WND – The Quest for Pearl Onions

May 14, 2009

carrots & celery

The things that I can and can’t find in my local grocery store never cease to bemuse me.  I went in search of frozen pearl onions this week because peeling fresh pearl onions is for the birds.  I did not anticipate that this would become a quest and would turn out to be the most complicated part of making Coq au Vin.  I blithely assumed that every grocery store would have 12 oz bags of frozen pearl onions.  Oh how wrong I was.

I stopped by my local Stop-n-Shop on Saturday to pick up cat food, paper towels, and frozen pearl onions.  I got the cat food and the paper towels, but no pearl onions.  They had frozen chopped onions, pearl onions in cream sauce, onions and peas, chopped green beans, chopped broccoli, three varieties of frozen spinach, but not plain pearl onions.  I sighed the sigh of someone who has run up against the vagaries of our local Stop-n-Shop before and been flummoxed  by the weeks they were out of unsalted butter, the month they stopped carrying yellow corn meal, and their bizarre insistence that their supplier won’t send them ‘some pulp’ orange juice.

On Monday night I stopped by the small Greek grocery store that’s more or less my way home.  I wasn’t really expecting them to have frozen pearl onions, but I thought I’d check just in case.  They also had onions in cream sauce, and frozen chopped onions (I’ve never found chopping onions so onerous that I’d be willing to by frozen ones, but to each his own).  They also had a variety of interesting looking frozen Greek things which in other circumstances I might have found intriguing, but in this case were merely yet more things that were not frozen pearl onions.

Tuesday night I went to the other grocery store in town – the one with the slightly sketchy vegetables, but with the actually helpful store manager – to see if they had frozen pearl onions.  I scoped out the freezer case – corn, onions in cream sauce (I had no idea they were so popular), okra (really?), broccoli, yet more spinach in a variety of forms – and then finally, on the bottom shelf, half hidden by bags of carrots and peas was a lone bag of pearl onions.  I narrowly refrained from crowing in triumph.

I still don’t understand why frozen pearl onions are such a rare commodity.  I can’t be the only person who finds peeling pearl onions tedious, and yet still wants to add them to stew.  Can I?


Coq Au Vin


Coq Au Vin

chopped carrots

Coq au Vin is one of those recipes that Julia Child brought to America in the 1960s and demonstrated on camera why people shouldn’t be afraid of it just because it was French.  This is not actually Julia Child’s recipe, and I suspect that this is actually a lot more complicated than her recipe given the number of pots, pans and bowls that I got dirty in the process of making it.

Traditionally Coq au Vin is made with the meat of a rooster.  Apparently the tougher connective tissue in a rooster gives the sauce a better flavor.  The long cooking time also gives the tougher meat a chance to tenderize.  However, unless you live on a farm or keep chickens in your backyard you’re probably never going to have to worry about how to tenderize a rooster.  For those of us who buy our chicken in plastic wrapped packages – and while I theoretically know how to pluck a chicken, I’m just as happy to never learn how closely theory resembles practice – you don’t actually have to stew your chicken meat for upwards of an hour for it to be tender, but the wine sauce sure tastes good when you do.

This is not strictly speaking a complicated recipe.  It is, however, very time consuming and dish intensive.  I was perhaps overly optimistic last Thursday when I decided that it was the perfect thing to serve at Dinner.  Come Monday night all I wanted to do was go home and take a nap, except that I had 12 chicken thighs marinating in my fridge that required my attention.  By nine o’clock on Monday night my house smelled amazing, I had a sink full of dishes, and I still wanted to take a nap.

1 750-ml bottle French Burgundy or California Pinot Noir
1 large onion, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled, sliced
1 large garlic clove, peeled, flattened
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 Tbsp olive oil
8-10 chicken pieces

Combine first six ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.  Add the olive oil and stir to combine.  Pour over the chicken and refrigerate at least over night and up to 2 days.  Turn once or twice to make sure chicken marinates evenly (I put mine into marinate on Saturday afternoon, and got around to cooking them on Monday night).


Note:  You can either cut up a chicken into pieces (breasts, thighs, legs, etc.), or you can make your life even easier and buy already cut up chicken pieces.  I would recommend using mostly if not all dark meat because it stands up to the long cooking time better.  I would also recommend using bone-in chicken for the same reason.  I would really recommend against boneless skinless chicken breasts because they’ll just be rubbery and tasteless by the time you serve them.  I used skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs and they cooked up fork tender and still moist.

Cooking Chicken
6 ounces bacon, cut crosswise into strips
3 Tbsp all purpose flour
2 large shallots, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 large fresh thyme sprigs
2 small bay leaves
2 cups chicken broth
3 Tbsp butter
1 lb mushrooms, sliced
20 pearl onions (about half a bag of frozen pearl onions)

Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry.  Strain the vegetables from the marinade and reserve vegetables and marinade separately.

reserved vegetables

Sauté the bacon in a large skillet until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crispy.  Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve. 

Add the chicken, skin side down, to the drippings and sauté until brown (about 8 minutes per side).  Remove the chicken to a large bowl or casserole dish.

Add the reserved vegetables from the marinade to the skillet and sauté until brown (about 8-10 minutes).  Add flour to skillet and cook for about 2 minutes.  Add reserved marinade to skillet and stir to combine.  Cook for 2-4 minutes until sauce is slightly thickened, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

Add the shallots, garlic, thyme, bay leaves and chicken broth.  Stir to combine.

Return the chicken to the skillet, skin side up in a single layer.  Bring to a simmer and then cover and cook for 20 minutes.  Turn chicken over and cook for another 15-20 minutes until tender and cooked through*.

While the chicken cooks, melt the butter in another large skillet.  Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned.  Remove the mushrooms and reserve.  If you’re using fresh pearl onions (and if you can find them, why on earth would you not use frozen pearl onions?), add them to the pan and sauté until they start to brown slightly.  Remove onions and reserve. 

cooking process composite

Remove the chicken to the casserole dish.  Strain the sauce into the skillet you were cooking the mushrooms in, pressing on the solids to get all the liquid.  Discard the solids.  Return the mushrooms, bacon and onions** to the sauce.  Cook until the onions are tender and sauce is slightly reduced (10-12 minutes)***.  Return the chicken to the skillet and cook for a few minutes to make sure everything is heated through.

Serve on a large platter with crusty bread and a side salad.

You can make this 1-2 days in advance – arguably it’s better that way because the flavors have time to mellow.  Allow to cool completely and then refrigerate.  Reheat over a low heat until everything is heated through.

chicken with spoon

* If you’re like me and you think that cooking the chicken in your skillet with an entire bottle of wine and 2 cups of chicken stock sounds like a recipe for having everything boil over on to your stove, use a large pot instead.  I actually browned everything in my lovely heavy bottomed skillet because it browns things so nicely, and then turned the sauce and chicken into the pot to cook and didn’t worry about everything being in a neat single layer.  I then used the dirty skillet to cook the mushrooms and reduce the sauce, scraping up every last bit of fond that had been created.

** If you’re using frozen pearl onions add them at this point.

*** If you want a thicker sauce mix a couple of spoonfuls of sauce with 1-2 Tbsp of flour in a small bowl.  Whisk until smooth, and then stir this into the sauce in the pan and cook until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency (if you find you’ve over thickened your sauce, you can thin it with a little chicken stock).

 eaten chicken



  1. […] you’ll have created something rich and decadent with layers upon layers of flavor – for example Coq au Vin requires marinating and straining and browning and braising and straining the sauce again, just […]

  2. I just went through a twenty explanation to a local store clerk about what a pearl onion was. After 3 different associates from 3 different sections of the store were consulted, the group consensus came to be that the store didn’t carry them. Good thing I didn’t need them for tonight’s meal! My search for pearl onions can continue!

    • That’s hysterical – disheartening, but funny.

      I now buy multiple bags when I can find them and stash them in my freezer for when I actually need them.

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