Beefy Caponata Baked Penne

15 05 2010

So there I was, standing in front of a 2-for-1 organic Italian pasta display, when my phone rang.  It was Nick, and he, like me, had no idea what he wanted for dinner.  Except that given the unseasonable cold and rain, it had to be warm and hearty.  The words “pasta bake” came out of my mouth, and were enthusiastically received.  I grabbed two boxes of penne, and when I looked up, I was faced with jars of Sicilian caponata.  Hmmm… eggplant, olives, capers, onions, tomato… that sound pretty good.  The jar was halfway to the basket when I decided I’d rather make it myself, fresh.  Many circles through the grocery store later (it’s an adjustment getting used to a new supermarket, too), my basket filled to the brim with pasta, eggplants, canned tomatoes, ground beef, a jar of green olives, a block of mozzarella, a container of ricotta, and a couple bottles of chianti, I made my way home under increasingly gray skies.

Browning

I arrived home and started cooking immediately. What better way to warm up a chilly apartment?  I browned the beef in olive oil, then threw in some chopped onion.  Next came a few cloves of garlic and two small eggplants, diced and lightly salted and drained.  When everything was nice and brown and roast-y smelling, I deglazed the Dutch oven with a splash of the aforementioned chianti, scraped up the tasty fond, and poured in the tomato products and a canful of water.

Meanwhile, I whisked the ricotta, an egg, and some cream with salt, pepper, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

"Alfredo"

When the beefy eggplant sauce was nearly done (that is to say, reduced but still a bit watery so as to finish cooking the parcooked pasta in the oven), I roughly chopped some olives and added them to the mix.  Then I quickly boiled a pot of water (yay induction!) and cooked the penne for about five minutes.  (If I didn’t have the stupid induction top, I could definitely have been doing these things simultaneously.  It’s a mixed blessing.)  I drained the still-slightly-crunchy pasta and poured the ricotta concoction into the empty pot.  I stirred in about half of the eggplant sauce, then the pasta and some mozzarella cubes.  This was then divided between two baking dishes (if you’re going to make something like this, it really doesn’t take any more tie to make two, and then you have an emergency dinner just waiting in the freezer) and topped with the remaining red sauce.  More mozzarella cubes and a grating of Parm finished them off.

One for now, one for later

Both got covered in foil, and one went straight into the oven.  The other I left to cool a bit before freezing for a future dinner.  After 30 minutes in the oven, I took off the foil and let the top get toasty.

Browned and delicious

And let me tell you, tucking into the gooey, beefy, steaming hot bowl did wonders for my outlook.  I mean, if cold, gray days mean food like this, who am I to complain?

On this day in 2008: How to Make Vinaigrette

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Pie Therapy

22 03 2010

I know I said I wasn’t going to bore you with any more apartment-hunting stories, but it has become my main activity outside of work.  I have little else to write about, which is one reason my posts have been fewer and farther between lately.  The seemingly endless search for an apartment with a good kitchen (because really, what I do is cook) leaves me feeling tired and depressed, never mind trying to find a location that suits Nick’s and my rather disparate commutes.  Anyway, after yet another disappointing apartment visit on Sunday morning, I needed to work out some of my anxiety.  I needed to get in my kitchen.

pre-pie

Fortunately, Ann had invited us to a cheese-tasting party, the star of which was a wheel of Fromage de Citeaux, a cheese made only by monks in Burgundy (well, and cows, too).  I volunteered to bring dessert, and Nick suggested I make an apple pie, considering how many apples we have amassed this winter thanks to the CSA panier.  So after breakfast I set to work.  I made the pie dough and let it rest while I showered.  Once I was clean and the dough firm but pliable, I rolled it out and lined my pie dish.  I put it back in the fridge to rest some more (lazy stuff, that pie dough) while I peeled, cored, and sliced all the apples in my pantry.  What a great task for forgetting your troubles – I didn’t think about apartments the whole time! A couple small handfuls of brown sugar, a sprinkling of cornstarch, a few spoonfuls of crème fraîche, and dashes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt rounded out the filling.  Into the lined pie dish the apples went, preceded by a thin layer of hazelnut meal (to help soak up any extra juices) and followed by a light coat of egg wash around the edge of the crust.  I rolled out the top crust and placed it over the apples, pressing the edges to seal.  Trim, fold, pinch, vents, more egg wash and a sparkle of cassonade sugar for the top.

all ready for the oven

Again, the pie got to rest in the fridge while the oven finished preheating.

And now for a minor digression: my last post, the one about corn dogs, prompted a number of comments admitting fear of deep-frying.  Frankly, this puzzles me.  As long as you have good common sense and maybe a thermometer, there is no guesswork involved in deep-frying.  Baking is a different story.  A lot of people have anxiety about baking.  Strangely, I find this more understandable.  You spend all this time measuring and mixing, cutting and rolling, and then you put your creation in the oven where your pie or cake or cookies may or may not behave the way you want them to.  You could have made a hundred pies in your life (or in my case, many, many more) but there is still a slight sense of mystery about the baking process.  What if I didn’t rest the dough long enough?  What if the filling oozes out everywhere and makes a huge mess?  What if I overworked the dough and it’s tough instead of flaky?  The thing is, you won’t know until you take it out of the oven, at which point it’s too late to fix those problems.  But maybe that’s what makes it exciting – the potential for failure.  And then when you succeed, oh, the joy in overcoming adversity!

Pie and flowers

So if making and assembling the pie was therapeutic, pulling the masterpiece from the oven was pure triumph.  I may not be able to control Parisian landlords, rent prices, or kitchen designs, but I can harness the laws of physics and chemistry and use them to create beautiful and delicious things to eat.

On this day in 2009: Fairy Tale Dessert

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Regional French Cuisine: Languedoc: Cassoulet

30 11 2009

It starts out so innocently...

Cassoulet.  Anthony Bourdain has been known to refer to it as “the single heaviest dish in the French repertoire.”  I can’t say I disagree with him.  (Although tartiflette certainly gives it a run for its money.)  Like so many other classic dishes, there are many who claim to having invented cassoulet.  The three towns most adamant about their version being the “true” cassoulet are Castelnaudry, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.  Depending on who you ask, the meats used in the dish are pork (skin, belly, and/or sausage), duck or goose confit, and mutton.

Three fat sausages, sitting in the pan...

Everyone agrees that the dish contains white beans, and that it is named for a special cooking vessel, the cassole, which is shaped in such a way as to increase the amount of delicious crust that forms on top.  After consulting a handful of recipes, notably those from Paula Wolfert and Bourdain and Ruhlman, I drew up an outline of how I would be going about the cassoulet.

I inadvertently sent Nick on a wild goose chase for Toulouse sausages, which were nowhere to be found on Sunday morning.  Finally he just asked a butcher for a sausage he could put in cassoulet, and came home with three beautiful, handmade links and a few thick slices of pork belly.

While the beans simmered in a mixture of veal stock and water with an oignon piqué and some thyme, I trimmed the pork belly and threw the skin and bony bits in with the beans.  The rest I chopped into lardons which I started cooking over low heat in a good layer of duck fat.  When they were nice and crisp, I moved them to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain and began browning the sausages.  After that, the duck confit went in to crisp the skin (for snacking purposes) and to warm through (to make the shredding step easier).  Then, I drained off most of the fat, reserving it for later, and added some diced onions and carrots to the pot to pick up the fond that had formed.  The vegetables softened and the bottom of the pot now clean, several cloves of garlic jumped in to join the party.  Meanwhile, I drained the tender-but-not-yet-fully-cooked beans, reserving that liquid as well.  The vegetables and the crisped lardons went in with the beans, and I was finally ready to start assembling.

Easy as 1-2-3
1. Beans, Sausage, 2. Beans, Duck Confit, 3. More Beans

First a layer of fat, then beans, then hunks of sausage, followed by more beans, the shredded duck confit, and the rest of the beans to top it off.  Between each layer I sprinkled salt and drizzled a bit more fat.  At the end, I ladled the bean cooking liquid into the very full Dutch oven until I could see the level was just below the top of the beans.  And into the oven my cassoulet went.

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How To Make A Cream Soup

3 11 2009

When I was in culinary school, we had to memorize three different methods for making cream soups.  I couldn’t tell you now how, specifically, any of them went, but I do know how to whip up a cream soup when I want one, so something must have sunk in.  I got a couple of heads of broccoli in my CSA panier last week, and on a recent cold, rainy (i.e. par for the course) evening, cream of broccoli soup sounded like just the ticket.  Cream soup is a great way to get kids to eat vegetables they don’t ordinarily like (just ask my mom – this was the only way I would eat broccoli or asparagus as a child) and may even cause a change of heart towards those very vegetables.  I can actually pinpoint the day I started liking asparagus, and a cream soup was responsible.  But enough about me.

Cream of Broccoli Soup - no cream necessary!

A cream soup is essentially made in four steps:

1. The Velouté

Velouté is a classic French sauce made from stock and blonde roux.  Blonde roux is made by cooking equal parts butter and flour until they begin to smell slightly toasty.  The ratio, according to Ruhlman, is 10 parts liquid to one part roux.  (In school we learned 8:1, but I trust Ruhlman and I figured the puréed broccoli would eventually help to thicken the soup if necessary.)  So I had about 800 ml/29 oz. of stock.  It was so close to a nice, round quart that I decided to go ahead and top it up with 100 ml/3 oz. of milk, thus creating a sort of velouté/béchamel hybrid.  Going from the ratio, I would need 3 oz. of roux.  I melted 1.5 oz. of butter and when it stopped foaming, I added 1.5 oz. of flour.  I stirred it with a wooden spoon until it started to smell like parbaked pie dough.  Then, bit by bit, I whisked in the stock/milk mixture.  Once it was all incorporated, I seasoned it with a bit of salt and pepper and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

2. The Garnish

What? Garnish?  Now?  Yes.  While the velouté is simmering is the perfect time to prep the vegetables for the soup.  In this case, I washed and trimmed the broccoli and cut it, stems and all, into small pieces.  I set aside a small bowlful of the prettiest florets for garnish, then put them in a strainer, which I then placed over the simmering soup base.  I slapped a lid on top for a few minutes, and voilà!  Pretty steamed broccoli florets for later garnishing purposes!

Yay for mulititasking!

3. The Flavor

When the velouté is ready – taste it, it should feel silky smooth on your palate – throw in the chopped vegetables that will become the main flavor of the soup.  Simmer until very tender.  The actual amount of time will depend on how small you cut your vegetable; this time, the broccoli took about 15 minutes.

4. Purée and Finish

Almost there!  Purée the soup – I used my trusty immersion blender, but you can also do it in batches in a traditional one, just be careful not to overfill the jar.  Strain it, if you’re so inclined (I wasn’t) and finish with a swirl of cream if you’re feeling decadent (not necessary but adds a touch of luxury).  Reheat the garnish in the soup and serve.

The fresh green color and great broccoli flavor spell healthy to me!

Piece of cake.  Or should I say bowl of soup?

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Chicken Pot Pie – Another Classic French Dish

6 08 2008

I know – not very summery.  But tasty and comforting just the same.  And, while it may not seem particularly French, the humble pot pie is based on some very classic French techniques.  First, the sauce.  It’s a traditional velouté, made by thinning blond roux with stock.  Stir, simmer, season, strain if you’re fussy.

Sauce velouté - known in many parts of the world as "gravy."

Next, you’ve got your mirepoix:  Sauté in a little butter, season with salt and pepper, toss with fresh parsley (or thyme or sage).

Classic mirepoix - onions, carrots, and celery

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We Found Buttermilk!

7 07 2008

I can’t believe that there has been buttermilk right under my nose the whole time I’ve been in Paris.  I’ve walked right past it countless times, not even considering that it might be just the thing I’ve been looking for.  You see, it is usually labeled in Arabic, with small French writing that explains, “lait fermenté.”  Then Nick and I were in the store the other day, and he exclaimed, “Is that buttermilk?  Lait fermenté?”  I smacked my forehead.  Of course.  It’s been there the whole time, staring me right in the face, and I missed it!

So what was my first thought upon finding this previously unavailable (or so I thought) ingredient?  Fried chicken.  I don’t know why.  I can’t say we were in the habit of making fried chicken back home in the States, or even if I’ve ever attempted it.  It’s also not something I crave in particular.  Sure I’ll read something about fried chicken every now and then, and I’ll get hungry thinking about the crunchy breading, but then I think about the mess involved in eating pieces of bone-in fried chicken, and the sad fact is that most of the time it just isn’t worth it.  You get grease all over your hands and face and it’s so heavy that you end up feeling like you’ve swallowed a rock.  Most of the fried chicken meals I’ve had in my life have consisted of one piece of chicken (invariably dry, yet somehow with flabby skin) and then I fill up on sides: mashed potatoes and coleslaw being my favorites.  Biscuits, too, if they’re around.

But I guess I have been reading up on fried chicken recipes lately, and the Cook’s Illustrated one (in which I had absolute faith) insists on marinating the chicken in seasoned buttermilk before battering and frying.  It sounded so good that it stuck in my mind, hidden away until the moment I saw buttermilk, at which point it popped out and started bouncing around again.  So fried chicken it was.

Since I know almost nothing about making fried chicken, I followed Cook’s recipe to the letter.  It came out fantastically.  The batter was dark brown and satisfyingly crunchy, yet almost light in texture with no unpleasant greasiness.  The chicken underneath was juicy and beautifully seasoned.  I honestly can’t say I’ve ever had better.

Move over, Colonel!  Sorry, Popeye!  French chickens rule!

As you can see, we served it with potato salad (left over from our 4th of July feast – which I’ll be posting on later, I was just so psyched about the chicken I had to write it up immediately) and a batch of our favorite buttermilk coleslaw (also courtesy Cook’s Illustrated).

Ah, Americana in Paris…





Comfort Food

15 04 2008

A little while ago, I was browsing the forums on DallasFood and came upon a story about fried chicken.  It was a very cold and nasty Sunday afternoon, and I was suddenly hit with a wave of homesickness and the desire for some chicken-fried deliciousness from Lucky’s or Allgood brought tears to my eyes.

I began thinking about how to replicate the ever-so-comforting chicken fried steak (henceforward to be referred to as CFS), researching breading/battering methods, cooking oils, and so on.  It didn’t occur to me until several days later that the French steak haché may be just what I need to get the right cut-it-with-a-fork tenderness that only cubesteak can provide.  Upon inspection, however, it really looked more like fancy molded hamburger than anything.  Luckily, there were some thin steaks next to it on the shelf, which had clearly been cut across the grain, and looked as though they may have been tenderized as well.  I picked them up and went home, hungry with anticipation.

As for the recipe, I decided to base mine on the one from Cook’s Illustrated, as they are my go-to source for recipes, especially of the Americana variety.  I set up my breading station with meat, seasoned flour, and a thin batter made from egg, buttermilk (well, milk and lemon juice), baking powder, and baking soda.

Breading set-up for CFS

Meanwhile, I was heating up a large pan of peanut oil on the gas stove.  (Have I mentioned how psyched I am about the gas stove?  This is the first time in about 6 years I’ve had one at home!)  Anyway, when the oil was nice and hot, I dredged the steaks in flour, dipped them in the batter, and carefully placed them in the pan.

Putting the \'fried\' in chicken-fried steak

As you can see, the batter was a little thin.  Not the perfect CFS, but not bad for a first attempt.*  Once it was smothered in cream gravy (which, let’s face it, is just countrified béchamel sauce – France strikes again!) and joined by a heap of buttery mashed potatoes and roasted green beans, I had no complaints.

CFS dinner - the perfect comfort food?

* For those of you who must know, it was more in the style of Allgood than Lucky’s – very thin, crispy breading with a tendency to fall off.








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