Recent culinary exploits and obsessions

A few foodie items I’ve recently been jazzed about:

My French Fontignac 5-quart casserole dish.

Last year, I just HAD to have a Le Creuset something or other. (I think I was probably inspired by seeing Amy Adams make a beef bourguignon in one in the movie “Julie & Julia.”) I settled for spending some of my Christmas money on a lovely blue Fontignac vessel I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond instead. This was a pricy piece of cookware – even on sale, it was still $80 – but I had visions of using it to make gorgeous stews and braises through the winter.

Long story short, this beautiful pot sat on a shelf in my basement until about three weeks ago. For starters, I was intimidated about using it. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. It wasn’t until I was in Ireland this summer and used a similar pot owned by one of my sisters-in-law to make curry that I got over my fear.

So a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, dusted off my Fontignac and broke it in. I finally found out what I’ve been missing all this time. The inaugural dish? Braised country-style pork ribs with a bourguignon-ish sauce of red wine, beef stock, tomato paste and rosemary. The beauty of this pot, I quickly realized, was being able to sear the ribs in it, then simply dump in the sauce ingredients, put the lid on and throw it in the oven for a couple hours. The heavy cast-iron construction means this is a pot I’m likely to have forever. Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

Since then, I’ve used this versatile cooking vessel to boil water for pasta, to make a delicious risotto, and yes, to prepare a beef stew. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was so scared of. HUGE bonus, it’s super-easy to clean. No matter how messy it looks, whatever’s left in there scrubs right out. I LOVE this pot. And it’s so pretty, I just leave it out on my stovetop on display when not in use.

Fontignac casserole dish

Cherry pie filling and preserves.

I’m in a big cherry phase at the moment. Given the choice between strawberries, raspberries and cherries, I’ll take cherries any day. This preference is approaching something of a fever pitch lately.

It all started about five weeks ago during a freelance assignment that required me to stay in some bed-and-breakfasts in Southern Indiana. (I know, I know… it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!) For one of the breakfasts, we were served buttermilk pancakes with freshly made cherry preserves from one of the nearby Amish farms. The preserves were presented simply in a little white ramekin, and they looked like edible red jewels. Absolutely gorgeous.

When I volunteered to make a dessert for the monthly teacher lunch at my son’s preschool last week, I came across a recipe I made some years ago for cherry cheesecake brownies. Decision made. This is a yummy and fairly easy dish to make – you make a brownie mix according to the directions on the box, then top it with a simple cheesecake batter and bake for another 20 minutes to so. When it’s cool, you cut it into squares and top it with spoonfuls of cherry pie filling. According to the thank you note I received, it was a big hit.

I also had intentions of making a strawberry shortcake for dinner at a friend’s house the other night, but the strawberries I bought were sadly disappointing. Cherry pie filling to the rescue! I bought a can and we spooned it over slices of pound cake and topped it with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Which brings me to…

Cake.

I’ve come across two new cake recipes lately that I’ve been whipping up like crazy. The first is a lemon yogurt cake I came across in Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life.” (She specifically says in the book that she thinks recipes are made to be shared, and I heartily agree.)

The recipe uses ingredients you’re likely to already have on hand, with maybe the exception of plain whole-milk yogurt (which you can buy by the single-serving container at the supermarket for less than a dollar). I’ve made it several times within the past few weeks – it works well with the lemon glaze as directed in the book, or with a spoonful of fresh fruit sauce (or cherry preserves!) Plus, you don’t have to use lemons – they are easily be swapped out for oranges or even limes would be good. The recipe makes one 9-inch round pan full, not too much and not too little, and the cake itself is bright, lemony and luscious. I made it for a book swap I hosted last weekend, and several guests took leftover slices home for breakfast.

glazed lemon yogurt cake

The second new cake discovery is the pound cake I made for the strawberry-turned-cherry shortcake. I found it on Allrecipes.com, one of my go-to sites for cooking inspiration, and it contains the surprising ingredient of whipping cream. Whereas the lemon cake is light and fruity, this one is dense and rich, but still plenty moist. With the cherry pie filling and whipped cream topping, it made a pretty and delicious dessert. In fact, I made another one to take to my cousin’s house today and serve it the exact same way. I’m also planning to try this recipe again with some chocolate chips thrown in the mix. Because, after all, everything’s better with chocolate chips…

Sweet dreams!

Where's the boeuf?

Last week marked my second attempt at Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe (and will I ever learn to spell “bourguignon” without having to look it up on Google?). There are two things you should know about preparing a Julia Child recipe. One, it will taste delicious. Two, it will be a pain in the ass. The only other Julia Child recipe I can recall ever making is a cheese souffle, which I assure you easily met these two criteria.

My first boeuf bourguignon recipe attempt was about a month and a half ago. After seeing “Julie & Julia,” my friend and sous chef extraordinaire Gillian and I decided to host a French-inspired dinner party for several girlfriends. I knew Boeuf Bourguignon was the entree I wanted to make; G tackled a Julia chocolate almond cake. We rounded out the spread with Brie, baguette, salad and tons of red wine.

The boeuf started off innocuously enough. The base of the stew is the same one I’ve used for several other dishes as of late – Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie and Melissa D’Arabian’s braised pork come to mind. When you’ve got a good thing going, apparently chefs want to apply it to as many different kinds of meat as possible. Garlic, onions, carrot, tomato paste, thyme (my herb garden produced an abundance this year, so I’m happy for chances to use it as often as possible), red wine and beef stock. Insert meat, cover, braise for a couple hours and you will eat WELL. It’s a cheap concept, too. Beef stew meat is one of the most affordable items you can buy at the butcher’s counter, and if you use a Charles Shaw Shiraz (which is HIGHLY drinkable, trust me, I speak from experience), you can get away with spending about $3 for the wine.

Anyway, back to the recipe… Julia’s version calls for the addition of bacon, a note I found intriguing. However, she instructs you to boil the bacon for 10 minutes first before browning it for the stew. So there’s one dirty pot right off the bat. I’m not sure what the reasoning is – if anyone owns a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are there any liner notes of explanation?? I seem to recall something about making the flavor of the bacon less overwhelming, as if that’s a BAD thing? Anyway, not one to argue with the master, I boiled. Then browned. No biggie, I suppose.

A useful tip I learned – dry your meat completely with paper towels before browning it in oil or fat. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, and it really did make a huge difference. The meat browned up quickly and beautifully, leaving behind tons of those yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan that eventually incorporate into your sauce and make it that much better.

So I browned the meat, then the vegetables. Keep in mind, you’re constantly removing whatever you’ve just cooked to another dish while you prepare the rest. More dirty dishes. But that’s ok. Once everything is browned, you dump it all into your casserole dish. Then you pour your red wine and stock into the browning pan, scraping up every bit of those brown bits as you go. Pour the sauce over the meat and veg, cover it and throw it in the oven for about two hours. When it comes out, the meat is almost obscenely tender and the sauce smells so good, you’ll want to dab a little behind each ear. Mix in some sauteed mushrooms and there ya go. Not exactly a user-friendly dish, but wow, is it good.

Last week, hubby was returning from a business trip and I decided boeuf bourguignon would be a nice way to welcome him home. He was still a little pissed off that I included onions in my first version for the gals, immediately disqualifying him from any leftovers. Not that there were any… This time, however, I took a few short cuts. For starters, there wouldn’t be any onions to chop or worry about. I also decided to make the whole dish in the crock pot. I still had to boil the bacon and brown everything on the stove top, but with the crock pot, I knew I could let it go for awhile in case hubby’s flight was delayed and not worry about anything overcooking. I dare say it was every bit as good as the traditional method.

Julia suggests serving the stew with boiled potatoes, but even after four years of marriage, hubby still doesn’t trust me to boil potatoes (he’s Irish, what can I say?). I opted for buttered egg noodles instead. The overall effect turned out to be a fabulously rich beef and noodles. We froze the scant leftovers and I zapped a portion for myself tonight in the microwave. Nice thing about stews, they reheat perfectly.

So if you’ve got a few hours and a bunch of pots and pans, I recommend this recipe. You can easily find it online, and I have to say, it really is worth the trouble. Make Julia proud.

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Where’s the boeuf?

Last week marked my second attempt at Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe (and will I ever learn to spell “bourguignon” without having to look it up on Google?). There are two things you should know about preparing a Julia Child recipe. One, it will taste delicious. Two, it will be a pain in the ass. The only other Julia Child recipe I can recall ever making is a cheese souffle, which I assure you easily met these two criteria.

My first boeuf bourguignon recipe attempt was about a month and a half ago. After seeing “Julie & Julia,” my friend and sous chef extraordinaire Gillian and I decided to host a French-inspired dinner party for several girlfriends. I knew Boeuf Bourguignon was the entree I wanted to make; G tackled a Julia chocolate almond cake. We rounded out the spread with Brie, baguette, salad and tons of red wine.

The boeuf started off innocuously enough. The base of the stew is the same one I’ve used for several other dishes as of late – Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie and Melissa D’Arabian’s braised pork come to mind. When you’ve got a good thing going, apparently chefs want to apply it to as many different kinds of meat as possible. Garlic, onions, carrot, tomato paste, thyme (my herb garden produced an abundance this year, so I’m happy for chances to use it as often as possible), red wine and beef stock. Insert meat, cover, braise for a couple hours and you will eat WELL. It’s a cheap concept, too. Beef stew meat is one of the most affordable items you can buy at the butcher’s counter, and if you use a Charles Shaw Shiraz (which is HIGHLY drinkable, trust me, I speak from experience), you can get away with spending about $3 for the wine.

Anyway, back to the recipe… Julia’s version calls for the addition of bacon, a note I found intriguing. However, she instructs you to boil the bacon for 10 minutes first before browning it for the stew. So there’s one dirty pot right off the bat. I’m not sure what the reasoning is – if anyone owns a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are there any liner notes of explanation?? I seem to recall something about making the flavor of the bacon less overwhelming, as if that’s a BAD thing? Anyway, not one to argue with the master, I boiled. Then browned. No biggie, I suppose.

A useful tip I learned – dry your meat completely with paper towels before browning it in oil or fat. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, and it really did make a huge difference. The meat browned up quickly and beautifully, leaving behind tons of those yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan that eventually incorporate into your sauce and make it that much better.

So I browned the meat, then the vegetables. Keep in mind, you’re constantly removing whatever you’ve just cooked to another dish while you prepare the rest. More dirty dishes. But that’s ok. Once everything is browned, you dump it all into your casserole dish. Then you pour your red wine and stock into the browning pan, scraping up every bit of those brown bits as you go. Pour the sauce over the meat and veg, cover it and throw it in the oven for about two hours. When it comes out, the meat is almost obscenely tender and the sauce smells so good, you’ll want to dab a little behind each ear. Mix in some sauteed mushrooms and there ya go. Not exactly a user-friendly dish, but wow, is it good.

Last week, hubby was returning from a business trip and I decided boeuf bourguignon would be a nice way to welcome him home. He was still a little pissed off that I included onions in my first version for the gals, immediately disqualifying him from any leftovers. Not that there were any… This time, however, I took a few short cuts. For starters, there wouldn’t be any onions to chop or worry about. I also decided to make the whole dish in the crock pot. I still had to boil the bacon and brown everything on the stove top, but with the crock pot, I knew I could let it go for awhile in case hubby’s flight was delayed and not worry about anything overcooking. I dare say it was every bit as good as the traditional method.

Julia suggests serving the stew with boiled potatoes, but even after four years of marriage, hubby still doesn’t trust me to boil potatoes (he’s Irish, what can I say?). I opted for buttered egg noodles instead. The overall effect turned out to be a fabulously rich beef and noodles. We froze the scant leftovers and I zapped a portion for myself tonight in the microwave. Nice thing about stews, they reheat perfectly.

So if you’ve got a few hours and a bunch of pots and pans, I recommend this recipe. You can easily find it online, and I have to say, it really is worth the trouble. Make Julia proud.

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around