Food: Nothing is more reassuring than good coq au vin
Of all the chicken dishes we know and love, coq au vin remains one of the more endearing. The chicken takes on a flavour of fabulous depth, its texture becomes pleasingly wet and almost fudgy, and the sauce it languishes in is one that begs to be drunk with a big spoon.

All braised chicken dishes are pretty nice, actually. In the right hands, any old chook can be fashioned into something passable. Even a pasty, plastic-wrapped chicken is acceptable with some sleight-of-hand with the other ingredients, which can help to camouflage the poor creature's lack of pedigree.

The finest ingredients, however, will not always guarantee a perfect result: even something as illustrious as the poulet de Bresse (so classy it has its own appellation controlee) can be easily trashed. What the cook really needs is sensitivity - and courage.

Naturally, for the best results with the following recipes, I would expect you to search out quality poultry supported by impeccable back-up ingredients.

A good coq au vin deserves decent wine. This does not mean a gorgeous red burgundy from Joseph Drouhin, but nor does it mean a bog-thin wine from a factory in the Rhone valley. And Cognac, a little sherry or Madeira, good-quality vermouth such as Chambery, and even pastis can assist the flavour of a piece of poultry.

Simplicity is often key when it comes to braising poultry. One of the nicest examples is to simply stew some seasoned chicken joints in good butter or olive oil - and quietly is the instruction here; this is not going to be a fierce fry-up. Allow the meat to take on a golden sticky hue in the minimum amount of fat (there is plenty in chicken skin) until all the surfaces are sticky and crusted. Lift out the pieces and put to drain in a colander. Tip away the fat, return the joints to the pot, turn up the heat and add a glass of white wine - Alsatian is good here and makes for a fitting aperitif while cooking. Leave the wine to simmer gently around the chicken joints and put on a lid.

It is also worth mentioning that the best pots for these dishes are Le Creuset ware or similar. The thickness of the material is an excellent heat conductor for slow cooking - and they usually have a lid.

Once the chicken has been simmering for 10 minutes or so, add a touch more wine if you think it necessary. The finished "juice", though, should be syrupy and somewhat clinging to the meat. This is also the moment to add a nuance of complimentary flavour. Herbs, garlic, lemon are all eligible contenders. Parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil are the fines herbes, and all four would be appropriate. And any of these, particularly tarragon, can also stand on their own. Garlic is famously good with chicken - a few cloves need only be bruised within their skins and popped in (to be removed later, or not, depending on the nuance required). The lemon can be a few strips of pith-less zest, or just some juice - or both. The final addition, simply to add lustre to the juices, is a knob of butter, which should be swirled in once the chicken joints have been removed to a suitable serving dish. The cooking time, by the way, should be not much more than about 35-40 minutes.

There you have it. The following recipes are a little more grown up, but, essentially, still respect this customary formula.

Stewed quail with garlic, sage and pancetta, serves 4

The sometimes rather pointless quail becomes really quite special when treated in this manner. Incidentally, if you are ever lucky enough to come by fresh black truffles, then small chunks can be wrapped in a thin slice of pancetta and stuffed inside the bird's cavity with a scrap of garlic. Finish with wine and lemon juice as directed in the recipe. Omit the sage in this case, as its flavour is too assertive.

150g/5oz Italian pancetta, in the piece

1tbsp olive oil

sat and pepper

8 fresh quails

8 cloves garlic, peeled and bruised with the back of a knife

20 sage leaves

2 tbsp Cognac

1 small glass white wine

juice of 1 lemon

Remove the rind from the pancetta and cut the meat into large-ish cubes. Heat the oil in a heavy based and lidded pot (HBLP, from now on), and fry the pancetta until it turns a good colour. Remove to a plate. Season the quail and stuff each with a sage leaf and a clove of garlic. Turn them gently through the fat in the pot until golden. Add the cognac and light with a match. Pour in the wine and allow to bubble, then return the bacon to the pan. Put on a lid and simmer over a very low flame (use a heat diffuser pad if you have one) for 20 minutes.

Remove the birds and bacon to a dish and keep warm in a low oven. Set the pot on a high flame and reduce until all the winey juices have been driven off. Add the butter and allow to froth. Fry the remaining sage leaves until they crisp up somewhat. Pour in the lemon juice, which will violently sizzle, and immediately spoon over the quail. Serve at once, preferably with mashed potato or soft polenta.

Guinea fowl with mushrooms, celery and tarragon, serves 4

Fresh wild mushrooms are becoming more widely available, so if you manage to find some good specimens, feel free to use them in this recipe - the orange-coloured girolles would be particularly fitting. Cultivated mushrooms, however, are absolutely fine, but go for the slightly open-cupped variety, the

ones with a sort of browny-pink look about them.

And don't be tempted by those horrid shitake numbers. I think the flavour very odd and not worth the expense.

1 guinea fowl

salt and pepper

25g/1oz butter

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp Pernod

5 small and tender celery stalks, peeled

about 10 medium sized mushrooms, thickly sliced

1 large glass white wine

1 tbsp freshly chopped tarragon

squeeze of lemon

150ml/5 fl oz whipping cream

a few extra tarragon leaves

Remove the legs (drumstick and thigh in one piece) and breasts from the bird (make a good stock with the carcass). Separate the drumstick from the thigh with a sharp knife and cut the breasts into two roughly equal-sized pieces. Melt the butter and olive oil in an HBLP, season the guinea fowl and gently fry until golden. Tip away most of the fat and pour over the Pernod. Light with a match and allow the flames to die down. Remove the guinea fowl to a plate. Add the mushrooms and celery to the pan juices and gently stew for about 10 minutes until lightly coloured. Return the guinea fowl, pour over the wine and stir in the tarragon. Place over a very low flame, cover, and stew for about 30 minutes.

Now lift out the meat, place in a deep serving dish and keep warm in a low oven, covered with foil. Turn the heat to full and reduce the winey juices and vegetables until the surrounding liquid has become syrupy. Add a squeeze of lemon and stir in the cream. Bring to a simmer and cook until unctuous and of a coating consistency. Spoon over the guinea fowl and generously sprinkle with tarragon leaves. Serve with plainly boiled potatoes.

Coq au Vin, serves 4

Coq au vin is traditionally made with an older bird, where the length of cooking time is considerably longer, resulting in a rich, deeply flavoured stew. A pig's trotter or two may have been added for extra richness and the blood from the fowl would have been added towards the end to thicken the stew - as in a jugged hare. Here, however, the bird is a young chicken, cooked for less time but still tasting good and winey, comforting, and as memorable as ever.

1 bottle full-bodied, decent quality red wine

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

1 dsp redcurrant jelly

1 small onion, peeled and stuck with 2 cloves

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

4 cloves garlic, un-peeled and bruised

an extremely good chicken, weighing about 1.8kg/4lb maximum

salt and pepper

1 tbsp flour

25g/1oz butter

1 tbsp olive oil

3 tbsp Cognac

75g/3oz pancetta, cut into thick strips or cubes

20 button onions, peeled

20 button mushrooms

Put the first eight ingredients into a stainless steel or enamelled pot and bring to the boil. Reduce over a medium flame until reduced by half. Strain through a fine sieve and reserve.

Joint the chicken as described in the guinea fowl recipe and remove the skin. Season well and roll in the flour. Heat the butter and olive oil in an HBLP and saute the chicken until golden brown. Remove the meat to a plate and fry the bacon in the same fat until crisp. Put this with the chicken. Now tip the onions and mushrooms into the pot and stew them until well coloured - about 10 minutes.

Put back the chicken and bacon, turn up the heat and pour in the cognac. Set alight, allow the flames to die down and pour in the reduced wine. Shake about a bit, allowing everything to settle down, cover and put on to a very low heat. Simmer at a merest "blip" for about an hour. Once again, plain boiled potatoes are a fine accompaniment.

I often find that coq au vin tastes infinitely better re-heated the next day. This also allows for any fat that has collected on the surface to be easily removed, having solidified in the fridge

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