Cook, Memory

Recipes are curious: performed partly in the vocative case and a (gently) imperative voice, put together from clearly understood influences and forebears, but also personal and idiosyncratic. This one for coq au vin is assembled from different sources (I’ve folded together approaches and influences from two Julia Child versions, Cook’s Illustrated, Anthony Bourdain, and Craig Claiborne), but the inspiration and first source is my mother, Ann Irvine. It was one of my favorite dishes that she made, and she made it in a variety of ways: sometimes, for a dinner party, in a long, elaborate preparation (though perhaps not as long or elaborate as what follows); other times, she seemed like she could put it together in less than an hour for a family dinner on a weeknight, in a preparation that probably owed quite a bit to the tattered and wine-stained Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that was her standard. In any case, her method was relaxed, and usually involved a glass of red wine in hand or on the counter nearby. That relaxed feel is how I like to approach the following recipe, which serves eight. What follows can take you three days, if you like. It’s not much work if you spread it out. Go slowly and enjoy yourself. Have a glass of wine.

1.5 bottles Oregon Pinot or something similar, with some fruit to it
1.5 large diced onions
2 carrots, sliced .25 inches thin
1 celery rib, sliced .5 inches thin
2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon black pepper
3 pounds skin-on chicken thighs; 1.5 pounds chicken breasts; 1.5 pounds chicken drumsticks
.5 cup pureed tomatoes
2.5 cups chicken stock

Combine all above ingredients except for the chicken stock and marinate overnight, turning occasionally. Remove the chicken and strain the liquids from the solids, reserving all. Boil the red wine with the chicken stock (I supplement store-bought with some of the homemade from my freezer) about 20 minutes until reduced by about a cup. Set aside.

12 slices of bacon
2 chopped shallots
4 finely minced garlic cloves
2 tablespoons butter

In a wide, flat-bottomed pot or pan (a dutch oven works; you’re looking for about 8 quarts’ capacity, but in something not as narrow as a stock pot), fry 12 slices of bacon over medium high heat until golden brown. Set bacon aside on paper towels to drain grease. Brown chicken pieces in bacon fat over medium heat for 4 minutes per side, making sure you scrape up as many of the brown bits as you can. Set chicken and brown bits aside. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to fat. Add reserved wine-marinated vegetables and chopped shallots and garlic. Brown 10 minutes over medium-low heat. (If your pan is not large enough to brown all the vegetables at once, don’t steam or sauté them: instead, reserve half the bacon fat and one tablespoon of butter and brown half a batch of vegetables at a time.) When vegetables are cooked, transfer them to a fine mesh colander or sieve and press them with a spoon, draining the fat and grease that has stuck to them, and then transfer them to paper towels to try and further absorb as much of the excess grease from them as possible. There should be some of the butter/fat mixture left in the pot: pour 2 tablespoons of it into a separate wide, flat-bottomed sauté pan and discard the rest. Deglaze the 8-quart large pot with the wine mixture and add the chicken and cooked vegetables and simmer partly covered for 50 minutes, turning the chicken once.

16 ounces white or baby bella mushroom caps (halved or quartered if large)
16 ounces thawed frozen pearl onions
.25 cup brandy

In the sauté pan, cook pearl onions in the butter/fat mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes until golden brown. Add mushrooms and cook uncovered for 5-7 minutes until mushrooms give up their juices. Stir in .25 cup of brandy and cook 2-3 more minutes. Set onions and mushrooms aside with bacon. Remove the chicken from the large pot and set aside as well.

Strain the red wine sauce with vegetables through a fine mesh strainer into a metal bowl, mashing the vegetables against the mesh with a spoon to get the liquid out. Discard the vegetables. Chill the bowl of sauce in the refrigerator for at least 6-8 hours until the fat solidifies at the top. Skim off the fat and reserve. Measure how much sauce is left with a cup measure and let return to room temperature.

For each cup of sauce, you will combine 1 tablespoon of flour with 1 tablespoon reserved fat or butter in equal proportions into a roux in the large pot. Melt the fat and butter over medium high heat until bubbly, and then add flour 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring constantly, until you have equal amounts butter/fat mixture and flour and the roux turns the color of a penny and starts to smell nutty. Add the wine sauce all at once and whisk together until combined and smooth and cook slowly for 5 minutes. Add the chicken and cook slowly over medium-low heat until warmed through.

Here you have a choice: you can add the mushrooms and onions and cook for another 10 minutes and serve immediately with the bacon crumbled over, or you can let the dish sit in the refrigerator (for 8 hours or overnight), warm slowly over medium-low heat until warmed through, and then add the mushrooms and onions and cook for the last 10 minutes and crumble the bacon over that way and serve. It’ll be good in either case, but many people say that coq au vin tastes best the day after it’s made. The standard, and my mother’s way, was to serve it over buttered egg noodles, but I like it also with a mix of brown and wild rice. Serve with a wine that will complement what you cooked with rather than reinforce it: not too oaky or tannic, and while the cooking will have mellowed the fruitiness of the wine you used, you’ll still want something either spicy or earthy; a good California Zinfandel, or maybe a Côtes du Rhône or (if you didn’t use one to cook with) of course a Burgundy.

Memory does what it does. However complex or elaborate or rich I make this recipe in its ten years (so far) of attempts and revisions, it’ll never be the same as the coq au vin that I remember as Ann Irvine’s. That’s OK, though, and is as any recipe should be. If I do this well, and share it in the way that cooking should be shared, both the dish and the doing (glass of wine in your hand or on the counter nearby) will be good, and might pass along, reader, to you.

Sushi, Deconstructed

So it’s Friday night and we haven’t had fish in a while and L. picks up filets and it’s up to me to cook and I’m thinking I need something that’s quick, easy, and uses up some of the lettuces in our crisper and the leftover cilantro, and I amazed myself a little.

Set rice cooking on the stove with a little seasoning and olive oil.
Chop and mix the greens and dress with a tiny bit of vinaigrette.
Spice four thin filets on both sides with Mrs. Dash and put on the grill pan on high.
While the filets sear for two minutes per side, mix up some mirin, nam pla, molasses, sriracha, and soy sauce.
Pile the greens on plates, then the rice, then the fish, then drizzle with the sauce.

That’s it: sushi, cooked and deconstructed and ridiculously easy. The only thing missing in between the fish and the rice was some tamago (I could have used ramekins to microwave little quarter-cup rounds of egg) and pickled ginger. Healthy, delicious, and I totally made it up on the spur of the moment. (As I reminded L. several times, enthusiastically: “I made this!”)

The Luxury of Revision

I enjoy cooking. These days, with what feel like ever-increasing obligations in my work schedule and my increasingly long days at work, one of my low-key, relaxed pleasures remains experimenting with recipes, trying things out, refining them. And I wish the way I taught, the way I ask students to write, matched up better with the way I cook.

It starts with when I want something, with desire: when I’ve got a taste in my head, or an ingredient I want to work with. Lately, it’s been fish soup — not quite chowder, but close — and I’ve been coming at it from different directions, most of them involving Thai and Vietnamese flavors. So for the first draft, I tinkered with onion and garlic and sesame oil, fish broth, catfish, potatoes, green vegetables. Not good: the textures were terrible. The flavor of the broth was right, at least. So I regrouped, cooked the vegetables separately from the broth, used clam juice and curry paste and lime juice, added scallions and basil and cilantro at the end. Still not there: the broth is again the best part, but too many different vegetables are distracting, though it’s a gloriously green soup. Better than the first version, at least, in that it’s worth keeping and will feed me for a couple days. But too spiciness and citrus obscures the seafood flavors. I’m almost there, and I’ll try again in a week or two, reducing and focusing the base, making it simpler, making the accent notes work together.

I wish my students had the luxury of that extended process in their writing. I’ve tried to plan it into the course, to make it available, but when I write, I know that availability and desire without time — or any of those terms without the other — are often and too easily a recipe for 1-2-3 casseroles and tupperware leftovers. When I cook, I can come back to it because I want to.

Where’s the place for the student who makes the burnt dish and then makes the same burnt dish again? Sure: I need Shaughnessy and Bartholomae helping me with the recipes. Part of it is certainty and vocabulary, making a roux, roasting the spices, knowing when to deglaze; part of it’s knowing what ingredients you like to pull from. But the most important part, I think, is knowing what you want. What you’ve got a taste for: desire.

Lately, I’ve felt like I don’t know how to teach that last thing.

Hoppin’ John

New Year’s Day dinner, with its accompanying football games, is a family ritual that I’ve missed since moving to New England. For me, cornbread on New Year’s Day is important, as are the hog-flavored black-eyed peas with onion that one eats for good luck in the coming year.

One of the first dishes my mom showed me how to make was Hoppin’ John, with its rice and meat and black-eyed peas, and I make it in years when I’m away from my family on New Year’s Day.

1 cup dried black-eyed peas
1 pound sausage
1 vidalia onion, chopped
1.5 cups dried white rice
0.5 teaspoon ground black pepper
0.5 teaspoon cayenne
0.5 teaspoon cumin
0.5 teaspoon thyme, rosemary, or sage
0.5 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf

Soak washed peas in cold water overnight.

Brown the sausage over medium-high heat. Set aside and reserve the liquids. Cook onion in the sausage liquids for 6-8 minutes over medium heat, until the onion turns translucent. Add powdered spices while the onion cooks.

Add 6 cups water and bay leaf and sausage and bring to a boil. Boil 10 minutes and add peas. Keep at a low boil for 25 minutes, uncovered, until peas are almost tender. Add rice and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Stop cooking. Remove from heat, keeping the lid on, for 5 minutes. Toss with fork and serve hot.

That’s the basic recipe, at least. I’ve got some shrimp shells that will help flavor the 6 cups of water when I make a broth today, and some cilantro that I’ll add at the last 5 minutes.

Happy New Year to you, reader. I hope the stroke of midnight finds you with money in your pocket and someone in your arms.

Christmas Pudding

From the recipe of Janet Klink Irvine, my mother’s grandmother.

2 cups grated carrots
2 cups grated potatoes
2 cups sifted flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 pinches of salt
.75 teaspoon nutmeg
.75 teaspoon cloves
.75 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix baking soda with grated potatoes. Combine mixture with grated carrots. Coat walnuts and raisins with flour. Add flour, then coated walnuts and raisins to the mixture. Add spices and mix thoroughly.

Spoon into a well-greased mold. Steam in the top of a double boiler for three hours.

May be cooked the day before: remove from mold and cool. Wash and grease mold, then store the pudding in the mold ready to reheat and serve hot with hard sauce. Serves twelve.

Hard sauce:

.5 cup soft butter
2 tablespoons brandy
3 cups sifted powdered sugar

Combine and blend with electric mixer at lowest speed, then at medium speed until fluffy. Chill. Makes 1.5 cups.

Improvised Faux Indian

I decided it was time to do some refrigerator- and pantry-cleaning tonight, and the results came out surprisingly well. I’m not sure what one would call this — it’s not palak paneer, because of the potatoes, but it’s not aloo palak, because of the cheese. In any case, it’s easy, and it’s good.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

.25 teaspoons cumin
.25 teaspoons coriander
.25 teaspoons cardamom
.25 teaspoons black pepper
.25 teaspoons cinnamon
.25 teaspoons cloves
.25 teaspoons nutmeg
.25 teaspoons cayenne or chipotle powder
.5 teaspoons curry powder

.5 cup vegetable broth
1 cup water

1 large onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 medium potatoes, cubed

8 ounces cottage cheese (or paneer, of course)
4 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves

Melt the butter over medium heat until it begins to bubble. (Land O’ Lakes really is the best, with the least milk solids of any brand I’ve used.) Mix all the spices together, thoroughly, with your fingers. Add half — only half — of the spices to the melted butter and brown them for about five to seven minutes. Add the onion and sauté for 4-5 minutes, until it starts to become translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another 2 minutes.

Pour in the vegetable broth and water, deglazing the pan, and add the other half of the spices. Add the potatoes and bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until potatoes are almost (but not quite) done.

Half-mash the potatoes with a wooden spoon or potato masher — leave some big chunks, because they’re going to cook a bit longer. Increase heat to medium and add cottage cheese and spinach. Stir and cook uncovered for another 6-8 minutes, until the texture is thick and the spinach is wilted.

Serve hot. And somebody tell me what I should call it.

More from the Recipe File

Monday’s the day when I make the decision — or the decision gets made for me — as to where I’m going in the fall as Professor Edwards. I like one alternative more, but it’s less likely, and to be frank, the choices to be had are excellent. I didn’t get my “reach” school — and I probably shouldn’t have expected to, though that’s a hard thing to tell oneself — but I was a very fortunate job candidate.

Until Monday, food to enjoy; one of those rare recipes to which I know I’ll continue to return. Although overall start-to-finish time is four and a half hours, actual cooking-effort prep time is maybe ten minutes, max: the rest is just time spent doing other things; reading, grading papers, and the like. And they’ll come out as the best OMG juicy and tender pork chops you’ve ever had.


2-4 boneless pork chops, 0.75 to 1 inch thick (don’t get the thin-cut)
1 small onion, sliced thin into rings
2 bay leaves
10 peppercorns
3 cloves
3 tablespoons white sugar or brown sugar
3 tablespoons coarse salt
2 cups hot (nearly boiling) water
1 cup cold water
3 tablespoons strong-flavored hard liquor — bourbon, scotch, sambuca, or what-have-you; the meat will soak up the flavor
2 tablespoons walnut, hazelnut, or vegetable oil
1 cup combination liquid sauces of your choice, as long as they’re not too salty (Thai peanut sauce, Teriyaki sauce, barbecue sauce, Chili sauce, liquid wasabi, honey, et cetera)

Put the pork chops into a dish that’ll allow them to lie flat and three cups of liquid to cover them completely. Arrange the onion, bay leaves, peppercorns, and cloves on top of them.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, and nearly boiling water until the sugar and salt dissolve. Then whisk in the cold water, liquor, and oil and combine well. Pour over the pork chops. Put the dish with the pork chops into the refrigerator and chill for two hours, turning the chops every hour.

After two hours, pour off one cup of the brine, and add the 1 cup of liquid sauces. Marinate for another two hours, turning the chops twice.


2 tablespoons oil, melted butter, or melted margarine for egg mixture
2 tablespoons oil, melted butter, or melted margarine for pan
1 beaten egg
2 tablespoons milk, beer, water, or broth
0.5 teaspoon black pepper
0.5 teaspoon cumin
0.5 teaspoon curry powder
1 cup self-rising cornbread mix
2 tablespoons flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil, butter, or margarine into a clean baking pan big enough for the chops.

Mix together the dry ingredients (spices, flour, cornbread mix) in a separate pan big enough to dredge the chops through.

In a bowl, whisk together all the remaining liquid ingredients: the oil or melted butter or margarine, the beaten egg, and the milk or beer or water or broth. It should be thick enough to stick to and coat the chops. Dip the chops into the egg mixture, covering them entirely.

Then dredge the chops through the dry ingredients, covering them well but shaking off the excess.

Bake in oiled pan at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn chops gently, not losing the breading, and cook for 10 more minutes, until both sides are golden brown. Let stand for 3 minutes and enjoy while hot.

Probably best with a big grassy fruit-bomb Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc.

You did save a bottle, didn’t you?

Cooking Doro Wat

Inspired by Derek, I ordered some berbere spice and koseret from, and tonight I’m making Doro Wat, a spicy Ethiopian chicken stew. Like Derek, I love the stuff; along with Coq au Vin and Hoppin’ John, it’s one of my favorite dishes ever. Unfortunately, I’m not yet brave enough to try making the injera (soft flat pan-bread) with which it’s traditionally supposed to be served, so I’m committing the sacrilege of serving it with soft tortillas: terrible, I know. My recipe’s a little different from Derek’s (and I’m definitely going to have to try it his way), so I thought I might share it here. This uses 6 pounds of chicken, so serves plenty, but it’s easily halved, especially if you just put the unused portion of niter kebbeh in the freezer for next time. The berbere and koseret can be ordered from, and koseret is substitutable; Googling will find you plenty of good recipes for homemade berbere.

1. Start by making niter kebbeh, the spiced clarified butter that’s a staple of so much excellent Ethiopian cooking.

1 cup (16 tablespoons, or 2 sticks) unsalted butter. (Land O’ Lakes is by far the best, because it has the least milk solids; it really does make a difference.)
2 tablespoons koseret (Dried Lippia Javanica, an African relative of lemon verbena — probably the easiest substitute is basil.)
.5 teaspoon cardamom
.5 teaspoon fenugreek
.5 teaspoon dried onion
.25 teaspoon turmeric
.25 teaspoon garlic powder
.25 teaspoon ginger
.25 teaspoon cinnamon
.25 teaspoon cloves

Cut the butter into small pieces so it’ll melt faster. Melt over very low heat and add spices. Let simmer (it should be bubbling, but barely) for 40 minutes or so, stirring often; the goal is to toast the spices without scorching the butter. Pour through a fine strainer and set the clear, liquid clarified butter aside; discard the solids from the strainer.

2. Marinate the chicken.

6 pounds chicken parts (I was more lazy than frugal tonight and bought boneless skinless chicken thighs.)
.5 cup lemon juice
3 teaspoons salt

Set it in the fridge to marinate for 30 minutes.

3. Make the berbere sauce.

.5 to .75 cup berbere powder, depending on how spicy you like it.
.5 to .75 cup dry red wine (I say use the cheapest stuff you can find, but stay away from that nasty supermarket salted cooking wine.)
.5 cup vegetable oil (I like canola oil best because it’s hard to burn and relatively tasteless.)

Combine in a small saucepan and heat to bubbling. Stir and remove from heat.

4. Put it all together.

6 sweet yellow spanish or vidalia onions, finely chopped (1 onion per pound of chicken.)
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped (1 clove per pound of chicken.)
.25 cup paprika (Yeah. That’s a lot of paprika. Probably best to use the mild variety the first time out, though I’ve been playing with substituting some of the spicy stuff, or some chipotle chili pepper, for part of the amount.)
1 cup water or chicken stock
.5 cup dry red wine
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon chipotle or cayenne pepper

Heat the niter kebbeh and add the berbere sauce and paprika. Cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Add onion and garlic and sautee for 5 minutes, until the onion loses its raw smell. Add wine, chicken (with the marinade), spices, and water or stock. Cover and simmer 30-60 minutes or until chicken is tender and coming apart (you might help separate it with a fork, to make grabbing it with the injera or tortillas easier), stirring occasionally and adding water (or, as mine turned out tonight, removing the lid and letting it cook down for 15 minutes at a time if it’s too thin) as necessary to get the sauce to the consistency of cream.

For added authenticity, you could add whole hard-boiled eggs (1 per pound of chicken, pierced to the yolk with the tines of a fork) 10 minutes before it’s done, but I usually don’t bother: it’s good enough without them. It is, however, very spicy, with a sort of sustained heat that may startle folks whose familiarity with spicy foods has been primarily in the context of Latin American or Asian cuisines.

Three-Day Summer Soup

Start by taking those bags of bones out of your freezer. Maybe you’ve got a couple gallon ziplocs, one with a bone from a picnic ham, some bones from steaks and pork chops and lamb shanks you’ve saved, another with a chicken or duck carcass and some turkey drumsticks. Put them in a good-sized pot, maybe eight or ten quarts. Add a couple bay leaves, some fenugreek, black pepper, cumin, sage, thyme. Fill it about three quarters of the way up with water. Put the cover on and keep it at a low boil for three hours or so. You’ll lose some water; that’s fine.
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