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

Any Day Can Be Valentine’s Day

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“The secret of a happy marriage is finding the right person. You know they’re right if you love to be with them all of the time.” – Julia Child

 

My husband has this theory about Valentine’s Day: it’s not for married folks. While I get where he’s coming from, the romantic side of me still hangs onto the sweetness of this holiday. And so, the first three years we were married, I made it a point to cook a Big Romantic Dinner for Two to show him my love. While the meals turned out great, I began to notice that I was spending the entire evening in the kitchen and no time with him. Hm. This wasn’t adding up the way I had thought it would. Last year I decided maybe he was right…maybe I didn’t need to put forth all this extra effort. After all, he knows I love him. We show each other every day. So this year, we’re kind of skipping out on the ol’ V-Day. Tonight we’re off to see Gnomeo and Juliet, and tomorrow…I’m so excited!!…he’s accompanying me to a book signing of the ever-popular Pioneer Woman! Funny how the things that make you fall in love all over again kind of change over time.

To give a nod to the lover’s holiday without doing any extra work, I dedicated last night’s Julia dinner to Valentine’s Day. I made Tournedos Henri IV (filet steaks with artichoke bottoms and Bearnaise sauce) with Carottes a la Creme (creamed carrots), Aubergines Farcies Duxelles (eggplant stuffed with mushrooms) and potato balls. It was an amazing meal, perfect for a special occasion or otherwise important dinner (read: make this if you really want to impress someone). Whether you’re wooing your new girlfriend, wanting to impress the future in-laws or are having the boss over for a pre-promotion discussion, this meal is just the ticket…and I’m going to teach you how to do it. Ready? Let’s go!

Scoop the insides out of the eggplant...

Start with the eggplant, because this takes the longest to make. Remove the green stem covering and slice the eggplant in half lengthwise. Make delicate incisions along the skin about an inch apart, barely piercing the skin. Sprinkle a little salt over the fleshy parts, lay them face down on a towel to absorb their moisture for a half hour.  Preheat the broiler, then drizzle some olive oil over the flesh and set them in a shallow roasting pan, then pour about 1/8″ water around them. Set them about 5″ beneath the broiler for about 15 minutes.

While those are going, you’ll want to cook your artichoke bottoms. Remove the stems and leaves until you’re left with just the bottoms, then simmer them in a mixture of flour, water, lemon juice and salt for about 30 minutes, until tender. Then, with a spoon you’ll gently remove the choke (the center fuzzy part of the artichoke) and any extra leaves. Season the artichoke bottoms with salt and pepper and cook them in a casserole of butter covered with buttered wax paper in a 325 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Then they’re ready for anything – fillings, other recipes, whatever.

Potato Balls

But back to the eggplant. Once they’re done under the broiler, remove them from the oven and carefully scoop out the meat, leaving a small layer in the skin. Chop the meat and toss it into a mixing bowl, then add sauteed minced yellow onion and mushrooms, as well as softened cream cheese and herbs (thyme, minced parsley). Mix it all together, then scoop this filling back into the eggplant skins. Top with shredded Swiss cheese and white bread crumbs, as well as a bit of melted butter, and they’re ready for the oven (375 degrees for 25 minutes).

Creamed carrots

I prepared some canapes (French bread slices toasted in clarified butter) and set them aside for the steak. I used the small end of a melon baller to scoop out rounds from peeled potatoes, then tossed the into a pan of butter and rolled them around until they were nice and toasted. Then I sliced some carrots and braised them, then drained them and covered them with boiling cream. I let them cook on the stove until most of the cream had been absorbed by the carrots. They smelled delicious.

The steak was next. I dried a sirloin filet with paper towels, then cooked it in a pan of butter/oil until I could see the juices running pale red. I set the meat aside and drained the fat from the pan, then added some madeira and beef stock and made a yummy sauce to pour over the meat. Finally, I made the Bearnaise sauce, which I’ve done before. A mixture of wine vinegar, vermouth, egg yolks, butter and seasonings create a thick, yellow, custard-like sauce that goes well with steak and chicken dishes. I’ve made it before but wasn’t too wild about it, but was willing to give it another try.

Sirloin cooked to perfection!

Now, here’s where things get fancy…are you ready? Slice the steak into pieces that fit on the canapes. Lay a piece of steak over the canape and drizzle it with the steak sauce (not the Bearnaise…we’re not there yet). Then, set an artichoke bottom on top of the steak and fill it with spoonfuls of the Bearnaise sauce. Ta-daa! Your family will think you brought home some take-out from a five-star restaurant. Decorate the plate with the potato balls (I know, you’d think we could think of a better name for those things) and add your sides – the eggplants are large enough you could probably split one with someone. Pour yourselves a glass of red wine, play a little soft music in the background, and enjoy a delicious meal together. At least, that’s what we did.

**Swoon!**

We tried the potatoes first, which are crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside. We’ve had these before and knew what to expect, but they were tasty just the same. The carrots were perfectly cooked, tender but not mushy, and the cream gave them a light sweetness without making them soupy. The eggplant was interesting. First of all, it looked really impressive. The filling was bubbling with the browned cheese on top and the bread crumbs gave the top a light crispness. I decided I liked the filling by itself better than with the skin. It was sweet and creamy and hearty, and the flavors of the eggplant and mushroom mixed really well with the cream cheese. The skins almost gave it a bitterness I didn’t care much for, but all in all, it was a good dish. But NOW, my friends, we get the main attraction…this canape/steak/artichoke combination. First off, here’s my advice to you: your first bite of this dish must — I repeat, MUST — include each layer… a bite of canape, steak, artichoke and Bearnaise. Because when you put that perfect bite in your mouth and all of those flavors come together in an explosion of greatness, you won’t believe your tastebuds. The bread is softened and flavored by the steak juice; the steak, cooked to perfection, tastes delicious; but it’s the combination of the soft buttery artichoke bottom and the burst of tangy creaminess of the Bearnaise sauce that’ll really put you over the edge. If you’re not a fan of artichoke and/or Bearnaise sauce, give them another try with this recipe, because I’m telling you – their whole purpose of existance is made abundantly clear in this harmonious meal.

So there you have it. With a meal like this, any day can be Valentine’s Day. Your sweetie will love you forever if you serve this at the dinner table. Unless of course they’re vegan…but that’s another story altogether.

Remember, nothing says “I love you!” like really, really good food.

Spread the love!
– Jessica

The Best Laid Plans

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“Once an egg has been taken out of the breakfast category and put to use as a hot entree or a supper dish, it offers a great variety of presentations and you can draw on practically your whole cooking experience for its saucing and garnishing.” – Julia Child

 

I woke up yesterday morning to the sound of sleet hitting my bedroom window. A brief glance outside and I could see a white dusting of snow on our lawn. Again. Last week’s ice storm must have scared people off, because the drive to work was pretty lonely – not many people ventured out. Luckily, this storm wasn’t as bad as the last, and the roads were actually clear. But the wind chill was frigid, and I decided that some warm soup and a light entree would be perfect for dinner.

See what a little flour does to sliced onions?

I made Soupe Gratinee des Trois Gourmandes (onion soup gratineed de luxe) and Oeufs a la Fondue de Fromage (poached eggs on canapes with cheese fondue sauce). I sliced a couple of onions and sauteed them slowly in a covered pan of butter over low heat for about 15 minutes, then removed the lid and added a bit of sugar and salt. The onions became translucent and soft, and over the next half hour gradually became lightly brown. They filled the house with a wonderful aroma, which Ben noticed right away when he got home from work. (“It smells like food in here!” he announced happily as he came through the front door.)

Meanwhile, I brought a pot of beef stock and water to a boil and brought a pot of water to the simmer for the poached eggs. For some reason, I always wind up sacrificing the first egg when I try to poach these things – like I need a warm-up first. And it usually takes me at least 6 eggs to wind up with 4 successes. All of this to say, I buy eggs 18 at a time. Poaching eggs isn’t as easy as it looks, although when I get it right, boy are they good.

Four out of six, and that ain't bad.

When the onions had browned, I added a little flour to the pan which caused them to thicken quickly. I poured in the beef stock, then added some vermouth and gave the whole thing a good stir with a wooden spoon. I brought the pot to a simmer and let it sit for another half hour, partially covered. While that was going on, I prepared some canapes from a loaf of French bread (sliced them and put them in the oven for a few minutes to dry them out).

While the soup cooked, I poached four eggs and set them aside. I then made the fondue sauce by pouring vermouth and beef stock into a pan and bringing it to a boil. I mixed cornstarch and whipping cream in a separate bowl, then added it to the pan and watched the liquid begin to thicken. I tossed in about a half-cup of shredded Swiss cheese (which didn’t thicken the sauce like I had expected it to), and stirred it all together until it was a thick creamy texture.

Ready for the oven...

By now the soup was done cooking, so I sprinkled in some slivers of Swiss cheese and added a few of the toasted bread rounds on top of the liquid, where they floated happily. I sprinkled the entire top of the dish with shredded Swiss cheese and put the pan in a 325 degree oven for about 20 minutes. In that time, I made the final addition for the soup. I beat cornstarch together with an egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce and cognac. When the soup was ready to come out, I couldn’t believe how incredible it looked. The top was a beautiful golden brown, and the bread was toasted yet soft in the middle from the soup liquid. The cheese had melted perfectly on top and the whole thing looked like it belonged on the cover of a food magazine.

Man, it looks good!

With the oven available, I set three canapes on a cookie sheet and placed a cooled poached egg on top of each. I topped each egg with a bit of shredded Swiss cheese, then set the cookie sheet under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the tops. While that was happening, I added my Worcestershire mixture to the soup by lifting underneath the bread rounds and scooping a spoonful of soup into the mixture to cook the eggs, then added a couple more spoonfuls. Once it was mixed together, I added everything back into the soup pan and gave it a good stir, careful not to upset the beautiful bread on top.

Didn't turn very brown, but didn't want to overcook them under the broiler.

I pulled the eggs out of the oven, and they looked terrific. Everything was ready, and it all looked and smelled delicious. I spooned soup into a bowl and topped it with one of the crusty bread rounds and melted cheese. On a separate plate I used a spatula to serve a poached egg canape onto my plate, the cheese sauce bubbling on the cookie sheet. We cut into the egg first, and it was AWESOME. The cheese sauce was light and wonderful with a little hint of sweetness; the bread was toasty yet softened from the sauce and not too crunchy to bite into. But the best part was when I cut into the egg itself, and the perfect yolk spilled out onto the plate. The whole thing tasted amazing, and I couldn’t help thinking how perfect it would be for a brunch or breakfast meal. (NOTE TO READERS: Valentine’s Day is coming up. Why not surprise your sweetie with breakfast in bed? This dish is sure to score you some major points!)

I mean, seriously, doesn't this look like something you'd buy at a restaurant?

Next we tried the soup, which I’m extremely disappointed to tell you we couldn’t eat. It smelled incredible, and it looked terrific, but sadly, the flavor of cognac was so strong we couldn’t stand to eat the whole thing. We could barely eat any of it, to be honest, which was a total bummer because A.) that was the part of the meal that was supposed to keep us warm on a frigid night and B.) it probably would have been perfect had we not added that part of the recipe. But rules are rules, and we have to try these things to know whether we like them. And we do not like them. So there. The crusty bread, however, was pretty tasty and had great texture, but again, the overwhelming cognac was too much to bear.

It didn’t matter much in the end. The eggs were so fantastic that we really didn’t mind missing out on the soup. No kidding, you really need to look up Julia’s recipe and give it a try. They weren’t hard to make (once you’ve mastered the poached egg part), and didn’t take long at all. I’d love to hear what you think.

Stay hungry!
– Jessica

Today’s French Lesson:
“Attention, les routes sont verglacées et glissantes.”

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

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“Ooh, those lovely roasted, buttery French chickens. They were so good and chickeny!” – Julia Child

With all the excitement of the Super Bowl over the weekend, and my desire to laze around on the couch and do nothing but play hidden picture games on my computer, I didn’t make it out to the grocery store. So when dinnertime rolled around Monday night, I crossed my fingers that I had something in the freezer to work with. I found two chicken breasts and some sliced mushrooms in my crisper drawer…we were saved! I flipped through MTAOFC to see if the ingredients I had lying around my kitchen would work for any of Julia’s recipes. It just so happened that I had all the fixin’s for her Supremes de Volaille a Blanc (breast of chicken with cream) and Champignons Sautes a la Bordelaise (mushrooms sauteed with shallots, garlic and herbs). Add a side of steamed peas, and we were in business! 

Chicken covered with wax paper... or is it waxed paper? Meh, whatever.

I’d say total time to make this meal, from prep time to cook time, was around 30 minutes. I couldn’t believe how fast and easy this was, and how good it tasted. I started by preheating the oven to 400 degrees and, while butter heated in an oven-proof pan on the stove, I sprinkled the two thawed chicken breasts with drops of lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. With a pair of tongs, I rolled the chicken around in the butter in the pan, which instantly seared the outside, and covered the chicken with a piece of buttered wax paper and a lid. I set the chicken in the oven for just under 10 minutes, which Julia claimed would be enough time to cook the chicken fully. I didn’t believe her. When we bake chicken, we usually put it in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. There was no way it would be done in less than 10! 

Don't these mushrooms look good??

In the meantime, I tossed pre-sliced mushrooms (leftover from a previous recipe) in a pan with butter and oil and sautéed them to a light brown. Then I added minced shallots and garlic, and tossed in a couple tablespoons of bread crumbs. I cooked the mushrooms a little longer, and then they were done. 

It was about this time that I pulled the chicken out of the oven, and tested it with a knife and fork. To my surprise, the meat wasn’t pink at all – it was cooked all the way through, and was tender and juicy. I couldn’t believe it. Julia wins again. I removed the chicken breasts to a plate and added a quarter cup each of beef stock and Madeira to the juices in the pan, bringing everything to a boil. When it became a light syrup, I added a half-cup of cream and watched the sauce slowly thicken. I let it boil for a couple of minutes and then it too was ready. 

Cream sauce in the works...

I served a piece of chicken topped with a spoonful of the light cream sauce, as well as a small helping of mushrooms and steamed peas (which I made at the last minute). Considering I hadn’t put a lot of planning into this meal, it looked especially good. But it tasted even better. The chicken was terrific. There was a slight hint of tanginess from the lemon juice, but the light creamy sauce took the edge off. The meat was perfect, cooked without losing its juiciness. I liked the mushrooms, too – the bread crumbs gave them an added light crispy crust that was a nice change from the typical soggy (albeit delicious) sautéed mushrooms. Even Ben ate all of his, which is a true testament to Julia’s method. 

Ta-daa!! I'm a kitchen hero! (At least, in my house.)

I have to admit, I didn’t have very high expectations of this meal, and so I was more than pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. This method of cooking chicken definitely beats my old routine, and whether I make a Julia chicken or not, I plan to stick to this way of preparing poultry. It’s fast, it’s delicious, and it’s easy (it only uses one pan, so the clean-up is a snap!). 

Feel like chicken tonight? Shake your tail feather and follow Julia’s recipe – you’ll be glad you did! 

Happy cooking!
– Jessica

All Puffed Up and Nowhere to Go

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“The glory and lightness of French souffles are largely a matter of how voluminously stiff the egg whites have been beaten and how nicely they have been incorporated into the souffle base…A fluffy mass of beaten egg white is actually hundreds of minute air bubbles all connected and enclosed by a film of egg white; the bubbles of air expand as the souffle cooks in the oven, and that is what pushes it into its magnificent puff.” – Julia Child

Well, we’ve been socked in for a week and today the snow is finally beginning to melt. Just in time for another round of “wintry mix” tomorrow. Ah, well. I managed to make it to work most of the days this past week, although I did have a mild spin-out on the highway yesterday and thought to myself at least three times, “This is stupid! I’m turning around and going home!” Only there was no place to turn around, and it became easier just to continue the hour-long drive (which, in the snow, became a two-hour-long drive) rather than back-track. I eventually made it, having to pry my hands from the steering wheel after an extremely white-knuckled drive, and I spent the next few hours trying to figure out how to convince my husband to rent a helicopter to come pick me up from work.

Needless to say, by the time I got home yesterday afternoon, I was done with driving. When it came to dinner, we would just have to make something from whatever we had in the house – a trip to the store was out of the question. Luckily, it just so happened we had eggs, Swiss cheese, milk and butter, all the ingredients necessary for Julia’s Souffle au Fromage (cheese souffle). The makings of Salade a la d’Argenson (potato and beet salad) had been marinating in my fridge since Monday, so I decided that would make a good side dish.

Peanut butter or souffle sauce? You decide.

The souffle was surprisingly easy, and I made an interesting discovery. I had always thought a souffle was baked in a crust, like a quiche with a top that would puff up when cooked. Not the case. A souffle is actually just a sauce with stiff egg whites that rises and browns on its own. No crust whatsoever. Huh. Who knew? After preheating the oven to 400 degrees, buttering the inside of a souffle mold and sprinkling the bottom with a little bit of shredded Swiss cheese, I melted butter and flour together on the stove. Off heat, I added a cup of boiling milk and stirred the mixture together with a wire whisk. At this point, the sauce looked like peanut butter and I was feeling a little skeptical.

I sprinkled in some nutmeg, salt and pepper, then separated four eggs in two bowls, whisking the egg yolks into the sauce pan. I added another egg white to the other bowl and sprinkled in some salt, then used an electric beater to whisk the eggs until stiff peaks formed. I stirred a big spoonful of the whites into the sauce, then folded in the rest of them. This thinned out the sauce quite a bit, and the foamy eggs made it light and fluffy. I stirred in about a cup of shredded Swiss cheese, then turned the sauce into the souffle mold. I added a little extra cheese to the top of the sauce, then set it in the middle of the oven, immediately bringing the heat down to 375. I let it cook for about 30 minutes while I finished the potato and beet salad.

Marinating potatoes and beets

Earlier in the week, I had boiled and diced potatoes and mixed them together with canned beets in a small bowl. I made a batch of Julia’s Sauce Vinaigrette (French dressing) – a simple mixture of wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil – and drizzled it over the potatoes/beets. I tossed it all together, then let it sit in the fridge to marinate. I had also cooked peas and carrots to add later, keeping them in a ziploc bag until I was ready for them. All I had to do last night was whip up a batch of Mayonnaise aux Fines Herbes (mayonnaise with green herbs). This was made by beating egg yolks in a glass bowl, then adding wine vinegar, salt and prepared mustard. I slowly drizzled in olive oil as I continued to beat the mayonnaise, then added oregano for flavor.

Doesn't it look pretty?

I poured this into the bowl with the potatoes/beets and then stirred in my carrots and peas. I gave the salad a good toss with a wooden spoon, and it was done. It looked beautiful! The bright purple of the beets was a lovely contrast to the bright green and orange of the peas and carrots. Even if this dish didn’t taste good, it sure looked good. This salad is served cold, and while it takes a few steps (with the vinaigrette and mayonnaise), it’s generally pretty easy to whip up.

After 30 minutes in the oven, the souffle needed five more minutes to finish rising. When I took it out, it was puffed up and turning golden, and it looked great! I let it sit for a minute, during which it slowly began to deflate a bit, and I used a big spoon to serve pieces onto plates. I added a scoop of the Salade a la d’Argenson, and (just because I had it in the fridge) a side dish of leftover chili.

Profile of the souffle, all puffed up and lovely.

We sat at the table to give these new foods a try – I was a little leery. I didn’t trust the peanut butter color/texture of the souffle sauce during the cooking process, and I’ve never been a fan of beets. At least we had chili…just in case.

But as it turned out, the meal was actually really good! The souffle was light and fluffy, thanks to the egg whites, and tasted cheesy and salty. The texture was a little dough-y and could have used something in the filling to add some variety, but overall I liked it. It seemed to be cooked well – the sauce had formed its own light crust around the sides which was golden and yummy. I’m looking forward to trying more variations from MTAOFC.

Salad, chili and souffle

The salad was surprisingly good. I didn’t much care for the mayonnaise on its own. Because it’s a mustard base, it’s really tangy – I like the good ol’ white stuff in a jar, personally. And the vinaigrette was a little heavy on the olive oil for my taste. But when everything came together in the same bowl, all of the flavors worked well together. The carrots and peas really added a lot to the flavor and texture and were probably my favorite part. The beets, which I expected to add a bitterness to the dish, were hardly noticeable. The vinaigrette and mayonnaise gave the salad a slight bite of acidity, but it wasn’t unpleasant – just kind of tangy. This would be a great summer side dish, perfect for a picnic or outdoor barbecue. Give it a try!

All in all, we give this dinner two thumbs up. It wasn’t super fancy, but it filled our tummies without having to venture out into the ice and snow for groceries. I’ll bet you have most of the ingredients lying around your kitchen. (Don’t have a souffle mold? No worries! Just use a pyrex bowl – no big deal.) If you’re looking for something different to try and don’t want to make an excursion to the grocery store, look up Julia Child’s Souffle au Fromage and see what you think.

Stay in and stay warm this weekend!
– Jessica

Super Chili Bowls

I once worked for a large company who had a big office celebration the Friday before the Super Bowl. Everyone wore their favorite NFL jersey and jeans (unheard of with this company’s dress code) and there was a big recipe cook-off. I didn’t enter anything, because all of my Super Bowl recipes were things found on the back of a bag of chips, but it worked out for the best…I got to taste everything instead!

There were lots of dips and salsas and li’l smokies and barbecue flavored crock pot dishes, but the one thing that really stood out for me was the recipe that won 1st prize (and just so happened to belong to the husband of one of the co-workers, a Mr. Mom who was proud to bring his dish to the office): Super Chili Bowls.

The idea was so simple, but so clever! It’s basically chili in a mini-bread bowl – a baked biscuit, cooked over the back side of a cupcake tin and inverted to become a mini bowl, and inside was a large scoop of delicious homemade chili. Genius! I’ve never had a Super Bowl party, but if I did, this is what I would make. Are you having a Super Bowl party this weekend? If so, this is what YOU should make! Here’s the recipe:

Score big this Super Bowl Sunday!

Chili:

– 2 lbs. ground beef
– 1 C diced green bell peppers
– 1 C chopped onions
– 1/8 tsp. minced dried garlic
– 1 tsp. salt
– 1 T chili powder
– 1 T sugar
– 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
– 1 T oregano
– four 14.5 oz. cans stewed tomatoes
– four 15 oz. can ranch style beans
(or use your own favorite chili recipe)

Bread Bowls:
– 2 Pillsbury (7.5 oz.) buttermilk refrig. biscuits

Brown meat; add green peppers and onions; add garlic, salt, sugar, red pepper flakes, chili powder and oregano. Add stewed tomatoes and beans (including juice in can). Cook 10 minutes, then simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Roll or pat each biscuit into a 3.5″-4″ circle. Fit over backs of well-greased muffin pans. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 8-9 minutes or until golden brown. Spoon chili into bread bowls and top with shredded cheddar cheese. Makes 12 servings.

I love that these are individual-sized, perfect for ravenous game-day fans who are huddled around the television set cheering on their favorite team…or their favorite commercial. Whatever your plans for this coming Sunday, have fun and eat well!

Go team!
– Jessica

Pesto Change-o!

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“Early summer is the Mediterranean season for soupe au pistou…fortunately, this soup is not confined to summer and fresh vegetables, for you can use canned navy beans, frozen string beans, and dried herbs.” – Julia Child

Well, we’re officially into Day 3 of Snowmageddon 2011, and there’s no sign of things letting up. In fact, we’re set to have more snowfall overnight! So far we’ve survived on chili and cornbread, hot cocoa and warm soups. I love winter weather. I love the fire in the fireplace, the cats snuggled next to me in the bed on cold mornings, and Ben’s canceled classes. 

Last night, I decided to make one of Julia’s hearty soups to get us through this week of negative wind chill temperatures. Even though she claims Soupe au Pistou (provencal vegetable soup with garlic, basil and herbs) is ideal for summer months, it really hit our spot on a cold night. The recipe is extremely easy, and it didn’t take long at all to make. 

Looking good! Soup before adding pistou.

I simply diced a couple cups each of carrots, baking potatoes (peeled), and onions and tossed them all into a pot of 3 quarts of water. I added two cups of cooked Navy beans and some salt and let the pot boil for about 20 minutes. It seemed like a lot of water for not as many vegetables, but I stuck to the recipe like a good student. 

At the 20 minute mark, I added two cups of frozen cut green beans, 1/3 cup of broken spaghetti noodles, some bread crumbs and pepper. While the pot continued to cook for another 15 minutes, I made a pistou (pesto), a tomato-based paste that would become the base of the soup broth. 

Pistou - literally "pesto" - smells so good, you'll almost change your mind and make spaghetti or a pizza instead!

In a bowl I mixed tomato paste, mashed garlic, basil and grated Parmesan cheese, then slowly drizzled in some olive oil. I stirred the mixture until it was a thick paste (it smelled so good, like a delicious home-made pasta sauce!) then dumped it into a pot. When the soup was done cooking, I gradually added a cup of soup to the pistou and, like magic, the watery broth turned to a rich red. I poured in the rest of the soup and mixed everything together with a wooden spoon. The sauce thickened and suddenly became more recognizable as a vegetable soup broth. 

I served the soup in bowls with a side of sweet cornbread (we were out of crusty French bread and there was no way I was venturing out into the ice for that), and it was actually a really filling meal! The soup was thick, almost more like a stew. The bread crumbs gave the broth some good body, and there wasn’t a whole lot of liquid for sopping up with the bread. I had to add a lot more seasoning than Julia suggested – but then again, I tend to play it pretty safe when cooking with spices. Some Nature’s Seasoning gave the soup the flavor I was missing, and then it was perfect. 

Hearty vegetable soup with cornbread - a perfectly warm meal on a frigid day.

I would definitely make this soup again, but with a few slight modifications. For one thing, I probably could have made half the recipe. I had envisioned having some leftovers for warm lunches throughout the rest of the week, but we probably have more than we need. Second, I would only use half the amount of Navy beans. While they were tasty and gave a nice texture to the soup, they were kind of competing with the vegetables for my taste buds’ attention. Also, I think I could have done without the spaghetti noodles. They just seemed a little out of place. And finally, I would add more water – I kind of missed the extra liquid in my soup bowl. But other than that, it was terrific. In fact, I may or may not have a Tupperware bowl of leftovers in my lunch bag at work today… 

In other news, I couldn’t help noticing there’s a certain sporting event coming up this weekend. My husband (king of statistics) tells me that behind Thanksgiving, Super Bowl is the second biggest day of the year for food consumption. I believe him. Tune in this week for my all-time favorite Super Bowl recipe…whether you’re planning a big party or just hanging out with the family, this tasty dish is perfect for your game day hunger needs. 

Bon appetit!
– Jessica

Sardines is a Winner!

“I can still recall old Mister Barnslow getting out every morning and nailing a fresh load of tadpoles to the old board of his. Then he’d spin it round and round, like a wheel of fortune, and no matter where it stopped he’d yell out, ‘Tadpoles! Tadpoles is a winner!'” – Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey

Want to learn something fascinating?

Sardines and anchovies are NOT the same thing.

Are they similar? Sure! They’re both fish in a box. And they’re both located on the same shelf in the grocery store.

But can you use sardines when a recipe calls for anchovies?

No. No, you cannot.

And so, I’ve decided it’s time for a GIVE-AWAY!!

Send me a funny/gross/memorable story about sardines and/or anchovies, and you – yes, YOU! – could be the proud owner of a brand new, unopened box of Crown Prince skinless & boneless sardines in olive oil:

All this could be yours!

Maybe you once hid a pair of these fishy friends in a rival’s shoe for a nasty surprise? (No fair stealing…that’s MY story.) Or tricked your sister into swallowing one whole for a quarter? Or maybe you have an amazing recipe that calls for these as a special ingredient? Whatever your tale, I wanna hear it! Leave me your story in the comments section. Winner will be announced Friday (2/4) at 9 p.m. CST.*

Good luck!
– Jessica

*Yes. I’m completely serious. Only the best for my readers!

Schooled on Fish

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“I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.” – Julia Child

Since my spontaneous and willing husband gave me a repreive from cooking the other night when he came to my rescue with a hamburger cookout in the backyard, I knew I had to step it up last night and cook the fish that was thawing in our fridge. Dinner was Filets de Poisson Gratines, a la Parisienne (fish filets poached in white wine with cream and egg yolk sauce) with Riz en Couronne (rice ring) and the leftover broccoli from the other night. The end result was a surprisingly hearty dish that looked really impressive and tasted great! Here’s how it went down:

Rice mixture

I started with the rice, because there were a couple of preliminary steps to get out of the way. I followed Julia’s recipe for Risotto Pilaf, heating raw rice in a pan of melted butter until it became transparent, then I poured in boiling water. I added an herb bouquet and some salt/pepper, then covered the pan and set it in the bottom third of a preheated oven (375 degreees). After about five minutes, I turned the heat down to 350 and let it cook for another 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the recipe says you can add a variety of vegetables to the rice before forming it in the ring, so I cooked some peas and sauteed some mushrooms to toss into the mix. When the rice was finished in the oven, I pulled it out and stirred in the peas and mushrooms, then turned it all into a buttered mold (basically a bundt pan) and lightly pressed it down into the form. I cut out a circle of wax paper (making a big X in the middle for the bundt pan hole) and covered the pan with it, then put a lid on top. I set the pan into a pot of boiling water and set it in the bottom third of the oven for about ten minutes.

Poached cod awaiting sauce

With the rice well underway, I started working on the fish. We had bought five big pieces of cod for this recipe, and it was perfect. I seasoned the filets with salt/pepper and set them in a buttered pan on the stove, adding a mixture of vermouth and water. I brought the fish to a simmer, then covered the pan with buttered wax paper. When the rice came out of the oven, I replaced it with the pan of fish and let it cook for about 12 minutes (this is called “poaching”). I knew the fish was cooked when the meat began to fall apart in the pan (don’t overcook! There’s nothing worse than dried out, flaky fish). I drained the liquid from the pan into a separate smaller sauce pan, and at this point I noticed some tiny bones sticking out of some of the filets. I took care to pull out the little slivers I could see, but knew there would be more – so a word of caution, eat fish carefully. Those little bones are sneaky suckers! I set the fish in the pan aside while I brought the juices to a boil. In another sauce pan, I melted butter and flour into a roux, stirring with a wooden spoon, and turned off the heat so I could add the boiling juices and some cold milk. I brought the mixture back up to a boil and stirred it, watching it thicken and turn into a creamy, velvety sauce.

The broiler has turned the fish/sauce a beautiful golden brown!

In a mixing bowl, I blended egg yolks and whipping cream and slowly added the sauce with a wire whisk. I poured the sauce back into the pan on the stove and brought it to a boil, then poured it over the fish. I sprinkled a couple tablespoons of shredded Swiss cheese over the sauce and added a few dots of butter, then brought it to a simmer on the stove. Finally, I put the pan under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the cheese and sauce.

Will you wear my ring?

The final product looked amazing! I used a spatula to serve filets and sauce onto plates, then covered the rice ring mold with a large platter and inverted it, leaving a perfect ring of rice, peas and mushrooms on the plate. I sliced a piece with a serving spoon and added it alongside the fish, finishing the plate with a helping of leftover reheated broccoli.

The rice ring was good – however, there was a weird smoky flavor that I didn’t like but couldn’t quite identify. I think it may have been some of the butter from the pan that had overcooked, but can’t be sure. Either way, I’d rather just have steamed rice as a side (although I did like the addition of the peas and mushrooms – not only did it add some nice color to the rice, but it gave the side some texture interest as well).

Voila! Fish, broccoli and rice ring

The fish, however, was fantastic. The creamy sauce was delicious, and the meat was tender and light, cooked perfectly and well seasoned. I am continually amazed by Julia’s fish recipes, each one teaching me that fish really can be a tasty treat. (Just be sure to watch out for those little bones…I got quite a few in my filet.)

When it comes to cooking, it’s easy to get bored with the same old routines. How many different ways can you possibly cook a chicken breast? But in following the recipes from MTAOFC, it’s eye opening to realize how a different sauce or a few small ingredients can really make a big difference.

This meal was terrific, and we have enough leftovers for another meal tomorrow, on the off chance we get iced in (I can’t believe it – we’re being hit with another arctic blast!). Good thing I’ve got a hearty vegetable soup on the docket for this week – that’ll be a nice meal to warm ourselves as we sit by the fire. Hope you’re keeping warm, wherever you are!

Happy cooking!
– Jessica

Flamiche, Flamazel, Hassenpfeffer Incorporated!

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“I was really getting into the swing of things now. Over a period of six weeks, I made: terrine de lapin de garenne, quiche Lorraine, galantine de volaille, gnocchi à la Florentine, vol-au-vent financière, choucroute garni à l’Alsacienne, crème Chantilly, charlotte de pommes, soufflé Grand Marnier, risotto aux fruits de mer, coquilles Saint-Jacques, merlan en lorgnette, rouget au safron, poulet sauce Marengo, canard à l’orange, and turbot farci braisé au champagne. Whew!” – Julia Child

This weekend brought forth sort of a random assortment of cooking. I blame it on the beautiful weather we had – who can think about broiled fish when a gorgeous sunny afternoon calls for a cookout of hamburgers and corn on the cob? So here’s a recap of delicacies that sprang forth from my kitchen over the past couple of days:

Flamiche – Quiche aux Poireaux (leek quiche)
This was a quickie and something I was somewhat familiar with, considering I’ve made quite a few of Julia’s quiches by now (though none of which has had nearly as fun a name!). I made a partially cooked pastry shell and set it aside for the filling. I boiled sliced white leeks in a covered saucepan with salt and butter and let them stew for about a half-hour. Meanwhile, I beat eggs, cream and seasonings into a mixture, then gradually stirred in the drained leeks. I poured the mixture into the pastry shell and topped with shredded Swiss cheese and dots of butter, then put the springform pan into a 375 degree oven for a half-hour. When I pulled it out of the oven, it looked great! The top was turning a golden brown, and the crust looked nice and flaky (although I have come to accept the fact that my pastry shells will never be pretty. But seeing as how we’re not here to win any beauty pageants, I won’t lose too much sleep over the whole thing).

I let the quiche cool a bit, then removed the outer ring from the pan. I slid the quiche from the pan onto a large plate, which caused the crust to separate from the filling a little bit (oh, well), and then I used my brand new slicer to cut into the pie. It worked great! The pieces were perfect and I served them on separate plates. The quiche was thick and fluffy, like partially cooked scrambled eggs, and the flavor of the leeks was strong, but not too overpowering. I liked the filling more than the crust, but could only handle one piece…it was just a little too eggy for me. I could see this being a tasty breakfast dish, maybe with some sausage meat mixed in. Overall a good recipe, and super easy for a relaxing weekend.

Choux de Broccoli a la Milanaise(broccoli browned with cheese)
I had planned on making fish for dinner one evening, but as I lazed on the sofa with the windows open and the cool spring breeze wafting through the windows, I was suddenly struck with the idea that a cookout of hamburgers on the grill would be so much better. So that’s what we did. Not to be completely remiss in my AYWJ responsibilities, I did make a Julia side dish of this broccoli. I blanched a head of broccoli in boiling water, then drained it and arranged it in a buttered casserole dish. I sprinkled it with some salt/pepper and drizzled melted butter over the top and popped it into the oven for about 15 minutes. I took the dish out, sprinkled shredded Swiss and Parmesan cheese over the broccoli and put it back in the oven at a higher heat (425) for another 15 minutes. When the dish was done, I let it cool, then dug in. It was delicious! The broccoli was slightly crispy on top, as if it had been roasted, and the melted cheese gave it great flavor and a nice kick. The seasoning was just right and made for a surprisingly delicious side dish for our cookout. Yum!

Flan des Isles (pineapple custard, unmolded)
Considering I haven’t made many desserts from MTAOFC, I decided I’d give one a try this weekend. I opted for this fruity custard using crushed pineapple. I boiled pineapple syrup on the stove and added crushed pineapple, bringing it back to the boil. In the meantime, I beat flour, lemon juice, eggs, and cognac in a mixing bowl, and slowly added the pineapple. I poured the mixture into a caramel-lined ring mold, then set the mold into a large pot of boiling water. I left it on the stove to simmer for about an hour and a half, knowing it was ready to come off the heat when the custard began to pull away from the sides of the mold. When that happened, I let the mold cool and then put it in the fridge to set for about 3 hours (yeah, this dessert takes some patience). Finally, I ran a butter knife around the edge of the custard to loosen it from the mold and inverted it onto a large platter – which only had a slight mishap that I was able to easily piece back together – and served.

The custard was actually really good, but you’d better LOVE pineapple if you want to give this one a try. If I were to do this again, I would use the same amount of pineapple juice but cut the crushed pineapple by half – the amount of pulp was a little overwhelming, and I found myself wanting to taste more of the actual custard than the pineapple pieces. Don’t get me wrong – this flan was tasty! But it was also very sweet, and a little went a long way.

All in all, it was a good weekend, culinarily speaking. Best of all? I’m pretty sure this is the first time in months that every dish I own has been clean at the exact same time. Woo hoo!! I know it won’t last long, especially since I’ve got three recipes to knock out when I get home tonight. Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted.

Hope you had a great weekend… now let’s get cooking!
– Jessica

I Never Was Good at Math

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“One of the things I loved about French cooking was the way that basic themes could be made in a seemingly infinite number of variations—scalloped potatoes, say, could be done with milk and cheese, with carrots and cream, with beef stock and cheese, with onions and tomatoes, and so on and on. I wanted to try them all, and did.” – Julia Child

So…have you looked at a calendar lately? We’re officially halfway from the day I began this journey to the end of my one-year deadline. I’m exactly one-half through the allotted time. With four-fifths of the recipes yet to make. Hm…I’m no expert when it comes to fractions, but somehow, that equation doesn’t add up. *gulp* Am I worried? Nah. Will I finish? Yes. But it won’t be pretty.

A stomach bug has made its way through our house over the past week, striking first my husband and finally wreaking its havoc on me. There were moments when just the thought of food made me want to gag, so lots of chicken noodle soup and dry toast has been consumed around here lately. With my internal clock loudly ticking down the days left in this challenge, I knew I couldn’t lie curled up in the fetal position for long, so I summoned my energy and headed to the kitchen to knock out some recipes.

Scalloped potatoes...or are they?

The menu was Roti de Porc Poele (casserole-roasted pork) with Tomates Grillees au Four (whole baked tomatoes) and Gratin de Pommes de Terre Provencal (scalloped potatoes with onions, tomatoes, anchovies, herbs and garlic). I started with the potatoes, sauteing sliced onions in a bit of olive oil and folded in some sliced PSJ tomatoes and salt. Meanwhile, I made a paste of mashed garlic, anchovies, seasonings and olive oil in a small bowl. (Note to self: when feeling ill, avoid anchovies.) I buttered a baking dish, then spread the onion/tomato mixture on the bottom, covered with a layer of sliced potatoes (that I actually had leftover from when I made these potatoes for my party last weekend). On top of the potatoes I spread the paste mixture, then topped it all with shredded Swiss and a sprinkling of olive oil. (In actuality, I was suppposed to repeat this process another time, but because I halved the recipe I didn’t have enough ingredients to do so. Ah, well.) I set the potatoes aside and moved on to the meat.

Julia calls for a tenderloin, but I found loin steaks for a more affordable price, and since I was making a smaller portion for only two people, I went this route. I dried the loin with paper towels, and seared them in olive oil in an oven-safe pan until they were lightly browned on all sides. I removed them to a side dish, then tossed in a sliced carrot and onion and an herb bouquet and let them cook in the remaining oil, adding more when the fat had mostly cooked away.

Next stop: oven

I sprinkled the meat with salt and pepper, and added the steaks back into the pan. Covering with a lid, I put the pan into a 325 degree oven and let the meat cook for about 30 minutes, basting it with its juices every ten minutes or so. When they were finished, I pulled the pan out of the oven, cranked the heat up to 400 for the potatoes and tomatoes, and removed the meat to a side plate (throwing away the remaining herb bouquet).

While the potatoes cooked for about a half-hour, I washed two large tomatoes and removed the stems with my handy tool, sprinkling salt and pepper into the hole left behind. I smeared the outsides with olive oil and set them stem side down in a baking dish. When the potatoes came out of the oven, the tomatoes went in for 10 minutes. Just enough time to make the sauce for the pork.

I added a quarter-cup of vermouth to the pan and simmered for a few minutes, mashing the carrots and onions into the juices. I boiled the liquid, and set it aside. When the timer sounded, I brought the tomatoes out of the oven and dinner was ready. And history was made.

This was the first time I had ever made a Julia Child meal where I didn’t like a single thing on my plate.

All oiled up and heading to the oven

Granted, it could have been because I wasn’t feeling 100%…but Ben had the same reaction, and he seemed to be feeling fine. For starters, the pork was really dry. It was cooked all the way through, but not very enjoyable. In fact, the best part about the pork was the mashed carrots in the sauce. And even they weren’t that great. The tomatoes weren’t at all what I expected – but then again, I don’t know what I expected from a baked tomato. I guess I thought something magical would have happened in the baking process, making it soft and shriveled and delightful, but it wasn’t. It was just a hot, salty, peppery, oily raw tomato. And don’t even get me started on the potatoes. I mean, the potatoes themselves were alright, I guess. But it’s not fair to call them scalloped potatoes when there was no cream involved (that’s what I call false advertising!). They were more like roasted potato slices with yucky fish paste and mushy tomatoes. But I guess if we called them that, A.) nobody would eat them and B.) a name that long wouldn’t fit on a menu. So there you have it.

The best part about this meal? When Ben came out of the kitchen carrying a Totino’s party pizza. Hey, don’t judge – when it comes to cooking, it’s survival of the fittest. I wish I had better news, but it is what it is. At times like these, I like to give myself a brief customer satisfaction survey that goes a little something like this:

Pork loin, baked tomato and scalloped potatoes

1.) How was your experience? Unsatisfactory
2.) What was your favorite part of the meal?
The end.
3.) What was your least favorite part of the meal?
The beginning and middle.
4.) What could we do next time to improve your experience? Next time, I’ll try using an actual pork tenderloin. I’ll try baking smaller tomatoes – maybe their large size didn’t allow them to cook in the allotted time? And I’ll skip the potatoes altogether.
5.) If you could be any dessert, what would you be and why? A gingerbread cookie, because I’m sweet and spicy! *snap!* (No, this final question obviously has nothing to do with the actual cooking experience, but what can I say? I like to end on a positive note.)

Let’s look at the bright side – that’s 3 recipes I knocked out! Add those to the 1/5 I’ve already finished, and that’s got to bring me up to, like …*counting on fingers*… one-fifth-and-three-kajillionths of the way through the severalmany recipes in MTAOFC, right? Even though I wasn’t a fan of the food, I think Julia would be proud. Unless she hates me for not liking her cooking. But since it was really my cooking, I think I’m in the clear.

Feeling a little fractionally challenged…
– Jessica

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