Monday, March 12, 2007

Le Braise

There's something so satisfying and ceremonial about braising stuff. Almost anything. It just makes my tiny kitchen smell like a bistro.

I have been into the braise technique ever since my mate Stella impregnated our shared house with the rich stink of Coq Au Vin, and I had been hit by an atmosphere of meaty warmth when I returned home on a frosty night from the pub. Just the thing. It was winter in Stoke Newington, N16 and as I entered my house, the smell of Stella's cooking and the braising pan had me heading directly downstairs to the kitchen where some friends of hers were huddled around the pan, ready to tuck in. The occasion, dear friends, was just too much. Half-cut and without invitation I grabbed a redundant chair and squeezed myself between 2 of the real guests. There were two pans at the table, one filled with buttery mashed potato and the other with a chicken-studded crimson sauce that poured steam high into the air. Stella gave it a deft swirl and started to dish up. She is a great cook and my my, that sauce was good. Redolent with red wine and bacon fat, chunks of mushroom and succulent chicken. The mash was the best sponge ever, soaking up the juices. I cared little for manners and had to wipe a grimy thumb around the plate rim when I'd finished, there was no way I was going to waste any of that fabulous sauce. I don't think I said a single word to anybody while I ate.

I have recreated the dish countless times since, and I always think about that night when I stumbled upon one of my most memorable meals. So, friends, seeing as this might possibly be the last week of the NY winter (judging by today's temperatures and the upcoming forecast), I thought I'd share my recipe for classic CAV. Perhaps you can do something with it next winter?

4 rashers of smoked bacon
handful of button mushrooms
A slug of good olive oil
4 skinless thighs of organic chicken (I used D'Artagnan, watery Perdue just won't do the job)
a resealable bag containing seasoned flour
1 large white onion, 1 big stick celery, 1 large carrot, all chopped finely
about 3 fat cloves garlic, chopped
1 bottle of red wine (I used a Castle Rock 2004 cab sauvignon)
2 cups of good chicken stock (I really like that "Better than Bouillon" stuff in a jar)

Your own mashed spud recipe**

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Chop the bacon into nice bits. Halve all of your mushrooms. Set the pan (Dutch oven) over a medium heat, and add a splash of olive oil. Add bacon and render the fat right down. You should have crunchy burgundy-coloured bits before you go anywhere else. About 8 mins. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the mushrooms. Swirl around and coat the mushrooms with the fat, cook for about 10 mins until they wilt and lose some of their moisture. Put chicken thighs into the bag and shake furiously to coat the fowl with the flour. Remove mushrooms and stick in with the bacon. Brown the chicken on both sides, not too brown, just slightly golden. Remove and add to baco-mushroom mixture.
Add the holy trinity of celery, carrot, onion and sweat for 6 mins over medium heat. Add garlic. Cook for a further 4 mins. Deglaze with a splash of red wine. Try to scrape up the tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add two cups of the chicken stock and then chuck in the rest of the bottle. Reintroduce the mushrooms, bacon and chicken to the pan, and bring to a boil. Stick it in the oven for about an hour or so.
The meat should be super tender when prodded with a blunt item. Remove the chicken and set aside to rest. Hoist the pan up onto the flat top and set the burner on high. Reduce like crazy. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon before serving.
I like to smear a plate with shiny mashed potato and put the chicken and sauce over the top, sometimes with a nice peppery watercress salad on the side. **My mashed potato recipe (and I know you all have your own) is made by whizzing boiled spuds with a knob of butter, touch of salt, dash of milk, and I can't resist chucking in a couple of cheeky nuggets of garlic. I also go much too far with the electric devices and I don't stop the processing until the potato forms a highly adhesive amorphous sludge. This is what gives it the shine. I drank some more of the Castle Rock with it, and it was good, especially as our boys Park Slope Wine Shop had it at $9 a bottle. Ooh, they are kind.

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