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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

As my second decade of writing this blog begins, I’m returning to the formula I started it with: trying out new-to-me recipes from my existing cookbook collection. I think of it as digging for treasure in my own back yard.

And I hit gold with my very first spadeful: grillade marinière de Valence, from Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. This is a splendid book in many ways – for intensive coverage of all the provinces of France, for information both cultural and culinary, for photographs of landscapes and foodstuffs, and for recipes ranging from world-famous to all-but-forgotten local. Of its dishes I’d made before, a few have been a little disappointing but others were excellent, including the best poulet aux morilles I’ve ever achieved.

Willan’s current dish, translated as Sailor’s Steak with Anchovies, definitely falls in the excellent category. It’s an odd name in two respects. First, you may wonder why a deeply landlocked city like Valence has sailors. That’s because of its position on the Rhône river, a major barge transport route before the days of the railroad. The second is why a dish called a grillade is not grilled but stewed. For that you might have to ask the Academie Française – or a French sailor.

By the way: Willan indicates that, in the past, this dish was typically made with horse meat, which is much sweeter than beef. That may explain the now somewhat unexpected use of anchovies in a meat recipe.

But on to the cooking.

I was making the quantity for 4, which calls for 1¼ pounds of “beef stewing steak” (sort of an oxymoron to those of us who don’t stew our steaks), cut an inch thick. Happily, I had a piece of chuck in the freezer that was just the right weight and thickness. The other major component of the dish is onions: ¾ pound of them, thinly sliced.
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The first step was to rub a tablespoon of flour into five tablespoons of softened butter and keep it handy. Next, spread half the onions in an oiled casserole, lay on the steak pieces, add the remaining onions, and dot the floured butter over all.
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While my pot, covered, cooked over a low flame, I prepared a seasoning mix: chopping four large anchovy filets, two cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of parsley, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. When the meat had simmered for half an hour, I poured on the seasonings and stirred them in.
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After another hour and a half of cooking over very low heat, the beef was tender. I served Tom and myself each a piece well slathered with the onions and gravy, accompanied by heirloom potatoes boiled in their jackets and sautéed zucchini.
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As you’ll have already gathered, we liked the dish very much. (And the leftovers were still good a few days later.) I’m still wondering about the name, though: I’d have called it sailor’s steak with onions. The great mass of sweet Spanish onions almost melted into the sauce and were a lush, inviting presence. As for the anchovies, you’d notice something a little sharp, a little spicy, in the sauce, but you might not guess it was anchovy. In different ways, that should please anchovy haters and anchovy lovers alike.

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Today marks my completion of a decade of writing this blog. The culinary adventures (both successful and not so) about which I’ve told stories each week have given me great pleasure. To celebrate my tenth anniversary, this post will be a retrospective of some of the dishes I’ve most enjoyed making, eating, and writing about – one for each year.

You’ll notice a strong Western European emphasis in the choices here. That’s a reflection of Tom’s and my general eating preferences, but I’ve actually written about dishes from 24 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. I could have featured many of those others among these favorites.

Clicking on an image below will open the full post about the dish.
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2010

Prosciutto-wrapped Broiled Shrimp

My first blogging year was devoted to one new recipe a week from one of the 200+ cookbooks in my collection. This one, from Ada Boni’s classic Il Talismano della Felicità, makes as good an appetizer as it did a main course.

 

2011

Plum Cake Cockaigne

From my second year, I began including posts about recipes I’d previously known and loved. This one, from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, has been a late-summer favorite in our household for more years than I can remember.

 

2012

Traditional Paella Valenciana

I found recipes for this relatively simple paella in two cookbooks: Penelope Casas’ Food and Wines of Spain, and Teresa Barrenechea’s Cuisines of Spain. Both looked good, so I drew steps from both recipes.

 

2013

Bluefish Gravlax

 

Here, I adapted a salmon gravlax recipe from the Cooking of Scandinavia volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series for local bluefish. I also made the book’s cucumber relish and mustard-dill sauce.

 

2014

Tripe in Golden Fontina Sauce

This is my own version of trippa alla valdostana, from Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It makes a remarkably rich, mellow, elegant dish – if I do say so myself.

 

2015

Pheasant Pie with Noodles and Mushrooms

Under this pastry crust is faisan à la vosgienne, made from an Alsace recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. Pheasant, noodles, mushrooms, sauce, and pastry were all lavishly endowed with butter.

 

2016

Chickpea and Cuttlefish Stew

Penelope Casas’s book La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain provided the recipe for this Andalucian dish intriguingly spiced with hot red pepper, sweet smoked paprika, and garlic.

 

2017

Poulet Marengo

Anyone familiar with my food preferences will know I couldn’t let this retrospective go by without including at least one chicken dish. This is a classic from Robert Courtine’s The Hundred Glories of French Cooking.

 

2018

Veselka’s Borscht

The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, in NYC’s East Village neighborhood, serves the best borscht I’ve ever tasted or can imagine tasting. Making a batch of it from the place’s own cookbook was a major accomplishment for me.

 

2019

Apple-Stuffed Pork Roast

Apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar, and a touch of wine vinegar made a delightful stuffing for roasted pork. It’s a recipe I clipped from Saveur magazine and pasted in my big recipe binder.

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So:  10 years, 512 posts, recipes from 120 cookbooks, as well as a few from magazines, newspapers, and the internet. I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking from all this. Now I plan to take the month of January off, to think about how I’d like to position my blog for the coming years.

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I hate how this year’s Christmas marketing bling and blitz started a whole week before Thanksgiving. It’s enough to turn anyone into a Grinch. Even now it’s too early for me to put up my usual Christmas decorations. So when we had friends over for a casual dinner the other day, there was nothing Christmas-y on the menu.
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Instead I took the opportunity to make an autumnal dessert recipe I’d been meaning to try: Apple Tart Mapie. “Mapie” was the Countess de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose cookbook La Cuisine de France had a considerable following in the 1960s. I once had a copy of the book and was a fan of her recipe for skate with black butter, but I hadn’t thought about Mapie for decades. Then I found her recipe in the Pies & Pastries volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.

Two things interested me about it: the apples were diced rather than sliced, and they were covered with custard of a kind I’d never made before. Seemed like a good use for some of the local fall apples I had in a brown bag in my refrigerator’s crisper drawer.

The pastry crust recommended was the book’s standard all-butter pâte brisée. Though the recipe indicated that a half quantity would work for any one-crust pie, it was barely enough to line my shallow 9-inch round tart pan, even needing a little patching.
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To start the filling, I had to melt a stick of butter and keep cooking it over low heat until it turned light brown. While waiting impatiently for that to happen, I cut up two apples.
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The butter took an unconscionably long time to color. My diced apples sat on the counter turning brown while my melted butter didn’t. Finally, I gave up and declared the butter dark enough.
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I poured it into a bowl in which I’d I put 1¼ cups of granulated sugar, stirring it well. The result looked kind of like scrambled eggs.
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Then I beat in four whole extra-large eggs, which thinned the mixture out to a slurry.
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With a final addition of three tablespoons of flour, that was the entire custard mix: no milk or cream of any kind. Can you really call that a custard? I don’t know. What I did know was that the apples alone had pretty much filled my pastry shell. Was all that dense liquid going to fit in as well? I was beginning to lose faith in this recipe.
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Fortunately, it did all fit – just!

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When I put the tart into a 400° oven, I set a sheet pan on the shelf underneath, to catch what I was sure would be an overflow as the custard swelled up. Surprise! It wasn’t needed: The custard pushed the apples up to the surface, making itself into a soft, even base layer. With a sprinkling of powdered sugar, it made quite a nice looking tart..
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A tasty one too. The custard was a little overly sweet for my taste, but everyone else said it was a fine dessert. Now I think I can finally let go of autumn and start getting ready for Christmas.

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Baked Cucumbers

Baked cucumbers? That sounded to me like a joke – as who should say, “Have some of this delicious broiled coleslaw.” Yet that cucumber dish does exist: I came across it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while looking for a different recipe. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about French cuisine, but I’d never heard of this.

Curious about it, I did a little research in my other classic French cookbooks. I found no fewer than five cooked cucumber recipes in Larousse Gastronomique and similar numbers in both Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine and La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. de Saint-Ange. By golly, you’re never too old to learn something!

Of course, I had to try Julia Child’s recipe. It was a simple enough procedure. I gathered my ingredients for half a recipe and set to work.
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I’d bought Kirby cukes, the kind we prefer for eating raw and making pickles. The first thing to do here was peel, halve, seed, and cut them up.
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I then tossed the pieces in a bowl with salt, sugar, and red wine vinegar and left them there for about an hour to draw out their excess water. This is an alternative to blanching, which (as I learned) all the other recipes call for. Julia says her way lets them retain more flavor.
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Once drained and dried, my cukes went into a baking dish, to be tossed with melted butter, freshly ground black pepper, a chopped scallion, and chopped fresh dill, all of which sounded appropriate and tasty.
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The baking dish went, uncovered, into a 375° oven for a little over an hour, until the cucumbers were tender but still holding their shape. They didn’t look as attractive coming out as they had going in.
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And I’m sorry to say they didn’t do much for us. You could hardly even tell the vegetables were cucumbers. Mostly they tasted of dill and a light vinegar tang. Not unpleasant, but not at all interesting.
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Possibly Kirbies were the wrong cukes to use? Julia doesn’t specify a kind. In any event, I think I’ll just go on enjoying my cucumbers either pickled or raw.

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Julia Child has let me down! Always before, her recipes have unfolded for me in smooth, sensible stages, the ingredients behaving exactly as described, and the results – if not as perfect as hers – totally satisfying. But I’ve just spent an exasperating afternoon with one of the so-called master recipes in Julia’s The Way to Cook.

That morning, I was looking for something new to make with a chicken that I’d just taken out of the freezer. The book’s Ragout of Chicken and Onions in Red Wine had an encouraging list of ingredients, and the dish looked very attractive in the photograph:
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The recipe calls for three pounds of chicken parts for four servings, but there’d be only two of us for dinner. To avoid having to defrost the whole chicken in order to cut it up, I used my ever-reliable rubber mallet and Chinese cleaver to whomp the bird neatly in two.
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One half went straight back into the freezer. When the other half had defrosted, I cut it up and proceeded to the cooking.

The first step was to brown the chicken pieces in butter and oil. Now, I’ve been browning chicken all my adult life, including for many previous Julia Child recipes, so imagine my surprise to find that what I do is apparently no longer The Way to Cook.

I was to dry the chicken well (OK), get butter and oil very hot in a sauté pan (OK), add the chicken pieces, leaving air space between each of them (Huh?), and turn them every 20 seconds (What?) for about 5 minutes, when they’d be colored “a fairly even walnut brown.” (Oh yeah?) My chicken pieces, which required two batches when spaced, tried to come apart under so much handling and barely browned at all, even after 10 minutes.
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But all right, let’s go on with the recipe. I removed the chicken to a dish, added 1½ cups of chopped onion to the pan, and sautéed it until it softened and browned a bit. (A mistake here: the onion was supposed to be sliced. As things turned out, it made no difference at all.)
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Next was to transfer the onions to a sieve set over a bowl to drain off “excess fat.” Then – leaving the rest of the fat in the pan – put back the chicken pieces and the onions. Since I’d be defatting the whole sauce later, that onion treatment made no sense to me: It seemed a totally unnecessary step. But I did it.

Other ingredients went into the pan at the same time as the chicken and onions. A large garlic clove, “puréed.” (Purée one single clove? I used a garlic press.) Salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme. Half a large tomato, chopped. 1½ cups of red wine; and enough chicken broth to barely cover the chicken pieces.
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It all had to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes “or until the chicken is tender when pressed.” I guess testing with the tines of a fork is not The Way to Cook any more, either.

Again, I took the chicken pieces out of the pan. I tasted the cooking liquid for strength and seasoning. It seemed fine to me, so I strained it into a pot, pressing hard on the solids to preserve their juices.
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I was reluctant to see them go. I often like a little texture in my sauces, and the book’s picture does show onions scattered among the chicken pieces.

Now I had to thoroughly degrease the strained liquid. That’s a task I hate, particularly when the layer of fat is so shallow that it can’t be spooned off without taking good liquid with it. This time I was reduced to drawing pieces of paper towel across the surface to absorb the fat – an expedient I suspect may also not qualify as The Way to Cook. Also, that was well-flavored fat, which I was sorry to lose.

Next was to thicken the sauce with beurre manié. Julia is precise about the technique: Off heat, you must whisk, not stir, the butter-flour paste into the sauce and bring it to a boil, whereupon it will thicken. Not for me, it didn’t. I repeated the process with a little more beurre manié. Still hardly any change.
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Well, I said to myself, it’s still early in the day. The sauce will sit at the back of the stove for a while and then be reheated with the chicken at dinner time. Maybe it’ll thicken by then.

Actually, it did, to some degree, but less than I would have liked. Not being a fan of curly parsley, I skipped the recipe’s serving decoration.
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So, how was it? The best I can say is Acceptable. The sauce tasted good, if a little acidic from the large quantity of wine. But the chicken itself hadn’t acquired any flavor from the other ingredients, which seemed a pity given all that effort. Fortunately, it was a tasty free-range bird to begin with. But I’ll never make the dish again: It’s too fussy for a family meal and not good enough for guests.

One last cavil about this recipe. Notice the color of my sauce: It’s purplish. That’s what happens when you cook with a lot of red wine. (Think coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon.) It does not produce the glowing golden brown of the book’s photo. Caveat coquus.

Given how I revere Julia Child, I do wonder how closely she herself was involved in creating the content of this book.

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My big fat three-ring recipe binder had gotten out of hand – again. Its patchwork pasted-up pages, accumulated over many years, its progressively inconsistent arrangement, and its sheer bulk made it hard to find things I knew were in there somewhere. Time to take it all apart, cull the contents, and reorganize it more sensibly. It was quite a job.

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I found recipes I’d completely forgotten about, some of which I couldn’t think why I’d ever saved. I discarded several dozen clippings – many that probably would produce excellent results – that no longer interested me enough to devote the required time or effort. For example:

  • A tripe dish that had to be simmered on top of the stove for “at least 8 hours”
  • A Brazilian feijoada with eight kinds of meats, including pig’s tails, feet, and ears; also oranges, collard greens, rice, and toasted manioc flour
  • A flourless chocolate cake that carried 950 words of instructions

On the positive side, redoing the binder recalled to me some recipes that I’d never gotten around to making but would still like to try, and other recipes for dishes that I’d enjoyed long ago but let slip out of mind. One of the latter is Bavette aux Échalotes, a recipe I’d clipped from 2002 issue of Saveur magazine and at some later date had written “Good” next to the title. It’s a very simple preparation for skirt steak with shallot sauce.
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I had some pieces of skirt steak in the freezer, as well as three plump shallots in the refrigerator, so there were the makings of a meat dish for a weeknight’s dinner for two.
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Tom minced the shallots for me while I salted and peppered the little steaks and sautéed them in butter and olive oil.
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When the steaks were nicely rare, I transferred them to a platter, covered them loosely with foil, put them in a warming oven, and returned to the stove to make the sauce. I stirred the shallots into the fat remaining in the sauté pan and cooked until they were just browned.
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Then, a quarter cup of red wine vinegar stirred into the pan and cooked down to a syrup, a good chunk of butter dropped in and swirled around until it melted, and the sauce was ready to be poured over the steaks for serving.
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The dish was delicious. So easy and yet so sophisticated – so quintessentially French. Skirt steak, like hanger steak, is one of the gamiest-tasting of all the beef cuts, as well as one of the easiest to prepare. This is a treatment for it that I hope never to forget again.

 

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Back in May, when I wrote about dinners I’d had in Lyon, I mentioned a sweet-sharp condiment that was served alongside foie gras at Brasserie Le Nord. It was an odd, nubbly relish, with a flavor like nothing I’d ever had before, and made an interesting foil for the luscious, silky foie gras. Here’s what it looked like:
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When I asked our server what was in it, she had to go into the kitchen to find out. Returning, she said that, today, it was red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. I’d never have guessed those! (Hmm: only today? Possibly different yesterday and tomorrow? Interesting.)

Back home, culinary curiosity demanded that I try recreating it for myself. I started with an internet search for “fruit condiments for foie gras.” Very instructive: There seem to be many such recipes, often quite complex, that I haven’t known about. However, none of them seemed as if they’d produce the texture I wanted.

Next I looked in my cookbooks for chutney recipes. That was more encouraging, because the basic approach to chutney is simply to chop the main ingredients, put them all in a pot, and cook them with some liquid and the desired seasonings until the mixture is as thick as you want it. So I assembled my four ingredients:
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Now, what proportion of each should I use? One onion gave me 2/3 cup, minced. Two stalks of celery, also 2/3 cup. One apple (quickly turning brown) gave me 1½ cups. And I took a whole cup of pureed pineapple, so there’d be plenty of juice in the mix.
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Wondering if it would be wise to cook the two vegetables by themselves at first to soften them a little, I divided each ingredient into halves and briefly sauteed half the onion and celery in butter. Then in two separate pots I combined the ingredients, the cooked vegetables and half the fruits in one, the raw vegetables and the remaining fruits in another.

What else should go in? I knew that Le Nord’s version didn’t have any Indian spices, but I had no idea what others there might have been. I decided to add only a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of apple vinegar to each pot – no other sweetener.
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Then I cooked both mixtures, covered, stirring occasionally, until they thickened enough to hold their shape, which took about 45 minutes. They came out looking very similar: the one with uncooked vegetables a little darker. (I do wonder what Le Nord used to make its version so red.) Both tasted fairly interesting, with almost no difference between them.
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Then came the fun part. We had a block of foie gras in the refrigerator (a gastronomical souvenir of the Lyon trip) just waiting for a chance to try the new condiment with. And we did.
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You can hardly see any difference in the two little heaps of – I still don’t know what to call it: relish, chutney, preserve, conserve, confiture? – but the slightly darker one is on the right. Both made a nice enough flavor and texture contrast with the foie gras, sweet and the merest touch piquant, soft and nubbly. I can’t say they provided any major enhancement, though. Foie gras is gorgeous enough on its own.

We tried some again another day with some good cheeses: same mixed result. The simple fact is, this little condiment is a lot of work, especially for the small quantity I could use while it was fresh enough: a restaurant’s dish rather than one to make at home. Still, it was an interesting experiment.

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