Coq Au Smoke

October 4th, 2009

image: Pablo Picasso

There once was a chicken, silver and gray.  It was broody and uncooperative at our friends’ farm.  We got it for free; we thought a change of scenery might help it.  But in sixteen months it never laid one egg.  Worse, it became tangled up in an underground egg-eating ring — a ring that we recently busted.

I am a licensed poultry farmer in Multnomah County, but I am not the operator of a sanctuary for troubled chickens.  I cut that chicken’s head off last Tuesday, plucked and eviscerated it, and began fantasizing of fine cuisine.  So it goes.

Older chickens are tough — they are nothing like the happy-go-lucky teenage chickens you meet in supermarkets.  Old birds must be cooked long and slow, to break down the interlocking structure of the muscle tissues.  The traditional French prescription for this is Coq Au Vin — Rooster In Wine.  The bird is stewed in a bath of red wine and vegetables at low heat for about eight hours, becoming a thick and delicious chicken ragout, served over egg noodles.

I had a theory, thought, that smoking the chicken might also work, in the way it works for brisket.  Brisket is old and tough, and smoking seems to make it perfect.  I don’t know much about meat — I was a vegetarian until about two years ago — but something I read in On Food And Cooking got me convinced that this would work.

A friend of mine — I’ll call him Ripley — runs a pretty large meat-smoking operation, and yesterday afternoon I managed to sneak the bird into his smoker when he wasn’t looking.  Three and a half hours later, it smelled great, tasted wonderful … but was still impossible to chew.  And Ripley warned me it would get dry as a stick if it spent any more time in there.

Oh well, live and learn.

So last night I brought that smoky, wooden chicken home in a box.  This morning, I am attempting Plan B: Coq Au Smoke.  I will stew an already smoked chicken, in the classic French style, and find out what that’s like.

As I was assembling the dish I realized that, today at least, every ingredient has a story.  Except maybe for the onions, celery and carrots: their story is boring; they came from a store.  But for instance, the mushrooms we foraged last monday in the Gifford Pinchon National Forest.  White Chanterelles, fantastic things, and usually quite rare.  But some friends discovered an infestation of them while bike camping last weekend, and we now have a freezer full.  The bay leaves, meanwhile, came from the bay tree we planted in the back yard eight years ago.  The tomatoes were grown by my mother, in the raised beds I built her.  (We grow tomatoes too, but these particular tomatoes are Mom’s.)  I sauteed the mushrooms and onions in fat from the chickens we slaughtered last year.  For wine, I used two bottles from an execrable case of Charles Shaw Cabernet — 2001, as if that matters —  gifted to me by master chef James Elisalda under the solemn promise that I would never attempt to pour him any.  It’s sour, raisiny stuff, but perfect for stewing a chicken.

September was harvest season in the Pacific Northwest, and Portland in particular had bumper crops of everything this year.  Wines and ciders of all kinds are bubbling away in my basement and the basements of my friends, and our freezers are bulging with fruit and tomatoes and berries and salmon and sturgeon.  We’ve had a long, hot, lovely summer, and this month I’ve been constantly reminded of how very lucky we are to live in this place, what a bountiful, delicious natural world we’ve found.

I don’t know if my habit of raising, hunting or dumpster-diving my own food is really any cheaper or healthier than shopping in a store, or even if it’s any more delicious than what the grocer sells, but it’s always educational and utterly enjoyable, and I just keep wading deeper into it.  I feel myself sliding down a slippery slope, with some kind of small farm at the bottom.

My ancestors were mostly farmers.  Actually, most people’s ancestors were mostly farmers.  But my Dad in particular grew up on a farm in North Dakota, far from cities of any size.  He invested me with the ethic we call DIY: he taught me that it’s always worth trying to do something yourself.  On the farm there are no specialists to call — no chefs, no plumbers, no vintners, no mechanics, no builders, no agricultural scientists.  The farmer has to do it all, and the judge of a farmer is how well he or she navigates all that complexity.  Dad left the farm to become a sculptor, mathematician and medical writer, but still he built all his own furniture, did all his own home and car repairs, and coaxed a thriving indoor garden to life in the depths of the Minneapolis winter.  Meanwhile my uncle Edwin is still out there in North Dakota, farming that same acreage all by himself.

I don’t crave the loneliness of modern farming, or the tiny margins on which farmers must survive.  But I love to have my hands in things: growing them, building them, watching them evolve and live and even die.  Writing and computer programming, my two main forms of income, really don’t offer much of that.  So we have this tiny little farm in our yard, and every year we give it as much attention as we can spare — never enough, really — and every fall it rewards us.  Thank you, yard.  Thank you, chickens.  Thank you, forests.  Thank you, salmon.  Thank you, friends.  Thank you, world.

8 Responses to “Coq Au Smoke”

  1. ayam Says:

    I’m dying to hear how it turned out!

  2. Mort Minton Says:

    Great tale Mykle, and timely for this bountiful booty-full season.
    I wish you well of your chicken ragout.
    I saw a fair amount of the white chantrelles at the farmer’s market yesterday – and it surprised me. I find that ‘white chantrelles’ is usually a euphemism for some other kind of ‘shroom – a wanna-be chantrelle. But indeed they were chanties, and pale as a drowned princess.
    Also, I much admire the chicken drawing at the top of this page.
    Who’s hand brought that into the world – your talented wife? Or even yourself? (Mr. DIY)..

  3. Sheila Says:

    Great story. Sorry that broody chicken never laid an egg. I swear I didn’t know! But sounds like it was worth it one way or another.

  4. mykle Says:

    Ralph: I’d love to take credit for that chicken, but it’s a Picasso. =)

  5. Kevin Shamel Says:

    I like you so much, Mykle. There’s enough love in that Coq Au Smoke to make it delightful, no matter how tough it turns out.

  6. Coq Au Smoke « Famous Author Mykle Hansen Says:

    […] at my other blog: an ode to autumn suppertime in the Pacific Northwest. October 4th, 2009 | Category: Other reading […]

  7. raquel Says:

    Well, either you are back drinking coffee or you are getting out the sluggish uninspired mode of your ### posts. It feels like you were in some kind of inner winter mode and now you are blossoming with the garden, the mushrooms and the chickens! Glad to hear you are back to life – this was an awesome posting to read. Have a great dinner!

  8. mykle Says:

    Update: it was delicious! I couldn’t really detect the smoke flavor, but my guests said they could. Still, it was tops.

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