Sunday, November 29, 2009

French Onion Soup

In my life, two things are certain. One, I love my mother. Two, my mother loves French Onion soup more than pretty much any other meal.

So, when I saw the french onion soup recipe in the Les Halles Cookbook, I knew I had to make the dish especially for her. And what better time to do so than when I stay with her over Thanksgiving weekend? I ran it by mom and my sisters, and they all agreed that it might just be the best idea ever. So when Thanksgiving Day came around, Husband J and I trucked two quarts of the dark chicken stock I made last week out to the suburbs so that we could make French Onion soup for the family on Black Friday.

We started out the day by avoiding the Black Friday crowds and heading to the antique mall (where I found a vintage (looking) half bottle of Eau de Joy, score!!!), then shopping for ingredients at the local Whole Foods. Once the onions, port, cheese and baguette were in hand, we faced a different problem--no oven-proof soup crocks. I'd thought of bringing my ramekins from home, but it seemed too much trouble to bring those and all of the chicken stock needed for the soup. But my plan to find adorable vintage onion soup crocks at the antique mall fell through when said adorable crocks didn't exist. There were good looking ones at the Whole Foods, but they were individually packaged with powdered cheese soups (bleh). So Husband J and I did the unthinkable... we ventured into the local K-Mart.

We wandered the aisles, half cowering in fear, gazing at the cheap-ass Martha Stewart collection kitchenwares and the disproportionate number of deep fryers. As we were about to give up, Husband J suddenly found a set of adorable red flower-shaped ramekins, absolutely perfect for our soup purposes. We gleefully snapped up six, and ran home to prepare the soup.

First step is of course, prepare the onions. The recipe calls for one big onion per serving, and chopping six onions proved pretty time consuming, and kind of offensive. I'm not really bothered by chopping onions, but as I went from one to the next, everyone started to complain about watering eyes and started opening windows and turning on fans. I? Shed nary a tear. Weird, right?

Anyway, once chopped, the onions went into the pot to caramelize with a huge load of butter.

It took a while for the onions to get dark and beautiful, but once they were, we poured in some port:

and some vinegar:

and some bacon:

then added the chicken stock and herbs, and brought the whole mess to a boil, then simmer. While the soup simmered, we toasted baguettes brushed with oil to make toasts, grated a ton of Gruyere, and prepared a big salad.


With the soup finished, it's time for the fun part! First float a toast in the bowl, then pile the Gruyere on top. Then put the bowls under a preheated broiler so the cheese melts and chars and forms a crust.

This is where I ran into some problems--Mom's broiler requires that several buttons be pushed before it turns on, and I foolishly only pushed one. The broiler didn't turn on, but the residual heat in the oven melted the cheese into a greasy mess with oil pooling on top of the soups and the baking sheet. I realized what had happened after a minute and turned the broiler on, but the crusts were not as robust as they could have been. I mopped up all the oil I could, and served.

Well, as always, the soup was a huge hit. Mom loved it, which was very satisfying, and to me it tasted exactly like the real thing, what you'd order in a classy French restaurant. (Minus, my grandmother commented, excess salt and gobs of cheese, which I think was a compliment).

Lessons Learned: Make sure the broiler is on before putting the cheese soups under it. Just because you are not affected by onions doesn't mean everyone else is. It is possible to produce delicious french onion soup in your own kitchen. K-Mart is good for something after all.

Next Week: Braised short ribs

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dark Chicken Stock, Demi-Glace

Happy Thanksgiving every (United States Citizen) one! Time to kick off a week of pure, unadulterated gluttony! It's the American way!

I'm starting us off by making some more sauce bases, namely dark roasted chicken stock (which I will need to make French Onion soup) and demi-glace, so as to make the best of my ball-less second batch veal stock.

I started out with the demi. First thing is to reduce wine equal to about a quarter of the stock to be reduced. I'm working with about 8 cups of stock, so 2 cups of red wine goes into a pot with some chopped shallot. I reduced the wine by half over medium heat. This smells really amazing by the way--I'm a huge fan of warm mulled red wine with spices, and there's something so delicious and warming and wintery about hot red wine. I can already tell this demi shall be hardcore.

Next, add the stock. Now this is kind of an interesting proposition, as my stock has been in the fridge since I made it, and it has turned rather gelatinous. Ok no, it has turned full-on gelatinous. It's basically veal Jell-o you guys. SLIMY veal Jell-o. Kind of weird? Kind of gross? Kind of what it's supposed to do? Yes, yes, and yes. This is I guess what separates veal stock from other kinds of stock, it's full of natural gelatin so it makes a very thick sauce. That's all well and good to know intellectually but not so comforting when plopping spoonfuls of what's basically meat flavored knox blox into my formerly delicious wine reduction.

Chunky, goopy veal Jell-o.

Have I put you all off Grandma's Thanksgiving jello mold with the floating mandarin orange slices? Because that's my goal here.

Fortunately with the heat turned up, the chunks of veal Jell-o started melting and forming a nice dark colored liquid. After the five minute mark, no chunks remained. The sauce now comes to nearly a boil, then down to a simmer, to reduce to a "lush, dark, intensely flavored brown sauce" that is "reasonably thick but not candy-sticky." Sounds good to me.

While the demi is reducing, it's time to make the chicken stock. I won't go over it too much here, as dark chicken stock (as opposed to the light chicken stock I made a few months ago) is basically made the same way as the veal stock from last week--roast bones, roast veg, dump into pot, simmer, done.

I just want to reiterate how much I looove roasting that mirepoix. The whole house smells like delicious thanksgiving (probably because it's the main ingredient in every stuffing ever), what a great way to get ready for a holiday.

The bones and roasted mirepoix go into the pot to simmer for 10 hours, which is about how long it took for the demi to reach maximum thickness. I followed Julia Child's advice and strained the stock then poured it into a spare ice cube tray for single-serving portions.

Eight full cups of stock leads to one ice cube tray of demi. Uh... wow. Maybe, and this might be the heresy talking, I should actually just buy high quality demi glace instead and save those 20 hours of simmering (and my gas bill). We'll see how this stuff actually tastes.

Lessons Learned: Veal Jell-O is pretty gross, but it's making some pretty delicious smelling demi-glace.

Next Week: I know everyone is tired of me making sauces and stocks, but they have to be done in order to keep cooking! Next time I'll be using my dark chicken stock in French onion soup.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Veal Stock

Okay so all two of my readers are scratching their heads and pondering where the hell I've been over the past two weeks. I'm sorry, guys! I got sick the first weekend and spent a day in bed alternatively wanting to 1) eat nothing ever; and 2) die, and the second weekend I had to work. So I've left you hanging! You! My public, you! So sad!

Anyway, this week I'ma make it up to you by making the very first "recipe" in the Les Halles Cookbook: veal stock. Now, I say "recipe" in cute quotation marks, because Tony does not provide a recipe. It's more of a free form suggestive section, where he recommends cramming some veal bones in here, chopping some onion and carrot there, dumping it into a pot and simmering for eight hours. It's kind of a big deal, because so many of the recipes in the cookbook call for the addition of either veal stock, or the faux demi-glace made from the veal stock (more on that later), and you basically can't make a lot of the recipes in the book without it.

Veal stock is kind of an issue,though, cos if you've been following me through this at all, you've seen me whine and gripe about the fact that I can never find any veal bones, ever, because there are no butchers in DC. Well as it turns out I was wrong, there is like A butcher in DC, and I found him, and he rules. He is in Eastern Market, where I high-tailed it this Saturday after a lunch at the Good Stuff Eatery (which is oh my god so good but I wanted to die after eating there). I grabbed 10 pounds of fresh (!!!) veal bones, chopped up into small pieces, just waiting for me to make some delicious stock. So hardcore! And they had chitterlings! YAAY!

Anyway. We lugged the bones home and in the morning, it was time to make some stock.

First, wash the bones with cold water and dry them off.

Apologies for the blurry pics this week, the camera is having some glitches or something, and we're not getting sharp pictures no matter what we try.

Then, line an oiled roasting pan with the bones, and roast at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. However, as Tony says, "if you want to cheat..." OH MY GOD YES I WANT TO CHEAT TELL ME HOW!!! ...dollop some tomato paste onto the bones, sprinkle with a handful of flour, and work the stuff into the bones before roasting. Which I did.

While the bones roasted, I chopped up a mirepoix of 50% onion, 25% carrot and 25% celery, put it in another roasting pan, and shoved it into the oven. Roasting mirepoix smells like Thanksgiving!

Once the bones are browned, and the mirepoix is caramelized, dump both into a pot with some thyme and peppercorns, fill the pot with water, and bring to a simmer. The pot then goes on to simmer for a good eight to ten hours, while the house fills with the aroma of delicious meats. Actually I think this aspect of the stock making process is overrated. The stock smells great for a while, but then you just get kind of sick of the smell of simmering meat. Veal stock is a pretty oily, fatty stock too, so the house just gets to smelling unctuous. The smell gets literally everywhere, causing Husband J to remark, when time came to go to sleep, "my pillow smells like meat! I have a meat pillow!" Sounds kind of wrong, huh?

Anyways, once the eight-to-ten hours is over, it's time to get all the solids out of the pot and strain the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. This left me with a rich brown liquid with a bit of oily fat on top that didn't strain off, and which I left to gather in a layer on top of the tupperwares as it cooled in an ice bath for future scrapage.

Ladling stock out of the pot to strain.

Voila, now there is veal stock and I can make Husband J's favorite dish, onglet salad and like 75% of the other recipes in this book. Hooray!

Actually I ended up having to make two batches of stock, since the bones and veg didn't all fit into one that still had room for enough liquid to make a decent amount of stock. So another pot went onto the stove on Monday night, causing all kinds of havoc as we (well, Husband J) had to get up at 3:30 am to turn off the burner, and then again at 6:30 to strain the still hot liquid. The second pot of stock didn't quite turn out as well as the first, it was lighter in color and seemed almost greasy rather than gloriously fatty. However, I'm not going to cry over a ball-less stock, but will instead raise the bar by turning the stuff into Tony's makeshift demi-glace in the next couple of days.

Lessons Learned: Butchers are pretty awesome. Roasting mirepoix smells like thanksgiving but simmering veal stock just smells kind of viscous.

Next Week: Well, I'm going to try to make demi-glace over the week, but the next weekend is another work weekend, and I'll be out of the country on business. So no cooking. But the NEXT weekend is Thanksgiving, after which I have promised to make my mother French onion soup. So there's that! Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Whole Roasted Fish Basquaise (FINALLY)

Yup, I've been teasing you all for weeks now, promising but not delivering whole roasted fish. But apparently this weekend was the time... the stars aligned, the fishmonger delivered his bounty, and I have for you a Whole Roasted Fish Basquaise. Huzzah!


Now I like whole fish a lot. I know two Thai restaurants, one near my house and one near my office, that serve incredible whole fish dishes, so I'm no stranger to how good the stuff is, or how to eat it (eat the skin, scrape the yummy meat from the bone with a fork). But I have never actually made it before, so it's a new and different kitchen adventure for me. And imagine my shock and horror as, while walking to the store to pick up the fish, I ask Husband J whether he is excited for dinner tonight and he says "well, I don't really like fish that much." OH MY GOD!!! My biggest fan and he doesn't like fish that much? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Will I step up my game and make a fish dish that Husband J will like?

Will I man up and eat meat from the head?

And will I, as Husband J keeps asking, eat the eyeball?

Only time will tell folks. Come with me on my whole fish journey!

(I need some good intro music, like Carl Sagan.)

So, anything "Basquaise," is going to have a few basic elements to it (at least in the Les Halles Cookbook). Green and red bell peppers, white wine, garlic, onions and parsley are common ingredients in whole fish Basquaise, moules Basquaise, and poulet Basquaise. And let me say, all of these ingredients together are freaking fantastic. And another weird thing about these dishes... no butter, just olive oil, since really the recipes are more Spanish than French. (It's a nice break really, though I used my fair share of butter making some pear and sweet potato hand pies for the coming week.)

So let's get started. First, potatoes go into the pot and boil for 10 minutes, until just tender. Then, the red and green peppers and an onion get sauteed in a roasting pan in some olive oil, with garlic and thyme leaves tossed in after a few minutes.

Next, add white wine and chicken stock to the veggies and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, salt and pepper the outside and inside of the fish. The fish and potato wedges go into the roasting pan, and the pan into a 400 degree oven for half an hour.

The house began to smell really wonderful by this time--not fishy, but that wonderful mix of onion, garlic and herbs with wine and chicken broth with the nice meaty fish in the background.

Once the fish has roasted, it comes out of the pan and onto a baking sheet, and under a high broiler for a few minutes for the skin to crisp a bit. Then stir the lemon into the sauce, give it a bit of heat, and pour over the fish on a serving platter.

The verdict? Well in my opinion it was absolutely delicious. The sauce was really amazing, and we used slices of bread to mop it up. The fish was really perfect, very tender and juicy, not dry at all. It really rans up with one of the best whole fishes I've eaten.

And what about Husband J who doesn't much like fish? He says "It was good. It was a tasty fish." Even though he doesn't really like fish.

And then the final question I know you are all thinking... did she make like Tony and eat the eyeball?

Um, no. I'll eat a heart, which is a muscle, but a jelly organ like an eyeball is pushing it. Husband J teased me by forking one of the eyeballs up out of the socket, but it was so gelatinous and horrible that he dropped the fork immediately. That was the end of that. I did eat the cheeks though, and though the meat was very nice and tender, I didn't think it was incredibly special. But overall, it was lovely.


Lessons learned: Tony is right, fish does taste better on the bone. Sometimes a break from butter is pretty nice.

Next Week: Tough to say again... I may need to make a concerted effort to get those veal bones for stock.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mushroom Soup

Yup, I crapped out on the whole fish again this week. Last time it was because I decided to make the wholly more interesting coeur de porc, but this wee I have a much lamer excuse... actually, the excuse is three-fold: socializing, weather, and exercise.

Wait, what?

Ok, I'll explain... we got invited to a party on Sunday night, which is great, as I love parties, and the host promised CASSOULET! Woo hoo! So I decided to make fish on Saturday. Then weather happened. Saturday was the coldest, greyest, gloomiest day of this cloudy, grey, gloomy week, so I decided to stay in bed and eat leftover takeout and frozen pizza. Then exercise... on Sunday I went to yoga class first thing in the morning, and the thing about yoga class is, it decreases my appetite by about 50-75% (weird, I know since most exercise makes me ravenous). So I didn't want whole fish for lunch. I went with a great sounding light meal for fall, though--mushroom soup.

Now I know you all have had that horrible Campbells cream of mushroom soup in pretty much every horrible casserole your mom ever made in the 1980s (I am looking at YOU beef stroganoff, and YOU TOO green beans with canned fried onions on top!). I have no idea who in their right mind would actually eat cream of mushroom soup as a soup, instead of as a weird binding agent for grey beef and egg noodles. But fortunately, this mushroom soup has no cream, but instead homemade chicken stock and sherry.

I started out with a mix of oyster, shitaake and cremini mushrooms, and also found some dried morels in the corner of the whole foods. Husband J loves morels, ever since we had them on a sausage, ramp and morel pizza. Once at the farmer's market he saw morels and started running over to the stand... but when he got close enough to see the price tag, he ran just as fast in the opposite direction. So, we don't eat a lot of morels, but the dried ones are slightly less pricey, so I decided that mushroom soup was a good enough excuse to get some.

Mushrooms waiting to be souped. The ones in the black bowl are the morels. They look... um... not delicious. But they were.

The soup itself was incredibly easy to make. Just sweat a thinly sliced onion in some butter...

Then add the mushrooms and more butter to the pot, and cook for 8 minutes.

Next, add the chicken stock and a sprig of parsley, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 hour.

After the hour is up, it's time to puree. Once again Tony gives a dire warning to us to make sure to hold all of our weight down on the blender to save ourselves from the inevitable splatter of hot mushroom puree. And once again, I laugh in the face of splatter with my stick blender.

Once blended, season with salt, pepper, and stir in a little sherry. Since it's Sunday, and DC frowns upon the posibility of the heathen hoards getting trashed while the good teetotallers go to church, there was no sherry to be had. Husband J came to the rescue by running to the only wine shop open on Sundays and found a bottle of sweet bourdeaux. Perfect. Two shots of the bourdeaux got swirled into the soup, and lunch was ready to go.

And the result? Seriously, the best soup ever. Better than the vichyssoise, better than soupe au pistou, better than she-crab with sherry even! (I didn't make she-crab soup with sherry, I just like it.) Dignity barely prevented Husband J and I from lifting the soup bowls to our faces and licking them clean.

We had a ton left for the rest of the week too, which is great, as Tony promises that this soup gets better with time (it's true). This is definitely something to make again, and soon.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes the simplest things to make are the most delicious. But get your sherry on Saturday. Dried morels are almost as good as fresh.

Next week: Man, I wish I knew. Possibly I'll try for the fish again, or something with delicious red meat... mmm.

The cassoulet, by the way, was excellent, but I'm feeling a bit nervous about making it myself. That's a TON of food for one thing, and it's all simmering meats. Delicious but I must have eaten a portion about the size of a cigarette packet and didn't eat anything until 8:00 pm the next day it was that filling. Remind me to serve 20 people with a thimblefull of cassoulet each.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frisée aux Lardons; Coquilles Saint-Jaques with Champagne

In my excitement for having braved the pig's heart a few weeks back, I sent my blog around to a couple of friends. Friend S, an out of town student who I hadn't seen in an age, came in to town this weekend, so of course I had to invite him over for another culinary experiment. The catch? He's been diagnosed as celiac, so no gluten allowed. After perusing the recipes in my book, I decided on bacon salad, or frisée aux lardons, and coquilles saint-jacques with champagne, that is, sea scallops in champagne sauce. No gluten there, except the optional croutons spread with roquefort that go with the salad. Also, the champagne sauce attracted me as having only half a cup of actual champagne in the sauce... meaning the rest is for drinking (yesssss).

I'd been eyeing the big, fat, meaty sea scallops that they have at whole foods, and pounced on them this morning. All I have to say is MAN those things are pricey. But I looove scallops, so they are oh so worth it for the indulgence. I also went to my favorite pork vendor, Cedarbrook Farms, for their delicious bacon for the salad. One thing to note about this bacon is that I think it's probably true to the way slab bacon probably should taste in a fris
ée aux lardons--not too salty, not processed, just very porky, meaty and delicious. Husband J claims it tastes like jerky, and I take his word for it, never having had jerky ever. (Am I missing out on this?)

First, I clarified some butter for frying the scallops. Clarified butter is tougher than it looks, in my opinion. You have to first melt the butter to the point where it separates, then scoop out the foam on top, and then pour off the liquid leaving the rest of the solids at the bottom of the pot. I was only moderately successful.

C is for clarified butter... it's clear enough for me.

Anyway, the time for dinner drew near on Sunday evening. I started out with the salad. Now, the recipe in the book calls for chicken liver vinaigrette, but alas, my livers were not in tip top shape, and I was a little suspicious about how fatty a liver vinaigrette would be in a (let's repeat) bacon salad. So I made the executive call that a plain vinaigrette would do, and set about making the same one that I made for the salade niçoise (red wine vinegar, olive oil, stirred with a clove of garlic).

Vinaigrette and shallots standing by for the salad.

Next comes bacon. The recipe called for blanching the bacon by boiling it, and then frying it afterwards. This is a little better than the rillettes, which were all boiled, but I still cast a suspicious eye upon the boiling of bacon.

It's just so wrong.

Frying makes it so right.

While the bacon fried, I started on the sauce for the scallops. This involves shallot sauteed in butter, then fish sauce and cream, and reduced by about half to create a thick, fishy, creamy sauce. Full disclosure--I didn't have the time or the ability to make fish stock, but found some frozen stock in the Whole Foods seafood section. Am I going to hell? Probably. But it was pretty tasty and looked house-made if not home-made, so we're just going to go with it for now. The sauce went on to warm while I waited for the guests to arrive. The featured guests tonight were the aforementioned Friend S, and an in-town friend, Friend T, who brought her lovely husband... uh, J.

Anyway, while waiting, I patted the scallops dry and set them out. Aren't they gorgeous?

Husband J calls them "sea pillows."

When the guests arrived, we shared the remaining champagne and some pate, crackers and chips. Then it was time to cook the scallops. I melted the clarified butter, and set the fluffy monsters out in a ring. Three minutes on each side led to a lovely golden color on their tops and bottoms.

Once the scallops were finished and keeping warm on a plate, it was time to finish up the sauce. I deglazed the scallop pan with the champagne, reduced it, then added the cream sauce and a knob of butter. The result was a fragrant fat-infused cream sauce... seriously you could gain weight just by smelling the stuff. It came off the eat, and some lemon juice and chives finished off the whole deal. I served the salad on top of toasts smeared with roquefort, and the scallops in a bowl covered in delicious sauce.


And tasty, tasty scallops.

Well it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that this was another huge success. I mean, you can't dole out fatty scallops smothered in cream and butter and have unhappy guests, especially when you gave them the leftover champagne first. Everyone scraped their plates clean--Friend T even asked for (and received) a spoon to lap up the rest of the sauce in her bowl. (The only reason she didn't slurp it up was because we didn't have any straws!) I encourage plate licking, but I suppose dignity got in the way tonight. Maybe next time.

Husband J (my Husband J, not T's) decided that this was hands down the best meal I'd made from the Les Halles Cookbook so far, and he's had them all, so that's quite impressive. I was really pleased with how well the salad and the scallops went together, too, and glad that I'd decided to forego the liver vinaigrette which would have been too much.

Oh, and dessert ended up being a mix of sorbets and gelatos, since I didn't have the time or inclination to make dessert. But the lighter, cold dessert again was a good compliment to the meal, so it all worked out in the end.

Lessons learned: You really just can't go wrong with scallops. Bacon salad tastes just as good with regular vinaigrette, especially when the rest of the meal is a saturated fatfest. Whole Foods fish stock tastes pretty freaking good.

Next week: Happy day... I saw whole snappers at the whole foods. We're having whole roasted fish Basquaise!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Poulet au Pot

Phew, what a refreshing break! Thanks everyone for being patient, and coming back to read some more.

After the rather exotic coeur du porc last time, I decided to go with something a good deal more familiar and homey, and what better than poulet au pot--that is, chicken-in-a-pot?

Poulet au pot, as I discovered from the magic that is google, is a recipe that dates back over 500 years, and is a Sunday Staple in the French countryside. It's basically a stuffed chicken stewed in a pot with veggies, and served with crunchy cornichons, salt and mustard in its own broth. The internets even report that Henry IV declared that every French family ought to be able to have poulet au pot once a week, the start I suppose of that great political promise "a chicken in every pot."

I made sure to wake up extremely early on Sunday, so to take the best advantage of the farmer's market's bounty (particularly the whole chickens from Smith Meadows Farms, which are snapped up very quickly in the mornings). I got there so early, actually, that I had half an hour before the "starting bell" and had to grab a coffee at (uch) Starbucks to bide my time. It turned out to work well, because I was able to scope out which stands had the veggies I needed for the stew, and could map out the best route through the market in order to maximize my take. Farmer's market strategies... I don't know whether that's uperyuppie or megahousefrau.

I stopped first at Smith Meadows and asked for the biggest chicken they had (Tony's recipe calls for a 6 pounder; the biggest I could get was 5 lbs) and a pound of chicken livers. Only--disappointment--they had no livers that day. I'm beginning to think there's some kind of Smith Meadows conspiracy against me, where they don't have precisely the thing I need each week (because of course all farms must cater to my needs at all times). Oh well, at least I got the chicken. Next I stopped by the Cedarbrook Farm stall to pick up some sausage for the stuffing. They were out of "country rope," but did have loose sausage stuffing outside of the casing--perfect! I thanked them for the heart, and reported that it tasted like roast beef. They looked at me like I had sprouted two heads, but tried to be polite about it. I guess the thought of cooking pig heart is just a little too much crazy at 9:00 in the morning, even if you are a farmer. It's going to be fun when I ask them for pig livers for the upcoming pate....

Then I loaded up on veggies and hauled my take home. Next to Whole Foods for cornichons, livers, cream and bread while the chicken and sausage defrosted in the refrigerator.

In addition to the chicken-in-a-pot, I decided to go with the "pot" theme and make salted caramel pots-de-creme from a recipe I found on Tastespotting at the blog "A Bowl of Mush" and have been dying to try. I need to get on some of the desserts that are actually in the book, but they're so few, while the main courses are so many, I'm trying to space them out. So as a bonus, I'll tell you about my experience with this recipe, even if it doesn't exactly go with the theme.

After getting back from Whole Foods, I started the dessert by melting sugar, sea salt, and a little water in a pot til it got caramelized and liquidy. The recipe calls for stirring constantly, but I found that by leaving the sugar alone, then stirring it up a bit and leaving it alone again, the caramelization process went faster, but still didn't burn. Then I took the caramel off the heat to add the cream. This proved troublesome, as the caramel immediately turned rock-hard and stuck to the bottom of the pan, refusing to mix with the cream at all. I had to allow the cream to heat slowly and melt the caramel in order to incorporate.

While the caramel melted into the cream, I started preparing the stuffing for the bird. First I mixed a cup of bread cubes with some more heavy cream, then added parsley and shallot. Next I chopped up a half pound of chicken livers into a liver-y mush, and added them plus the pound of sausage meat to the mix. The stuff looked a bit slimy thanks to the livers, but I bucked up and stuffed the mess into the bird. There was a good bowlful of stuffing left over, even after I crammed the chicken to the breaking point, so I baked it in the oven as dressing.

Raw stuffing. Yup that red gobbety stuff is chicken liver and possibly blood. Mmm.

Tony calls for sewing the chicken's butt up with a trussing needle and thread, but by the time I'd overstuffed the thing to the point of livery stuffing oozing out of its cavity (nice mental picture there, right?), there was going to be no sewing, that was for sure. Also, I couldn't find a needle and thread at the Whole Foods. I figured once I got the stuffing in and propped the chicken up inside the pot, the stuffing would stay reasonably intact.

Finally, I chopped up the veggies (carrots, parsnips instead of turnips, celery, garlic, onions), and added them and a bouquet garni to the pot, and set them to simmer for two hours.

Chicken and veg simmering together

Back to the custards. By now, the cream had melted the caramel sufficiently so that I had caramel infused cream instead of rock hard caramel sitting in a pool of cream. I cooled the caramel cream and added it to a mix of egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. The mix filled four ramekins reasonably well (enough for Husband J, Neighbor C, Friend I and me), so into the oven it went for about 50 minutes to bake.

By this time the chicken stew was smelling amazing, bubbling away on the stove, and the extra dressing had come out of the oven sizzling, and filling the kitchen with a rich meaty aroma. Husband J, Neighbor C and I all had bites, and the stuff was really out of this world.

Cooked dressing, glistening with delicious fat.

After the chicken simmered for two hours, I threw in a chopped up head of cabbage and a couple of red potatoes, and let the stew simmer for another 30 minutes. Then the pot came off the heat, the chicken came out of the pot, and I carved it up, giving everyone a chunk of white meat, a chunk of dark meat, a spoonful of stuffing, and some veggies, and some broth on top. Cornichons, salt and mustard went into the extra ramekins on the table for everyone to spoon out as much as we liked.

The result was better than I could have imagined. I'm always skeptical about boiling food, coming from the Irish tradition of "chuck it into the pot and boil it till it's grey" school of cooking by ancestry, but poulet au pot makes for one spectacular chicken. The meat was super tender, falling off the bone, but the breast meat was not at all dry. The stuffing inside the bird spilled out in a nice, well-cooked pile, adding some meaty richness to the dish. The veggies were all cooked to perfection, especially the very delicious cabbage and potatoes. All of it went wonderfully with the briny mustard and cornichons. Husband J feels that it is the chicken stew equivalent of a pastrami sandwich, with the meaty goodness nicely balances with the tart mustard and sour pickle. In fact, he liked it better than the poulet roti, because the meat was so tender and soft in this dish, and the combination of veggies and condiments were perfect. Everyone ate a big plateful, barely saving room for dessert (the dish is surprisingly filling).

The caramel pots de creme were again the big hit of the night (notice how everyone loves desserts best?) with everyone cooing over their salty caramely goodness. I topped them with whipped cream and a sprinkle of sea salt, and it was the perfect end to a great meal. The caramel cream was an even bigger hit than the fruit tarts if you can believe it.

Uh, and sorry about the lack of photos on this post. The dishes got snapped up before I could really take a camera to them. I'll definitely be making this dish again, so I might try to supplement this post with future poulet au pot photos.

Lessons learned: Sometimes chucking it into a pot and boiling it is the best way to cook. No matter what, everyone loves dessert best. Anything tastes good with mustard, salt and pickle. Chicken livers are pretty freaking tasty.

Next week: Frisee aux lardons (BACON SALAD, an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) and Coquilles Saint Jacques avec Champagne (sea scallops in champagne sauce). But what for dessert?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Coeur de Porc a'Larmagnac

Didn't think I'd do it, did you?

Perhaps you are aware of the various recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook. Perhaps you own it. Perhaps you thought to yourself "nahh, she'll crap out before she gets to the hardcore stuff."

Perhaps you know what this is, and are blown away by my sheer audacity.

Or perhaps you are clueless and are thinking to yourself "doth my high school French deceive me? Is she cooking a coeur of a porc for REALS?"

The answer? Yes. Pig heart with Armagnac. There are a lot of interesting recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook, including an entire section labeled "Blood and Guts," which involves the cooking of various types of offal, or organ meats. Some of these recipes I know and love, specifically boudin noir (blood sausage) with caramelized apples. Some, however, are very exotic and include kidneys, livers, and in this case, a pig heart. So follow along as I man up to the challenge of my first "Blood and Guts" recipe.

First things first: secure a heart.

Well of course the only place to go is my trusty pork vendor, Cedarbrook Farm. I e-mailed them to ask if they had a heart available, and they responded that they had not one, but TWO, count them, TWO hearts, for $3 each. Can I just say, after the $15 roasted chicken, that this is probably the best bargain in the Les Halles Cookbook so far? I mean, pastured, farm raised organic pig hearts are incredibly freaking cheap. Perhaps because no one in their right mind would willingly put one in their mouths, but THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT. So heart problem solved. I got both, as one heart serves two, and I wanted to have enough for brave Neighbor C, who volunteered to try this potentially delicious and/or nasty dish.

Next, Armagnac. Armagnac is french brandy distilled from white grapes and aged in black oak casks for a minimum of two years. I'd never drunk Armagnac before, but now seems like as good a time as any to try. We have a pretty good liquor store just outside my metro stop (doesn't have awesome things like creme de violette and orgeat syrup, but does have my favorite absinthe and a good wine selection), and they had three types of Armagnac for my choosing. The sales guy told me he'd start me out with "entry level Armagnac," which made me giggle, and of course I chose the one that had a box with a guy sporting a rocking mustache on it.


That night Husband J and I cracked it open, and WOW. I'm normally not a huge brandy or cognac fan, but this Armagnac put both to shame with its smooth texture and delicious flavor, which I won't try to describe here because hello, pretentious liquor critics suck. But it's damn tasty, so if you haven't tried Armagnac, give ol' mustachio a shot, ok?

And next, chicken stock. I used up my last bit of stock in the soupe au pistou, and was looking forward to roasting another chicken and using the bones in another batch of stock. Fate, it seems, thought differently. When I took my nice organic Whole Foods chicken from the fridge and opened its packet, it smelled rank. The damn thing was rotten, and even had a week to go before its "sell by" date! Ugh. I chucked the entire thing, and ordered delivery fish curry.

Sunday morning arrived, and I rolled out of bed to pick up my hearts. The Cedarbrook Farm rep at the stand was very nice, asking me about the dish and wishing me luck. She handed me two nicely vacuum wrapped packets, beautifully labeled.

I headed down to the next meat stand, as they often sell chicken stock... but no such luck, they had none that day. Which is why, though I swore up and down I would use no shortcuts in this project, I am using... shudder... store bought chicken stock. Forgive me Tony, for I have sinned...

Anyway, no more crying over the chicken stock that was not meant to be. Time to roast some garlic.

Coeur de Porc a'lArmagnac requires the making of garlic confit from the "miscellaneous meez" section of the book. Garlic confit is essentially roasted, salted garlic, and is horrifyingly easy to make. Just chuck a bunch of unpeeled garlic cloves onto some aluminum foil, drizzle with olive oil, salt and add a sprig of thyme, roast at 350 for 30 minutes, and you are set. Makes your house smell awesome to boot. Husband J attacked the confit once it was made, and it was all I could do to save some for the sauce.



I also set up to make roasted fingerling potatoes, salad, and a plum tart with the Italian plums that I found at the market. I figured just in case the heart turns out to be horrible, we'll have something to wash away the taste... and if it's sweet, so much the better.

Apparently I have embraced the "elegant spiral" after all. Go me!

I know you are all thinking "Okay ENOUGH with the bitching about the chicken, the neurotic back and forth and the freaking garlic! We want to see the money shot, bitch, where is the fucking HEART?"

Here you go:

Mmmm doesn't that look tasty? Look at all those nerves, and veins and... stuff.

While the hearts defrosted in an ice bath, I utilized some leftover back fat (haha, back fat) from the rillettes, rendered it in a sautee pan and sweated some onion and herbs until soft.

Then I trimmed the fat from the top of the hearts, and stuffed them with the onion mixture.

I am so hardcore.

Well maybe not stuffed. The recipe calls for stuffing the ventricles with the onion mixture (pleasant thought, I know), but the hearts I have obtained are split down the middle, presumably for easier cooking. That's great, but now I have not much space for stuffing. I settled on stuffing what I could, and ladling the rest over the hearts to cover. Into the oven they went for 20 minutes (double the time for one heart).

I opened the oven once to check on their progress, and the smell that wafted out was, well, good. It smelled rich and meaty and hearty. It smelled like a good boudin noir smells.

After the hearts were cooked I covered them with foil to rest while I made the sauce. This part is a little dicey, as it involves cooking down the Armagnac in a pan over a gas flame. "The Armagnac will probably flame up," says Tony, "so watch out." Oh my god. I should note here that I'd already set off the smoke alarm with my roasted potatoes (remember why you never roast potatoes any more? Because that always happens.) I had visions of flames licking the kitchen ceiling. I called Husband J into the kitchen. "I'm going to need you to stand by with the fire extinguisher," I said.

"Are you kidding?" he asked, incredulous.

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" I shot back. He trotted off to get the fire extinguisher.

My best friend.

I heated the shot of Armagnac in the pan. Here my bravery gave out, and I controlled the temperature so that it reduced but did not flame up. Then I poured in the *shudder* store bought stock, reduced some more, and then stirred in the pan drippings from the hearts. The garlic confit went in next, as well as a hefty knob of butter. I may have reached a saturated fat event horizon with this sauce.

Finally, with the sauce made, I sliced the hearts very thinly until they resembled nothing so much as a nice fillet, instead of a scarily shaped organ. At this point, I decided to be brave again, so I grabbed a slice and popped it in my mouth. Husband J watched with wide eyes. "How is it?" he asked.

I chewed. "It tastes like... roast beef!"

And it did. Exactly like roast beef. With a little bit of a chewy texture, and an undertaste that signaled the organ-ness of the meat, but otherwise you could put it on a sandwich with mayo and provolone and never tell the difference.

No really, it's roast beef. Try it.

Over the slices went the sauce, and we trucked our dishes over to Neighbor C's for a double feature of trashy reality TV: TA2 and "My Antonio". Between the three of us we cleaned up the potatoes and most of the heart, and demolished a good two thirds of the plum tart, which was the favorite of everyone involved (thanks, Oprah!). But everyone went for seconds on the heart, which made me incredibly happy. Another success.

So, would I make it again? Well, honestly, probably not. It was a good dish, but more rich than I like my food (and that's before the butter sauce), and the special ordering of the heart tends to be something I'd rather forego. But I'm glad I made it and glad I ate it, as I'm well on my way to true culinary badassery.

Lessons learned: Just because "offal" and "awful" are homonyms does not mean they should be conflated. Heart tastes good, like roast beef, but slice it thin anyway so it doesn't look like you're gnawing on a big nasty organ. Armagnac is delicious to drink and to cook with, just make sure you don't start fires. Never roast potatoes, ever. Sauce is always better with roasted garlic and butter. Sometimes even the best of plans fall through and you have to use nasty store bought stock.

Next Week: Break time. I have a packed Sunday that involves other people cooking for me, so although I might consider doing a small dish or appetizer, it's more likely I'll take a break and return on October 4 with something new and delicious. Stay tuned, please!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Salade Niçoise

Okay yup, I copped out on the whole snapper, and am doing Salade Niçoise for this week's dish. But there is a reason for this... after a hard week at work, I limp-ragged it through Friday afternoon, necessitating Nepalese takeout for dinner, then headed up to Baltimore to go to a street festival, where I ate deliciously creamy penne alla vodka and various deep fried delicacies. After that I could barely eat for most of Sunday, and decided that the best cure for this weekend of culinary excess would be a fresh, salty, acidic Salade Niçoise for dinner. And anyway, it's not really a copout. I mean, Julia did an entire show about Salad Niçoise. It also involves two basic kitchen techniques that it's always good to feature: blanching veggies and hard-boiling eggs.

Salad Niçoise always seemed like a rather appealing dish, fresh and filling at the same time, but I've actually never eaten it. The reason is that I've always seen it served in places that sell their salads in plastic clamshell packets, and the contents--limp lettuce, grey grainy tuna, over-boiled eggs with that awful green ring around the yolk--never inspired me to want to eat, let alone make, any such concoction. It seemed like the salad would be overly oily, salty and gross, and looking at the recipe in the Les Halles Cookbook did not inspire much confidence. Oh well. Today is apparently my time for Salade Niçoise, so let's get to it.

First, take about 6 ounces of haricots verts--that's green beans to you filthy Americans--and blanch them in a pot of boiling water. Tony gives a few tips on this. "Anytime you blanch a green vegetable, the more water and the more room, the better...[t]hey need plenty of room to swim around." Sounds good. Into the boiling pot they go for 6 minutes, then into an ice bath. Blanching vegetables is a great technique to use when you need greens or veggies (such as spinach, green beans, kale, etc.) that need to be cooked a little so they're not crunchy and tough, but can't be cooked too much or they turn to mush.

Plenty of room... they were perfect!

Next, the potatoes cook for 20 minutes, until they are tender and can be pierced easily with a fork.

While the potatoes cooked, I hard boiled two eggs. I'm not much of a hard boiler, really. Husband J and I both hate hard boiled eggs. I'm not a fan of rubbery white and chalky, crumbly yolk. I prefer soft boiled or poached eggs, I love dipping bread into a runny yolk, preferably mixed with a generous amount of butter and salt (I am salivating just thinking about this) and often eat soft boiled eggs for breakfast in little egg cups shaped like fish. (I know, precious, but it really is the most delicious breakfast with buttered toast.) So I had to turn to Tony's instructions: "How to Hard Boil a Freaking Egg" featured under the recipe for Oeufs Perigourdins (hard boiled eggs stuffed with yolks, ham and truffles, dipped in egg white meringue and deep fried in duck fat. Can't wait to see me try that one, can you?). Anyway, take cold water in a small pot, add the two eggs, then bring them to a boil.

Boiling eggs

Shut off the heat, clap on a lid and wait ten minutes, then put the eggs in an ice bath to cool. Then peel, halve, and check to see if they are done well.

No yucky ring = hard boiled perfection. Kind of like Raymond Chandler.

Time for the salad dressing. Rub a garlic clove on the salad bowl, then add olive oil and red wine vinegar, and whisk with the fork, which should still have the garlic clove on it (mmm, garlic).

Then I took the bibb lettuce, peppers, potatoes (quartered), tomatoes, haricots verts, nicoise olives, and cut up pieces of anchovy, and tossed them in the dressing. Over this salad went the expensive yellowfin tuna packed in oil in a jar (not a can!!) and hard boiled egg halves.

Husband J and I took this dinner up to the roof for an al fresco dinner with a baguette and some cheese as a side.

The verdict: AMAZING. Anyone like me who thinks that this would be a weird, overly salty and kind of gross combination needs to shut the eff up and make this salad right now. It was an amazing meld of flavors that went so well together, it was like the veggies were expressly grown to meld with the dressing, fish, and eggs. The salad was a perfect main dish (as I suspected) nicely filling yet fresh at the same time. Husband J even ate his hard boiled egg half, and asked for (and dished himself) another half, which is an amazing feat for me. Yup, the eggs, cooked correctly, were not chalky or rubbery at all, but tender and creamy. While neither of us would eat the egg by itself, it tasted wonderful with the veggies and dressing to go with it.

Husband J opined that the salad was even better than our beloved tomato salad, because of the complexity of the flavors and the fact that it was more "main dish" than "side dish." We have both officially changed our tune about Salade Niçoise, and I can see myself fixing this dish again in the near future.

Lessons learned: Don't discount a dish just because it doesn't look good when it's takeout... buy the expensive tuna and anchovies, and give it a try. Properly boiled eggs make all the difference. Always make your own salad dressing by stirring it with a garlic clove.

Next week: I may try the whole roasted fish basquaise, or the skate grenobloise. But I may go crazy and cook the coeur de porc a l'armagnac. Keep an eye out for a middle of the week post... there's another chicken to be roasted, and I may try one of the potato recipes to accompany it.