Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Coq au vin (Nigel)

The bird
The older the bird, the richer the sauce. Have a word with your butcher: once you tell him you want a chicken for long, slow cooking he might be able to order a more mature bird for you. Best hunting grounds for older birds are traditional butchers, farmers' markets and mail order. With their access to fresh air, free-range birds have had the opportunity to build stronger, thicker bones than anything kept indoors, and will make a more sumptuous sauce.
The wine
Much is made of using good quality wine in cooking - a fruity, big-flavoured wine will obviously add more interest than a thin, cheap one - but there is no need to push the boat out. It doesn't have to be from Burgundy or, I suppose, even French, but I would feel uncomfortable using anything else. A loud, inky Beaujolais will do the trick.
The aromatics
Most classic recipes call for onions and carrots only, but I always add celery or celeriac, too, for its earthy notes. Big fat French onions, the sort that dangle on strings from bicycle handlebars, are what you want for the backbone of the stew. Tiny, tight-skinned button onions are correct for adding nearer the end but are infuriatingly difficult to find when you want them. I have used small, firm shallots before now and got away with it. A little bunch of fresh thyme and a few bay leaves are really all the herbs you need here, otherwise the dish will become confused.
The bacon
It just isn't coq au vin without some fat, juicy strips of green bacon. The rashers with which the British are obsessed are too thin - if they don't burn, they'll disintegrate. What you need is a solid lump that you can cut into thick strips. Pancetta will do nicely.
The accompaniments
Whenever I have eaten this in its natural habitat it has always come with wide, flat noodles, and I see no real reason to alter that. My usual choice is to plump for steamed potatoes, for the simple reason that I like to squash them into the gravy with my fork.
The recipe
Serves 4.
a large chicken, jointed into 6 or 8 pieces, giblets and carcass savedan onion, a carrot and a few peppercorns for the stock 150g pancetta or unsmoked bacon in the piece 30g butter 2 medium onions a large carrot 2 ribs of celery 2 cloves of garlic 2 tbsps flour 2 tbsps cognac a bottle of red wine 4 or 5 small sprigs of thyme 3 bay leaves 40g butter 12 small onions, peeled 200g small mushrooms boiled or steamed potatoes, to serve
Put the chicken carcass, its giblets and any bits and bobs of bone and flesh into a deep pan, cover with water, add an onion and a carrot, half a dozen whole peppercorns and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer until you need it.
Cut the pancetta into short strips; they need to be thicker than a match but not quite as thick as your little finger. Put them, together with the butter, into a thick-bottomed casserole - one of enamelled cast iron would be perfect - and let them cook over a moderate heat. Stir the pancetta from time to time - it mustn't burn - then, when it is golden, lift it out into a bowl, leaving behind the fat in the pan.
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and place them in the hot fat in the casserole, so that they fit snugly yet have room to colour. Turn them when the underside is pale gold. The skin should be honey coloured rather than brown - it is this colouring of the skin, rather than what wine or herbs you might add later, that is crucial to the flavour of the dish. Lift the chicken out and into the bowl with the pancetta. By now you should have a thin film of goo starting to stick to the pan. This is where much of your flavour will come from.
While the chicken is colouring in the pan, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrot, and wash and chop the celery. With the chicken out, add the onions and carrot to the pan and cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the onion is translucent and it has gone some way to dissolving some of the pan stickings. Add the garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, as you go. Return the chicken and pancetta to the pan, stir in the flour and let everything cook for a minute or two before pouring in the cognac, wine and tucking in the herbs. Spoon in ladles of the simmering chicken stock until the entire chicken is covered. Bring to the boil, then, just as it gets there, turn the heat down so that the sauce bubbles gently. Cover partially with a lid.
Melt the butter in a small pan, add the small peeled onions and then the mushrooms, halving or quartering them if they are too big. Let them cook until they are golden, then add them to the chicken with a seasoning of salt and pepper.
Check the chicken after 40 minutes to see how tender it is. It should be soft but not falling from its bones. It will probably take about an hour, depending on the type of chicken you are using. Lift the chicken out and into a bowl.
Turn the heat up under the sauce and let it bubble enthusiastically until it has reduced a little. As it bubbles down it will become thicker - though not thick - and will become quite glossy.
Return the chicken to the pan and serve with the potatoes

Monday, December 3, 2007

Feast on TV- The Singing Detective

The late Dennis Potter was a master at mining the popular songs of the 1930s and '40s for dramatic effect, but he never did it better than in The Singing Detective. The inestimable Michael Gambon plays a mystery writer named Philip E Marlow, who is suffering a torturous bout of psoriatic arthritis in hospital, where he is a victim of both his disease and the National Health Service. Unable to move without pain, he escapes into his imagination, plotting out a murder tale in which he is both a big-band singer and a private eye. But Potter and director Jon Amiel also mix in flashbacks of Marlow's youth and his unhappy marriage to explain how the real Marlow reached this sorry pass. Flawlessly, intricately, kaleidoscopically assembled, the six one-hour episodes fly by like some fantastic fever dream
Every aspect of the production is of surprisingly good quality, from the writing to the acting, costumes and direction. Dennis Potter’s script reminded me of a play in some scenes, with its subtle plays on words, shifts in style and layers of hidden meaning. The various strands of the story are edited and weaved together seamlessly, with no jolting effect, and the use of period songs perfectly complements the themes of mystery, memory and imagination. Eternally interesting issues such as identity, attitudes towards sexuality, the process of writing, and the links between a man’s inner, imaginative life and the real world, are explored with real insight in this drama. This is all managed without completely detracting from the entertainment value and dramatic tension in the various strands of story. This good quality surprises me because I’m just not used to it. Turn on your TV and you’ll see why.

Of Freaks and Men

Alexei Balabanov is a director from whom you can certainly never know what to expect next. Having had two monster successes in Russia with the taut gangster thrillers Brat (Brother) and Brat 2, the director then turned to a most unusual story indeed: the beginning of the Russian porn industry. But it's not a thriller, oh no, 'Of Freaks and Men' is a dreamlike lyrical film set in a marvellous sepia-hued St Petersburg. A local gangster, suffering from his own version of angst and some kind of oedipal longings, and his cohort invade the lives of two respectable families, including a blind matriarch and Siamese twins, forcing them to participate in 'spanking'movies. A kind of dream of turn of the century Russia is brilliantly evoked in the autumnal light, as the characters move silently through the deserted city on canal boats, horrible threat and aching beauty alternating with each other constantly. Of course, under Communism, porn was absolutely outlawed; with the fall of the Red Power, it's everywhere. Balabanov's fantasy story takes the sleaze out of porn and examinesit in terms of the psychological states of the characters involved. By the way, once you see this film you will want to visit St Petersburg - I did!

The 1st day

Some rantings about cooking, art, movies and some hidden passions.