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
- 3 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
- 6 pieces skin-on, dark-meat chicken (mix of thighs and drumsticks)
- Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Large yellow onion, finely sliced
- Large carrot, cut in 1/2-inch rounds
- Garlic clove, minced
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons Charles Shaw merlot
- Bay leaf
- Parsley, leaves only, minced
Place the bacon in a large, heavy pot and cook over low heat until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from pan and set aside.
Increase heat to medium-high. Sear chicken pieces in bacon fat until golden brown, 3-4 minutes per side. Remove chicken pieces and set aside.
Pour off fat, reserving 1 tablespoon in pan. Add carrots, onions and garlic and sauté until onions are soft and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with flour, stir to distribute, and sauté for an additional minute. Deglaze pan with 2 tablespoons of wine, scraping up all the sucs, or brown bits, with a wooden spoon.
Return chicken and bacon to the pan. Add bay leaf and remaining red wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the sauce is mellow and thickened, and the carrots tender but not disintegrating. Check and adjust seasoning.
Serve with your favorite potato dish, or thick egg noodles. Sprinkle with minced parsley before serving.