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The great coc au vin controversy

Several seasons ago, Top Chef contestant, Casey Thompson, was undone by her take on coq au vin during an elimination challenge at The French Institute. Well, she wasn’t undone per se because it didn’t send her and her knives packing, but it cost her a win, even though it was possibly the best dish.

What kept her from being Top  Dog that day?

She called the braised chicken dish coq au vin. The result was coq au vin lite, if you will. Some will say, “How can you expect to cheat a dish that is a national signature dish in front of judges who represent the leading cooking school in the US of that country”?

Well, perhaps we should back up and talk about the dish and the controversy.

What is coq au vin and how in the hell do you pronounce it?

It’s pronounced (roughly) cocoa van. Easy enough. So it means chicken with wine, right?

Well, sorta.

Technically, it’s cock with wine (OK, get your sniggering out of the way). The older the cock the better (OK, get off the floor). It’s a dish that’s thickened with the blood of the cock or some other animal like a duck or goose or even pig, since you usually won’t get enough blood out of a wizened old bird to thicken the sauce by itself.

The key components to the classic version of this dish are rooster, blood and time…three things that are precious commodities or outright unobtainables on Top Chef. I mean, when was the last time that you saw rooster at your local Whole Foods?

Why rooster, you might ask? Why would you even want to bother with an old wrinkly sinewey tough bird in the first place?  Why, it’s the sinew and the “toughness”, silly. Sinew is connective tissues made from collagin and elastin and is dissolved through prolonged exposure to moist heat. Muscles which have been overworked are also tough, but they have enhanced flavor components not present in young, unworked muscles. They too benefit from a long braise and the combination of the melting of the connective tissues and the tenderizing of the muscle meat adds to the rich flavor of coq au vin.

All of this begs the question – why rooster? They don’t have much usable yield and French farmers running household farms weren’t probably awash in roosters. In fact, generally, really small operations usually only have one or a small handful, which get exhausted from all of the “pollinating” after about 3 years. You usually only need one rooster for a dozen or less hens. So, not only can’t you fill a pot with chicken meat from the roosters on hand, it’s a time-consuming dish. My theory is pretty simple – you never threw out anything that could be eaten. You never knew when the next revolution or world war was around the corner.  The rooster had to go eventually, so the French found a way to utilize these tough old birds and, in doing so, they created a classic dish.

This dish is best braised for hours and hours. You use aromatics like celery, onions, garlic, and bouquet garni, utilize lardons (thickly cut bacon),  tomatoes and mushroom (if desired) and serve with a starch like boiled potatoes or pasta (traditionally, the French also serve it with green beans). Thing is, the French realize that you just don’t run into roosters every day unless you’re a farmer or happen to live near one. So, even the French have adapted the dish to modern times.  Larousse Gastronomique even mentions that the dish is often made with regular chickens these days and, in fact, doesn’t even mention roosters in the recipe that it provides. Neither did Julia Child back in the day. Even the guy who decries the homogenization of regional cuisines, Anthony Bourdain doesn’t even mention roosters in his recipe and only adds an addendum at the end of the recipe about “being adventurous” and adding blood instead of using flour as a thickening agent. 

If you search the internet for coq au vin recipes, it’s almost impossible to even find one that has roosters in the recipe and demands blood as a thickening agent.

So, why all of the fuss on Top Chef?

Ironically, most of the agitating about the authenticity of the dish came from Italian heritage’d Tom Collichio. In fact,  IIRC  Sirio Maccioni loved the dish, as did the judges from the school itself. But leave it to Collichio to throw the book at Ms. Thompson because it wasn’t really a coq au vin. C’mon dude. She didn’t try to call a Pop Tart a bruschetta. He spent a lot of time trying to convince other judges that she had fired a torpedo into French cuisine.

So Casey, here’s your redemption, despite your recent ceremonial throwing-under-the-bus of your fellow Top Chef runner-up Carla, which I have to say, showed some cat-like qualities. At least you performed a mea culpa…

I would have offered an “authentic” recipe, but, believe it or not, I couldn’t find one. Not even in any of my “French” cookbooks – not even purist Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. That should tell you that Thompson was probably cheated out of a win, since Collichio’s objection was seemingly what gave competitor Hung the win. It probably didn’t make any difference in the end, but still… 

If you actually want to make the real thing, I would suggest that you take a reasonable-sounding recipe and substitute rooster for chicken. Have your butcher find you some pig’s blood and reserve about a half a cup of it. Make sure that if flour or a roux is used to thicken the sauce, ignore that part of it. Make sure that you slow braise the rooster for a long time over low heat (I’d give it at least 6 hours). As you get to the end of the process, instead of adding thickener, slowly add a little blood and incorporate it, adding just enough to start the thickening process. Add a little more and keep repeating until you get the consistency that you are looking for. If you add the blood too quickly, it will cause the sauce to seize and harden. 

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

Top Chef Las Vegas – episode 4

I’ll be typing this in stages, as I watch it. So, it’s in chronological order, as it happens, so to speak (thanks to the pause capabilities of DVR).

The girl contingent is shrinking and the girls are worried. No worries, the law of averages is catching up although it might not happen this week  (Mike, I’m looking at you).

Collichio doesn’t feel that Daniel Boulud needs an introduction, so naturally he goes on to list his CV.

Our little Marcel Marceau gets a gleam in his eye when snails are mentioned. Perhaps he’s working out a new snail routine involving motor oil and a canteen taped to his back.

Daniel Boulud – “And I want to taste something that I’ve never tasted before”. I’m sure you will.

Boulud is a bit scary in a James Bond, mongoose sort of way. I wouldn’t want to be eyed by him before a Quickfire.

OK, pause for the cause – this looks like a 4 brandy in the middle of the day sort of show…be back shortly…

Oh dear – someone’s going home from the QF – knees buckle, heads bob, jaws drop, hearts race.  Sounds like love to me.

OK cocky Frenchman – remember what Boulud said – he wants to taste something different, not snails swimming in butter like you made when you were 15. At least, that’s what it looks like you’re plating. Maybe I’m wrong – we’ll see when I get back into the episode.

Poor little Nazi Girl. They didn’t serve snails to the concentration camp guards. What kind of 1000 year Reich are we running here?

I have to wonder – did anyone think of doing a snail tempura? That would have been my first thought. Within 5 minutes, you’d know whether snails would hold up under a tempura batter. I’d think they would. After all, they are roughly the same shape and size as button mushrooms, although they are more tender, of course. And who doesn’t love fried mushrooms?

OK, back to cheftestants scrambling around each other in panic…

OK, back to the computer…

The dominatrix pulls a yuzu out of her hat.

Frenchy actually did a little extra, but it wasn’t enough to clear Daniel’s Maginot Line.

Southern cooking rules! Jam, baby, jam!

Well, looks like at least one distaff chef is biting the dust. But WAIT! cook-off time! Oh, one distaff chef is still going home. Jesse is the obvious choice, but who knows? It won’t be the gay one that looks like Steve Forbert though, unless she implodes completely.

OK, brandy in hand I return…

And I was right. Jesse bites the dust.  I’m surprised that she has the constitution to work in a kitchen.There’s no crying in cooking (except when cutting onions, I suppose).

Nice perk for the winner of the QF – dining with a bunch of snotty French chefs with over a dozen Michelin stars amongst them. Dining with the chef of the century? How very 20th century.

Frenchy sees this as a slam dunk. Always dangerous on this show.

Trout with bearnaise? Maybe I’m wrong, but that doesn’t seem like a natural pairing. Delicate trout with a tarted-up hollandaise? I dunno. Yes, bearnaise with steaky fish like swordfish or salmon – that I can see. Bearnaise with darker fish like mahi-mahi, that I can see. Trout with bearnaise? Not so much.  I still wonder about the “natural pairing” thing.

I note that they’re doing “young chicken”. I guess there won’t be any nitpicking of the dish as they did in a previous season with Casey and her “coq au vin” – I’m looking at you Tom. Of course, if someone uses a cock, they’re screwed. But where you find a cock in Las Vegas? Oh wait…let me rephrase that…

OK…back to the show and the brandy…

Hic!

Oh Mike, you’ve semi-redeemed your braggadocio by deconstructing the bearnaise. That’s just twisty enough to create a positive impression as long as you execute it.

Uh oh, the funny music with Robin’s team. Garbanzo bean flour. Personally, I say why not? This could be the classic case of editing fairies’ misdirection. Time will tell, I suppose. It doesn’t help that Caribbean dude is a bit over-confident in his ability to cook chicke…I mean frog’s legs.

More cooking, more cooking. More exposition fairies explaining sauces to ‘mericans. Robin, turns out, is a motor mouth while Ron suffers under the weight of words. Things aren’t really looking that great for Frenchy and tattoo’ed lady (apologies to Rory Gallagher). 

Chateaubriand au poive?  Hmmm, not sure if that’s going to impress anyone, especially if it’s rare as a baby’s bottom. But you still have time. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic”! Hopefully, you can turn it into something special. But I have my doubts.

OK, I’m into my second brandy now (don’t worry, I’m off today). Time to return to the dinner portion of our entertainment.

Is that a yarmulke or a bald spot on our lucky cheftestant diner’s head? Oh, it’s a bald spot.

Uh oh, Gail got the end piece. I’m guessing that a chef is going to get the shaft.

The deconstructed bearnaise looks like a hit of windowpane with a couple of hits of orange sunshine dyed black on top. Turns out that it’s a mind-blower.

C’mon guys – no other season could have produced this food for these guests at this stage of the competition? I think not. But, what do I know? I’m not there season after season.

Awwww, Frenchy is disappointed. But I don’t think he has to worry about any of his team actually going home. But I’ve been wrong before…

OK, back to Judge’s Table®

You know, I’m waiting for the twist when they call the losers first. I’m surprised that they haven’t thought of that.

Praise praise praise. Nothing to see here folks. Please move along.

Oh SNAP! I wonder what the French expression for “throwing someone under the bus” is. I’m really surprised that Ashley showed the kind of class that she did (unless it was removed by editing). I really hope that our mime goes home for that, although it’s looking like we’re going to lose Puerto Rico at this point. A lying mime, while a contradiction in terms, is a good source of conflict in the future, so he’s probably going to end up staying. Now I know how Charles De Gaulle felt about General Pétain.

If Ashley goes home, then it’s “Katie bar the door’. But I don’t see that as very likely at this point. You send the guy who’s supposed to know about French cooking home when he doesn’t perform.

OK, time for the big finish. Better have another brandy.

Uh oh – the Ashley thing is being misinterpreted by our gang of 3. This is part of the game though – they’re not privy to “the facts”. It’s up to Ashley to defend herself. Still, I’m pretty sure that PR is on the way out. But, as I’ve said, I’ve been wrong before.

As I mentioned before, cooking Chateaubriand au poive isn’t the most challenging thing to do and to screw up that dish could be fatal and Tom confirmed that. Had they done something a little differently and thought outside the box, like doing a lightly seared piece of meat and doing a carpaccio au poirve, they might have fared better. It certainly would have been a lot easier. You only sear the meat quickly, you freeze it and then you slice it on site with a meat slicer like the type that they use at Arby’s (the type that took Rahm Emmmanuel’s finger. However, you don’t serve the finger if that happens to you as well.

OK, brandy break.

Time for the big reveal.

No great exposition, no big scolding. and yes, it’s Hector. A completely uncontroversial choice. I’m sure that some will make it so because of the Mattin thing, but his big sin was lying at Judge’s Table.

So big fella, you join Jesse in the recycle bin. Please take your “long knife” and go.

Just so you guys know, I rarely watch the teaser clips, either within an episode or for the upcoming episode. So I have no idea about what’s going to happen next week.

Are you ready for some football? A Thursday Night party?

Jesse Sandlin1

hector

Chefs on Charlie Rose last night

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Charlie Rose is on vacation right now, so his shows are compilations of shows done earlier in the year, grouped by common topics.

Last night, he ran clips from his interviews with David Chang, Ferran Adria and José Andrés (with Andrés serving as interpreter), and Tom Collichio (learn how to pronounce his name, Charlie!).

All of the interviews were illuminating (I didn’t know that David Chang was basically a competitive golfer in his early days). I liked Adria comparing cooking to other art forms, noting that cooking involves all of the senses, whereas something like painting only involves one of them (sight). And I liked Collichio’s evolution as a chef actually being an evolution of reduction instead of increasing complexity.

You can view the entire show here for a little while:

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10572

If it becomes unavailable as a whole show, you can likely view each segment separately in the archives by searching for each chef. The David Chang segment shown last night is excerpted from the full hour that Rose spent with him, so you might want to go directly to that segment, which you can find at the link of Serious Eats below the screenshot below.

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Screenshots courtesy of Serious Eats and can be found here:

http://www.seriouseats.com/2008/07/videos-david-chang-charlie-rose-pbs-momofuku-ko.html

Top Chef Episode 2

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Well class, what have we learned?

The “hot” ice queen chef will disrobe just for you.

Crap…I mean craps, it’s what’s for dinner.

Bravo missed an opportunity by choosing a real bachelor/bachelorette party instead of doing a bachelor/bachelor or bachelorette/bachelorette celebration, although it did give the chance to pummel the viewer with the outrage that gays feel in being excluded from the sanctity of marriage (an outrage that I share, BTW).

Both gays and straights had philosophical problems for different reasons with the elimination challenge. Not surprisingly, it was on the female side. Dudes just don’t care, even the gay ones.

What is it with scallops this season? Isn’t this the most accomplished group of food savants this side of Paris? First of all, scallops is what I would consider a “safe” dish, perhaps too safe to make a real impression on the judges, although I’ll have to say that judges always seem to go ga ga when a scallop is “perfectly cooked”. Damn, how hard is it to pan sear a scallop? Unless you’re distracted by shiny objects, it’s a breeze. Maybe all of the stainless steel is distracting our cheftestants.

The gay guy gets care of the orchids. He admits that gays grow better flowers than straights, but half-heartedly grumbles that he’s getting the fuzzy end of the stereotype lollipop. I’m straight and I’ve grown orchids pretty well in the past, so there! Besides – phalaenopsis – Easiest. Orchid. Ever. 

Brother on brother action. But not the type that you’d expect from Bravo.

Shame that nobody threw snake eyes. It would have been fun to see how someone would have dealt with that. Me? I’d probably do some sort of scallop dish. One pan-seared scallop as a base. Then I’d attempt to cut a scallop into a julienne and deep fry it until crunchy and brown. If it didn’t work from a flavor and texture standpoint, I’d discard, but if it did work, I’d nest a little bit of it on top of the scallop. Then I’d poach another scallop in fish sauce and water and slice it on the plate, drizzle with a little olive oil and a little sea salt and cracked pepper. I’d either prop up the slices against the seared scallop tee-pee style or lay them flat like playing cards fanned out next to the scallop. It would either fail miserably in terms of flavor but I’d get kudos for the effort or it would have worked perfectly.

Hmmmm, watermelon carpaccio.  It would have been more interesting if she had chosen watermelon seed carpaccio. Imagine shaving a few of those little buggers.

May I introduce to you Tom Collichio, Mafia hit man.

Gail Simmons is wearing my shower curtain for some reason.

Andy Cohen must have some salacious photos of Todd English to pry him away from QVC once a season.

When you marinate raw meat of any kind with any kind of acid, you’re actually chemically cooking it. As Tom points out, fresh tuna shouldn’t be marinated for more than about an hour. If you are marinating a big slab of beef, you’re free to marinate overnight, but not fresh fish that’s intended to be served rare. That’s why you can get away with it with ceviche because the seafood in ceviche is supposed to be “cooked”. Oh, by the way Jennifer, if you don’t stop pronouncing it “ceveech”, I think I’m going to throw a squid at the TV.

Leave the lettuce cups for P. F. Chang’s please.

A chips and guacamole “macaroon”? Inspired. HOWEVER – I’m surprised that Tom didn’t pull the same sort of linguistic “quibble” that he pulled on Casey a couple of seasons back when he blasted her for calling her dish coq au vin. That was no “macaroon”. While a macaroon certainly starts with something similar to a meringue (beaten egg whites), it adds coconut and/or almond paste to make a dense, chewy cookie, which is the exact opposite of his cookie. What it really was was a meringue cookie, which is exactly what he produced – something that was crisp on the outside with a melt-in-your-mouth middle.

If you aren’t an accomplished “pastry or dessert chef”, do dessert only as a last resort. Please. At least don’t admit to it at judge’s table. Your judgment will be questioned.

Eve and her knives are gone. See ya,

Eve