Friday, August 24, 2012

Cooking Like Julia

As I mentioned on the occasion of Julia's 100th birthday (here), I've had out my "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", reading it for pure pleasure and inspiration. I have the Anniversary Edition, given by my loving son a few Christmas's ago. It includes a lengthy introduction written by Julia herself, toward the end of her life, as well as a section written by her editor Judith Jones. If you love to cook this is a must own cookbook. I was given "The Joy of Cooking" when I first set up housekeeping over 30 years ago, and while that book is invaluable as to the mechanics of cooking, this book is invaluable if you want to cook with style.
Yesterday, I prepared Saute de Boeuf a la Parisenne, which simply translated means Beef Saute in the Parisienne Style. The Parisienne style is apparently, with cream and mushrooms. This is, essentially, a French version of Beef Stroganoff and was written before sour cream was widely available to the home cook. 
Julia's introduction for this recipe praises it's quick preparation and the advantages of prepping ahead for serving to company. I totally agree that it came together very quickly, but must comment that it is not the prettiest dish I've ever prepared. However, having said that, I must also admit that the taste was ABSOLUTELY DIVINE! I had some beautiful, new potatoes, freshly dug by my step-father on his nearby farm, so I opted to use those, as opposed to rice or risotto. Julia mentions all three as possible accompaniments to this dish, and I think buttered egg noodles would work as well.
I used exactly the cut of beef suggested by Julia and made only one small adjustment. The original recipe called for Madeira, which is fortified wine from Portugal, or dry white vermouth. When I went to the grocery store, they did not have Madeira. I thought I had dry white vermouth at home, but I was mistaken: I had sweet vermouth, which is used in making Manhattans. The two can NOT be substitued for one another. SO, I googled substituting something else for Madeira and discovered what I believe was a good alternative. It's amazing what you can find on the internet!
The directions to this dish are very particular, a trait shared by all of Julia's recipes. She was first and foremost a teacher, long before the days of celebrity chefs! Her advice for drying the mushrooms and the beef thoroughly before cooking is invaluable to the success of this dish. She also specifically mentions allowing the foaming of the butter to subside before adding the ingredients, an indication that the pan is at the correct temperature to begin cooking. That's a great tip, especially for a newer cook.

Remember what I said? It's not the prettiest dish I've ever made! Let me also say that I halved this recipe, so the prepped mushrooms and beef pictured below are less than the amount in the recipe.

Saute de Boeuf a la Parisienne, served over lightly mashed new potatoes

Beef Saute with Cream and Mushrooms
First, prepare the vegetables:
1/2 lb.cleaned,  fresh mushrooms, dried on a paper towel( halved and quartered)
2 T. butter                                                                             
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. minced shallots or green onions
1/4 tsp. salt and a pinch of pepper
Heat a large, heavy skillet and melt the butter and oil. When the foaming of the butter begins to subside, add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, stirring and tossing to brown them on all sides. Add the onions or shallots to the pan and cook for another 2 minutes (I used sliced green onions). Remove the vegetables to a dish.

Next, prepare the beef and sauce:

Drying the cut beef, not too pretty, but necessary!
2+ lbs. tenderloin of beef; the tenderloin butt and the tail of the fillet are usually used, excess fat and white tendon removed, cut into pieces that are about 2" long and 1/2" thick, drained and dried on a paper towel
2 T. butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. Madeira OR 1/4 c. dry white vermouth OR 1/4 c. dry red wine + 1 T. balsamic vinegar (this is the sub that I found by googling, and I had both things in my pantry)
3/4 c. beef stock or canned beef bouillon
1 c. heavy whipping cream
2 tsp. cornstarch blended with 2 T. of the whipping cream
Salt and Pepper
1 T. butter
To Serve:
Cooked, slightly mashed new potatoes OR steamed rice OR risotto
Top with some fresh parsley for garnish or a few snipped chives

In the same pan you prepared the vegetables, melt the butter and oilover moderate heat. When the foaming subsides, add the prepared beef, in  a single layer. (My pan was large enough to do this but if you use a smaller pan, saute the beef in batches so that it sears correctly.) Season as you cook with a little salt and pepper. Cook the beef for only 3 - 5 minutes, so that it is browned but still rare. Remove the beef from the pan and set aside. Pour the wine and beef stock into the pan and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Boil it rapidly so that it reduces to about 1/2 cup of liquid. Whisk in the cream and the cream and cornstarch mixture. Simmer 1 minute and add the mushrooms and onion back into the sauce, for another minute or 2. The sauce should have formed a liaison (thickened slightly, Julia's own description). Taste the sauce for seasoning and add a little more salt and pepper if needed.
At this point, you can add the beef and turn it off and save the dish to be served later, OR heat it briefly and serve immediately. When reheating, cover the pan and heat only 3 - 4 minutes, being very careful not too cook it too long. You just want to warm the dish. The beef should be rosy red in the middle when you serve it. Add 1 T. of butter at the very end of the cooking, to add extra richness to the dish ( I eliminated this step, and it was plenty rich, believe me!).
Serve the beef in a casserole or on a platter, surrounded by steamed rice, risotto or lightly mashed new potatoes. Decorate with parsley or snipped chives.
Serves 4 - 6
Julia recommends serving this with some fresh green beans or peas. I opted for a salad, since I've got tons of lettuce in my garden. She also recommends a Bordeaux wine. We had a bottle of Pinot Noir, so that's what I served.
Bon Appetit!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Make Some Barbecued Ribs at Home

Barbecued baby back ribs for dinner!
My husband LOVES barbecued ribs. We like the smaller, baby back, pork ribs, as opposed to the larger spare ribs or beef ribs. When we were dating and first married, there was a rib joint called "The Farmhouse" not too far away, here in Richmond, VA,  They had the BEST bbq ribs! You could smell the smoke a mile away and they tasted as good as they smelled. The owners kept their sauce recipe a secret, but many folks swore up and down that there was peanut butter in it! That's right, creamy peanut butter. I never knew exactly what their secret was, but man, oh, man, they were some tasty ribs. They almost fell off the perfectly cooked bones, and they weren't too fatty or tough. That place closed a long time ago, but the memories of those ribs has stayed with us, as we've worked on trying to create the perfect rib recipe at home. Cooking ribs is considered "Manly Man Cooking" at our house (See another recipe here) , so there's always been plenty of input from the hub and the sons. Opinions are never in short supply around here!!

What is a perfect rib? Well, in our opinion, it's gotta' be tender, a little spicy, not too fatty and very flavorful. By watching The Food Network rib competitions, I've learned that the meat shouldn't fall completely OFF the bone, or the rib can be eliminated from the competition. Therefore, the trick seems to be to get them so tender that the meat almost falls off the bone. After trying out numerous recipes and tasting ribs all around Richmond and other places we've visited, this is the recipe and method that I've come up with for home cooks. I am sure it would be a little better if we had a smoker, but I think I've got that almost covered by my cooking method. Tender and tasty, the slow cooking in the oven, paired with the soaking and rub, guarantees a moist rib that's not too fatty.

The very first thing I do, is to soak the ribs in beer. I remove them from their package, put them into a large baking dish and then pour over the beer. I use one can for for each rack. I let them sit for an hour or two, turning them over a few times. Next, I drain off and discard the beer. After draining, I return them to the pan and season the ribs with a dry rub. I roast them covered with foil, low and slow in the oven, before finishing them on the grill with some sauce. Here's my recipe for the dry rub for a single rack of ribs, which will feed 3 - 4 people. Double or triple the recipe if you need more than one rack of ribs. (More instructions follow the Rub Recipe.)

Dry Rub for Ribs
1 T. McCormick Grill Mates Mesquite Seasoning
1/4 c. brown sugar
Ribs with the dry rub.
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. paprika
2 T. chili powder
1/2 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
a pinch of dried red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
a pinch of dried thyme
Mix everything together and sprinkle on the bottom and top of the ribs, rubbing it into the meat so the rub sticks to the ribs. Eliminate the cayenne pepper and/or the dried red pepper flakes if you don't like things spicy.  Place the rack on a large cookie sheet or baking pan, and cover with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour.

Preheat your grill the way you normally do it. We use our gas grill, but any kind will work fine. You can soak wood chips and use them if you wish -- we've done that and the ribs are always good, whether we do or don't.
Slather the ribs with your favorite sauce and cook them on each side, basting with more sauce, for about 15 to 20 more minutes, until the sauce begins to brown and caramelize on the ribs. The ribs are already cooked from the time in the oven, so you don't need to worry about temperature or undercooking the meat.

Baby Back Ribs on the Grill
Finally, a word about sauces: Commercial bbq sauces are so good that we don't make our own, but "concoct" one, using our favorites. I like to mix 1 c. Sauers Barbecue Sauce with 1 c. K.C. Masterpiece Original Barbecue Sauce and 1 T. Texas Pete Hot Sauce. A lot of people swear by Sweet Baby Rays Barbecue Sauce, but we find that a little too sweet. Since we don't like our sauce really sweet, I cut the sweetness of the K.C. Masterpiece with the Sauers. "Sauers" is a regional tomato and vinegar based sauce, made here in VA. In addition, since we like a little kick I add the Texas Pete, but you could totally leave that out, if your family prefers the ribs milder.
Try this, for your family or for a backyard cookout. It's a crowd pleaser!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Julia Child!

This week, August 15, marks the 100th birthday of my favorite chef and inspiration, Julia Child. I LOVE reading about Julia Child and her adventures as a late starter and author. I feel a personal connection, since I was born in France the same time Julia was there learning all about the way to cook. It's a vague connection, I know, but it's my little delusion. I devoured "My Life in France" by Julia herself, and am looking forward to reading "Dearie" a newly released biography of Julia by Bob Spitz. I have watched "Julie and Julia" several time and think that Meryl Streep nailed Julia's presence and spirit. I also watch "The French Chef" anytime they run those classics on PBS. If you have not seen Julia in action, you've got to check her out. She is a riot and absolutely FEARLESS in the kitchen! SO, in honor of all things Julia, I've been re-reading her masterpiece, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", a must own cookbook for anyone who truly loves to cook!

I also loved reading about her lifelong friendship with Simone Beck, her co-author of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", along with Louisette Bertholle. Here is something that Simca said that reflects the way I cook, especially in the summertime, when the produce is so plentiful and delicious that very little needs to be done to make it shine:
"There is no technique, there is just the way to do it. Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook?"
Simone Beck "Simca" co-author with Julia Child, as quoted by Frances Mayes, in "Under the Tuscan Sun".
This year, we've been lucky enough to reap the bounty from 2 neighbors who share, a woman in my husbands' office who sells her homegrown produce very cheaply and an abundance of herbs and lettuces from my very own garden. Is there anything better that classic Salade Caprese with homegrown tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a few ribbons of basil? I like to drizzle ours with a few drops of olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of coarse salt. SO yummy and SO easy!

Another cold and fresh favorite is pasta salad with lots of veggies. Any combination of vegetables will work, but the method is always the same. See my method here:
Farmers Market Pasta Salad

Not everyone at my house loves cold soup, but I do and so does my youngest son.  Cold Cucumber Soup is an absolute must have for the summertime refrigerator! Gazpacho is easy and fast too, and uses up a bunch of veggies. SOOO good for you too, makes you feel healthy when you eat it!

Eat your veggies! And pick up a book about Julia  -- it'll keep you laughing and inspired in the kitchen. Happy 100th Birthday, Julia!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Trader Joe's Night at Our House

General Tsao's Chicken Stir Fry with Chicken Shu Mai Dumplings
If you read my blog, even occasionally, or know me just a little bit, then you know that I love to cook. However, I must admit, some nights, I just don't feel like spending alot of time in the kitchen. We are spoiled enough around our house, though, that we won't compromise too much on taste and quality. Somtimes, that can present a bit of a dilemma. TAA DAA, Trader Joe's to the rescue. If you live in an area with a Trader Joe's, you are in luck. Their prepared foods are actually pretty good, and believe me, I am kinda' picky. If you've not made the trip to one, I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised.

My friend de cuisine told me about the General Tsao's Stir Fry Sauce:
TJ's General Tsao's Stir Fry Sauce

All you need to do to make some pretty good stir fry is to cut up some meat and/or veggies, stir fry them for a minute, and then add the sauce. I used 2 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a bunch of green onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a small green pepper and a small red pepper. If you were really feeling lazy, you could buy a bag of frozen, pre-cut Chinese style veggies (I bet they sell them at TJ's!) and add some to the pan with the meat and pour the sauce over the whole thing. EASY and EASIER!!

I sprinkled on some dried hot pepper flakes, because we like things a little spicy. Lastly, pop on a lid and let it simmer a few minutes while your rice cooks. This is a good alternative to take out -- not only is it inexpensive, but you can control certain parts of the meal that are not always so good for you. For example, I only used a teaspoon of peanut oil to saute my chicken and vegetables.
Chicken and veggies, simmering away in the stir fry sauce
Another healthy addition that we like is to add some brown rice to the meal. I bring 2 1/4 cups of organic chicken stock to a boil and then add 1/2 cup brown rice and 1/2 cup white rice. Stir the rice into the liquid. Bring the pot back to a boil, cover it, turn it down and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed.

To round out the meal, but not put any further stress on myself, I also purchased a box of Chicken Shu Mai Dumplings at TJ's:
TJ's Chicken Shu Mai
They are super easy to prepare: Heat a skillet and add just a drop of peanut or vegetable oil. Sear the shu mai on high heat on both flat sides. Pour in a little bit of water, just enough to cover the bottom and cover the pan to let them steam for about 10 minutes.
Shu Mai seared, and ready to be steamed
Now, honestly, you've gotta' admit -- How hard is this? IT WAS EZ! I heated up a few cashews in the microwave and sprinkled them over the top of our General Tsao's Chicken, and VOILA it was almost like eating in a nice restaurant! Anyone can do this, and it really tasted good! Give it a try, and make some take out at home! Let me say, I know, I know, this is NOT really cooking and it's cheating and all that stuff.....but it was a busy day and I was over the kitchen and I managed to turn out a fairly healthy, good tasting meal in about 30 minutes without trashing up my kitchen or breaking the bank, so just go with it. Give yourself a break, it's OK, I promise. I give you my official permission to make this and call it dinner, call it cooking, whatever you want.