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

Something for the Upper Crust

 

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“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken.” – Julia Child

Last week I was in the mood for some good chicken (which translates to: chicken a la Julia Child). Despite the fact our refrigerator isn’t as well-stocked as it was just a few months ago, we did have some thawed chicken breasts on the middle shelf that looked promising. I decided to make Julia’s Supremes de Volaille a la Milanaise (chicken breasts rolled in parmesan and fresh bread crumbs), which, as it turned out, was both easy and delicious!

Before we get started, I have an important question to ask you. Does anyone else’s family call parmesan cheese “Pardon Me John”? Just wondering.

Look at that great parmesan/bread crumb crust resting on that chicken! Can't wait to get it in the pan...

I started with two chicken breasts seasoned with salt and pepper, and I rolled each one in a plate of flour, a light dusting that would help the crust adhere to the meat. Next, they took a quick dip in a bath of egg, salt and olive oil, and were then rolled around in a shallow dish of freshly grated parmesan cheese and white bread crumbs. I set the crusted chicken on a sheet of waxed paper and turned away for about 15 minutes to let the crust become better acquainted with the chicken. (I know what you’re thinking, but these are modern times…these kids don’t need chaperones.)

I decided to make good use of my 15 minutes of down-time, so I cleaned up the mess I had made so far, storing the extra crust mixture in a ziplog bag and wiping down my flour-dusted counter. I then began to prepare for the next step – sauteing the meat in clarified butter on the stove. (Fun Fact: Ordinary butter will burn and leave black specks on your meat, whereas clarified butter can cook at a higher temperature before burning. Thanks, Mr. Wizard!) I still haven’t quite mastered the art of making clarified butter (mostly because I lack a little thing called patience), so I gave myself a head start. Sure enough, I wound up with very little clarified butter in the pan, so I added more and waited for it it to foam up, removed the foam from the pan, and was left with the usable clear butter. (Helpful Hint: When making clarified butter, start with more than you think you’ll need. By the time you skim the foam off the top, you won’t be left with nearly as much as you expect.)

I brought the chicken over to the stove and, with a pair of tongs, gently set each piece into the hot butter in the pan. The meat instantly began sizzling and popping, which I figured was a good sign, and after a few moments I went to scoot the meat around the pan – and immediately realized I had a problem. Because I hadn’t used very much butter, the meat was sticking to the bottom of the pan…which also meant the lovely parmesan/bread crumb crust was sticking to the pan. *sigh*

*Note to self: when cooking meat in  a pan, don’t be stingy with the butter. (See “Helpful Hint”, above.)
**Another note to self: when sauteing anything with a crust in a pan, minimize the number of times you flip the item over, as this will reak havoc on your beautiful crust.
This has been an announcement from your friendly voice of experience. Over and out.

I like this idea much better than actual fried chicken.

Thinking quickly, I added more butter to the pan and flipped the chicken over. Sure enough, large chunks of the crust had pulled away from the meat, exposing patches of bare skin. (*gasp!* Scandalous!!) My eyes fell on the bag of my leftover parmesan/bread crumbs and I was suddenly relieved I hadn’t thrown it away. I reached for it and sprinkled more crumbs over the bare areas on the chicken – after all, what did I have to lose?

My plan worked great! The new crumbs adhered to the meat, and slowly the crust began to turn a golden brown and the meat began to resemble fried chicken. It looked wonderful and smelled delicious, and I had managed to salvage a near-disaster. Hooray! Julia says to cook the meat until it springs back when you touch it with your finger. I really couldn’t tell by using that method, and the meat was really hot! So I opted for my own test of simply cutting into the chicken to see how things were coming along. When the center was cooked through, I removed the meat to a side plate to let it rest.

The final step of this meal was to make the Beurre Noisette  (brown butter sauce) that goes on top…mmmm! Julia has several butter sauce recipes, but this particular one called for more clarified butter browned in the pan with a dash of lemon juice and parsley. C’est magnifique! I first used the tongs to scrape the extra bits of crust that had been left on the bottom of the pan (d’oh!), then added more butter to the pan and created the sauce.

The chicken wasn't as blackened as this photo would have you believe...see photo in pan above.

When finished, I set each piece of chicken on a plate along with a scoop of instant rice and a side of warmed canned peas (hey, man, not everything on the plate has to be high-end French cuisine! Don’t judge me.), then drizzled the butter sauce over the meat. This meal really looked beautiful. I used a knife to cut into the chicken, and was thrilled to see the crust had formed perfectly – it gave a light crunch as I cut into it, but wasn’t too heavy and didn’t overpower the meat. The chicken was cooked just right, tender and juicy and a perfect compliment to the slightly cheesy crispiness of the crust.

I’d say the whole entree took about 40 minutes, including 15 minutes of resting time (for the chicken, not for me). Not too bad, especially when the two sides I made could be cooking simultaneously. A delicious dinner in under an hour? Yes, please! This meal was really easy to make, yet it ended with really impressive results. Not only will I make this again, but I plan to use this method of “frying” for other foods…like the batch of green tomatoes my friend brought me from her garden. Yum!

Don’t believe how easy this was to make? See for yourself – watch my video*! If you’re looking for:
a.) a quick recipe for dinner
b.) an easy meal that everyone will like
c.) something to do with that dadgum chicken that’s been in your freezer for a month
then I highly suggest you give this a try.

Bon appetit!
– Jessica

*I realize the finished crusted chicken looks a little burnt in the video, but it really wasn’t. Chalk it up to bad lighting and a low budget production facility.

Salmon Chanted Evening

 

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“Souffles are tricky on a diet.  They fool you.  You take a bite of a delicious salmon soufflé, perfectly browned, light and puffy, and you can’t help thinking, against all your experience and judgement, ‘Oh, this couldn’t be bad.  This is like eating yummy, moist air.’ Then before you know it, you’ve eaten half a soufflé.” – Julie Powell

When it comes to a low maintenance dinner recipe, nothing beats a soufflé. For something different, I thought I’d give Julia’s Souffle de Saumon (salmon soufflé) a try. The fact that you have the option of using cooked salmon or canned salmon makes this already-simple recipe even easier.

The tomato paste gives it a nice color.

I started by buttering my soufflé mold and sprinkling the inside with a tablespoon of grated Swiss cheese (this step is pretty standard with any of Julia’s soufflés). While the oven preheated to 400 degrees, I cooked some minced shallots in butter on the stove, adding about three tablespoons of flour when they were tender. After a couple of minutes, I turned off the heat and beat in a cup of boiling milk (with the juice from the canned salmon). Also into the pan went salt/pepper, a tablespoon of tomato paste, and some herbs. I brought the mixture to a boil and watched as it began to thicken and turn a beautiful red color. Once it was well-blended, I took the pan off the heat and beat four egg yolks into the mix (one at a time…let’s not get too crazy!). Finally I added a can of salmon, using a fork to break up the meat. Having never used canned salmon before, I was surprised by how much it smelled like canned tuna. I apparently wasn’t the only one to make this comparison, considering the can hadn’t been open for longer than a minute before two little cats were at my feet to investigate the situation. I added in about ½ cup of shredded Swiss cheese and turned my attention to the key to a good soufflé…stiffened egg whites that make a soufflé so light and airy.

Folding the egg whites into the salmon mixture. See how important fluffiness is?

I beat five egg whites in a separate bowl with an electric mixer until they formed stiff peaks (be patient – the results are worth the wait!), and then folded a quarter of them into the salmon mixture. I then folded the rest of the eggs in (being careful not to over-mix…you don’t want the eggs to get worn out, but rather to keep their fluffiness) and then turned the whole thing into the soufflé mold. I sprinkled the remaining tablespoon of shredded cheese over the top and set the mold in the middle of the oven, turning the heat down to 375 and letting it bake for about a half-hour.

My favorite part about a soufflé is taking it out of the oven and seeing it in all of its risen, puffy glory. The honeymoon is over pretty quickly, though, as it isn’t long before it begins to settle and sink a bit. Oh, well – they always taste good! This soufflé looked great, and like all of Julia’s soufflés so far, it was very tasty. I was surprised, however, to discover that my nose hadn’t deceived me – in addition to the smells, the flavor of this dish also reminded me of tuna. I wonder if this would be different had I used fresh, cooked salmon rather than the canned stuff…but that would have dirtied another dish and been even more work, so I don’t regret my (JC-approved) shortcut decision.

Salmon souffle, anyone?

All in all, this wasn’t a bad dish. It wasn’t my favorite soufflé to date, but it was good and, even more important, it was super easy. Next time I might use one of Julia’s suggested variations – in place of the salmon, you could use tuna (go figure), ground cooked lobster or ground cooked chicken. I think any of those options sound pretty good! What would you try?

Stay hungry!
– Jessica

More for Me! (Am I Being Shellfish?)

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The restaurant began to fill up, and over the course of the next two hours we had a leisurely and nearly perfect luncheon. The meal began with little shells filled with sea scallops and mushrooms robed in a classically beautiful winy cream sauce. As we left in a glow of happiness, we shook hands all around and promised almost tearfully to return.” – Julia Child

Awhile back, Ben took a little road trip…without me. (*sniff sniff*) One of the very few perks to having a husband out of town is the fact that I get to cook whatever I want! I’ve been eyeballing Julia’s recipe for Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale (scallops gratineed with wine, garlic and herbs) ever since I bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking last August. I’ve always been a fan of shellfish, and scallops are one of my favorites. I knew Ben would never go for it, so I’ve been sort of putting it off. That is, until he left town!

Ready for a dusting of flour.

Let me just say, these scallops in wine sauce browned with cheese were decadent. Julia recommends them as a luncheon dish or a first course, but I had them as my (small) entrée with a side of leftover soufflé. It was amazing. You’ll especially fall in love with this if you’re a scallop fan, but even if you’re not, I urge you to give it a try. 

As much as I love scallops, I’ve never made them at home. I didn’t really know what to do with them, to be honest. Steam them? Fry them in a pan? *shrug* I just left it to the professionals and ordered them at the occasional fancy seafood restaurant. But last night, I learned that scallops are not only super easy to cook, but can be extremely delectable without a lot of effort. Here’s how: 

These are really starting to smell good.

While I sautéed minced onions in a pan with butter and minced garlic, I rinsed my scallops, patted them dry with paper towels, and sliced them into thirds. I sprinkled them with salt/pepper, rolled them around in flour and shook off the excess, and tossed them into a pan with butter and oil. It didn’t take long for these babies to begin to turn a golden brown, and when they did, I poured in some vermouth and dropped in a bay leaf and a dash of thyme. I added the cooked onions and covered the pan, letting it simmer for about five minutes…which, as it turned out, was a little too long, because several of the scallops were burned in the end. Drat. The good news was I had just enough for one serving of the recipe. Whew! 

I carefully scooped the cooked scallops and some of the wine sauce into a small pyrex dessert dish (Julia recommends using scallop shells, but darned if I could find any. While that would have made an impressive presentation, she gives the pyrex dish the OK.). I sprinkled the top lightly with shredded Swiss cheese and topped it off with a few dots of butter, then ran it under the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Just as good as - if not better than! - any nice seafood restaurant.

What emerged afterward looked positively heavenly. I couldn’t wait to dig in, and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. The scallops were tender with perfectly golden edges (thanks to the flour) and melted in my mouth. The wine sauce was just right – light, not too much hint of alcohol, yet a taste of sweetness to contrast with the fish. And while everything I’ve heard on the Food Network says it’s a no-no, the Swiss cheese over the scallops was the final thing to pull it all together. I ate every last bite, and was disappointed I had burned the other scallops because I wouldn’t have minded another little dish of this tasty treat. Oh, well. The good news for me is there’s another similar recipe yet to tackle – yippee! 

The thing that I took away from this meal (other than a smile and a lot of yummy sounds) was that I had learned how to make scallops. And it was so easy! The wine sauce and cheese topping aside, the method of dusting the meat with flour and tossing it into a pan yielded delicious results. I could see these scallops going into some pasta, or served over a green salad. The possibilities are endless! Can’t wait to make more and see what else I can come up with. 

What about you? Got any good scallop recipes to share?

– Jessica

A Stranger is Just a Friend You Haven’t Met Yet

WELL. I must say, I’m blown away. I didn’t really expect any kind of response to my last post (with the exception, of course, of the expected spam commentary), so imagine my surprise to open up my comments and see that this little blog is literally reaching the other side of the world. Would you believe it if I told you that I have a reader in Malaysia?? MALAYSIA. That’s by the South China Sea! (I know. I looked it up.) That is unbelievable to me, and I am truly humbled. So right now, I want everyone reading this to look into their computer screen, give a big wave and say, “Hi, Joyce!” Ready? One… Two… Three!

“HI, JOYCE!” Thanks for reading – and commenting! You made my day.

Speaking of my last post… remember that time I told you I was going to start cooking again and relaying my adventures here in this little corner of cyberspace? Well, I am. And I have. Except for the blogging part. But I can explain…

Perhaps before jumping in with last week’s resounding, “I’m back in it!” I should have reviewed my calendar a little more closely. It’s been a crazy week, with meetings nearly every night, all while trying to keep up with plans for the weekend. Not to distract you from the issue at hand (i.e. my continuing lack of cooking posts), but can I tell you something exciting?…. MY HUSBAND IS GRADUATING COLLEGE THIS WEEKEND!! I think I’m more excited than he is, but why shouldn’t I be? This is awesome, and something he’s been working towards for years. A victory for him is a victory for us, and that rocks!

So what does that have to do with cooking? Right.

In addition to all the meetings and mayhem of the week, I’ve also been preparing our guest room for this weekend’s out-of-town visitors by coordinating the search, discovery and delivery of a mattress for our new guest bed…which somehow has been much harder than it sounds.

All of that to say, I actually did find time to cook a Julia meal this week. I just have yet to find the time to write and publish the post. *sigh* But don’t you worry…I’ve got stuff to share. What’s that? You want a little teaser? Oh, alright.

Think salmon. Think scallops. Think decadence and calories and flavor. Think culinary bliss. Is your mouth watering? It will be…

Please hang in there and bear with me for a couple more days. I promise to have stories and photos and clever wit up in no time. But for now, I’m just trying to get through the weekend.

Stay tuned! There’s more to come!
– Jessica

It’s not you, it’s me.

You may be wondering, “Whatever happened to that crazy girl who was going to cook her way through the Julia Child cookbook?” Well, believe it or not, I’m still here. Despite the fact that it’s been nearly two months since my last post, I haven’t given up on this project – I’ve just taken a little hiatus. (I just lost money for some of you, didn’t I?)

We’re all friends here, so can I be frank? (Actually, you be Frank…I’ll be Jessica. Ba-dum-pah!) Cooking French cuisine isn’t cheap. The cost isn’t astronomical, mind you, but you can’t buy the kind of ingredients these recipes call for at your local discount market. While this wasn’t an issue in the beginning, times are changing. Between the current hike in gas prices (ye godz!) and a recent increase in property taxes, when it came time to reconsider our financial priorities, it wasn’t hard for me to determine that the first thing that needed to go (at least for a little while) was prime beef.

While I feel justified in my decision to put the Julia Project on hold, I will admit that I may have made this financial sacrifice a little…eagerly. After all, this cooking thing takes a lot of time and energy, and a little holiday sounded nice. Besides, who would notice if I took some time off? Let’s face it, I get about 30 comments on this site a day, all of which are spam. And not just any spam…really poorly written spam, which makes me doubly cringe. To be honest, when the only daily comments I see are from folks promoting Foot Fetish sites and Computer Software (okay, okay, I promise to never mention “Foot Fetish” on a cooking blog again), it’s a little difficult to stay motivated. So I say pass the Hamburger Helper and let the hiatus commence!

And then, out of the blue, I got an email from a reader. Not a personal friend or family member, but someone whom I have never met who basically said, “Hey, what gives?” I sat there sort of stunned, staring at the email and wondering how many others were out there. That one note kind of changed my whole outlook on this thing. I guess people really are reading this blog, and whether it’s 5 or 500, I’ve made a commitment to do this thing. And so I did a little soul searching.

What it really comes down to is this: I have to ask myself, who am I doing this project for in the first place? Is it for me? Is it for you? And I’ve decided that ultimately, it has to be for me. I have to be self-motivated enough to disregard the spam comments and sally forth knowing that when this is all over, I’ll be able to print out these entries and bind them into a book that I can look back on and think, “Wow, I really did that!” If I’m able to reach a few people in the process, then that’s just icing on the proverbial cake. (Mmm…cake….)

While standing around in the kitchen, my husband said to me last week, “You know what I miss? Julia Child.” And I had to agree. The smells that come from the kitchen when I’m making one of her delicious sauces, or the sizzle of steak in the pan on the stove – we had really gotten used to having ol’ Julia around. Maybe you had, too. And so, without further ado, I bring you a sneak peek of coming attractions…

Later this month, I’ll be receiving a special package, which I admit I’m anticipating with a mixture of excitement and dread. It’s nearly time for me to face my ultimate fears and tackle what I fondly refer to as “the grody chapter” of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If you’re a vegetarian, you may want to take a vacation that week…that’s all I’m saying.

Whether you’re a following of 1 or 1,000, thanks for tuning in to this blog. And thanks, reader, for the email. It made my day. Even if it was a bit of a kick in the pants.

Stay tuned for more adventures from the kitchen,
– Jessica

Party of One, Your Table is Ready

 

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“Souffles have to be baked just so, and served just when, and are always trembling and on the verge of collapse. They are the boss of things, not you.” – Julia Child

Early Sunday morning my husband headed out of town to embark on a road trip adventure to celebrate his last Spring Break as a student. So that night, with only one person to cook for (I admit, I briefly considered a bowl of cereal instead) and a long list of chores ahead of me, I opted for a simple Julia recipe for dinner. I made Souffle aux Epinards (spinach soufflé) and it was outstanding! It’s a snap to make, easy to clean up after, and the end result is a delicious meal. 

Creamy goodness

I buttered my soufflé mold and sprinkled the bottom with a light dusting of shredded Swiss cheese. Then I cooked some blanched chopped spinach in a buttered pan with onions and, separately, sautéed some cubed ham (Julia says you can add some extra ingredients, and I thought ham would add some nice flavor). 

I made the soufflé base, which is a mixture of butter/flour, boiled milk, egg yolks, seasonings, and finally some whipped egg whites and shredded Swiss cheese. It looks like cream gravy before the eggs go in, and then it becomes a rich yellow filling. The whipped egg whites are folded in carefully to give the soufflé the lightness it needs to puff up in the oven. Finally, I added the spinach and ham and gently folded everything together. 

Here are the layers of souffle topped with cheese, ready for the oven.

I turned the mixture into the soufflé mold and topped it off with a tablespoon more of shredded cheese. The dish went into the middle of my oven (preheated to 400, then diminished to 375 – not really sure why) and sat there for about 30 minutes. 

When the timer sounded, I could smell the cheesy spinach from the oven – delish! – and the soufflé had risen beautifully, turning golden brown on top. I let the dish sit and cool for a bit before spooning a helping onto my plate. It was perfect. Thick, creamy, and the ham added just enough saltiness to the meal. Granted, you pretty much have to be a fan of spinach in order to like this dish, but I’m convinced this is good enough to change the mind of even the toughest spinach critic.

A little toast with grape jelly, and I'm ready for dinner!

The melted cheese throughout the dish bound everything together, and the edges and top formed a light crust in the oven. I went back for seconds, which I try not to do, but this food was so good I couldn’t help myself. It was a perfect meal to have by myself, and I have just a few leftovers for later in the week. 

I have to say, I’m a pretty big fan of soufflés. Now, let’s see what I think when we dig further into the chapter and start adding fish… 

Bon appetit!
– Jessica

Going Green for St. Patty’s Day

 

  

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“Anyone who has been fortunate enough to eat fresh, home-cooked vegetables in France remembers them with pleasure. Any fine, fresh vegetable in season will taste just as good in America or anywhere else if the French vegetable-cooking techniques are used.” – Julia Child 

Top o’ the mornin’ to ye! So I’m a little behind in my blogging these days. I’m happy to say I’ve been cooking up a storm, and mostly-written articles are stacking up in my Drafts box, but I just haven’t been able to get them all posted. What can I say? These are crazy times. However, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and luck o’ the Irish and all that, today’s post features all things green. I made these recipes last night, and any of them would be perfect for the office pot luck or family get-together.

Looks like noodles, but it's really creamed cucumbers.

1. Concombres a la Crème (creamed cucumbers)
The first step here is to make baked cucumbers (concombres au beurre), which we’ve done before. Peel a couple of cucumbers, slice them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut them into matchsticks, then toss them around in a vinegar/salt/sugar mixture and let them sit in there for about a half-hour. Drain them and pat them dry, then put them in a baking dish and toss them with melted butter and basil, minced green onions and pepper. Set them in a 375-degree oven for about an hour, giving them a little toss every now and then. 

When they’re finished baking, remove the dish from the oven and add a cup of boiling whipping cream to the cucumbers. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and fold it all together, and it’s ready to serve. Pretty effortless dish, really – it just takes some time to cook.  

Green beans and sauce mornay headed to the oven.

2. Haricots Verts Gratines, a la Mornay (green beans gratineed with cheese sauce)
Some preliminary work is needed here – blanch green beans and make a batch of sauce mornay (flour/butter/milk/cheese mixture into a creamy sauce). Spread a third of the sauce in the bottom of a baking dish and arrange seasoned green beans over the top, then pour on the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with a little more grated Swiss cheese and dot with butter, then bake in the upper third of a 375-degree oven until the beans are heated through and the sauce has browned lightly on top. 

Cut the asparagus into 1/2" pieces.

3. Timbale d’ Asperges (asparagus mold)
I started with a bunch of asparagus and prepared it as Julia suggests – hold the asparagus by the bottom and bend upwards until it snaps. That’s the part you want to throw away. The top portion that remains is the good part you’ll use to cook with. Pretty neat, huh? Boil these pieces while you prepare the rest of the recipe. Oil a soufflé mold and cover with bread crumbs, shaking out any excess. Cook minced onions in butter until they’re translucent (but not brown) and scrape them into a mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper, shredded Swiss cheese and more bread crumbs. Beat in a few eggs, turning the mixture into a creamy batter, and finish by drizzling boiling milk and butter into the bowl.  

Fold the asparagus pieces into the custard.

The mixture forms a sort of custard, and into this you’ll fold the cooked asparagus, which should be cut into ½” pieces. Then turn the mixture into the soufflé mold and set into a pan of boiling water, all of which goes into a 325-degree oven for about 30 minutes. When it’s ready, the top will be lightly browned and the edges will be turning crusty. Take it out of the oven, let it sit for awhile, then use a knife to separate the edges from the dish. Invert it onto a plate and voila! Done!  

Unmolded asparagus...tastes better than it looks!

To accompany this triad of veggies, I made a simple pair of supremes (chicken breasts) that I’ve made before. I wanted the side dishes to actually be the star of this show, so I didn’t do anything fancy with the chicken. Not that it needed it – Julia’s recipe is delicious simplicity. The baked cucumbers were okay, but I still don’t get it. They just taste like warm, limp cucumbers. The cream added a gentle sweetness, but other than that, it just seemed like milky cucumber. *shrug* Not my personal favorite, but not bad either. The green beans were cooked really well – still had a bit of snap to them, and the cheese sauce and melted cheese topping gave them a heartiness you don’t usually find with green beans. I must have added a little too much flour to the sauce mornay, because it was a little gritty, but the flavor was still fine. The beans were good, but I’d still rather have them plain and natural – just a personal preference.  

Chicken, green beans, creamed cucumbers, asparagus mold - YUM!

However, when I bit into the asparagus mold, I was really surprised by how delicious it was. The bread crumbs had formed a perfect light crust on top of the veggies, and the onions mixed with the breading combined with the overall texture reminded me of a cross between homemade stuffing and green bean casserole. It was fantastic! I would definitely recommend this dish as a Thanksgiving side. It was super flavorful, hearty, and comforting – all the things a good holiday dish should be. This was definitely the stand-out recipe for me last night, and I would certainly make it again.  

All in all, not a bad dinner! These three dishes have you covered for green on St. Patrick’s Day – no pinching allowed. Whether you’re making a thematic meal for your family or are just in the mood for some tasty veggies, consider these recipes the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Until next time…  

Like the warmth of the sun
And the light of the day,
May the luck of the Irish
Shine bright on your way. 

Slainte!
– Jessica

Moussaka to Me

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“For dinner, I had originally planned to use leftover lamb to make moussaka.  Then I looked at the moussaka recipe in more detail.  Turns out moussaka is a pain in the ass.  There was a time when I would have jumped right in – started cooking moussaka at nine o’clock at night, sleep be damned.  I’m getting old, I guess, I know my limits.  It’s a little sad.” – Julie Powell

Friday night I unwittingly took on an epic adventure of marathan proportions – I made Julia Child’s Wild Rice and Moussaka (“Ewww, moose caca??”….”My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, anyone?). Moussaka (lamb and eggplant mold) is a Greek dish, sort of like a lamb meat and vegetable casserole wrapped in eggplant skins. The presentation is beautiful, but I’m here to tell you…the preparation for this meal, for some reason, took several hours. Ye godz.

Minced mushrooms for Moussaka. That's a lot of M's.

First things first, I sliced a couple of large eggplants in half lengthwise, sprinkled them with salt and let them dry face-down on paper towels to draw out their excess moisture. When dry, I rubbed them with olive oil and set them face-up in a roasting pan, filling the bottom with 1/2 inch of boiling water. I baked them at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes until they were tender. In the meantime, I browned some ground lamb meat and, in a separate pan, cooked minced onions in olive oil for about 15 minutes until they were tender, and I scraped them into a mixing bowl.

I promise...it smells better than it looks.

I sauteed minced mushrooms in olive oil until they were tender, then added them to the mixing bowl as well. I took the baked eggplants out of the oven and removed the flesh from the skins (Helpful Hint: Julia says to scoop them out with a spoon, but I found this nearly impossible. Instead, cut around the edge of the flesh with a sharp knife, then starting at the stem-end of the eggplant, peel the skin back. It will come away from the flesh pretty easily, and you won’t run the risk of damaging the skin with the spoon.)

I chopped half of the eggplant meat and tossed it into the mixing bowl. I sliced the rest and browned it lightly in a pan on the stove, setting it aside for later. Next, I oiled my cylindrical mold and arranged the eggplant skins, purple side out, so the pointed ends met in the middle of the bottom of the dish and the tops hung over the sides, in the shape of a cross.

The meat mixture is layered into the eggplant skins, which are then folded around the meat to cover it for cooking.

In the mixing bowl, I added the ground lamb, seasonings, herbs, beef stock, tomato paste and eggs. I stirred everything together until it was well blended, then spread an inch of the mixture along the bottom of the mold. Next, I spread a layer of the sauteed eggplant, then repeated the layers until I ended with a layer of the meat mixture. I folded the top ends of the eggplant skins over the meat and covered the dish with aluminum foil. The dish then went into a pan of boiling water, and the whole thing went into a 375 degree oven for about an hour.

I love the colors of the veggies in the rice.

While the Moussaka was cooking, I made a batch of the tomato puree from the omelette dish the other night and brought it to a simmer. Meanwhile, I prepared the Wild Rice. While a box of wild rice was boiling on the stove, I cooked minced carrots, onions and celery in butter in a casserole dish until tender. I drained the rice and added it to the casserole dish, stirring it for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. I added beef stock, herbs and seasonings, brought everything to a boil, and set the covered casserole in the oven along with the Moussaka. After about 25 minutes, I took it out, gave it a fluff with a fork and it was ready to serve.

I love this stuff!

When the Moussaka was done, I removed it from the oven and noticed that for some reason, there was a bit of excess liquid in the mold. I decided to carefully drain the dish over the sink, then inverted the dish onto a serving plate. The Moussaka looked impressive. The eggplant skins looked like large purple flower petals, hiding the meat casserole mixture inside. I used a large spoon to serve a helping of the dish onto a plate, then spooned some of the tomato sauce on top. I added a spoonful of the wild rice to the plate, and was ready to give this Moose Caca a try. (Thanks a lot, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.)

The meat mixture is hidden beneath the eggplant skins.

The meal tasted almost as good as it looked. It needed more seasoning than I had used during the cooking process, but that was an easy fix. The lamb meat tasted just like beef to me, and the vegetables gave a nice contrast to the meat texture. I felt like something was missing – like the rice should have been cooked inside the dish, or some kind of binding ingredient should have been used to make the meat mixture more like an actual filling. I think this would have made a great tomato-based stew/soup. The tomato sauce on top really added a lot to the dish, and I was glad to have the added tomato flavor. The meal wasn’t bad – it was just okay. The eggplant skins were nice and tender, but even so, I pushed them to the side of my plate so I could focus on the meat.

Ta-daa!

The wild rice was pretty good! I had never added vegetables to rice like this, and they really gave it some nice flavor. The beef stock also gave the rice a kick, and it was a great side to pair with the lamb.

I think part of my problem was that the meal took so long to prepare, I really wanted it to be outstanding – and for the amount of work that went into it, it just wasn’t. I’d like to try some authentic Moussaka sometime so I can see how the Greeks actually make it. I bet their version really is outstanding. Considering that Julia’s recipe turned out very similar to other meat casseroles I’ve made in the past, I’d rather just stick to my own recipes that use less ingredients and don’t take nearly as long to prepare.

Final decision? Sorry, Julia. This recipe was Greek to me.

Tomorrow’s another day!
– Jessica

Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Omelet

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Today wanted us to do a cooking demonstration, and we decided the most dramatic thing we could do in the five minutes allotted to us was to make omelettes.” – Julia Child

 

Rolled omelettes are my favorite to make - fun and easy!

Last week I made the last of Julia’s omelette recipes: Omelettes Gratinees a la Tomate (tomato-filled omelettes gratineed with cream and cheese). I was in the mood for something easy and relatively painless, and rolled omelettes are about as simple as they come. I made three 3-egg omelettes, dropping beaten eggs into a well-buttered pan. As the bottoms began to set, I began to shake the pan back and forth until the eggs began to roll over themselves (okay, I used a large spatula to help them along). Within minutes they were done, and I set them aside while I worked on the tomato filling.

Hint: If the sauce is too thick, or you need to stretch it a little further, just add a little water to thin it out.

This was the first time I’d ever made my own tomato sauce from scratch, and I have to say – I loved it! I followed Julia’s recipe for Coulis de Tomates a la Provencale (fresh tomato puree with garlic and herbs), and it ended up much like a spaghetti sauce. I cooked minced onions in olive oil until they were tender, then added a little bit of flour. I then added a few PSJ tomatoes, sugar, garlic, herbs and seasonings as well as a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to give it some body. As I cooked it, the mixture seemed a little too pasty, so I added some water to thin it out and after giving it all a good stir, the sauce really came together as it began to boil.

Headed to the oven...

I cut a slit down the middle of each omelette, then spooned some tomato sauce into the openings. I set the omelettes in a buttered baking dish and then topped them with whipping cream and a sprinkling of shredded Swiss cheese. I set the dish under the broiler for just a few minutes to melt the cheese and reheat the omelettes, then removed them before they burned. I served an omelette on a plate, accompanied by a side of Epinards en Surprise leftovers and some turkey bacon. All in all, not a bad looking meal!

This was a great meal!

The omelettes were terrific…the Cinderella of the omelette world. You hear “omelette” and you think basic egg dish; but dressed up in the cream and tomato puree, and these omelettes were the belle of the ball. The cream mixed with the tomato puree to create a light, wonderful sauce that really complimented the eggs and gave them a sort of Italian flavor. Julia was right.  This was such a quick and easy recipe, yet the final product was very dramatic and impressive. My favorite thing was the tomato sauce. I had no idea it was so easy to make your very own from scratch – I’m beginning to question whether I’ll ever buy the stuff in a jar or can again. This meal made a fine dinner, but it would also be a nice, easy recipe to make for breakfast if you had out of town guests visiting and wanted to treat them to something more than cereal or pancakes.

Remember, a fabulous meal doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. Some of the best meals are the ones that didn’t take much work at all.

Happy cooking!
– Jessica

I Just LOVE Surprises!

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“This is an amusing presentation.” – Julia Child

When I was in high school, my family took a trip over the holidays to Albuquerque and then jetted over to Las Vegas for a couple of days. It was by far the stand-out family vacation in our history of family vacations. We had a blast, and still talk about it to this day. One of the highlights I’ll never forget was sitting at a fast food drive-thru and seeing “Brownie Surprise” on the menu. Our interest piqued, we placed an order for one Brownie Surprise, only to be told by the voice in the speaker, “Uh…we’re out of brownies.” SURPRISE!! This is now one of the longest running family jokes in our repertoire.

So while I was looking for a relatively easy meal for last night’s dinner, I couldn’t help smiling when I saw Julia’s recipe for Epinards en Surprise (spinach hidden under a giant crepe). The entire recipe was about three easy steps: blanch spinach, make a filling, and make a crepe. Done. 

Evaporating the excess moisture...so I can add beef stock. I don't get it either, I just do what I'm told.

I blanched an entire bag of spinach in salted boiling water, then drained it before it got too mushy (I’m learning!). I gave it a rough chop on the cutting board, then tossed it into a pan with a little butter to get rid of its excess moisture. Meanwhile, I sautéed some diced ham, because I felt that would give this meal a little more body. A tablespoon of flour went into the spinach and I stirred it around, then added a couple of cups of beef stock. I let the pan boil so that most of the stock was absorbed by the spinach, and turned off the heat when the mixture had thickened and not much liquid remained. 

I'm getting pretty good at these!

Meanwhile, I heated a large pan rubbed with oil and quickly made some crepe batter (eggs, water, milk and flour). I poured a half-cup of batter into the pan and swirled it around so it covered the bottom and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Using a large spatula, I flipped it over and cooked the other side. Julia is right…you pretty much have to sacrifice the first one before you can get a really good one done. My first one was pretty sad, but the second one was nearly perfect. I set it aside and finished the spinach mixture. 

"Now, when the diners show up, we're going to jump out and yell 'SURPRISE!' Got it?"

I tossed the diced ham and a half-cup of shredded Swiss cheese into the spinach and mixed it all together, the heat from the spinach melting the cheese and forming a well-blended filling. I emptied the contents onto a serving dish and covered it with the crepe. I used a pizza cutter to slice the dish and added a few slices of turkey bacon on the side, and we were in business! 

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical – individually, the parts of this meal didn’t always taste very good on their own. The crepe could come out a little oily, and the spinach (while I liked it) wasn’t big on Ben’s list. But this meal was definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. All of the flavors worked really well together! The crepe was cooked perfectly, and created a light bread crust for the moist, tender spinach underneath. The ham gave the spinach a little saltiness that it needed, and the melted cheese held it all together and gave the filling a nice body. This meal was so easy to make, it was laughable, and yet it turned out to be really tasty. It could just as easily work as a breakfast/brunch dish. It was light yet filling, and relatively healthy (no cream and hardly any butter). Another culinary victory! 

Sshh...don't look now, but there's spinach filling hiding under that crepe!

It’s nice to know that a delicious meal doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Anyone (and I mean anyone) can make this and it’ll turn out just as good as though Julia herself had done it. Give it a try! 

Happy eating!
– Jessica

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