I’ve always found it a little strange that we (and by we I mean the Western Consumer Collective) choose to celebrate love during the most depressing month of all. I mean, I know that St. Valentine was beheaded on February 14, but that grisly fact doesn’t strike me as a particularly good inspiration for the holiday and yeah, I think there was some Roman spring festival around that date, but let me promise you, friend, it takes just a glance out my snow-laden window to assure you that it is not springtime in Boston. And so, during this past Valentine’s Day, I decided to warm up with my favorite heavy meal, Coq au Vin, a slight adaptation of Balthazar’s wonderful recipe.
Have you had Coq au Vin? Have you had this Coq au Vin? Have you marinated hen’s legs in copious amounts of vegetables and herbs, a garlic head, a bottle of wine? Have you let it steep for at least a day, so the legs are thick and tight and purple? Have you seared them until they’re a rich dark brown, simmered them for an hour in a mixture of this fragrant marinade and rich homemade chicken stock and then, when meat is tender and falling off the bone, and the luscious sauce has been strained of its marinated vegetables, have you added slabs of crisp bacon? And onions and mushrooms that you’ve cooked in the ham fat? Have you, my friend, served this dish to someone you love like the French would, on a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes, and watched as they raised the first bite to their lips, a heavy mouthful of tender meat, bacon, mushrooms, all swimming in a thick, shimmering sauce? No? Then, you need a Valentine’s Day do-over. You are so lucky to have me.
Coq au vin is my favorite kind of meal to make, it leaves a lot of downtime for reading. During the marinating process, and even the simmering hour, I was able to sit, chef coat on (lots of oil splattering during the browning process), negroni in hand, at the open window of our smallish, rather smoky kitchen watching the snow fly by and reading poetry. And, since we are still in February and a storm was raging outside, I was not reading sopping odes to love by your Keatses and Rossettis, but instead looked to the ancestors of our current Olympic hosts for some work a little more seasonally appropriate.
I chose to honor what I consider to be a strange holiday with a strange love affair. The relationship between Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, two of Russia’s most beloved poets, may not have been an idyllic one, but it was full of mutual trust and respect.
Pasternak proposed to Akhmatova numerous times (once even while married), and while she always turned him down, she expressed immense regard for both the poet and his work. Over the years they inspired each other, shared their work with each other, and acted as support systems during difficult times; they both decided to stay in Russia even after their work was banned. As her good friend and fellow poet Lydia Chukovskaya said, ““…I don’t believe that a person who doesn’t understand Pasternak really understands Akhmatova.”
Here, then, are two poems, the first by Pasternak and the second by Akhmatova, some Russian verse for this freezing month.
February. Take ink and weep,
February. Take ink and weep,
write February as you’re sobbing,
while black Spring burns deep
through the slush and throbbing.
Take a cab. For a clutch of copecks,
through bell-towers’ and wheel noise,
go where the rain-storm’s din breaks,
greater than crying or ink employs.
Where rooks in thousands falling,
like charred pears from the skies,
drop down into puddles, bringing
cold grief to the depths of eyes.
Below, the black shows through,
and the wind’s furrowed with cries:
the more freely, the more truly
then, sobbing verse is realized.
He who has compared himself with the eye of a horse
Peers, looks, sees, identifies,
And instantly like molten diamonds
Puddles shine, ice grieves and liquefies.
In lilac mists the backyards drowse,
And depots, logs, leaves, clouds above;
That hooting train, that crunch of watermelon rind,
That timid hand in a perfumed kid glove . . .
All’s ringing, roaring, grinding, breakers’ crash –
And silence all at once, release;
It means he is tiptoeing over pine-needles,
So as not to startle the light sleep of space.
And it means he is counting the grains
In the blasted ears: it means
He has come again to the Daryal Wall,
Accursed and black, from another funeral.
And again Moscow, sweltering, burns,
Far off the deadly sleighbell chimes;
Someone is lost two steps from home
In waist-high snow. The worst of times . . .
For having compared smoke with the Laocoon,
For making a song out of graveyard thistles,
For filling the world with a new sound
Of verse reverberating in new space,
He has been rewarded by a kind of eternal childhood,
With the generosity and brilliance of the stars;
The whole of the earth was his to inherit
And his to share with every human spirit.
4 large hen legs (legs and thighs attached)
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
1 bottle of red wine
1 bouquet garni
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons plain flour
3 cups homemade chicken stock (the recipe calls for veal stock but I find this works fine, you can also use half chicken stock, half beef stock)
1 yellow onion, chopped roughly (the recipe calls for pearl onions, but M loathes them, check original recipe linked above if you’d like to add them)
8 ounces thick smoked bacon, chopped into one inch pieces
16 ounces button mushrooms
Add the legs, diced onion, carrot, celery, garlic, wine and bouquet garni to a large bowl and cover. Refrigerate for at least a day.
Remove the legs from the marinade and season them with salt and pepper. Strain the remaining vegetables and herbs from the wine, but reserve them both.
Heat the oil in a dutch oven or casserole. Add the legs and brown very deeply on both sides, may take up to 8 minutes per side. Do this in batches if necessary so as not to crowd the pan, and use new oil with each batch.
After browning, reduce the heat to medium and add the vegetables from the marinade to the pot and cook until they are soft, 5 to 8 minutes. Add your tomato paste, stir well to incorporate and cook for another 2 minutes, then add the flour, again, stirring well to incorporate, and cook for another two minutes.
Add the wine marinade to the pot, and as it bubbles up, scrape all the brown bits up from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Let the wine simmer for about 20 minutes, or until reduced by about half. Now, add the stock and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and simmer for one hour.
As the pot simmers, cook your bacon in a frying pan until crisp, set aside, then cook your mushrooms in the leftover bacon fat, adding oil if necessary. Once browned, remove the mushrooms and add the chopped onion to the pan, and sauté until just softened and slightly brown.
After the hour’s up, remove the legs from the simmering pot and strain and discard the vegetables from the sauce. Return the sauce and legs to the pot and bring to a strong simmer for about 15 minutes, skimming fat from the top of the pot as you go. The sauce should reduce by half and become thick and silky.
Add the bacon, mushrooms, and onions, and stir. Let simmer for another 15 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Serve with: mashed potatoes
Drink: Something that can stand up to all that flavor, like a Burgundy
Listen to: Regina Spektor singing our Pasternak poem in Russian (it’s that bit at the end)