Growing up mostly in Florida, I was often asked by my school friends if I was American because of the meals we ate at home. Typical all-American hamburgers or pizza were only occasional treats for me. More often my family ate crepes or coq au vin, preserving our European roots.
My mother's family was from Lyon in the eastern part of France, an epicenter of gastronomy. She learned from both her mother and her grandfather’s cook (a Creole lady who had traveled extensively) about the different flavors and richness of the food from other countries. My father’s heritage was French, Basque, and Mediterranean, with a Scandinavian great-grandmother who had shared recipes with my paternal grandmother. As my mother grew up and went on to study in college, she balanced learning about biology and business while also acquiring an interest in cooking, and incorporating the culinary tastes of both branches of our family in our dinners.
Mom embodied French elegance without exaggeration. She was a “hats and scarves” lady throughout her life, and I couldn’t leave the house if my shoes and purse didn’t match, or wear a dress without stockings, even as a teen. She used to say, “Where are you going like that? Your grandma would have a heart attack if she saw you mismatched.” And there was no real perfume except French perfume. I was young when Mom took me to a perfume factory in Grasse to learn why the chemistry impacts the scent and how it is different on each person.
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity of travel to many places, immersing myself into various cultures, with the mandatory stop in France. (If we couldn’t go for some reason one year, Mom would take me to Montreal, as it was the closest French ambiance she and I needed.) Travel, and the multicultural nature of our family, instilled a value system of non-judgmental acceptance, erasing borders between countries and people, not seeing skin color or reacting to accents. And I always find interesting how historical invasions and migrations linked the foods from many places, influencing “local” cuisines.
So many photos from so many trips bring many memories, taking me back to that exact moment and what happened that day. There is a photo very dear to me of my mom standing on the Pont au Double across from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. After we took the photo (reluctantly since Mom did not like to pose for photos), it was breezy and a little cold, so we walked to a familiar restaurant nearby. I was thinking crepes and coffee, but Mom ordered the coq au vin. I quickly changed my order to match her choice after she asked when was the last time I’d had it. She remembered the best one at her grandfather’s home as a 13-year-old, made with fruity red wine and organic vegetables. It was considered impolite to talk at the table (her grandpa demanded very strict manners), but this was granddaughter visiting), and conversation flowed about her schoolwork and future goals. Mom had often talked about visiting her grandpa, but this time, as we sat in this cozy restaurant, her story seemed more nostalgic. Maybe because we were in France. Roots. Genes. Blood.
When the waiter brought the rich stew, Mom said it was just like the dish in her memories, and she smiled when asking if the cook was from Lyon because it was so good. “I am happy that it is like you remember it,” I said. “Grandma would love knowing that we are here.”
It was so long ago, but it is clear in my mind, this wonderful moment of mother and daughter enjoying a family favorite. I recently checked to see if that restaurant still existed; there is a more casual café with a different menu in the same location. We made that chicken many times, trying to copy the one we had that cold afternoon, and remember that enchanting moment. The finished meal may taste similar, but I will never be able to replicate that happy moment, only in my mind, as I wish I could share it one more time with Mom.
Ileana Canlas is a writer, university professor, consultant, and corporate manager who divides her time between Florida, New York, Europe, and Asia. She can be found at https://ileana.rocks.
Coq au Vin (Chicken Braised in Wine)
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh parsley
2 – 3 lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces
4 c. full-bodied red wine such as cabernet, shiraz, or merlot
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 T. olive oil
10 oz. pearl onions, peeled
10 oz. bacon or pancetta, diced
12 oz. button mushrooms, quartered
1/2 t. Greek seasoning mix
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 c. chicken stock
2 T. flour or cornstarch
optional: finely chopped parsley leaves
24 baby carrots
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 bay leaves
Tie thyme and parsley sprigs together with kitchen twine.
Combine wine, chicken, yellow onion, and herb bouquet in a bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap, and let marinate in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.
Drain chicken, onions, and bouquet, reserving onions and wine separately, and set aside.
Dry chicken thoroughly with paper towels.
Heat olive oil in a 6-qt. Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
Add pearl onions, and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned and tender, about 8 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon to drain fat, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Fry bacon for about 8 minutes until browned, and remove to a plate lined with paper towels.
Add mushrooms to pot, and cook, stirring, until they release all their moisture and brown lightly, about 8 minutes.
Transfer to bowl with pearl onions.
Rub chicken with Greek seasoning mix, salt and pepper, and add to pot with 1 T. butter.
Cook chicken, turning once, until browned on both sides, about 10 minutes.
Transfer to a plate, and set aside.
Add drained yellow onions to pot, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 10 minutes.
Add flour, and cook, stirring, until smooth, about 2 minutes.
Stir in reserved wine and chicken stock, then return chicken to pot along with bouquet of herbs.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, covered and stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove from heat, and stir in pearl onions and mushrooms.
Garnish with cooked bacon and parsley.
Serve with French bread, rice, or mashed potatoes, and roasted vegetables–and a glass of nice French wine.