julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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“Physically it’s exhausting to cook every night. Existentially speaking, I have so much more energy having that time to myself in this project, this gift to myself at the end of the day. Even if it didn’t go smoothly, it was still a gift.” – Julie Powell


I’m not gonna lie – yesterday was a reeeeally bad day at work, and for the first time I really understood where Julie Powell was coming from. It was kind of strange to find myself looking forward to cooking. I think it was less about the actual work of cooking and more about the idea of being able to accomplish something. Either way, I couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen and start making dinner.

Last night’s menu was Tournedos Sautes aux Champignons (filet steaks with mushroom and Madeira sauce), Choux de Bruxelles (frozen brussels sprouts) and baked potatoes. (Ok, so the potatoes didn’t come from The Book, but that’s what we were in the mood for. And the brussels sprouts we had in the freezer already, so that was an easy choice.) I’ll tell you up front, because I value our relationship and I believe in honesty – this meal did not turn out perfectly. But it suuuure tasted good! I started the sprouts first. I’ve always been a fan of brussels sprouts and have tried them a couple of different ways – Julia’s method for cooking frozen sprouts is really easy. Basically you just boil them in a pot with water, salt, pepper and butter. They cooked really quickly – and in hindsight I realize that when I took them off the stove I should have left them uncovered, because in the end, they came out a little overcooked and brown on the bottom. But still tasty! (I’m proud of Ben for giving them a try, even though brussels sprouts in general are not his favorite.)

Crispy Canapes - back to the drawing board.

While the sprouts cooked, I began work on the entree. The filets are served on canapes, which are fun and easy to make. I used a circle cookie cutter Ben got me for Christmas (now renamed the Canape Cutter) to make rounds of white, crustless bread. These are sauteed in a pan of clarified butter, which you get when you heat butter in a pan and then scoop all the foam off the top until you’re left with clear yellow liquid. I made three canapes at first, but unfortunately underestimated how quickly they would brown, and in the end they were too crispy. So I started over, trying to salvage whatever butter was still left in the pan. Not enough. So I scrapped those and tried one more time. (I think the canapes took longer to make than the meat!) This time, I started from the beginning and made more clarified butter, and here are my words of advice: make more than you think you’ll need. Because when you scoop off that foam, you wind up with a lot less butter than you started with. I barely had enough to saute the amount of bread rounds I had made, but this was getting ridiculous. Luckily this batch turned out alright, so I could finally move on to the next steps.

While it sounds like the  main attraction of this meal is the filet mignon, don’t be fooled! I am here to tell you that the mushroom and Madeira sauce completely steals the show, and here’s how it’s made. Saute mushrooms and shallots in some butter and oil, season and set aside. Meanwhile, cook the meat in – yep, you got it! – butter until cooked through. HOWEVER. Let it be known that the moment you put the meat into that pan of hot butter and oil, your entire kitchen will fill with smoke. I turned on the stovetop fan, but the smoke just got thicker and thicker, so I opened windows – doors – turned on ceiling fans. (As I struggled to unlock our back door, whose lock is perpetually stuck, I imagined that I was trying to escape a house fire, but couldn’t get the door open. It was my only route of escape, and I briefly wondered if I should throw a kitchen chair through the window. Then I remembered it was just smoke from the steak, and I got over my momentary fictitious scenario. I can’t explain why my mind works this way, but it sure makes life interesting.)

Sauteed Mushrooms for Madeira Sauce

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and decided the meat had cooked long enough, and moved it to two plates, setting it on top of the canapes. It was about this time Ben got home from work and felt his way through the smoke-filled house to the kitchen, where he asked rhetorically, “How can you tell your wife is cooking?” Which reminded me of a sign we had in our kitchen when I was growing up. It was a cartoon goose wearing an apron, and the words read, “You know it’s ready when the smoke alarm goes off.” I get it now.

But back to the sauce. Once the meat is out of the pan, empty the fat and then add beef stock and tomato paste. Boil rapidly, scraping all the yummy brown bits into the mixture, and then – and THEN, I say – add a mixture of corn starch and Madeira wine. Now, if you don’t know, Madeira is a really potent wine with a super high alcohol content. So much so, in fact, that our local grocery store wasn’t allowed to carry it and we had to go to the liquor store to find it. But this is the leading lady in our culinary play, and shine she must! Once the alcohol has evaporated, add the sauteed mushrooms and shallots to the sauce and stir it all up. It’ll become a beautiful rich dark red, and it will smell almost as divine as it tastes. Now do as I say and heap this sauce over your meat – don’t hold back! You won’t be sorry.

Tournedos Sautes aux Champignons

I added a spoonful of the sprouts to the plate and a baked potato (which I confess I made in the microwave – don’t tell Julia) and we sat down to eat. The meat was okay – in my haste to breathe clear air I took the filets off the stove too soon and they were on the rare side, but still tasty. The sprouts were a little mushy because I had left them covered after taking them off the stove and so they had continued to steam (hey, I had a lot going on in that kitchen – I can’t think of everything!), but they still had great flavor. But the mushroom and Madeira sauce!! It gave such a great flavor to the meat, and the canape underneath soaked up all the yummy juices and added a nice texture to the meal. The combined flavors of the mushrooms and the wine/tomato sauce really added a lot of depth to an otherwise typical piece of meat. Delicious!!

As we sat around with full tummies, feeling happy and satisfied, I noticed the stress of the day had melted away. And then the phone rang – it was a call about work. My big disaster of the day had been rectified and the vendor on the phone called me from her home to let me know she had resolved my issue. Talk about amazing customer service! It  was 9:00 where she was. I give Wendy from GES a HUGE shout-out – if you lived locally, I would invite you over for some Madeira sauce. Because really, is there any better reward then wonderful food and good company? I don’t think so.

– Jessica

Today’s French Lesson:
“Je voudrais un verre de vin, s’il vous plaît.”

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