved simultaneously with Phylloxera, are resistant to the pest. So most winemakers these days will graft European vitis vinifera (almost all quality wine is made from vitis vinifera grapes) onto American rootstock.
***You know that drying feeling after you have a mouthful of big red wine? You know, where the sides of your tongue and the roof of your mouth and your lower lip almost feel kind of rough and sandy? That’s tannin at work. Tannin is both a natural preservative and a structuring agent that helps give some wines a very pleasing texture. Tannin is more prevalent in full-bodied wines, and is part of the reason that hearty dishes like beef go so well with them. Beef, even when sliced lean and cooked well past medium, has a lot of fat that will coat your mouth, dulling the tannic effect on the palate and allowing all of the flavors of the wine and the meal to better complement each other.
****Actually my Mom’s way.