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

Our State Fair is a Great State Fair

Today Ben and I head to the State Fair of Texas! Here are things we’re always sure to do:

– A welcome from Big Tex
– Our annual corn dog
– Food Pavilion (for sample freebies and $1 milk from the Borden booth)
– World On a String marionette show
– Backyard Circus
– Boris the Boar (he’s HUGE!!)
– Parade of Lights

And much, much more! Looking forward to sharing my full review with you tomorrow. Until then, here’s a little pre-fair entertainment and what we’ll be singing in the car on the way to Dallas:

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– Jessica

Life at the (Big) Top

Every November, we immediately begin looking forward to the next October when the Shrine Circus comes to town. We’ve gone 6 years in a row now, and today marks our 7th trip to this fun family event.

One of the best parts about going to the circus is that during intermission, we get to ride one of the circus elephants! Granted, it’s just a couple laps around a small ring, but for those five minutes I’m a sequinned-leotard-wearing, feather-in-my-hair circus performer, waving at the cheering audience (okay, so they’re all at the concession stand getting a hot dog) and sparkling under the auditorium spotlight (okay, so maybe they have all the lights on during intermission). Regardless, it’s an awesome experience, and afterward – if I’m really lucky – the elephant will reach out its trunk to me to hold my hand (that really did happen once – she must have seen my star quality and knew I would be an asset to the circus team).

So anyway, all of this to say that I won’t be making any French cuisine today. I’ll be riding an elephant at the circus.

I bet Julia Child never rode an elephant at the circus.

– Jessica

Geometry Was Never My Strong Suit

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a completely disfunctional kitchen. You know, the kind where you can’t open the dishwasher if you have the oven door open; the refrigerator can only be opened if nobody is washing their hands at the sink; the cabinet door won’t close if the pantry door is ajar. This was the case in my last apartment – because, let’s face it, generally speaking apartment kitchens are small and there aren’t many options for fitting all major appliances in such a cramped space.

Sometimes space isn’t the issue. Sometimes a kitchen suffers from a simple case of bad design. (Why in the world would a contractor put a dishwasher facing an oven in an adjoining corner of the room??) As it turns out, there’s actually a design phenomenon to avoid such disasters. Have you ever heard of the Kitchen Work Triangle?

The first time I’d ever heard of this was a couple of months ago while reading one of my favorite blogs of all time, thepioneerwoman.com. Mother of four and wife to a rancher, blogger Ree Drummond is constantly cooking up a storm to feed all of her cowboys and punks. If anyone would know how to best utilize the Kitchen Work Triangle, it would be her. Check out her entry here and see how your own kitchen measures up. And then be prepared to spend the next 36 hours being sucked into her world, because her blog is truly amazing.

I’m sorry to say that my own kitchen does not exactly follow the work triangle plan – my oven is on the same wall as my fridge, and my sink is along the perpendicular wall. So I follow more of a Kitchen Work “L”. But honestly? It’s far better than anything I’ve ever had before and it works fine for me. I love my kitchen.

Besides, I never was very good with geometry.

– Jessica

The Steaks Are High

So I’m spending the week in Atlanta, exhibiting at a trade show here at the World Congress Center. While I always hate to be away from home, there are some perks to traveling for my company – including being treated to some really great meals.

Longhorn Steakhouse

Our first day in Atlanta didn’t go so well. FedEx failed to deliver the majority of our booth products, and then our hotel botched our reservations. By the time dinner rolled around, we all just really wanted a drink. The hotel concierge gave us a listing of nearby restaurants, so we chose one called Longhorn Steakhouse. Ever been there? I hadn’t – and it was incredible.

This particular location was near downtown Atlanta, and when we pulled into the parking lot, it was clear that this place had some merit – there were hardly any parking spaces available at 7:00 on a weeknight. That’s got to be a good sign! We were seated almost immediately and were presented with our menus. I was surprised to see the variety of meals they offered, from steak and seafood to chicken and ribs. Everything looked great, but I ordered the 7 oz. Flo’s Filet, touted as “our guests’ favorite”. Included was a side dish (I chose a loaded baked potato) and a salad.

Flo's Filet

After placing our order, we were served a basket of warm, sliced honey wheat bread. It was all I could do to restrain myself from eating the whole thing – it was so yummy! Not long afterward our salads arrived, and while the Caesar salad was good, I thought the dressing was a little heavy. But then our meals arrived, and everything looked perfect. The portion sizes were just right – if I’d gotten the larger filet, it definitely would have been too much food. When I sliced into my medium-well steak, the meat was so tender and juicy – my knife sliced right through. I have to say that this was one of the best steaks I’ve had, and for a fraction of the price you’d expect to pay for such a quality cut of meat.

I highly recommend this place. It’s a no-fuss casual dining kind of place with a cozy ranch lodge feel, the steak is over the top delicious and the prices are totally reasonable. Visit their website for a listing of locations. Next time, I want to try the homemade chips – I bet they’re terrific! If you’re in the mood for a tasty steak, and you find yourself near a Longhorn Steakhouse, stop in for dinner. You won’t be sorry!

– Jessica

*Longhorn Steakhouse has no idea who I am, nor do they realize they’re mentioned on this site.*

Will It Blend?

The other day I professed my love for my Magic Bullet, especially in light of the fact that my blender broke over a year ago and I’ve relied on the Bullet (and my Margaritaville, on “special” occasions) for all of my blending needs.

But after seeing this, maybe I should get one of these babies! Enjoy! (Go here for more Will It Blend? videos. And don’t try this at home…)

– Jessica

Hips Don’t Lie

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“I paused to put on some lipstick in a vain attempt to pretend I’m not an about-to-be overweight, about-to-be thirty-year-old in a dead-end job whom no one will ever have a romantic thought about ever again.” – Julie Powell 

I got home from work last night and had time to begin packing for a business trip (this morning I head out to Atlanta to work a trade show…*yawn*) before I needed to start cooking dinner. Our official business polo shirts arrived at work and I wanted to try them on before I packed them, just to be sure no weird surprises would await me in Georgia. And it’s a good thing I did, because I came to the disturbing (yet not overly surprising) realization that my work pants no longer fit. I could go on about how my dryer must have shrunk them, but let’s not kid ourselves – no amount of Spanx and special undergarments could hide the fact that my experimental French cuisine project was taking its toll. Trust me. I tried.

So it was a quick emergency pants run to my favorite French clothing store down the street (Tarjay) where I found some slacks on sale that would do the trick. While I would normally refuse to buy clothing a size larger and instead get myself back on some sort of exercise regime, desperate times call for desperate measures. And after all – it’s amazing what a roomy pair of pants can do for one’s comfort level. *sigh of relief*

Of course, being a mere 5’3″, any time I buy pants I am faced with the reminder that according to the world of fashion, anyone with my hip and waist measurement is apparently over 6 feet tall. Luckily, because this is a common occurrence, I have learned how to hem a pair of pants in ten minutes or less. I know, my skills never cease to amaze, do they?

Onions and Ham

When I got home from the store, time was running short – I was hoping to have dinner ready when Ben got home. So I got to work on our supper: Rapee Morvandelle (gratin of shredded potatoes with ham and eggs and onions). I’ve learned from Julia that any time she uses the word “gratin”, it means we’re going to brown something in the oven, so I knew that this meal would be a sort of casserole. It was surprisingly easy to make! I sauteed onions in a little bit of butter (I better enjoy these new pants while I can…at this rate, I’ll be getting a larger pair soon), then added some pre-cooked diced ham. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl I beat eggs, cream, seasonings, and grated Swiss cheese together, then added the ham and onions.

I set the mixing bowl aside and peeled and grated four small potatoes, squeezing out all their excess water in paper towels (it’s amazing how much liquid is inside a raw potato!). Then I stirred them into the egg mixture and poured everything into an oven-safe buttered pan. I dotted the top of the contents with butter and put the pan into the top third of my oven, preheated to 375 degrees for about 35 minutes.

Rapee Morvandelle

It was perfect timing – Ben got home just as the casserole was coming out of the oven. It looked terrific! The cheese and eggs had browned nicely on top, but weren’t too crisp. The liquid around the edges of the pan was bubbling and everything smelled terrific. I used a spatula to serve helpings onto our plates, and we made some biscuits from a can as a little side dish. We sat down to eat, and were both really happy with the results. The Swiss cheese had melted nicely and gave a little flavor to the meal, and the potatoes reminded me of American hashbrowns. I felt like the dish could use a little something, so I put some ketchup on my plate to dip my fork into, and I’m here to tell you that this dish is NOT missing ketchup. Ick. The acidity of the tomato reacted negatively with something in the morvandelle, so I would strongly discourage you from making that mistake. Ben thought it just needed more seasoning and was happy to add some salt and pepper to his plate.

Dinner is served.

Although we had this for dinner, this dish would make a great breakfast – it’s super easy and quick to put together and didn’t involve very many steps. We give this meal two thumbs way up. And the best part is that, because I made the full recipe instead of dividing it in half like I usually do, Ben has leftovers to snack on for the rest of the week while I’m out of town. Bonus!

Just because I won’t be at home in my own kitchen for the next few days, don’t think I won’t have plenty to write about this week. Keep checking back for your daily dose of culinary madness.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish hemming my pants. It’s hard living in a world made for giant stick people.

– Jessica

And Three Bad Things Happened…

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“The idea of cooking anything at all seemed beyond the pale, but I was cheered by the hardy fantasy I had been maintaining that poached eggs were easy, that I had mastered the technique and any dish that called for them was by definition a snap to make.” – Julie Powell

When I was a little girl and was faced with bedtime, I would ask my mom to make up a story before tucking me in for the night. Seems like a simple enough request, right? Only for some reason, I was very particular – three bad things had to happen, and in the end I had to be the hero. (I don’t know where I got this stuff, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I was a weird kid.) There was also something about a worm and a magic sweater, but that’s another story for another day.

So yesterday morning I woke up early to make breakfast before I had to run off to a day of chorus rehearsals. To be honest, the last thing I wanted to do when my alarm went off on a beautiful Sunday morning was to get up and cook breakfast, but I was already behind in my recipes and had promised Ben I’d make something over the weekend. I decided to give Julia’s Oeufs a la Bourguignonne (eggs poached in red wine) served in artichoke bottoms a try.

Poaching eggs

I had cooked the artichoke bottoms the other night, so I already had them ready to go. The poached eggs I had done before (only not in red wine), so I pretty much knew what to expect from the cooking process. I poured some red wine and beef stock into a small pot and brought it to a simmer. I broke an egg into a cup and used the cup to get close to the surface of the water and gently slide the egg into the pot. Only, once the egg was in there, I realized my pot was too shallow – there wasn’t enough liquid covering the egg for it to cook properly. Rats. I scooped it out, threw it away, and added more beef stock and wine to the pot. (Note to self: next time, use smaller and deeper pot.) I tried again, and this time the liquid covered the egg, but just barely. I was able to get the egg white to wrap around the yolk, but because the wine and beef stock were such a dark color, it was hard to see what I was doing and to determine whether the egg was done. This was going to be trickier than I thought.

Because of time and frustration constraints, my plan of making 4 eggs turned to making 3, and I set them aside while I worked on the sauce to pour over them. I added some seasonings to the liquid in the egg pot, then added a paste of butter and flour. The sauce thickened a little and was ready.

Because an egg on an artichoke isn’t much of a breakfast on its own, I decided to fry up some bacon. This particular bacon was really fatty, and there was a lot of grease in the pan. So as it cooked, the kitchen began to fill with smoke – and ultimately set off the fire alarm. (Bad Thing #1.) I began opening doors and windows and finally, the alarm subsided (poor Ben – not the sweet awakening I had planned for his Sunday morning).

I also made some toast to round out the meal, and was finally ready to serve our breakfast. I used a spoon to lift an egg onto an artichoke bottom, but in the process, the egg white tore and yolk began to spill out. (Bad Thing #2.)Clearly I hadn’t left them in the water long enough, but I didn’t have time to worry about it now. So I held the artichoke up against the ripped egg, then inverted the whole thing so the leaking yolk was on the bottom and you couldn’t tell that anything had gone awry. I think Julia would have been proud.

Poached Egg on Artichoke w/ Toast and Burnt Bacon

I spooned some of the sauce over the egg, then tossed a couple pieces of crispy bacon onto the plate along with some toast. This would have to do…I was running out of time. Ben joined me at the dining table and I dug in. I thought the egg with the artichoke was a really nice combination! The artichoke itself was tender and light, and the sauce was thin and full of beefy wine flavor, without taking away from the taste of the egg. The yolk was a little too runny, but the toast was perfect for sopping that up. The bacon, I realized now, was burnt – in all the running around trying to get the fire alarm to quit, I must have left it on the stove too long. (Bad Thing #3.) Oh, well. All in all, I thought this was a pretty good breakfast. But then I looked up and saw Ben’s face.

He had taken a bite of the egg and the artichoke, and he was just sitting there – not chewing, not swallowing, just holding this bite in his mouth. When he saw me looking at him, he forced a smile. “You don’t like it??” I asked. I was really surprised – I thought it was pretty good. He shook his head. And then he made some gagging noises and rolled his eyes back in his head and pretended to die. And I rolled my eyes, because I apparently married a three-year-old. “It’s okay, you can spit it out,” I told him. But he shook his head and swallowed it.

“Is it really that bad?” I asked, still trying to figure it out.
“It’s just that…those are two flavors that don’t go together!” he told me. So he took a bite of bacon, only to discover that it was burnt. And then he took a bite of toast, and smiled. “Julia makes great toast!”
“I have to get in the shower,” I told him flatly. And then he apologized profusely.

So that’s my story of yesterday’s breakfast, where three bad things happened. Only this time, I didn’t really come out the hero in the end. But even heroes have off days, right? I’m willing to put money on the fact that even Superman gets a run in his tights every now and then.

– Jessica

The Most Important Meal of the Day?

So this morning’s attempt at poached eggs in red wine sauce on artichoke canapes with bacon and toast didn’t go so well. I’m off to a day of rehearsals, but check back later this evening for the unfortunate details…

Happy October!

October is one of my very favorite months. Not only do I love the change in weather (we finally go from 98 degree highs to 88 degree highs…welcome fall!), but I’m also a huge fan of Halloween. The candy, the costumes, the decorations – it’s all so fun and festive! But even more than that, October brings two of my favorite annual events: the Shrine circus and the Texas State Fair.

Every year, Ben and I go to the Fair and spend the whole day watching shows, enjoying live music, eating terrible yet delicious foods. We don’t even ride any of the rides or play any of the games – we’re too busy doing all the other fun stuff that most people pass up. It’s an annual tradition that we never miss, and I’m excited to announce that we’re heading there next Saturday! The official week-long countdown has begun! I wonder if we’ll try this fried concoction this year:

Because I have Halloween decorations to put up, and because I needed a relaxing night at home after a Julie Powell-esque week, last night’s dinner was Thursday’s beef casserole leftovers. Comfort food, cool fall air coming in through the open windows, and a lapful of cats makes for a good Friday night in my book!

Happy October, everybody!

– Jessica

Don’t Eat the Floss

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“This was caveman stew, by which I mean that the taste of it seemed to tug at deep primitive urges, and it made me grunt.  Hunks of bacon, hunks of beef, rich thick broth. Boo-yah!” – Julie Powell

 

Dolmas

When I was in high school, I once had to give a partner presentation on Greece. So my partner Jason and I decided we would think outside the box and make dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables) to accompany our presentation, because if there’s one thing high school kids like, it’s food. Not having much experience in the kitchen, the cooking process took waaaay longer than it should have. Jason’s family was kind enough to let us use their kitchen, and we worked long into the night. Somewhere around 1:00 in the morning, we were exhausted, and the last step of the recipe called for us to use string to tie these grape leaves closed. We didn’t have any string (see, even then I had a problem reading a recipe all the way through to the end before getting started)…but we did have green dental floss. It worked great, and the green blended right in with the leaves. We covered the platter and put it in the fridge and called it a night. When we served our dolmas the next day, the class was really impressed. They turned out great! Only, I may or may not have forgotten to warn everyone about the floss, and to this day I may or may not owe someone an apology (Sorry, Dusty!). But for what it’s worth, we got an A. Dental floss and all.

So last night, I made the super easy recipe for Daube de Boeuf (casserole of beef with wine and vegetables). The last time I made a beef stew, I bought pre-packaged stew meat from the store, and I was disappointed in the quality. So this time, I bought a nice sirloin and cut it into cubes myself. As I sliced through the meat, I noticed something odd…there was butcher’s twine holding it all together, hidden among the folds of the meat! All I could think about were those dolmas, and poor Dusty Hagan who digested a string of green dental floss. Thank goodness I didn’t make that mistake with butcher’s twine – yikes!

Marinade

After cutting the meat, I soaked it in a marinade of white wine, olive oil and seasonings, as well as sliced carrot and onion. I covered the bowl and waited a few hours, and focused my attention to the prep work for the rest of the recipe. I sliced mushrooms and peeled/juiced/chopped tomatoes, and also boiled some small pieces of bacon. When the meat was finished marinating, I removed it from the bowl and set it aside. I preheated the oven to 325 degrees, then lined the bottom of an oven-safe pot with a few strips of the bacon, then a layer of the marinade veggies, mushrooms and tomatoes. I rolled each piece of beef in flour and set them in a single layer over the vegetables and topped them with a few more strips of bacon. I repeated all of these layers one more time, finishing with a layer of vegetables and bacon.

Headed for the oven...

I poured the marinade wine into the pot, then added beef stock until the liquid almost covered the contents of the pot. I brought the whole thing to a simmer on the stove, then covered the pot and put it in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. And that was it! After just three steps, this dish pretty much cooks itself, so I had the rest of the night to do other things – like clean the kitchen, run a load of laundry, spend a few minutes on the elliptical machine to try to combat some of the side effects of all this French cuisine…you know, nice leisurely time to myself (ha). Somewhere around the 90 minute mark, I noticed a delicious smell coming from the kitchen. The wine in the pot was really starting to cook and smelled incredible. I took a look at the pot to be sure all was well, and it looked delicious. I spent the next hour playing with the cats and watching some Food Network, and finally, the timer went off. Dinner was ready.

Beef Casserole

All I had to do was scoop some of the casserole into a couple of bowls and serve up a couple of pieces of toast (sadly our French bread loaf was a little moldy) – this whole thing couldn’t have been easier. And how did it taste, you ask? It. was. awesome. More like a stew than a casserole, the meat was super tender and had great flavor from the marinade. The vegetables gave a nice texture to the broth, and with a little extra salt and pepper, the meal was perfect. We have plenty of leftovers which will last us through the weekend, so that’s an added bonus. I liked everything about this meal – the easy prep work, the no-fuss cooking process, quick clean-up and a tasty dinner! This would be especially good on a cold winter night…but we don’t get those in Texas, so last night will have to do.

Happy Friday!

– Jessica

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