May 182013


Today is the birthday of Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (1872). He was was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, pacifist, and social critic. He was born in Monmouthshire, into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Britain. He was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”.

He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege and his protégé, and my hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is widely held to be one of the 20th century’s premier logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, computer science, and philosophy, especially philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

bertr russ

Russell was a prominent anti-war activist; he championed anti-imperialism, and went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, he campaigned against Adolf Hitler, then criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, attacked the United States of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. He was briefly jailed again in 1961, following his conviction on public order charges brought after a large central London peace demonstration in commemoration of Hiroshima Day. The cartoon above appeared in the Evening Standard at the time.

Russell was a humanist who wrote extensively on the human condition.  The following quotations are representative:

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

“I believe in using words, not fists. I believe in my outrage knowing people are living in boxes on the street. I believe in honesty. I believe in a good time. I believe in good food. I believe in sex.”

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

The following tale is based on what is sometimes called “Russell’s chicken” – an evaluation of the limits of inductive reasoning:

On a farm, there was a flock of chickens. One chicken started talking with another, remarking: “How good our farmer has been to us. I think he is an awfully nice man, because he comes every morning to feed us.” The other chicken nodded in agreement, adding “and he has been feeding each and everyone of us here every day like clockwork, every day without fail since we were all just little baby chicks.” Indeed, when queried, most of the other chickens clucked in agreement about how benevolent their farmer was.

But there was one chicken, intelligent but eccentric, who countered saying “How do you know he is all that good? I remember, not too long ago, that there were some older chickens who were taken away, and I haven’t seen them since. Whatever happened to them?”

Some of the chickens may have slept a little uneasily that night, but in the morning the farmer came as usual, this time scattering even more corn around. The chickens ate this with gusto, and this dispelled any remaining doubts about the benevolence of the farmer. “You see, there is nothing to worry about. Our farmer had a little extra food, so he gave it to us because he likes us! He is a good man,” remarked one chicken to the others, and they all nodded in agreement, all of them, that is, except one. The intelligent but eccentric chicken became even more agitated. “He is just fattening us up! We are going to be slaughtered in a week’s time!” he squawked in alarm. But nobody listened. All the other chickens just thought he was a troublemaker.

A week later, all the chickens were placed into cages, loaded on to a truck, and driven to the slaughterhouse.

Moral of the story: You cannot always induce the truth from past experience!

In honor of Russell’s chicken I give you a recipe for coq au vin, one of the first dishes I learned to cook when I was a student at Oxford (Russell went to Cambridge). There are hundreds of recipes for classic coq au vin but they are all variations on a theme: chicken simmered in wine with onions, bacon, mushrooms, and vegetables. My cooking mentor, Robert Carrier, in his recipe insists that when you cook with wine you should not use some cheap plonk, but a wine you would be willing to serve at table. Cheap ingredients produce cheap results. Like all fine soups and stews, coq au vin is best if made the day before it is needed, and refrigerated overnight to marry and mature all the flavors.  Therefore, you should allow three days to make the finished dish. Be warned: when preparing this dish you need a lot of bowls and plates to reserve cooked ingredients before they are all combined.

Coq au Vin


For marinating the chicken

1 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 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 6-pound roasting chicken, backbone removed, cut into 8 pieces (2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings with top quarter of adjoining breast, 2 breasts)

For cooking the chicken

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 ounces thick-cut bacon slices, cut crosswise into small pieces
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 large shallots, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 large fresh thyme sprigs
4 large fresh parsley sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1 pound assorted mushrooms (dark mushrooms such as crimini or stemmed shiitake are best but any mushrooms will do)
20 pearl onions
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
½ lb of baby potatoes, or large potatoes peeled and chopped into bite sized chunks.


First Day: Marinating the chicken

Combine the wine, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and peppercorns in large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool completely then mix in the oil. Place the chicken pieces in a large glass bowl. Pour the wine mixture over the chicken; stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 day and up to 2 days, turning the chicken occasionally. Alternatively you can use two large ziplock bags that between them can accommodate the chicken and marinade.  Divide the chicken evenly between the two bags and place half in each.  Divide the marinade evenly between the two bags.  Close the bags almost completely leaving small opening. Squeeze as much air as possible out of the bags. Close the hole and lay the bags flat on the counter.  Shift the chicken around so that there is one layer. And place flat in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days  I prefer this method because the marinade evenly coats the chicken and does not need to be turned, although once in a while, if you like, you can flip the bags over.

Second day: cooking the chicken:

Using tongs, transfer the chicken pieces from the marinade to paper towels to drain; pat dry. Strain the marinade reserving the vegetables and liquid separately.

Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil and put in the pearl onions. After 30 seconds drain the onions and plunge them into a boil of iced water. When they are cool they can be peeled easily by simply squeezing the skin.  The onions will pop out. Reserve in a small bowl.

Heat the oil in a heavy large pot (wide enough to hold chicken in single layer) over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and sauté until crisp and brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl. Add the chicken, skin side down, to the drippings in the pot. Sauté until brown, about 8 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to large bowl. Add the vegetables reserved from marinade to the pot. Sauté until brown, about 10 minutes. Mix in the flour; stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the reserved marinade liquid and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Cook until the sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 2 minutes. Mix in the shallots, garlic, herb sprigs, and bay leaves, and then the broth. Return the chicken to the pot, arranging the chicken skin side up in single layer. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot and simmer the chicken for 30 minutes. Using tongs, turn the chicken over. Cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in the same skillet. Add the onions and sauté until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Transfer onions to a plate. Reserve the skillet.

Boil the potatoes until just tender and keep warm.

Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the sauce from the pot into the reserved skillet, pressing on the solids in the strainer to extract all the sauce and discard the solids. Bring the sauce to a simmer, scraping up browned bits. Return the sauce to the pot. Add the onions to the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and cook until the onions are almost tender, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and bacon. Simmer uncovered until the onions are very tender and the sauce is slightly reduced, about 12 minutes. Tilt the pot and spoon off any excess fat from top of sauce. Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Return the chicken to the sauce. (This can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Warm over low heat when ready to serve.)

Arrange the chicken on a large rimmed platter. Spoon the sauce and the vegetables and bacon over the chicken. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with boiled potatoes.

Get someone else to do the washing up.

Serves 4

  One Response to “Bertrand Russell”

  1. Nice one! Great selection of material. I haven’t read much Russell but I always appreciated the clarity of his writing.

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