Serious Eats: Recipes

Eat for Eight Bucks: Coq au Two-Buck Chuck

Shopping List

1 bottle Charles Shaw merlot: $1.99 to $2.99
6 pieces dark-meat chicken: $2.19
1 large yellow onion: $0.38
1 large carrot: $0.28
Bunch parsley: $0.69
3 strips bacon (pro-rated): $0.99

Pantry items:
Garlic, bay leaf, flour

Total: $6.52 to $7.52

I spent much of my junior year of college in Dijon, a mustard town in the heart of wine country.

In this part of France, treating college students as though they were pyromaniacs is a time-honored tradition. Rather than see their property go up in flames, Burgundian landlords furnish the kitchens of their short-term rentals with nothing more than a plug-in hot plate. So it was on this sorry excuse for a heat source that I learned to make another regional tradition: coq au vin, or chicken braised in red wine.

When I arrived in Dijon, feeling lonely and flush, I had treated myself to a rich rendition of the dish at Brasserie La Concorde. It was tender, intensely flavored, and, on a student's allowance, completely unaffordable. So, back home in my little studio, I hacked vegetables into pieces with a utility knife and cooked chicken in the wine I could afford--that is, €1 bottles of the local vin de table, wine so rough that producers are barred by law from calling it Burgundy. Some pretty sorry stews resulted from my early experiments, but I persevered--with more diligence, I am no longer ashamed to admit, than I pursued my studies.

Don't Cook with a Wine You Wouldn't Drink?


When those studies ended and I returned to my former life, I was dismayed to learn that, without even knowing it, I'd been flouting one of the golden rules of epicurism: Don't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink. I felt instinctively that this was a false commandment--if you're not going to drink it, what else are you supposed to do with it?--but I could hardly argue with conventional wisdom, let alone Julia Child's:

If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.

I was to remain dismayed for several years, until my instincts were vindicated by Julia Moskin in the New York Times. In a piece remarkable for its offbeat tasting notes--"hints of Skittles and off-brand caramels," "a perfume of Club Med piña coladas"--and the degree to which the author Keeps It Real, Moskin debunks the living daylights out of the axiom. In one of several taste tests, risottos made with a $70 Barolo and mid-range dolcetto d'Alba are easily defeated by a version simmered in Trader Joe's very own Charles Shaw cabernet.

This past weekend, with Moskin's findings in mind, I revisited the coq au vin of my college days. I have a gas stove now, and all the equipment I could need. But that bottle of Two-Buck Merlot (Three-Buck, here on the East Coast) was even worse than the vin de table I used to cook with in France.

In the stew, though, it was great.

Coq au Two-Buck Chuck

About the author: Michele Humes writes Georgia On My Thighs.

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