There are many ways to cook a chicken. One of the easiest and best is to roast it. All it really needs is a bit of butter, some fresh herbs and some good quality salt. If you have 40 or so cloves of garlic lying around, that can only make it better. Fried chicken is also wonderful, especially when you get it freshly fried by someone who knows what she’s doing — usually in a greasy restaurant with linoleum table tops and cheap plastic-covered chairs somewhere in the southern half of the United States (don’t even think about calling that stuff KFC sells “fried chicken”). The linoleum’s important, of course, because it’s resistant to the grease and juice that drips down your arms as you much away. Then of course, there’s Chicken Rice (the best in town available at a small stall at the Alexandra Village hawker center) and its country cousin Samsui Chicken, which are both simply delicious variations of boiled chicken.
But these days, chicken isn’t given its due. When frou-frou diners (you know, those people that need gimmicky credit cards with new colors or silly names to feel special) peruse today’s restaurant menus, you’ll notice a couple things. First, chicken rarely appears on fancy restaurant menus. And secondly, when it is available, most diners don’t order it. When I asked one friend—he who drives a two-seater sportscar with an Italian name—why he and his ilk don’t order chicken in restaurants, his answer was very typical of people that eat to not only live but also to show off fancy watches in uber-designed restaurants, “Well, chicken is so ordinary…it’s cheap. Plus I can eat that at home anytime.”
I disagree. One of my all time favourite chicken dishes is Coq Au Vin, which translates literally as “rooster in wine.” The best I have ever had was prepared by Singaporean master chef Justin Quek. Yes, the same Justin Quek with the boyish face who cooks Senior Minister Lee’s birthday dinners; made Les Amis restaurant a respected name not only in our country but around the globe; and now runs some super-swanky restaurants in Shanghai and Taipei. The occasion was a private reception held towards the end of a past World Gourmet Summit. Justin, thankful that so many culinary luminaries had come to Singapore to take part in food impresario Peter Knipp’s celebrated event, hosted a private party, starting at 10 or 11pm, when the chefs would be able to leave their host restaurants and relax. My wife and I had planned to meet up with two brilliant young Japanese chefs who had become new friends. But when we got to Au Jardin Les Amis at 1115pm, neither of the two chefs had arrived. While waiting, we happily snacked on the dishes that Chef Justin had prepared. (It was obvious that Justin was out to show off—but wouldn’t you if you were him in that situation?)
One of his waiters was passing around a tray stacked with small bowls. In each bowl was a tiny piece of rooster, braised to perfection and painted in a thick and sinfully delicious red wine sauce. It was Coq Au Vin turned into an amuse-bouche, and it was better than any I had ever had.
My second favourite Coq Au Vin is cooked by my wife. And like Justin’s nouveau cuisine coq, my wife’s is not quite authentic either. Rather, it should more accurately be called Poulet Au Gewurztraminer, because instead of rooster, we use chicken, and instead of red wine, we use Gewürztraminer, a slightly sweet white wine. We also use cream in the recipe (did you really expect any recipe I write to be healthy?), which traditional Coq Au Vin does not.
Admittedly, the recipe is not hers either. It’s a variation of a recipe we discovered in British food writer Nigel Slater’s masterpiece Real Food (his uses Riesling). But that too we suspect may not be original. Most recently, we have discovered a recipe for Coq Au Vin with white wine and chickens in an old James Beard cookbook. Regardless of its creator, the dish is delicious. It is everything comfort food…no, scratch that. It is everything food should be. Tender, juicy chunks of chicken braised in a sweet creamy sauce that’s as aromatic as it is delicious. Mushroom, carrots and other veggies are used to flavor the sauce, but they are also wonderful to the taste. Pancetta gives the dish a wonderfully savory and slightly smoky flavor. And surprising to many, the dish actually looks pleasing when plated.
And most important, the dish is easy to make. So easy in fact, that even on holiday, when we decided spur of the moment to try making it, the result was a success. The beauty of this dish is that there is very little “prep” work needed and that the recipe is extremely straight forward. Try it at home. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. But also, next time you go out to eat, don’t be chicken about ordering the, well, chicken.
Coq Au Gewurztraminer
feeds 2 hungry people or 4 normal folk
1tbsp olive oil
100g pancetta, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
200g button mushrooms, quartered
2 carrots, diced
3tbsp chopped parsley
4 chicken thighs
300ml double or thickend cream
500ml Gewürztraminer (or Riesling)
Melt the butter and the oil together in a heavy-based pot.
Put in the pancetta and let it colour a little, then add the carrots, onions and garlic. Leave to cook over a moderate heat until the onions have softened but not coloured. Scoop the carrots, pancetta and onions out with a draining spoon and put aside in a bowl or on a plate.
Brown the chicken thighs in the pot. Pour the carrots, pancetta and onions back into the pot. Turn up the heat and pour in the wine. Quickly bring the liquid to boiling and then turn it down to a simmer. Let everything cook at a gentle bubble for 25 minutes, turning the chicken from time to time.
Lift the chicken out of the pan. Put them into a bowl or on a plate and cover to keep warm.
Pour in the cream. Season with salt, pepper (and sugar to taste) and stir in the chopped parsley. Also add the mushrooms. Let the sauce thicken while the mushrooms cook. You want the sauce to reduce substantially so that the liquid is a nice delicious gravy.
When ready, put the chicken back in the pot and let it get heated through again. Serve when ready.
Oh, and by the way…
Big thanks to all the enthusiastic readers who left comments on my Travel Essentials post. It was really interesting to read what you all bring with you on your own journeys. Congrats go out to CT, who my wife S randomly chose as the winner and recipient of two uber-cool X-Mini speakers. CT, I hope you’ll enjoy using them as much as we do.