French food has always seemed so exotic to me. Maybe it’s that I’ve only ever been to one French restaurant. Or maybe it’s all of the stories I’ve read about people finding themselves in France. But I’ve always associated French food with a distant, far-off land where butter, fresh bread, and sauces taste differently than anywhere else on earth.
For the last 5 years, my only window to French food has been through stories and cookbooks. I’ve put my faith in the recipes of Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Mimi Thorisson, Jean-Pierre Moullé and Denise Lurton Moullé—all in the name of understanding a cuisine that’s always been such a mystery to me.
So last Saturday I dove into my books and tackled a recipe I’d only ever read about: Julia Child’s coq au vin. My reason? Well, my husband (Ben) and I are getting ready to leave for our honeymoon in Paris!
To kick things off, he, his lovely Aunt Laura and I spent the day eating cheese and crackers while I tinkered away at this brand-new recipe—a recipe that reads:
Averting your face, ignite the cognac with a lighted match. Shake the casserole back and forth for several seconds until the flames subside.
But we’ll get there.
Traveling to France without Actually Traveling to France
When we first got together in 2010, Ben and I got the idea in our heads that we were going to travel to France. We were fairly recently out of college, living on a budget of omelets, slow cooker soups, and the occasional celebratory roast chicken dinner. But still. We got our hands on the first few lessons of Rosetta Stone and became experts at matching people and animals—man, woman, boy, girl, horse, fish—with verbs and phrases—is drinking, is swimming, is driving the car.
That December I asked my family for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for a birthday present. It was too expensive to buy on our own, and if we wanted to get to France, we needed to taste the food! I swore I would never crease a page, and yet it’s now one of the most worn cookbooks in my stash.
Our kitchen became a lab for mayonnaise, hollandaise and poached eggs. I tackled ladyfingers, a cheese soufflé, and boeuf bourgignon—beef stew with onions and mushrooms. I even coaxed my (then soon-to-be) in-laws into letting me throw a dinner party for the express purpose of making Julia’s cassoulet.
Though we didn’t get to go to France together, we had so much fun experimenting with French food and French recipes. Cooking and eating at home helped transport us to this distant, far off land without ever having to buy a plane ticket.
A Quick Wedding Tangent
Five years down the road, we are now married. Our wedding happened in May and it was a beautiful, sunny, 80-degree day. We had a fantastic photographer, and while I fully intend to share more photos with you down the line, you can find some snaps of our day here.
Coq Au Vin with Aunt Laura
Ben’s Aunt Laura wanted to send us off before our honeymoon, so it seemed like the perfect occasion to make coq au vin—a chicken dish braised in wine. I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be salty? Winey? Too summery for a September meal? But I dove in.
I broke down the chicken, dried the pieces, and browned them in a casserole. There they sat with some crispy, fried cubes of salt pork—or lardons—as they awaited 1/4 cup of cognac, a lit match, and a giant leap of faith.
I’d never flambéed before, so I was pretty scared. The direct flames are supposed to take the edge off of the cognac’s flavor—though I can’t say whether they did for sure. What I can say is that it was a thrilling experience and my husband and I have documented it here. I should add that it was a very bad idea to handle the hot casserole with my bare hands, so if you decide to make coq au vin at home, please use potholders or oven mitts.
Once the cognac burned off, I added wine, beef bouillon, tomato paste, garlic, thyme and a bay leaf. The chicken simmered away as the flavors mixed and mingled. At the very end I removed the chicken and thickened the sauce with a paste of butter and flour. I simmered it over high heat and nestled the chicken into the thick and velvety sauce. Then came a shower of parsley, sautéed mushrooms and a few handfuls of tiny braised onions.
The coq au vin was rich, savory, salty and winey. It paired beautifully with the sweet—and practically melted—braised onions. The chicken was a deep purple on the outside, and a tender, pinky-white on the inside.
Per Julia’s recommendation, I served the coq au vin with new potatoes rolled in butter and chopped parsley. Not a single green vegetable made its way to dinner, but none of us seemed to mind. At least not enough to bring it up!