Monday, January 14, 2008

Alsatian Chicken in White Wine and Cream: Coq au Riesling

In our neighboring city of Decatur, which over the past ten years has become a "hot" place to live and to dine, one of the well-established restaurants is the Café Alsace. The owners are a French couple from that province, which is the most Germanic region of France. Bordering the Rhine, Alsace, along with nearby Lorraine (think Quiche Lorraine), were under German control for nearly 50 years before the First World War. Some of the most georgeously charming, almost fairy-tale, towns I have seen anywhere in the world are in Alsace.

Many of the "bistros" in France (bistrots in French), including in Paris, were established by Alsatians. 'Coq au Riesling' (cauk oh rees' ling) is the Alsatian counterpart to the better known Coq au Vin (cauk oh vainh'), which originated in Burgundy, farther southeast in France. Both are classic bistro dishes, regional French cooking, hearty, delicious, unpretentious, and able to be made ahead and reheated for serving accompanied by crusty bread and wine. Back, briefly, to the Café Alsace. They actually serve Coq au Vin, as I recall, which would be more familiar to their clients, rather than the Alsatian version. But since I prefer the white-wine one, that's what you are getting.

The wines from Alsace are fragrant and fruity. Winemakers there use the same grapes, like Riesling, Sylvaner, and Gewurtztraminer, as across the river in Germany, but in the French manner the wines are made dry -- non-sweet. The corresponding German wines, particularly the Rhein Wines, tend to be sweeter.

My version of Coq au Riesling is somewhat modernized, using only boneless, skinless chicken breast rather than cut-up chicken pieces with their skin and bones. But the white wine, carrots, small onions, and mushrooms are still there, as is finishing the dish with cream. The recipe serves six, when accompanied with buttered egg noodles or steamed potatoes. (If Hammad is eating, do 1-1/2 times the recipe for six.)

The wine to drink with this is .... envelope, please .... a dry Alsatian Riesling, served cold. Definitely not a sweeter German Riesling. But Alsatian wines were a little pricey even before the Euro gained so much on the dollar. (And don't waste an Alsatian wine in the cooking. A decent California or Chile Chardonnay makes a great dish.) For drinking, a good full-bodied California Chardonnay will work. Or a dry rosé. This is too rich-flavored a dish for a Pinot Grigio, but a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will work. Red wines would not, in my opinion be a good fit. Baguette, or a whole-wheat artisan bread, warmed and crusty, is the right accompaniment, and maybe a simple green salad with a Dijon mustard vinaigrette. (The French would serve the salad, freshly dressed, after rather than with, and never before, the meal.) In France, butter would not be served with bread at dinner. Use the bread to sop up the gravy.

Alsatian Coq au Riesling Tim

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon more for the sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups small white onions, whole
2 cups small fresh mushrooms
2 cups baby carrots, peeled, or larger carrot cut in 3/4-inch lengths
1/4 stick of celery
2 large shallots or a small yellow onion
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons butter or oil (or chicken fat)
1-1/2 cups dry white wine (traditionally a dry Alsatian Riesling, but a Chardonnay works well)
1/2 teaspoon oregano (not traditional, but it works well)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
A few individual leaves of rosemary
1/2 cup heavy cream (or half and half for a lighter dish)
Parsley for garnish

Trim chicken of any tough or fatty parts and cut flesh into 1-1/2-inch cubes. Mix with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the flour. Peel the small onions, leave whole. Peel carrots if not already prepared. Clean the mushrooms, trim away the tips of the stems, and cut mushrooms in half if larger than 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Finely chop the celery, shallots or yellow onion, and garlic.

Heat part of the butter or oil and fry half the chicken, stirring frequently, until just beginning to brown. Remove it to a bowl. Add the rest of the butter or oil and fry the remainder of the chicken and add it to the bowl. Add a little extra butter or oil to the pan, if necessary, and fry the chopped celery, shallots or yellow onion, and garlic until turning pale golden brown. Add the wine, herbs, and spices, plus 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and scrape the pan well to blend the drippings into the wine. Boil quickly for 2 minutes. Add the carrots and cook, covered but stirring occasionally, until beginning to become tender, adding a little water if needed to just cover the carrots. Add the mushrooms and the whole small onions plus another 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Simmer, covered, until the onions are tender, about 10 minutes, and one or two center pieces pop out. Add the previously fried chicken and any juices to the pan, plus a little water if more sauce is needed. Simmer 2-3 minutes, tasting the sauce and adding salt if needed. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream.

Dust with chopped parsley to serve. Accompany with steamed small potatoes or noodles, lightly buttered and salted.

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