If you could chose anything, what would you chose for your last meal?

For me, it is – without a doubt – coq au vin.

Lush, slightly acidic, herbaceous, hints of umami and salt – it very well may be the perfect bowl of food. If I close my eyes, I can smell the red wine, the thyme, the mushrooms and the bacon.

I wondered – could I replicate that texture and taste without using chicken or bacon? Can classic recipes be reinterpreted for a modern, plant-based diet? Or, are they classics specifically because they are what they are?

I write and talk a lot about taste memory. It’s one of the most essential skills a cook can have because it allows you to create recipes based on experiences you’ve had – meals in fine restaurants, Sunday dinner at grandmother’s house, stellar recipes from your cookbook collection. When you recall these tastes – not in the aggregate, but as layers of individual flavors – you can recreate or rearrange them whenever the mood suits you. Your pantry can tell you what to took based on the flavors you have on hand.

Let’s take coq au vin as an example. As I said, the core flavor profiles are acid, salt, umami and herbs. Classic coq au vin uses red wine (acid), bacon (salt), mushrooms (umami) and thyme (herbs).

Seems like a pretty good place to start developing flavors, except that we can’t use bacon if we’re going to have a plant-focused dish. So, let’s substitute salt for the bacon. That brings us to red wine, thyme, mushrooms and salt. But, if we just threw the lot into a pot, we’d have a pretty watery red wine soup with boiled mushrooms. Unappetizing, to say the least. Let’s break this down a bit more.

We know that roasting mushrooms increases their umami flavor. Check, mushrooms go into the oven for roasting.

We know that part of what makes coq au vin so delicious is the fat from the bacon and chicken. Fat adds a weighty lusciousness to sauces. Butter is my fat of choice. I readily acknowledge that this means my dish isn’t completely plant-based. It’s a fair criticism from absolutists (and I respect you!), but I believe in a more balanced approach and I’m willing to use butter when needed.

We also know that bacon and chicken add protein. If I’m eschewing animal proteins, what choices do I have? Lentils are a great source of protein (as well as polyphenols, magnesium, iron, folic acid and fiber – a nutritional gem if there ever was one!)

And there you have it: the fundamental ingredients for a meat-free coq au vin. Now all that’s left are some basic techniques. Slowly cook the lentils with vegetable stock, red wine and a bouquet garni until they are soft, almost mushy. Blend until smooth. Add the roasted mushrooms, a splash of wine for brightness and a some butter to smooth out the sauce. Adjust the seasonings and your done.

Plant-based coq au vin
Plant-based coq au vin with shaved radish, micro greens and brioche croutons

I made the most interesting discovery when I was unpacking leftovers the next day. Apparently, the butter firms up a bit in the fridge so that the sauce is spreadable, almost like a pâté. Absolutely amazing on toasted bread rounds!