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Fake Coq au Vin
John Tullock

Want a quick, easy and elegant dish for unexpected holiday guests? I made this in a panic after a full Sunday of shopping, when out-of-town friends called to say they were stopping by to leave Christmas gifts. The chicken was purchased at the market on the way home. Everything else was in the pantry. Why not just use red wine and make the classic dish? Here in Tennessee wine is unavailable on Sundays, and the cellar was empty, as well. Guess what I want for Christmas, Santa.

I keep chopped onions, carrots and celery on hand when I am in the mood for European food. They keep, covered tightly and refrigerated, at least a week. While stored cut vegetables are not too impressive on their own, they are entirely satisfactory for creating complex sauces like the one in this classic ragout. Even if you have to chop them to order, total prep and cooking time for this recipe is less than one hour.

Having a vegetable production business makes it easy for me to serve this with a salad of crisp, fresh greens. This time of year, high quality salad greens are available in most markets because of prevailing cool weather. Besides all types of lettuces, radicchio, sorrel, mache, tatsoi, mizuna, curly endive, Belgian endive, beet tops, and mustards are all good choices. Taste the greens individually, and try to arrive at a pleasing combination of tastes, colors and textures. Besides the mild, buttery taste of lettuce, you will find that greens are bitter, sour, pungent, sweet or spicy, depending upon species, maturity and cultural techniques (such as blanching). Colors can range from nearly white to dark maroon. Regardless of the types you choose, wash them in several changes of cold water, dry in a salad spinner, and store in a recloseable plastic bag in the refrigerator. Drop a plain white paper towel into the bag to absorb excess moisture. They will keep about a week with this treatment.

Maintain the French theme of the meal by tossing the greens with some garlic croutons (make them in the oven while the chicken is simmering) and a simple vinaigrette. End the meal with the easy fresh pear dessert I suggest, and you cannot fail to make a favorable culinary impression on family or friends.

Johnís Fake Coq au Vin

To serve four you will need:

2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms (see Note)
12 ounces boneless, skinless, chicken breast tenders, or whole breast cut into strips
flour for dredging the chicken pieces
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped carrot
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and left whole
1 whole pod of cayenne pepper
2 cups beef stock, fresh or canned
fresh or dried thyme leaves
2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar

Cover the porcini with boiling water and soak for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. (Strain the liquid through a coffee filter to remove sediment, if necessary.) Chop the soaked mushrooms into small pieces. Combine the strained liquid and the chopped mushrooms and reserve.

Note: If you do not have dried porcini, substitute about 1/4 cup of chopped canned button mushrooms and 1/2 cup of their liquid. Chopped fresh mushrooms are also fine. If using fresh mushrooms, add them along with the onions, carrots and celery, so that their juices will be released.

Rinse the chicken, pat dry and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until it is almost smoking. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and fry them in the hot oil until lightly browned, turning once. As the pieces are cooked, transfer them to paper towels to drain. Reduce the heat, add the onions, carrots and celery and saute until the onion is translucent. Add the shallot, the garlic and the cayenne pepper pod, and saute until the vegetables are tender, about 2 minutes. Add the porcini and their soaking liquid. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Return the chicken pieces to the pot, add the stock, a big pinch of dried thyme or 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, and the vinegar. Bring to a boil. Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce is reduced to about 1/2 cup.

Using tongs, transfer the chicken to individual serving plates. Spoon the sauce over the chicken, garnish with minced fresh parsley or a tiny sprig of fresh thyme, and serve at once. Plain buttered potatoes makes a great side dish.

For dessert, may I suggest this simple oven-poached pear?

Pear Halves Poached in Apple Juice

For four servings, slice two fresh pears in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a melon baller, and place the pears, cut sides down, in an oven proof dish large enough to hold all four pieces in one layer. Sprinkle with sugar, and a light dusting of ground cinnamon. Pour enough apple juice in the dish to come about one-half inch up the sides of the pears. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the juice. Place in a preheated 375 degree oven for about half an hour, or until the apple juice is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Serve with or without ice cream, spooning some of the apple syrup over each serving. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns "Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants and fine food products.

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