Cold winter nights were made for coq au vin.
France's simmered-in-wine chicken classic, fortified with bacon, mushrooms and onions, follows a fairly basic stovetop technique. Depending upon the recipe, it can come together quickly, or with some effort.
I've made it the cheater way, utilizing a plastic oven bag, and I've tried a Crock-Pot version. Both fell into the not-awful side of the rate-a-dish spectrum, hardly a ringing endorsement.
I've followed a white wine-formula from "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- the end result was certainly prettier, but it wasn't as winter weather-satisfying.
Julie Child's rendition, from her landmark "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was of course delicious, but a few time-consuming steps didn't exactly make it fuss-free. Less complicated -- but ultimately less flavor-filled -- was a pared-down variation by Mark Bittman, he of "The Minimalist" fame.
When January rolls around, the recipe that I've come to rely upon -- the one that springs to mind each time I spy the Dutch oven in our kitchen -- is from an increasingly tattered and wine-spattered six-year-old edition of Cook's Illustrated magazine.
The story follows a typical CI narrative. After yanking apart the dish's key components, writer Sandra Wu gets busy, tinkering and streamlining, with the goal of enhancing flavor rather than merely maintaining the status quo.
Among many smart ideas, she replaces a cut-up fryer with boneless thighs, taking advantage of the cut's rich taste and moist texture. Wu wisely eliminates the fuss of preparing pearl onions by using frozen ones, and she combines and reduces the wine and chicken stock in a separate saucepan. Smart.
Sure enough, in trademark Cook's Illustrated fashion, Wu's formula is basically foolproof. As it cooks, the kitchen is perfumed by the scent of bacon, onions and wine, a truly hunger-inducing scent, and in less than 90 minutes there's an easygoing yet impressive supper.
An inexpensive red wine does the trick, and I like to embellish it by adding twice the amount of thyme, parsley and bay leaf. I'm usually a little more generous with the amount of bacon fat that I use to fry the chicken. And the amount of chicken is fairly flexible; I've made it using three pounds, and it turned out just fine, with the added bonus of more leftovers.
Serve it with parsley-dressed potatoes, or rice. At our house, we usually pair it with the buttery, golden rice pilaf that my partner Robert learned how to make from his late mother, Catherine David.
"I've been making this pilaf since I was probably seven years old," he said. "When I was growing up, we had it every Sunday." One taste, and you'll know why. It's terrific, and a perfect complement to coq au vin.
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