Faisan au Vin
“They just don’t make cocks like they used to.” So laments just about every modern recipe for coq au vin, the venerable French braise of rooster in wine. The story goes that the dish was developed as a way to use the meat of tough old roosters past their prime; only a long braise could break down the serious connective tissue developed from a lifetime of crowing at the dawn, strutting around the yard, getting in fights — in short, acting like a cock.
Nowadays, the poultry we eat goes from eggshell to belly in as little as six weeks; not enough time to develop muscles flavorful enough to stand up to hearty red wine sauce. Recipes attempt to compensate for modern chicken’s relative blandness with modifications: reducing the braising time, using select parts of the bird. But what if instead of changing the recipe to suit the bird, you found a better bird?
The original concept of coq au vin demands a bird that has lived a hard life, working strength and flavor into its muscles as it struggles every day for mere existence. You could ask your butcher or farmer to track down the oldest, meanest bird in the hen yard and deliver it to your table, but such animals are in short supply and someone might get hurt. Or, you could turn to wild birds — game — that live less sheltered lives than today’s chicken. What about, for example, pheasant, which I happen to have in great supply thanks to the generosity of our friends Johnny & Stacie?
The pheasant in question came into my possession deeply frozen. As I was waiting for it to thaw, I created my braising liquid: I combined the better part of a bottle of red wine (California petit sirah from a certain Trader of value-priced wines) with three cups of chicken broth and brought them to a boil, reducing the mixture to about four cups.
After my pheasant thawed I rinsed the bird, removing any errant feathers and being sure to preserve some of the blood for use as a thickener later. I then cut the bird into quarters. If your bird was shot, as mine was, this is a good time to gently massage the flesh, attempting to locate the small balls of lead that brought about the pheasant’s demise. Don’t worry if you can’t find them, though: what your fingers cannot find your teeth surely will!
With pheasant appropriately divided and seasoned with salt and pepper, I proceeded to render the fat out of some chopped bacon (saving the crispy bacon bits for later of course). I then browned the pheasant pieces in the fat and set them aside. Next in the pot went a handful each of chopped onion and celery, and when that was soft a tablespoon or two of chopped garlic, along with a tablespoon of tomato paste. At this point, quite a bit of dark brown sucs had developed, so I deglazed the pan with some of the braising liquid, scraping up every bit of browned deliciousness. I then returned the pheasant pieces to the pot (along with juices) and poured in the rest of the braising liquid. It all spent the next long while gently simmering, slightly covered, until the meat was tender.
It wouldn’t be coq au vin — well, faisan au vin — without pearl onions and mushrooms. Since braising these along with the bird would turn them into an unrecognizable mush, most recipes call for cooking them separately and mixing them in before serving the dish. While you could brown the mushrooms and onions in a pan, I prefer to roast them; maybe it gives them a deeper flavor, but it’s definitely a lot easier. Just toss cut up mushrooms and onions with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast at 500ºF until they are as brown as you like them.
With pheasant starting to separate from its bones and mushrooms and onions a deep golden brown, I stirred everything together (remember those bacon bits?). If your sauce is looking a bit thin, now’s the time to stir in blood (or cornstarch if you’re squeamish). Over olive oil mashed potatoes, it was a rich and satisfying meal; not least because of the deep flavor of meat that had lived a life before it found its way to my plate. Since I’ve never eaten it I can’t say if it’s any better or worse than a wizened old cock, but I’ll take it over a six week chick any time.