Thursday, September 03, 2009

Here I Go Again

For some reason or other- aka scheduling nonsense- I blue blazed a great deal of the Mt. Rogers section of the Appalachian Trail during my through hike in 2006. I had therefore managed to bypass the most scenic terrain for the next five hundred miles, and one of high points of the entire trail. How clever of me. For the next week or so, I'm going back to correct that mistake, taking the real A.T. from Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area HQ to Damascus, VA.

A refresher on trail terminology. The various kinds of blazing are used by Appalachian Trail Purists and others who maintain that the trial is only properly through hiked if you follow the white blazes every inch of the way from Springer to Katahdin.

Veterans of the Pacific Crest Trail find purists amusing. Gigantic sections of the western trail are regularly closed due to fire, earthquake, John Birch, Gojiro, the Red Chinese, or some combination. All of these hazards require that the through hiker bypass the "official" route.

No such luxury for the AT Purist, though it must be noted that John Birch is loath to enter Vermont for any reason and Gojiro avoids the south because it is very hard to keep kosher there. No, true purists circle trees in the middle of the trail to make sure every inch of the trail is indeed walked. By temperament, I do not agree with these folks, but I respect their opinion while being compassionate of mental illness. Non-purists, meanwhile, do things like blue blazing and yellow blazing. Blue blazing is taking an alternate footpath. Yellow blazing is hitchhiking right past sections of the godforsaken trail, a practice known as Pennsylvania.

I am a little nervous about hiking. I always am. This section has no big climbs-these are not the Whites- but it has a lot of thousand foot humps and bumps, many of which look pretty steep. I only train a thousand feet of vertical climb in the gym, but I'm lucky if I do it several times in a week let alone several times in a day, and I have pretty much completed my transformation from twentysomething slacker to obese fortyish desk troll. The blood pressure is medicated, medical exams have started for random crap, shooting pains when I am especially wrapped up in work, hell, shooting pains pretty much whenever. It looks like the beginning of the path to early death that my father enjoyed, or, if I'm really lucky, Krakauering myself somewhere in the hills of southern Virginia. It doesn't seem like the head is big enough to hold this much anxiety.

And you know what? All that garbage goes right out the window when I have the pack on my back and the poles in my hands. Just plant the tips in the ground and smile, and remember that there is no trouble in the world that does not go away in the first thousand yards.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Coq Talk

If you let them, hard core French recipe sites will boss you around. Coq au vin, for example, is pronounced imperfect if it is not made with salt pork, old rooster, Chambertin, and thickened with rooster blood. Zut alors! You are usink ze BACON! I've run into the same thing multiplied like a zillion times when I was researching bouillabaisse (different topic, different topic).

The truth is, all those details with the blood and stuff are options. They're power windows on a great car. If you take a piece of meat, salt it, brown it on all sides, remove meat, deglaze the brown stuff with a flavorful liquid, replace the meat in the vessel, lid and braise for a reasonable period of time in a slow oven, it's going to be delicious. This is the Honda Accord of cooking methods, at least for cheaper cuts (you wouldn't cook a beef tenderloin this way). Everything else is optional.

Coq au vin, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) is pretty option-heavy. It is, however, very cheap and quite good. You are also considered an apt kitchen hand when you get it down, although for my money it's harder to make good mayonnaise consistently than it is to make coq au vin.

2 cups pearl onions (Publix has these little guys frozen, peeled, skinned and ready to roll)
4 chicken leg quarters, cut into thigh and drumstick portions
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons water
12 ounces salt pork or slab bacon
12 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 750 ml bottles wine, red flavor, something without a lot of tannins
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons chicken base or bullion
1 packet unflavored gelatin

A word about the wine. Anything with a lot of tannins is going to taste anywhere from astringent to downright nasty. Beaujolais, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir (red), Burgundy should be safe choices. Stay away from Zinfandel, Cabernet, Rhone, Syrah, Shiraz, and the like. Some Chiantis can work- one of the best coq au vins I ever made was with a giant bottle of cheap Chianti. Not all Chiantis, though. Keep in mind that cheaper wines are often lower in tannins than their more dollarific counterparts.

Salt the chicken pieces on all sides with some kosher salt. Let them sit and watch you cook. They get lonely otherwise.

Thaw out your tiny little onions if you followed my advice and got the bag of prepped frozen onions. If you didn't, peel the fresh ones you bought and try not to slash your wrists out of tedium while I laugh at you from my internet kitchen sanctum. Sure sure, fresh tiny onions are way better than frozen convenient onions, blah blah blah, I know.

Get a big heavy pan out and put it on medium heat. Dice the salt pork/bacon into, eh, .5" cubes. Put the cubes into the pan with a couple tablespoons water, cover. After a few minutes the water should be gone and the cubes should be starting to give up some of their fat. Cook uncovered until the cubes are crispity brown and have covered the bottom of the pan with a nice layer of the pork fat. Remove, let them cool a bit then put them in a giant ziplock bag.

Put those teensy onions in the pan and saute until somewhat brown on most of their surfaces. They won't be an even brown, that's OK. If they're not terribly soft add some water, cover, and steam until they get at least knife tender. Then let the water evaporate and brown them again. These go into the giant ziplock.

Put the chicken, skin side down, into the goopy pan. Sizzle until brown, then flip. Depending on the diameter of your big heavy pan, this will take anywhere from two to four batches. Remember not to crowd the pan.

There's something sort of counterintuitive about browning unfloured chicken in the pan like this. When it comes time to flip, if the chicken skin is sort of clinging to the bottom of the pan, just let it sit a bit longer. Seriously. Don't try and scrape it off, that only ends in despair and shreds of meat and skin clinging to the pan. But by letting it sit and browning a bit longer, the proteins in the skin will change their structure and loosen their grip on the pan. If this technique doesn't quite work, put a bit of water in the pan. The steam will get between the meat and the metal and pop that chicken off, no problem. Well, maybe not pop exactly, but how about not stick quite so tenaciously. You want to avoid leaving big pieces of skin on the bottom of the pan, because the skin is happier on the chicken.

As you cook the chicken, put the browned pieces in a casserole big enough to hold all the chicken in a single layer, plus your 2 750 ml bottles of wine. Put the chicken down in a single layer in such a casserole as you go.

Take your sliced mushrooms and throw them in the pan so they are laying there in a single layer. Saute. Let them take some color from the pan. If you need to do them in more than batch, shove the ones that are done from the center to the peripery of the pan, then dump the newcomers right in the center of the pan. Mushrooms have a ton of water in them, it takes some real determined incompetence to burn them, especially on medium heat, which is what we're still on, if you recall. When suitably browned, put the shrooms in the giant ziplock.

It is now time to be very careful and deglaze. Grab a bottle of wine and put in a cup or so of the red stuff, right into the pan. Lots of steam, it will burn you. Be careful. With the wine in the pan, scrape the brown stuff off the bottom of the pan and into the wine. As we've mentioned previously, the brown stuff is called fond and without it and the process of deglazing French cuisine would probably not exist. It's a great contribution, deglazing, useful no matter if you're making French or Thai. Deglazing also greatly simplifies dishwashing, which I am pretty sure is why it was invented.

Once the fond is completely dissolved in the wine, add the tomato paste, garlic, and chicken base/bullion. Stir until these are dissolved, then pour this over the chicken in the casserole. Then add the rest of the wine to the casserole with the thyme and bay leaf. Chop up your vegetables and add them too, the onion, carrots, and celery. Lid the vessel and in it goes into the refrigerator, at least overnight and supposedly for as long as three days.

Before you forget, seal the giant zip lock full of goodies and put that in the fridge too. You might have to eat some leftovers to make room for all this stuff. Go to bed.

Next day, or whenever you decide to cook the thing, heat the oven to 325 and put the casserole- chicken, marinade, and all- right into the oven. Cook for 2 hours at 325.

When the chicken is done there is a bit of confusing pot juggling. Carefully take your chicken out of the braising vessel. The pieces will want to come to bits, try and keep that from happening. Use tongs. With a colander, strain the braising liquid into a big pot. Discard the sorry remains of the vegetables and herbs. Return the chicken pieces to the braising vessel and lid to keep the heat in. Put the big pot with its braising liquid on high heat. Put the packet of gelatin in 1/4 cup of cold water.

Reduce the braising liquid in the big pot until you have, eh, about 2 cups left. Or so. This depends on your wine choice and a lot of other things. The liquid will be thickened and glossy, and when you stir it you will hear a little sizzle as the sauce pulls a bit from the bottom of the pot. Towards the end you will have to stir constantly to keep it from burning, because wine has a lot of sugar in it and there's not a hell of a lot of water left in there. Once it has thickened to your satisfaction, turn the heat to low and add the bloomed gelatin to the liquid, stir to dissolve the gelatin blob into the sauce. Get the big ziplock full of goodies from yesterday- the one with the pork bits, the onions, and the mushrooms. Add this to the sauce and stir until the goodies are heated through. Take the sauce with the goodies incorporated and just pour that over the chicken in the casserole. See? It's pretty. And you thought it'd never be done.

Serve with lots of good crusty bread. As far as I'm concerned, the chicken is just chicken, but the sauce. Huh, yeah. The bread gives you a good media to smear it in. Try and restrain yourself from smearing it all over your body. Sounds gross? You haven't made this yet.

For this reason, it is customary to serve this with broad egg noodles, again to get more of the sauce into your mouth. I prefer more bread, but whatever works. Little boiled potatoes, or mashed, would work here as well.