An Alsatian take on classic coq au vin, Coq au Riesling combines chicken, lardons, shallots, mushrooms and dry Riesling wine in a braise that’s even better the next day. Recipe below.
We sometimes think of national cuisines in monolithic terms. “How about Chinese tonight?” “Nah, I’m in the mood for Italian.” But countries large and small are made up of regions, each with their own distinct cuisines. So you get classic Northern Italian dishes and Southern Italian dishes. North Indian and South Indian. And Chicago restaurateur Tony Hu has built a career of highlighting regional Chinese cuisines, with individual restaurants serving the foods of Szechaun, Hunan, Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan…
No country takes regionalism to greater heights than France. Partly, that’s due to size. France is the third largest European nation—and that’s only if you count Russia and Ukraine as part of Europe (Wikipedia sniffs that they’re actually part of Asia). Partly, though, it’s France and food. They’re very good at it and take it very seriously. What other country names a carrot soup for a town in a region known for growing good carrots?
Even classic French dishes like coq au vin get their regional tweaks. Essentially chicken braised with wine, lardons, mushrooms, onions (or shallots) and garlic, the variations come mostly in the wine chosen. Burgundy and other reds are most often the wine used, but not always. As Julia Child puts it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “This popular dish may be called coq au Chambertin, coq au Riesling, or coq au whatever wine you use for its cooking.”
I went with Riesling, the wine of choice in France’s Alsace region. Located on the eastern edge of France, Alsace is just across the Rhine from Germany and Switzerland. In fact, it only became part of France in the 17th century, and even after that, it changed hands between France and Germany four separate times in 75 years. Although French is now the official language, nearly half of the adult population also still speaks Alsatian, a dialect similar to German. So it’s only natural that their food would be influenced by their German history.
Wines produced in the Alsace region tend to be white, most of them styled after German wines, including Gewurztraminer and Riesling. Often, they tend toward off-dry or even sweet in flavor. There are dry Rieslings as well, though, and this is the direction I chose. An off-dry Riesling would work too. The Riesling is more delicate than big reds used in coq au vin, and the resulting sauce is much less wine forward in flavor. Think of it as a sauce with wine rather than a wine sauce.
Coq au Riesling is wonderfully comforting on a cold winter’s night. It’s rustic, earthy and layered. And like the more famous coq au vin, it’s better the next day. The flavors meld and deepen in the fridge overnight. Which makes it the perfect make ahead meal for dinner with friends. You can join in the cocktails and conversation, then quickly warm it up as you cook up some parsley potatoes, buttered egg noodles or rice to serve with it.
More traditional recipes call for cooking a whole chicken cut into pieces. Others call for using just chicken thighs or drumsticks and thighs. That’s what I did. First, chicken legs are juicier and more flavorful than breast meat. And in serving, each diner gets a drumstick and a thigh—elegant looking on the plate and no fussing over who got what.
Coq au Riesling
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 slices bacon cut crosswise into 1/4-inch lardons
4 each, chicken drumsticks and thighs (or a whole chicken, cut up)
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 shallots, sliced (or 1 large onion)
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons brandy or cognac (see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 cups dry Riesling
3 sprigs thyme (or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon—see Kitchen Notes)
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, quartered (or button mushrooms)
1/2 cup crème fraîche (or sour cream—see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
buttered egg noodles or cooked rice (see Kitchen Notes)
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large, lidded nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bacon lardons and cook until they begin to brown and much of the fat is rendered, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Don’t let it get too crisp—you want chewy little bites in the finished dish, not bacon bits. Don’t worry if it’s not cooked all the way through. It will finish cooking with the chicken. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
While lardons are cooking, salt and pepper chicken generously on both sides. Add chicken to the bacon fat in the pan and brown on both sides, about 4 minutes to side. Transfer chicken to a plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat in pan and reduce heat to medium low. (If you pour off too much fat—I did—drizzle in a little olive oil.) Add shallots and sweat until soft, stirring frequently to avoid browning, about 4 minutes. Add garlic to pan and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds.
Turn off heat and deglaze pan with brandy, scraping up any browned bits. Add Riesling to pan. Quickly bruise thyme sprigs by rolling them with a rolling pin or the side of a glass. Add to pan, along with lardons. Bring mixture to a boil over medium high heat, add chicken to pan, cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in another large skillet over medium heat and sauté mushrooms until they’ve released their juices and are nicely browned. Turn off heat and leave mushrooms in pan.
Transfer chicken pieces to a warm serving platter and tent with foil. Raise heat to medium high and slightly reduce liquid in pan, about 2 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs and add crème fraîche and mushrooms to pan and stir to combine. Cook until mushrooms are heated through. Spoon sauce and mushrooms over chicken and garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.
Alternatively, you can plate this dish. Spoon buttered egg noodles or rice on individual plates and top with a drumstick and thigh each and spoon sauce and mushrooms over chicken. Or serve chicken next to parsley potatoes.
Brandy? Cognac? When recipes call for a deglazing liquid at all, they call for cognac. I’m sure it’s a delicious touch. We had brandy on hand, also delicious—and less expensive than the kind of cognac you’d have on hand if you had it.
Thyme? Tarragon? The one herb all recipes agree on is parsley. For many, that’s the only one they call for. As much as I love parsley, I didn’t want it to do all the heavy lifting, especially because it’s added at the very end. Either chopped tarragon or some thyme sprigs added along with the Riesling help flavor the sauce and the chicken as it braises.
Crème fraîche? Sour cream? If you can find crème fraîche, splurge. It’s a French sour cream that’s less tangy than its American counterpart and has a higher fat content. So it adds a luxurious richness to the sauce. Crème fraîche is becoming more widely available here—I found mine at Trader Joe’s. But in a pinch, sour cream will do.
Noodles? Rice? Potatoes? According to Julia Child, coq au vin (and its variations) are typically served with parsley potatoes. Many recipes call for buttered egg noodles with fresh parsley. The first night, we had the buttered noodles, the second night, rice. Honestly, I liked the rice better, partly because it absorbed the sauce nicely.