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

Floundering in the Kitchen? Go Fish!

  

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“A beautifully sauced fish can well be considered as a separate course and needs nothing but French bread and a good wine to go with it.” – Julia Child

This week, I decided to muster up my courage and give fish another try. When I went to the grocery store over the weekend, I had a heart-to-heart with the butcher. I pointed to the rainbow trout and asked, “Would this be considered a boneless, skinless piece of fish?” She looked at it and shook her head. “No, that’s still got the skin on it. Typically that’s how rainbow trout is cooked – with the skin on.” So then I asked, “If I needed a piece of fish that was boneless and skinless, could I get that and just skin it myself?” She thought for a moment, then shook her head again. “If I were you, I’d just buy a different kind of fish. That would be reeeally hard to skin yourself.” Ah HA!!! This confirmation made me feel so much better about my last les poissons attempt…and encouraged me to try something different this time. When it came down to it, we debated between cod and pollock – both seemed to be white fish, which is the only requirement Julia gives for these fish recipes. Ultimately, we went with the pollock, which neither one of us had ever tried before. Adventure time!

Last night I knocked out three of the recipes in MtAoFC:

Don't get 'em confused...

While none of the steps in this meal prep were difficult, there were a lot of little tasks to manage. I began with the fish, cutting it into four serving sizes (pollock must be one long fish! that one filet was really big) and seasoning it with salt and pepper. I sauteed sliced mushrooms in a pan then set them aside while I heated the fish in a buttered baking dish. I added the mushrooms on top, followed by white wine and water until the meat was barely covered. I brought it to a simmer, then covered it with wax paper and popped it into a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

As the fish was cooking I turned my attention to the side dishes. I boiled some rice in a pot and sauteed diced mushrooms in a separate pan. Once the rice was light and fluffy, I stirred it gently into the pan with the mushrooms, added a little butter to mix in, and that was that. Easy!

Hand-shelling peas

The peas, on the other hand, were also easy – but much more time consuming. Julia requires that we buy peas in the pod and shell them. By hand. While this step was truly fascinating, as I’d never really taken a look at the inside of a pea pod before, it lost its appeal about ten peas into the process. All I’ll say is I have a new appreciation for canned vegetables, and would love the opportunity to introduce Julia to the time saving wonder that IS a canned vegetable. But as I signed on for this project willingly, I won’t complain about the minutia.

I added the peas to a pot of salted, boiling water, and toward the end of their cooking time I added about six small, boiled onions for flavor. For some reason, the pea pot (ooh, bad choice of words…sorry!) took a really long time to come to a boil, so I spent a lot of time waiting around for that to happen. Otherwise, this dish was majorly easy.

Fish and mushrooms

When the fish came out of the oven, I removed the wax paper to find that it was cooked to PERFECTION! I couldn’t believe how tender and moist the meat was, and how good the whole thing smelled. Here, I drained the juices into a saucepan, brought them to a boil and then, off the heat, I added in a paste of butter and flour as well as some cream. I brought the sauce back to a boil, then added spoonfuls of cream and lemon juice for flavoring. A little salt and pepper, and it was good to go.

The last step of the meal was to spoon the sauce over the fish, top with a little shredded Swiss cheese, and a few dots of butter. Then, I set the pan under the broiler in my oven (quick note: in my first apartment, I used the broiler all the time because my oven had a specific button labeled “broiler”; then they eventually replaced my oven with a newer model, and for the next year I couldn’t figure out how to get the broiler to work, so I’ve been broiler shy ever since. I’m happy to announce that last night, I discovered the oven in my house has a “broil” button, so it was really easy to master. Hooray!) and left it in for about 3 minutes, just long enough to melt the cheese and brown the sauce. When I brought the pan back out of the oven, it looked incredible.

One meal can never have too many mushrooms.

I spooned a helping of the rice onto a plate, which served as a bed for the fish. I spooned a little extra sauce on top, then added some peas to the plate. Done and done!! Time to give it a try! The rice was good – the mushrooms weren’t overpowering at all, and actually just added a hint of flavor. Nice! The peas were average – I think I liked Julia’s canned recipe better. But the fish! The fish really surprised me. The meat was thick and hearty, not thin and flaky like I’d expected. The sauce gave it an incredible flavor without jeopardizing the integrity of the well-cooked meat, and the filets didn’t taste fishy at all. I definitely give this recipe two thumbs way up – not only is it easy to make, it didn’t take long in the oven and the end result was delicious! (And this coming from someone who a month and a half ago wasn’t a big fan of fish.)

I still don’t know much about pollock, except that I like it. In fact, skin issue aside, I think I like it better than the trout. (But the trout is a really close second.) Have you ever tried it? You should! Especially when it’s poached in a yummy wine and mushroom sauce – doesn’t that make everything better?

Le fin.

-Jessica

I Think I’m Turning Japanese, I Really Think So

 

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“I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?” – Julia Child

Fun with chopsticks!

Last night, to give ourselves a brief vacation from the butter and cream and wine and sauces and heavy (albeit delicious) meat recipes, I thought I’d try something simpler and lighter. While flipping through MtAoFC trying to find a vegetable side dish for tonight’s dinner, I had happened across a recipe for what Julia called Riz a l’Orientale (vegetarian rice bowl). Ooh! Asian infused French cuisine?? Intriguing!

Here are things that immediately drew me to this recipe:

1.) Only one tablespoon of butter is required for the whole thing. Hallelujah! My hips can breathe a sigh of relief!
2.) Six easy ingredients, almost all of which only needed to be diced and sauteed. Easy!
3.) Julia orders me to “pass chopsticks to my guests”…Chopsticks make any meal fun!
4.) The whole thing only took about 30 minutes to make, as opposed to my usual 1 hour minimum.
5.) Did I mention we get to use chopsticks??

Colorful chopped vegetables

This recipe is so ridiculously easy, I almost hate to even tell you what little amount of work went into preparing this meal. But since we’re friends, and I know you won’t judge me, I’ll go ahead and tell you. While I steamed about four cups of rice, I sauteed minced onion with herbs, followed by diced eggplant with garlic. I set both of these aside, then chopped about 1/3 cup of walnuts and halved 12 cherry tomatoes. The last step was to make an omelet – yes, you heard me. An omelet! I followed the recipe for Julia’s rolled omelet that I made earlier last month, then slid it onto a plate and cut it into thin strips.

Rice, Omelet, Sauteed Vegetables

When the rice was ready, I used a pair of chopsticks to give it a light fluff, then added in the onions, eggplant, walnuts and cherry tomatoes. I gave it a taste and realized it was sorely lacking in seasoning, so I added salt and pepper, then decorated the top with the omelet strips. To go along with our Asian theme, we also made some potstickers that we had in the freezer. Ta-daa! Dinner was served!

I have to say, I was really looking forward to this dish. It seemed so different from anything I’ve made so far, and I really wanted to like it. Unfortunately, I have to report that the best thing about the rice bowl was the chopsticks. To be fair, each element of the dish was pretty good – the rice was nice and fluffy; the onions were well sauteed; the eggplant added a different texture to the otherwise soft rice and onions; the walnuts were…well, a little crunchy and almost out of place; and the tomatoes…I forgot that I don’t like hot tomatoes, and that’s what these turned out to be. So the dish lost points for me on that part alone. I think probably the best food item in this entire dish was the strips of omelet on top. Mostly, I just couldn’t get over how bland the whole thing tasted, and how none of the ingredients really seemed to go together. The whole thing was just kind of weird. And a little disappointing. Thank goodness for potstickers. I offered to try adding some soy sauce to the rice bowl, but Ben just shook his head and said gently, “I don’t think there’s any way to salvage this meal. I’m sorry.” And I think he was probably right.

Finished Rice Bowl

So the question is this: was it operator error? I followed the recipe, but maybe I misunderstood something along the way; I’m not familiar with eggplant, so maybe I made a mistake there? Surely Julia Child wouldn’t have recommended this particular dish in her book if it had turned out the way I had made it. Then again, maybe I just don’t appreciate Asian inspired French cuisine. Or something. All I know is this was the highlight of last night’s dinner conversation:

Ben: “This dinner sort of tastes like…like…”
Me: “Feet?”
Ben: “Well, I wasn’t going to say that, but since you did…yes, it does taste a little bit like feet.”

Anybody out there want to give this one a try and let me know where I went wrong? I can’t find any record on Julie Powell’s blog that she attempted this dish, so I have nothing else to go by. Tell you what…first person to make this dish successfully (even if it still comes out tasting like feet) and reports back on this site with their own review will win a set of chopsticks. For real. Because I just have to know.

Off to finish the last of the potstickers…

-Jessica

Start Spreadin’ the News: Butter vs. Margarine

Butter and Margarine

I’ve always grown up with the idea that butter is bad. High in cholesterol and fat, it should be used sparingly – if at all – and ever since I can remember our version of “butter” has come in a tan colored tub. In fact, the only time I ever saw “real” butter was during the rare special occasion, when it was served on a saucer in little decorative scoops at a fancy restaurant.

So when I opened Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and noticed the copious amounts of the “B” word, I recoiled in horror. Poor Julia! Didn’t she know the evils with which she was dealing?? Alas, I had to recognize that she was cooking in a different time – a time when things like Trans Fat content didn’t have to be broadcast on a product’s label. Oh, Julia – however did you survive??

So I bought a supply of butter…in a box. This was a first, and I have to admit I snobbily handled it as if it were a dirty tissue, holding it away from myself as I carried it to and from the refrigerator. But then I began tasting these recipes – these wonderful sauces – which owed their delicious flavor to this one magical ingredient. And I started thinking…maybe I was being too harsh. Maybe I wasn’t giving butter a fair chance. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I did an online search for Butter vs. Margarine. Here’s what I found out:

Margarine was first created in 1869 by Hippolyite Mege Mouries of France (*gasp!* FRANCE?? Don’t tell Julia…) in response to Napolean III’s offering of a prize to whoever could succeed at creating a low-cost substitute for butter. The mixture that Mege Mouries came up with, called oleomargarine, was achieved by adding salty water, milk, and margaric acid to softened beef fat. By the turn of the century, the beef fat was replaced by vegetable oils.

Because margarine is made from vegetable oils, it contains no cholesterol. (Score 1 for margarine!) It’s also higher in “good” fats than butter is. These types of fat (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) help reduce “bad” cholesterol, when substituted for saturated fat. But alas, margarine is by no means pure and angelic in its entirety. The controversy with margarine lies with its level of trans fat, largely a man-made fat. Trans fats have been shown to increase the “bad” cholesterol similarly to saturated fats, and they tend to lower the “healthy” cholesterol when eaten in large amounts. (Minus 1 for margarine.) What’s more – trans fats may make our blood platelets stickier. (I hate sticky blood platelets, don’t you?) While no standard intakes of trans fat have been set, one tablespoon of stick margarine packs a whopping 3 grams of trans fat and 2 grams saturated fat.

To recap: Margarine = no cholesterol (good!); high in good fats (good!); high in trans fats (bad!); increased clogged arteries (bad!)

Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains dietary cholesterol and high levels of saturated fat. When eaten in excess, saturated fats increase the “bad” cholesterol as well as the “good” cholesterol. Despite the fact that saturated fats raise good cholesterol, they don’t raise it enough to solely justify its consumption. Saturated fat intakes are associated with increases in heart-disease risk. A healthy range of saturated fat is 10 – 15 grams each day. Just one tablespoon of butter contains over 7 grams of saturated fat! D’oh!

To recap: Butter = high in cholesterol (bad!); increases good cholesterol (good!); increases risk of heart disease (bad!)

So what’s a girl to do?? I’ll tell you what – check out this comparison chart:

FAT TYPE PER SERVING *
Product Total Fat Saturated Fat Trans Fat Saturated and Trans Fats
Butter 10.8 7.2 0.3 7.5
Margarine, stick (82% fat) 11.4 2.3 2.4 4.7
Margarine, stick (68% fat) 9.5 1.6 1.8 3.4
Margarine, tub (80% fat) 11.2 1.9 1.1 3.0
Margarine, tub (40% fat) 5.6 1.1 0.6 1.7
* Butter values from FDA Table of Trans Values, dated 1/30/95.
Other values from USDA Composition Data, 1995.
SOURCE: FDA http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/qatrans.html

If you ask me, the differences between butter and margarine are a toss-up. Sure, in some ways, margarine seems like a healthier option – but if you’re like me, you find yourself saying, “Ooh, since it’s healthier, I think I’ll have TWO pieces of toast!” and the next thing you know, you’ve consumed just as much (if not more) “bad” cholesterol as if you had just had one serving of butter.

So I say quit worrying so much about a tablespoon of butter here or a scoop of margarine there. I mean, don’t go butter and margarine crazy – I wouldn’t recommend gnawing on a stick of butter the next time you’re hankering for a snack, or sitting in front of the TV scooping margarine out of the tub by the spoonful, or anything. But don’t freak out over one serving of the stuff, either. 

Live by Julia’s motto: Everything in moderation. Including moderation.

-Jessica

They Don’t Call it TOP Sirloin for Nothin’!

 

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“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” – Julia Child

Sometimes there’s nothing better than a thick juicy steak, so that’s what we had last night to bring our wonderful 3-day weekend to a close. I made Julia’s Biftek Saute Bercy (pan-broiled steak with shallot and white wine sauce) with a side of Pommes de Terre Sautees (potatoes sauteed in butter) and corn on the cob. All I can say is, STOP THE PRESSES! HOLD EVERYTHING!! Whatever you were planning on making for dinner tonight, you may as well just set it all aside because THIS, my friends, is what you need to make instead. I kid you not – this recipe blew me away, and I can promise you’ll have the same reaction. Here’s how it went…

Potato Olives?

I steamed the corn on the cob – no big thing here. While those were cooking away, I turned my attention to the potatoes because I knew they would take longer than the steak. I peeled about a pound of potatoes, then paused at Julia’s next direction. I had to read it a few times, and even then I had to get a second opinion from Ben to determine how I was supposed to interpret these instructions. Julia called for me to cut the potatoes into “elongated olive shapes”. This turned out to be trickier than I thought it would be – I spent the next ten minutes with a sharp knife, whittling away at these potatoes as though they were blocks of wood. Trying not to be wasteful, I quartered each potato and worked to make each fourth into a round oval shape – in retrospect, I was probably just supposed to cut one whole potato into one olive shape, but that would have been a lot of waste, so I don’t feel too badly about the way I handled this task. Besides, in the end, they turned out fine, so whatever.

I put some butter and oil into a pan and, when the butter stopped foaming, I tossed in the potato “olives” and let them grow golden brown on one side, then shook the pan to roll the potatoes around and brown another side. I continued this practice for about five minutes, then reduced the heat and put a cover over the pan and let the potatoes cook this way for about 15 minutes (giving the pan an occasional shake to keep the potatoes from burning).

Top Sirloin

While the potatoes cooked, I set to work on cooking the steak. We purchased a huge, beautiful top sirloin from the grocery store yesterday morning, and couldn’t wait to have it for dinner. I tossed some butter and oil into a pan and set the meat (which I first dried with paper towels) into the pan. I let it cook on one side for about five minutes, then turned it to cook the other side. The last time I made meat this way, I followed Julia’s timeline and the meat was waaaay undercooked for our liking. So this time, I let it cook longer than The Book called for – in the end, I was glad I’d done this, because the meat turned out perfect! I cut into it at one point while it was still in the pan and could tell it needed a few more minutes. During that time, I went back to the potatoes, added a little salt and rolled them around in the pan one last time. I drained the fat from the pan, then added a little butter, chives and pepper to flavor the potatoes, gave the pan a good shake and that was that.

Not long after, the meat was ready to come off the stove. I set it aside on a big serving platter while I worked on the white wine sauce. After draining the fat from the pan, I added a 1/4 cup of Vermouth to the pan and set it back over the heat on the stove – I used a wooden spoon to stir all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, then removed the pan from the stove and stirred in some butter, salt and pepper. The sauce thickened nicely and I knew we were ready to put everything together.

The steak was so large, I cut the meat into thirds and set a section on two plates. I added an ear of corn to each as well as a helping of potatoes, then spooned a healthy amount of sauce over each piece of meat, poured two glasses of Merlot and we were ready to dig in.

Make this TONIGHT!!

Ben started with the potatoes (no surprise there) but I went straight for the meat. The second I bit into it, I closed my eyes and smiled. And died a thousand deaths. I know because angels were singing and harps were playing. It. was. delicious. It was seasoned perfectly and packed with flavor, and the sauce on top was perfect – not too little, not too much. (I’ll admit now that I went back for seconds and was glad that while standing at the meat counter at the store, Ben decided to buy a bigger steak than what the recipe called for – hooray for leftovers!)

The potatoes were the biggest surprise of all. I didn’t know what to expect – I thought they would have the consistency of boiled potatoes. On the contrary, the golden outside had a slight crispness to it, but the insides were soft, like breakfast potatoes. They were well-seasoned and full of flavor, and unlike any form of potato either of us had ever eaten. They were so easy to make, and such a delight, that I’ll definitely make these again.

This meal easily ranks among our Top 5 Favorites so far in this Julia Child project. Remember my dad’s rating system for determining whether a meal is truly “excellent”? If each part of the meal can stand on its own as an “excellent” dish, then the overall meal is considered excellent. This meal definitely qualifies. And the best part is, everything was so stinkin’ easy to make!! It’s definitely one of those dinners that doesn’t take much effort, but is sure to impress your dinner guests. There are no excuses to not make this meal – it’s a must. Because you can get such large cuts of meat, this could easily feed a party of your closest friends, or win over your boss, or it could make a wonderful romantic dinner for two over candlelight and soft music. Either way, I need you to pinky swear that you’ll look up this recipe and make it. Soon. Like, this week. I promise, you won’t be sorry.

Just be sure you don’t have anything important to do after you eat this meal – because all you’ll want to do afterward is lie on the sofa in a meat-induced drunken stupor, rubbing your satisfied belly, and repeating the words, “That was SO good!” with a stupid smile on your face. So on second thought, maybe you shouldn’t make this for your boss after all. But if you were ever going to lose your job over a meal, I tell you friends, THIS meal would be worth it.

Resuming my place on the sofa…

-Jessica

Today’s French Lesson:
“Je suis trop pleine de se déplacer.”

When You’re On Vacay, It’s Okay to Go Whole Hog

Whole Hog Cafe

In the mood for some really good barbecue? I mean, REALLY good, award-winning, rock your socks off barbecue? Take a little trip to Whole Hog Cafe in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’m not a big fan of internet acronyms, but even I have to give a big O.M.G. to this place.

Featured on Food Network’s Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels and located on Central Street, we actually found it by accident – it was in a strip shopping center next door to the day spa where we treated ourselves to a much-needed couple’s massage (jealous yet?). We came spilling out of the salon in a puddle of relaxed goo on rubbery legs with grumbly tummies, and happened to glance over and see this place called Whole Hog Cafe – but the real eye-catching thing was the collection of huge trophies in the front windows of the restaurant. Award-winning barbecue? Um. Yes, please!

Award-Winning indeed!

We walked in and were immediately impressed with the cozy feel of the restaurant – much nicer than the outside would have us believe. There was no line, and we walked right up to the counter to place our order. Ben got the Whole Hog Platter (ribs, pulled pork, brisket, beans, cole slaw and potato salad with a roll) and I got a brisket sandwich (I asked for the cole slaw on the side, though it would normally be served right on the sandwich itself).

Barbecue Sauces

When our number was called, we took our food to a booth where a roll of paper towels and a carton of six barbecue sauce options awaited us. The carton gave a description of each sauce so you could decide which one to try – all were good, but my favorite was the “traditional” sauce #1. The cole slaw wasn’t bad – it was a vinegar base, which isn’t my favorite, but tasty nonetheless. But the BRISKET. Holy smokes, it was good! The meat was cut the perfect thickness, and it was so tender and full of flavor – Ben and I agreed that this could be the best brisket we’ve ever had. And we’ve had a lot of brisket. (Ben also had the ribs, which he claimed were “okay” – but even “okay” food at this place was pretty darn good!)

Whole Hog Platter

While the chopped brisket was clearly the star of this meal, the biggest surprise of the meal was Ben’s potato salad. I had never had anything like it. It was super creamy (maybe based in a sour cream and cream cheese mixture?) with big chunks of potato – it was amazing. If you don’t like potato salad, I beg you to try this before you write it off forever. Whole Hog potato salad might just change your mind.

After only one visit, it’s easy to see why this barbecue place is award-winning. Friendly staff, excellent food, good atmosphere – I highly recommend you add this to your list of places to visit the next time you’re in the Hot Springs area. And if you aren’t planning a trip to Hot Springs, now you have a reason!

Happy travels!
-Jessica

Knowledge is Power!

At first glance, this site may seem like your everyday cooking blog, but my goal is for it to be much more than that. One thing I want to do is teach through my own experiences, just as Julia Child did in her books and on her television shows. Sometimes the teaching may be subtle, and sometimes it’ll reach out and smack you right upside the head. This is one of those blatant head-smacking posts. Just wanted to give you fair warning.

Don’t you just love learning how things work? After my debacle with the garbage disposal recently, I got to to thinking…how does that thing actually work? Because we can’t really see any of its functioning parts through the drain, it’s kind of a mystery. So I looked it up, and was amazed to learn that it doesn’t work the way I thought it did. I guess I always kind of imagined it to be like a blender, with little blades that slice and dice and send food particles down through the pipes. Not the case! Check out this video:

(Editor’s Note: the environmental slant at the end of the video does not necessarily represent the views of this website. This was just the best explanatory video we could find.)

Speaking of videos, check out my new Video page on this site! Find the tab at the top of the home page and you can see an archive of the cooking videos I’ve created thus far.

You might also like to learn that I’ve added a Contact page. Have something you want to say, but are maybe too shy for the public nature of the comment feature? Send me an email – I promise to check it regularly.

And lastly, have you noticed that for the past week or so, the large photos featured in the slideshow on the home page are less stock images and more ACTUAL images?? These are meals I’ve really and truly cooked – stay tuned for updates.

-Jessica

If I Say “Bloody Mary” into the Mirror Three Times, Will Someone Bring Me a Drink?

Me and Ben in 30 Years

Last night I sat in the lobby of one of my favorite hotels, listening to some wonderful live music, having a few cocktails and doing some people watching. We’re taking advantage of the three-day weekend by spending some time relaxing in one of our favorite little get-away spots. After the success of last weekend’s big Rich-Tone show, we’re treating ourselves to a couple’s massage, a few drinks, and a weekend completely free of schedules. No deadlines; no timelines; no calendars and no watches! What time is it? It’s time to kick back and enjoy life day by day rather than minute by minute. And it all began with ordering one of my favorite drinks…a Bloody Mary. 

I always thought of Bloody Mary’s as an older person’s drink, so when my mom ordered one on her birthday cruise this past January, I was surprised. And sort of charmed. (My mom could not possibly, even by the greatest stretch of the imagination, be considered an older lady.) She offered to let me try it, and I was shocked to learn that I loved it! It’s been “our” drink ever since.

Flying home from a recent trip to Florida to celebrate what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday (we dubbed the trip “Momapalooza” and had a blast visiting all of her old stomping grounds), we decided to treat ourselves to a Bloody Mary on the plane. (Does anybody do that anymore? I felt so retro!) The flight attendant was feeling especially sassy and not only never charged us for the drinks, but slipped us some extra on the side. Flight + Bloody Mary’s + time with Mom = FUN. Well, for us. Apparently not for the lady across the aisle from us, who audibly shushed us when the arrival announcements came on the P.A. system. (I don’t think I’ve ever been shushed as an adult before – I tried not to take it personally, since she was looking pretty green around the gills for the duration of the flight. Perhaps it was she who needed the double Bloody Mary!) 

Bloody Mary

So now whenever I go to a new bar, and am feeling a little more mellow than a frozen margarita (my real true alcohol love), I like to give the ol’ tomato drink a try. I love when it comes with decorative green olives inside – not only is it like finding the prize at the bottom of the cereal box, it’s like getting a snack and a drink all in one! And this particular hotel lobby bar in this particular get-away spot on this particular weekend makes gooooood Bloody Mary’s. Complete with big fat green olives. 

What has life brought you lately that has seemed overwhelming? What item on your mile-long To-Do list have you been procrastinating? What needs of others have kept you so busy you’ve had to neglect the needs of your own? Here’s what I suggest…stop everything. Put the world on hold. Don’t think about your schedule; don’t think about what’s waiting for you; ignore that nagging feeling telling you that you don’t have time to take a breath. Sit down. Put your feet up. Pour yourself a drink and r.e.l.a.x. Even if it’s just long enough to listen to one song on the radio. I promise, all those other things can wait – they’ll still be there when you’re done having You Time.  

Should you find yourself in my get-away spot, feel free to join me in the hotel lobby for a Bloody Mary – I’ll be the one being shushed by the overly wound-up people around me.

-Jessica

Feeling a Little…Saucy

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When asked if she knew her cholesterol level, Julia Child replied, “Medium.”

Last night was a rare occasion…Ben had the night off work, so I didn’t have to eat dinner at 10:30! (Yesss!) There’s something pretty cool about coming home from a day of manual labor (yesterday was spent sorting boxes in the warehouse…ugh), opening the front door and having your husband there to literally greet you with open arms. *dreamy sigh*

To reward him for his undying love, I did what any good and loyal wife would do – I cooked him a meal high in calories and big on taste. I managed to knock out four (yes, FOUR!) recipes last night:

Surprisingly nice pork chops, considering they came from the local market.

This recipe was not only really easy, but it didn’t take long at all – maybe an hour total. (Much more realistic than a certain 2 1/2-hour beef stew which shall remain nameless.) I began by cooking the pork chops the same way as our previously prepared casserole-sauteed chops – pat them dry with paper towels and brown them in cooking oil in an oven-safe pan over the stove. Take ’em out of the pan and drain all the fat, then toss in some butter and halved garlic cloves and put the meat back in the pan (there’s a lot of back and forth in these recipes, have you noticed?). Since I opted to not marinate the meat ahead of time, at this point I added some salt, pepper and thyme to the chops to add a little bit of flavor. Then I covered the pan and stuck it in a 325 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

While those were cooking, I got to work on our side dishes. The most time consuming part of the whole meal was getting the water to boil for the cauliflower – holy moly, that took a long time. But once it came to a rapid boil, things moved right along. I took a head of cauliflower and removed the leaves and stem. I cut the head into “flowerets” (that word makes me a little uncomfortable…shouldn’t it be “florets”?) and rinsed it all in a bowl of cold water. I tossed the cauliflower into the pot of boiling water and let it work its magic for about 10 minutes.

Cauliflower boiling on the stove

Then I turned my attention to the peas. Personally, I have no problem using canned vegetables. Growing up, we always had fresh veggies at home, but since being married to a man whose family relied on canned green beans and peas, I have come to appreciate the speed and ease at which one can empty a can of vegetables into a bowl and put it in the microwave for a few seconds and voila! An instant side dish!

Julia doesn’t seem to mind canned vegetables, either – as long as you dress ’em up before sending them to the party. She recommends sauteing some chopped green onions in a little bit of butter, then adding the peas to the pan with some salt and pepper. Pour in a little cooking stock and boil for a few minutes until most of the liquid has cooked away. This whole process took about five minutes, and they did look much nicer than just slopping them into a bowl straight from the can. So I’ll concede that this wasn’t a bad way to make peas.

Pass the peas, please!

At the fifteen minute mark, I took the pork chops out of the oven and flipped them over, basting them with the buttery juices sizzling in the bottom of the pan. They were turning a warm roasted brown color and smelling wonderful, so I knew I was on the right track. With fifteen minutes left until the meat was ready, I knew it was time to work on the sauce for the chops and the sauce for the cauliflower. (My mom asked me yesterday, “How does one Frenchify pork chops and cauliflower?” I realized the answer was simple: wine, butter and sauce.)

First I made the mustard, cream and tomato sauce for the meat. Simmer some whipping cream, salt and pepper in a small sauce pan while mixing a couple tablespoons of tomato paste and a tablespoon of dry mustard. Pour the hot cream into the tomato paste and beat it all together until it becomes a smooth, creamy sauce of medium thickness. Wasn’t that easy?

The fresh cream sauce for the cauliflower was even easier – simmer whipping cream, salt and pepper in a small saucepan and add drops of lemon juice while stirring. Take the mixture off the heat and mix in some butter. That’s it! The final product will look like a watered down version of ranch dressing.

When the oven timer sounded, I was glad to see that everything had finished on time. I pulled the pork chops out of the oven and set one on a plate, spooning some of the creamy tomato sauce over the top. A spoonful of peas and a few florets of cauliflower drizzled with the cream sauce finished the plate…and I immediately knew we had a winner.

Pork Chop Dinner - delish!!!

The pork chop was so tender, my knife slid right through it. It was thick and juicy, cooked to the perfect temperature, and while it could have held its own, the creamy tomato sauce on top was a terrific enhancement of flavors. It didn’t taste specifically like tomatoes, really. Everything worked together to make an entirely different taste. The mustard gave just the slightest bit of tanginess, and while I didn’t smother the meat with the liquid, I did find myself mopping up any leftover drizzlings with the bites of meat on my plate. Delicious.

The cauliflower alone was pretty typical – I’ve learned from Julia that my whole life I’ve been overcooking my vegetables – it turns out I like them to be a little crispier than I’ve been making them. So these were on the crunchier side while still being tender, which I really liked. The sauce was excellent – surprisingly light and not overpowering at all. It almost added a touch of gentle sweetness to the vegetables, and again, I didn’t drown them in the sauce – a little drizzle over the top was plenty.

Holly Hunter & Richard Dreyfuss in "Always"

I liked the peas quite a bit. I probably left them on the stove a little too long, as they were a little on the soft side, but overall the flavors of the added onion and beef stock kicked it up a notch, and had I served these at a group dinner, I’d bet money that not one person would have guessed that these came from a can. (Random tangent: I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from the movie “Always” when Holly Hunter has invited the love interest over for dinner, but she can’t cook. So she’s ordered a meal from a restaurant and hides the take-home containers and messes up the kitchen so it looked like she spent all afternoon cooking herself. Great scene.  Great movie.) I suspect the trick here is to drain and rinse the peas when they first come out of the can – that helps rid them of any tin-iness and seems to freshen them up a bit.

This meal was outstanding. I’d definitely make this in my everyday cooking life. While I normally don’t use lots of sauces in my cooking – never on vegetables! – I can certainly see how the creamy tomato sauce brought the pork chops to a new level, and I’ve made a mental note to remember these various sauce recipes so I can incorporate them more into my “American” recipes. What about you? Do you use many sauces? If not, I challenge you to reconsider – try this one in particular. It’s so easy, and super tasty – a winning combination.

In other news, if anyone has seen my waistline from July, please let it know I miss it and would love for it to return home where it belongs. Thank you.

Feeling a little saucy….not to mention thick around the middle.

– Jessica

Beef Stew? More Like Beef Stewpendous!

 

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“L’il Julie’s gone and grown up (out).  It’s not so much the Boeuf a la Catalane we eat at eleven o’clock at night as it is the vodka tonics and three thousand crackers smeared with cream cheese and roasted raspberry-chipotle sauce consumed during the making of it, and the milano cookies eaten out of the bag when it’s done.” – Julie Powell 

Yesterday we had a much-needed downpour at our house that brought temperatures down into the high 70’s. There’s something so comforting about sitting inside with a lap full of warm cat while the sky outside is gray and dreary, so what better to make for dinner than some real comfort food?

Last night I tried something entirely different from Julia’s repertoire – Boeuf a la Catalane (beef stew with rice, onions and tomatoes). This dish comes from the Spanish-Mediterranean corner of France – and page 321 of The Book. I’ll preface this recipe by saying that if you’re in the mood for some delicious beef stew courtesy of our favorite French chef, you’d better have some time on your hands. While this recipe is extremely easy to make, it is time consuming – roughly 2 1/2 hours altogether. But on a lazy, rainy evening when you have nothing else to do (didja hear that, world?? A Wednesday night where I had nothing else to do!! *cue symphony and insert slow-mo mountain-top spinning scene here*) it’s a great dish to throw together.

Allow me to introduce you. Lardons, world. World, lardons.

I began by preheating my oven to 325 degrees. Meanwhile, the first step of this recipe called for me to cut a chunk of bacon into lardons. I was already in trouble. No illustrations? No detailed explanation? I did what any self-respecting 21st century home cook would do…I turned to the internet for google images. It turns out lardons are small, somewhat thick slices of bacon – as though you had taken a strip of bacon, laid it down horizontally on a cutting board and sliced it vertically from end to end. Now, due to a crazy schedule last weekend and a torrential downpour at precisely the moment I was on my way to buy groceries last night, I was unable to visit my favorite grocery store so I had to settle for my close-to-home neighborhood market. Convenient, but not a very wide (and certainly not a very gourmet) selection. As it turns out, they don’t sell bacon by the chunk, so I resorted to a package of thick-cut bacon. Whatever works!

I cut about three pieces and put them into some water on the stove, where they simmered for about 10 minutes. I drained them and pat them dry, then browned them lightly in a skillet of hot olive oil. Before they got crispy, I scooped them with a slotted spoon into a casserole dish. Next came the main ingredient of our dish: stewing beef.

Stew Meat and Lardons...heh...I said "lard"

Again, because of a lack of options at my disposal, I went with a pre-cut package of stew meat. If I had it to do over again, I’d buy a nicer cut of meat and cut it into cubes myself – but hey, I did the best with what I had to work with. I browned this meat in the same skillet the bacon had just cooked in, then moved the beef to the casserole dish as well. Next I lowered the heat a bit and added sliced onions to the pan, and I have to say, I have become quite the onion saute master! As I watched them turn to a golden brown, I remembered back to when I had tried to saute sliced onions for Fajita Night before Julia came into my life. While I started out on the right track, I wound up with little shriveled-up black shoelaces to put in my tortilla. Not so good. But THESE! Now THESE were sauteed onions! I tossed them into the casserole dish along with the bacon and beef…things were looking good so far!

The following step had me puzzled, but I have learned to not question the master and just to accept her words of wisdom. Julia says to … are you ready?… add a cup of raw white rice to the pan and stir it until it turns a milky color. Whahuh? But…but…rice goes in water! Julia, is this a prank? Am I on candid camera? No, friends, I assure you this is no prank. Toss that dry rice right into the pan and give it a little stir for a couple of minutes. You’ll hear the last little bit of oil in the pan sizzling, and then you can scoop the rice into a separate bowl to set aside for later.

Simmer down now!

Now that you’re faced with an empty pan, pour some vermouth in and scrape any last little bits of goodness from the sides of the pan and pour it into the casserole dish. Add some beef stock until it’s just about the same height as the meat in the dish, then add some seasonings: salt, pepper, thyme, crumbled bay leaf, and some mashed garlic. Bring it all to a simmer on the stove, then pop into the oven for an hour. Then set your alarm and take a nap. At least, that’s what I did. But don’t oversleep, or else the next alarm you hear could be your smoke alarm!

When the hour is up, take the dish out of the oven (oh, man, is it looking good!) and add some tomato pulp (the whole peeling/seeding/juicing process still kind of weirds me out, but it comes easy now). Bring back to a simmer on the stove top and then put it back in the oven for another hour. And take another nap. (Hm, I’m liking this dish more and more!)

The final step is to remove the dish from the oven, raise the heat to 375 and stir in the dry rice. Simmer the whole thing on the stove one final time, then put it all in the oven for another 20 minutes. As Ron Popeil would say, “Set it and forget it!” Don’t touch that rice until the whole thing is ready to come back out of the oven, at which point the rice will be fully cooked and will have absorbed the majority of the liquid in the casserole.

Boeuf a la Catalane

At this point, add any last seasoning you want and gently fold some grated Swiss cheese into the mixture. Ta-daa!! Stew is complete! The first thing I noticed was how much it looked more like a gumbo than a stew – most of the liquid had cooked down, and the rice gave it a nice thick texture. This is one really hearty dish, and it was absolutely fantastic. I served it with some thick French bread for dipping, and even though Julia recommends serving it with a salad, we felt these two items alone were plenty. The flavors in this meal really melded well. The bacon and onion were barely noticeable in the overall flavor, yet somehow I think they would have really been missed had they not been included at all. The tomato flavor was really strong but not overpowering, and the beef was tender and plentiful in the dish (I hate a beef stew that seems to be lacking in the beef department). Whether you’re looking to feed your own family a home-cooked meal, are needing an idea to take to a pot luck, or you want to send a meal to a friend in need, this dish would fit the bill. Despite the amount of time it takes to cook, it’s time well spent. I give this recipe two thumbs up and am looking forward to making it again this winter – perfect comfort food on a cold night. 

And speaking of comfort…

Today, in memory of a sweet friend, I challenge you to show one person in your life how much they mean to you. Whether it’s through a home-cooked meal or just a few kind words, let’s spend our day brightening someone else’s.

-Jessica

A Sinking Feeling…

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I made Ratatouille? Well, in the interest of time, I didn’t tell you the whole story…sure, I recounted the parts about peeling the eggplant and cooking the vegetables in a pot on the stove. But I didn’t reveal the VH1 behind-the-scenes story…not because I didn’t want you to know, but because I was in the throes of preparing for Ben’s birthday and my stress level was high enough without reliving the chain of events that ensued.

But now that everything is back to normal in the Edwards household and I’ve found my happy place, I’m finally ready to recount the tale of our kitchen sink.

I’ll begin by saying that I’ve always been overly cautious about what goes down the garbage disposal. Unlike my husband who, one Thanksgiving, put the giblets down the sink without telling me – when I flipped the switch to activate the disposal, I cannot begin to describe to you the horrific scene that followed which left our sink full of smelly yuck that looked to be a leftover prop from a Wes Craven movie. *shudder*

So there I stood, peeling eggplant into the kitchen sink with Ratatouille on the brain, thinking nothing of the purple skins left behind. Later, as the main course baked in the oven, I began working on Ben’s carrot cake, peeling the carrots into the sink along with the eggplant leftovers. The kitchen was a war zone (as always) and when I finally had all dishes under control, I scooped egg shells and peelings down the drain and turned on the garbage disposal.

And then I noticed something odd.

My first inkling that something was wrong...

The sink was slowly filling up with water. Thinking I hadn’t let the disposal run long enough, I ran it again…and the sink continued to fill with water. Rats. I reached warily down into the drain, feeling around for something that may have escaped my attention and was blocking the water from going down – and then, to my horror, the garbage disposal flipped on with my hand down the drain!!!

Okay, that didn’t really happen. But don’t you always kind of worry that it will?

There was nothing causing a blockage, and I didn’t have time to worry about it, so I continued on with my recipes. When Ben came home, I felt bad greeting him with, “Hooray! You’re home! The sink’s backed up.” It was his birthday weekend, after all. But not to worry! He emerged from the doorway armed with a plunger – my hero! While I tended to the miscellaneous items I had in the oven, he plunged away at the sink, the whole time saying, “Boy, don’t you feel more and more like Julie Powell??” Ugh. But I wasn’t worried. If anyone could fix the drain, it would be my husband.

Uh...should I be concerned about the color of the water in the bowl??

Only the plunger didn’t seem to do the trick. So we took a peek at the pipes down below and were a little alarmed to see water coming out of the pipe that led from the disposal. This couldn’t be good. I slipped a large bowl beneath the pipes, and Ben loosened them to let the remaining water out of the sink. That was a good start!

And then he pulled the pipes apart, and…oh, dear…it was obvious who the culprit was.

The pipe was packed with bits of carrot and eggplant, and other random bits of foods. Note to self: don’t peel vegetables in the sink anymore. Ick. Ben cleaned out the pipe and screwed it back into place…but still the plumbing wasn’t working right. And it was then that we noticed the hole that had burst in one of the other pipes from the pressure of the plunger. (Have I mentioned that these pipes are 21 years old?) Oops.

What's orange and purple and smelly all over?

My first thought was, “How much will this cost to fix?” And my second thought was, “How can I wash all these dishes??” Ben was able to rig the pipes so that I could run the dishwasher with no problems, however we had to block off the other half of the sink until we could replace the pipe with the hole. It’s always something, I tell ya.

In case you don’t know, the inside of kitchen pipes STINK. And when you leave the pipes open overnight with nothing but a cabinet door to keep them concealed, WHOOIEE that stink permeates your entire kitchen. Talk about one unpleasant experience.

Luckily, it only took one inexpensive trip to Home Depot and a couple hours of manual labor, and we had brand new plumbing beneath our kitchen sink. Ben and his brother fixed it with no problems, and I’ve learned a score of valuable lessons:
1.) Don’t put peelings down the kitchen sink
2.) Julia Child’s recipes are causing my poor kitchen to work like it’s never worked before
3.) The recipes are going to be the easy part of this cooking challenge…it’s the destruction they cause that’s going to be the end of me.

-Jessica

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