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Category Archives: Culinary Techniques

Caramel Apple Tartlets

I had a little mommy meltdown yesterday. It was very unpretty…crying, rocking, gasping for the air which seemed to be sucked from the room. And over what? I don’t even know. Nothing even worth writing about. Stupid, every day, normal stuff…just too much of it. Fighting with an uncooperative vacuum while trying to banish the tumbleweeds of dog hair from our living room was the little thing that sent me over the edge. So silly. And yet in the moment it felt like the world was caving in on me. To an objective observer, I probably looked pretty ridiculous, throwing myself down onto the ground and mumbling under my breath as I cried, while my inner voice tried to coach myself to pull it together and act like a grown-up. But for me the feeling was crushing. Sometimes day-to-day life is just overwhelming.

Sadly, the kids witnessed my little meltdown, and I can only imagine how scary and unsettling that must have been for them. In the moment, rational mommy (as compared to crazy lump of tears mommy) told them I loved them and explained that I was just stressed and needed to cool down for a minute. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to get that minute of serenity in a house with three young boys. Eventually, I stopped fighting with the vacuum, collapsed against one of the toy boxes and closed my eyes for a second.

And then the most beautiful thing happened. I opened my eyes and my precious 17 month old was sitting in front of me, completely silent. He sat facing me, knees bent, feet together, so that his entire little body was nestled within my own bent legs. And he just smiled. Silently, calmly smiled. I kissed his forehead. He smiled and leaned forward to rest his head against my chest. He stayed like that for what felt like a perfect eternity. I inhaled his sweet baby hair as I felt my heart rate slowly returning to normal. Eventually he turned around so that he was leaning against me, holding my hand as it rested on his little belly. And he stayed like that until his daddy arrived home from work. He greeted his daddy, then returned to sit by my broken side, smushed up against me with a perfect grin on his face. He was like a tiny, precious bomb defuser.

Such perfect, simple love…and trust. He saw me torn apart and irrational. If it were me, I would have run from that crazy woman. But he came straight to me. As close as he could get to me. Confident that his presence would fix me. How in the world did I get so lucky??

These drool-worthy caramel apple tartlets are bursting with flavors as uncomplicated and confident as my sweet little man’s love. We baked them using fresh-picked apples from our favorite local orchard. Though the apple crops up here were hit hard by an early spring bloom followed by a bloom-killing frost, the kids got every bit of fun out of filling buckets of unusually small apples. I made these tartlets using store-bought puff pastry and caramel sauce for time-saving convenience. The end result is still dripping in homemade yumminess.

Focus on Technique – Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is a rich and flakey pastry made by repeatedly folding and rolling generous quantities of butter into the dough, resulting in puffy, delicate layers when baked. It’s a manageable and fun thing to make at home (and will totally wow your guests), but takes a few hours of repeatedly rolling and chilling to be made properly. When ease is the name of the game, store-bought puff pastry provides great results with great convenience. It can be used to make decadent savory appetizers, like warm pastry-wrapped brie or sweet treats like these caramel apple tartlets. Check your grocery store’s frozen section, near the frozen pie shells for boxes of puff pastry sheets. Always defrost the sheets according the package directions and lightly sprinkle your clean work surface with flour before rolling.

Easy Caramel Apple Tartlets

Ingredients

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
  • 2 large apples (or 4 teeny-tiny ones), very thinly sliced
  • 4-5 tablespoons caramel sauce, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 egg white
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Lightly sprinkle a clean work surface with a bit of flour to prevent sticking, then roll the sheet of puff pastry into a square, about 12″ wide. Cut the square into four 6″ squares. Place the squares on the prepared baking sheet. Spread about 1 tablespoon of caramel sauce into the center of each pastry. Arrange a layer of thinly sliced apples on top of the caramel. Then, pull each of the four corners over the apples, slightly twisting each point so that the corners meet in a sort of pinwheel design revealing four pockets of the caramel and apples. Gently press the points together with your fingers to hold them together. Brush each pastry with some of the egg white. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over each pastry. Bake for about 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.

Enjoy hot out of the oven or at room temperature.

Makes 4 Individual Tartlets

Pumpkin Pie Frozen Custard

Our weather is forecast to hit 69 degrees tomorrow. It will probably be the last ‘warm’ day for a long while, as winter is already breathing its frosty breath down our necks. In the meantime we’ll appreciate whatever remaining moderate weather we have left. It won’t be long before we’re slicing cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pies at our Thanksgiving tables. But right now I’m still desperately trying to hold onto whatever remains of the warm season before we plunge into the winter abyss.

So, I thought, why not marry the autumny flavors of  pumpkin pie with my favorite warm weather treat…ice cream?? What more perfect way could there be to acknowledge what may well be the last day we can go without our winter coats, than with a rich and creamy pumpkin pie frozen custard, flavored with vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, and a generous dose of cinnamon. Your ice cream maker will thank you for giving it one last whirl before it’s tucked away for the season.

Frozen custard differs from ice cream in that it contains egg yolks. The egg yolks add an extra creaminess to the frozen treat. The following recipe would also work well without the eggs, so if you or a loved one have an egg allergy, just omit them and call it ice cream. The half-and-half will contribute a good amount of creaminess, but you can substitute light cream or heavy cream for an even richer result.

Focus on Technique – Tempering Eggs

Tempering eggs is a process by which egg yolks are gradually brought up to a higher temperature, by very slowing incorporating hot liquid. This is done to prevent the eggs from scrambling when they are incorporated into hot liquid…cause who wants to eat custard with the texture of scrambled eggs, right??? Tempering the egg yolks helps them to maintain a smooth, silky consistency. Egg yolks may be tempered for use in custards, puddings, sauces, or souffles.

To temper egg yolks, start by lightly beating the eggs with a fork. Then, take some of your hot liquid and very gradually, starting with just a few drips at a time, incorporate some of the hot liquid into the eggs, whisking constantly. After the first few drips, you can increase to a slow stream. Continue incorporating the hot liquid until the egg mixture is about the same temperature as the mixture you will be adding it to. Then, you can safely add the egg mixture to the remaining hot liquid and bring to a gentle simmer for a couple minutes to ensure the yolks are cooked.

Pumpkin Pie Frozen Custard

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2  cups half and half
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree (canned or fresh)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

Directions

Combine the milk, pumpkin puree, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and ginger in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently. Once the mixture begins to simmer, reduce the heat. In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. Gradually whisk about 3/4 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks, starting with a very slow drizzle. Gradually whisk the tempered egg mixture into the remaining mixture in the pot. Bring to a very gentle boil over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2-3 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool for several minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate until completely chilled. Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and freeze according to your maker’s instructions.

Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Meatballs in Minted Apricot Glaze

Today’s recipe is brought to you by school taxes and my freezer stash. School taxes were due this month. It’s a tax worth paying for the high quality education that my school district offers, which my children will most likely benefit from in the near future. But it’s like a punch in the gut every time that bill arrives.

With Christmas practically knocking at our door, I’ve been trying to reduce the impact of that big extra tax bill by cutting a few other things in this month’s budget…like groceries. This means that we’re mostly feeding off the freezer this month.

My husband’s intense love for lamb burgers means that our freezer is well stocked with ground lamb. Our grocery store irregularly stocks ground lamb, so when they have it, I buy it. And when I opened my freezer in search of cheap dinner, ground lamb it was! But I just wasn’t feeling like lamb burgers or even gyro salad, though my husband would have been eager for either. I was in the mood to experiment.

So, playing off of Moroccan inspired flavors, I came up with these delectable meatballs, which my husband talked about for three days afterward. Ground lamb gets combined with dried apricots, a touch of sweet honey, cinnamon, and cumin. Sliced almonds add an interesting texture to the otherwise tender meatball. Then, they’re tossed in a buttery apricot glaze with a touch of fresh mint. I served mine over couscous. They were good. Really good. We’ll be eating them again soon.

Focus on Technique – Tips for Tender Meatballs

Everyone loves a tender, flavorful meatball. Here are a few tips for crave-worthy meatballs:

  • Use ground meat with a bit of fat. If using beef, look for 80/20 ground chuck. The fat will add flavor and moisture. If using a leaner meat, like ground chicken, add some additional vegetables, such as chopped onion, celery, or peppers to add moisture.
  • Increase your egg to meat ratio. I tend to use two eggs per each pound of meat. Add enough bread crumbs as necessary to bind the mixture. About 1/4 cup of bread crumbs per egg usually does the trick.
  • Be careful not to overwork the mixture. Mix only enough to evenly disperse the ingredients. To reduce the need for over-mixing, combine all of your other ingredients before adding the meat.
  • Season, season, season – salt, pepper, garlic, cheese…give those meatballs some flavor!
  • Try adding a slice of soaked, then crumbled day-old bread to your meatballs. Though I have not personally tried this strategy, it’s a sworn by trick to others…so there’s got to be something to it!

What are your favorite meatball tips?

Moroccan-Spiced Lamb Meatballs in a Minted Apricot Glaze

Ingredients

  • 1 small or 1/2 medium onion, very finely diced
  • 10 dried apricots, finely diced
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced almonds
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 pound ground lamb

For the glaze

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup apricot preserves
  • 3-4 fresh mint leaves

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wipe a baking sheet with a little oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the chopped onion, apricots, almonds, honey, salt, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, eggs and bread crumbs (everything except the meat) in a large bowl, until evenly blended. Add the meat. Use your hands to combine the mixture, just enough to evenly disperse the ingredients.

Form the mixture into balls, about 1 1/2″ in diameter. Place them on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until cooked through.

For the glaze, combine butter, apricot preserves and mint leaves in a pan over medium heat. Stir until well combined and warmed, about 3 minutes. Toss the meatballs in the glaze before serving.

Makes about 24 small meatballs

October Pumpkin Round-Up

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It’s a chilly October morning here in Syracuse. And I’ve got pumpkin on my mind.

Our first pumpkin has been sitting on our front steps since our little ninja party last weekend. It has the face of a ninja painted on it. Ninja pumpkin will be joined by other pumpkins in the next few weeks and our kitchen will take on the sweet and fragrant aroma of some of our favorite pumpkin recipes…of that I am certain.

Focus on Technique –  Pumpkin Puree

Preparing fresh pumpkin is a manageable process, which can be done in a number of ways. Small ‘pie’ pumpkins tend to produce the sweetest pumpkin flavor. Many people prefer to remove the skin, chop the pumpkin into chunks, boil the pieces until tender, then puree. My preferred strategy is to simply cut the pumpkin open, remove the seeds, roast the pumpkins until tender, then scoop out the smooth pumpkin and puree. It involves less tedious chopping than with the boiling method and produces a better end result, in my opinion. You can see my complete step-by-step photo guide HERE .

If you’re not up for preparing your own puree, canned pumpkin provides a convenient alternative. Most canned pumpkin puree is prepared without additional salt, sweeteners, or preservatives, but check the cans just in case.

Check out this round-up of previously posted pumpkin recipes and keep an eye out for a few new pumpkin recipes, coming up soon!

Fresh Pumpkin Coconut Pie

Autumn Harvest Buns

Pumpkin Chocolate Chunk Bread

Pumpkin Gingersnap Parfaits

How to Roast Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin Caramel Bisque

Fried Pumpkin Wontons

Pumpkin Vanilla Custard

Fettucine with Pumpkin Alfredo Sauce  

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein and Pork Eggrolls

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Well, the ninja party was a grand success. We had a huge turnout of both children and adults, the weather was perfect, and laughter could be heard in every corner of the house and yard throughout the entire event…just as it should be! I love throwing parties of any kind, but I especially love throwing the boys parties, which are planned around a theme of their choice. This ninja theme sort of took on a life of its own and we all had a lot of fun with it.

We gave the party an Asian feel with a few Chinese New Year decorations I picked up online (shhhh…don’t tell anyone they weren’t authentic ninja decorations) and a whole bunch of red, black, and gold balloons. Little accents of tiny ninjas, dragons, and Asian fans were scattered about.

The boys dressed as ninjas and my gracious brother-in-law agreed to make a surprise appearance in full ninja attire. A bit of quick thinking at the radio had us listening to Kung Fu Fighting, as the ‘ninja’ evoked mixed feelings of terror and elation from the birthday boy and our young guests, while the adults giggled on the sidelines.

Good friends, good fun, and good food…

For our ninja themed party, I served a crowd-pleasing selection of Asian dishes. Though ninjas may be most closely associated with Japan, I planned the party buffet around a more familiar Chinese-takeout menu, which I was certain would be enjoyed by both the adults and children at our event. I made the sweet and sticky orange chicken, which I shared with you in a previous post, along with a mountain of homemade pork egg rolls (and a few veggie ones for our vegetarian guests) and a big batch of super simple vegetable lo mein. Grilled teriyaki beef skewers, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and jasmine rice completed the feast.

I’m sharing the ‘recipes’ for both the lo mein and egg rolls below, though I should note that the batch I made was quadruple of what I’m sharing below and in the flurry of party-prep, I didn’t take exact measurements or record times as I cooked. Use the recipes as a guide, but as always, taste as you go. It’ll be ‘right’ when it tastes good to you. And be creative with the ingredient lists. You can substitute any sort of veggies in the lo mein and add meat or seafood, if you desire.

Focus on Technique – How to Julienne

Julienne is a type of culinary knife cut, wherein the resulting pieces are long and thin, roughly the size and shape of a matchstick. A julienne cut is often used to make shoestring potatoes or can be used to cut a variety of veggies for sushi, soups, or garnish. A julienne cut appears most pleasing when the pieces are a uniform size, shape, and length.

To achieve a nice, even julienne, start by squaring your fruit or vegetable. To do this, cut off the rounded portion of one side. Lay the flat side down onto the cutting board, then slice off the rounded part of each side. Turn the fruit or vegetable to cut off the remaining rounded side. Then, thinly slice the fruit or vegetable, to about 1/8″ thickness. Finally, stack the slices and carefully cut into matchsticks, about 1/8″ wide.

*If you were to cut the matchsticks into teeny tiny 1/8″ cubes, you would have a cut known as brunoise, pronounced broon-wah.

Easy Vegetable Lo Mein

Ingredients

  • 1 pound spaghetti or lo mein noodles, cooked al dente according to package directions
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup sugar snap peas
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce or oyster sauce
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Heat sesame oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and veggies. Cook for about 10 minutes, until tender, stirring frequently. Add the cooked spaghetti, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and/or additional soy or fish sauce, as desired.

Garnish with additional sliced green onions, if desired.

For the Egg Rolls:

To prepare the filling: Heat about a tablespoon of sesame or vegetable oil in a large pan. Add about 1/4 pound bulk pork sausage. Cook for several minutes, using a spoon to break it into small pieces as it cooks. Add about 4 cups cups of cole slaw or Asian slaw mix (very thinly sliced cabbage, julienned carrots, celery). Cook for several minutes, stirring frequently until the cabbage is wilted and tender. Drizzle about 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce over the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

To assemble the egg rolls: Arrange an egg roll wrap with one of the points facing you. (If desired, you can layer two egg roll wraps, for a chewier egg roll.) Place a mound of the filling, about 1/3 cup, in the center of the wrap. Grab the point closest to you and wrap it up and around the filling. Then, grab each of the side points and fold them in towards the center. (Brush the points with a bit of water to help them stick.) Brush the top point with a little water, then continue rolling up towards the top point.

To cook the egg rolls: Heat about 1/2″ vegetable oil over medium-high heat, to about 375 degrees. Place a few eggrolls in the hot oil. Cook for a couple minutes on each side, until hot, golden, and crispy. Drain on a paper towel.

Makes about 10 eggrolls

*Detailed pictures of the rolling process can be seen HERE.

Ninjago (ninja lego) treat bags

How to Peel and Deseed Tomatoes

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Using fresh tomatoes in homemade sauces and soups (like the creamy chipotle tomato soup I’ve got coming for you) often requires starting with peeled and deseeded tomatoes. Fortunately, peeling tomatoes is easier than you may expect. Just let a bit of boiling water do all of the work! Here are a few simple steps for easily peeling tomatoes.

Step 1: Start with beautifully ripe, seasonal tomatoes.

Step 2: Cut a small ‘X’ into the non-stem end of the tomato.

**It’s a good idea to use a paring knife to cut out the tough green stem end at this point. It will help the skin to slip off easier and will save you from removing it later. 

Step 3: Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil.

Step 4: Insert the tomatoes into the water for about 1 minute.

Step 5: Remove the tomatoes using a slotted spoon and place in a bowl of ice water. The skin should be practically falling off on its own.

Step 6: Use your fingers to slide the skin from the tomato. If necessary, use a paring knife to remove any remaining peel.

**Use the paring knife to cut out the green stem end, if you haven’t already.

Step 7: Cut the tomatoes in half. Gently squeeze the tomatoes to remove the seeds. Use your clean fingers to remove the seeds from any small pockets. 

Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon

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Julia Child was one of America’s first (and dare I say greatest ) culinary celebrities, in a time long before shows like The Next Food Network Star or Top Chef sought to discover such talent. She was just a woman with a passion for good food, which led her down the gastronomical path that ultimately brought her into America’s kitchens. It was her passion for food which led her on the journey. It was her charm, relatability, and contagious adoration of food which grabbed the attention of adoring fans all around the world.

Julia changed the way home cooks thought about food. She knew that good food wasn’t exclusive to restaurant kitchens, prepared by professional chefs. She made expert culinary techniques accessible to everyone, in a manner which could inspire even the most novice cook to jump in head first. Because Julia understood that we learn best through trial and error. She understood that there is no such thing as a bad cook, only cooks who needed more practice. And she understood that even the most experienced cooks encountered the occasional kitchen disaster. She’d say, “Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”  

Julia viewed food as one of the greatest pleasures in life, a pleasure worth the small sacrifice of a wider waistline. (Who needs to be a size 4 anyway???) She embraced cooking as an art form akin to ballet. And she cooked with the same inspired strokes of an artist to create timeless gastronomical masterpieces. But she was often criticized by nutrition-minded individuals for her use of rich ingredients, like butter and cream, which in excess could lead to health problems. To those criticisms, she responded, “Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don’t suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”  

I love this woman. And having lived to be two days short of 92 years old, a lifespan which she attributes to a regular diet of gin and red meat, I’d say she knew what she was talking about. Well-prepared food is a pleasure to be enjoyed, even within the framework of a healthy lifestyle.

Julia understood what really mattered. She knew that good food needn’t be complicated with elaborate presentation. She would say, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” That’s all it really takes, isn’t it? It’s like this beef bourguignon, perhaps her most famous recipe and the subject of her very first televised episode of The French Chef on PBS. It’s a stew (with a fancy name that’s fun to say). But it’s a stew all the same, certainly not something most would consider fine dining. And yet, it’s probably one of the most delicious dishes you’ll ever eat.

I started making beef bourguignon a few years ago as our Christmas dinner. I suppose it’s become our tradition at this point. We entertain a large crowd on Christmas and for a few years, I experimented with various menus, all delicious, but the beef bourguignon stuck. It’s enjoyed by everyone at the table and best yet, can be fully prepared the day before. In fact, it’s even better after sitting in the fridge overnight!

In honor of what would have been Julia’s 100th birthday (August 15), I prepared her infamous beef bourguignon. (I certainly wasn’t going to cook the roast suckling pig.) Beef Bourguignon is normally a recipe I would save for the colder months when it’s lovely to have the house warmed with the slow-cooking oven and flooded with the rich aromas of the dish. But when I think of Julia, I think of beef bourguignon, and so it had to be.

The original recipe can be found in Julia’s first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She was a wise woman who fully recognized that some of the recipes contained in the book may require stretching one’s budget, waistline, time, and schedule, but such are the sacrifices we make in the name of something wonderful to eat. Like many of the dishes in her book, this dish takes some time, but there’s no step too complicated for even the most novice chef. Heed Julia’s advice and cook with abandon. As with many of the world’s greatest pleasures, anything worth having is worth the work it takes to get there.

While I waited for my beef bourguignon to finish cooking, I turned on some music and danced in the kitchen with my boys. Then I poured myself a glass of wine and spread some creamy brie onto slices of French baguette. I’m pretty sure Julia would have approved.

Happy 100th, Julia and Bon Appétit!!

Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon
Boeuf a la Bourguignonne

(In my own words. Very slightly modified from the original.)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound bacon, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 pounds lean stewing beef (cut into approximately 2″ chunks)
  • 1 carrot, sliced (or 10-15 baby carrots, coarse chopped)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups full-bodied red wine
  • 2 – 3 cups beef stock
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 crumbled bay leaf (optional)

For the brown-braised onions (Oignons Glacés à Brun)

  • 1/2 bag frozen white pearl onions, defrosted and patted dry
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup beef stock or beef broth
  • Salt and pepper

For the sautéed mushrooms (Champignons Sautés au Beurre)

  • 1 pound mushrooms, quartered
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Gather and prepare your ingredients prior to cooking. Chop the bacon, chop the beef, chop the veggies, smash the garlic… Preparing your ‘mise en place’ will help things go smoothly once you’ve fired up the stove.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Arrange the beef chunks in a single layer on a tray lined with paper towels. Use additional paper towels to thoroughly pat the beef dry.

*Damp beef will not brown properly.

*Julia recommends chuck beef for stew meat. I usually use the precut ‘stew beef’ from my grocery store. It saves me a few minutes of prep time, which is invaluable when you’re cooking while three young boys threaten to tear the house (or each other) apart.

In a large dutch oven pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook for several minutes, until the bacon is browned and has released most of its fat. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon, leaving the fat in the pan.

*Julia’s recipe calls for a 6 ounce piece of chunk bacon, cut into lardons. Regular sliced bacon will work just fine!

*Any large, stove and oven-safe pan with a tight fitting lid will do the job. I use a 9-quart Le Creuset enameled  cast iron french oven pan.

Over medium/medium-high heat, brown the beef in the bacon fat for a minute or two on each side. Do not overcrowd the pan. The beef should quickly develop a nice caramelized brown on the surface. Turn the beef to brown on all sides, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Repeat until all of the beef has been browned.

*You do not want to steam or boil the beef. If your beef is not browning properly, it is either due to the heat not being high enough, the pan being over-crowded (which lowers the heat of the bacon fat), or the beef being too damp. Try adjusting each of these conditions.

Once all of the beef has been browned, add the carrots and onions to the pan. Cook for a few minutes until they develop a golden brown color. Then, carefully pour out the excess bacon fat, leaving the veggies in the pan.

Add the beef and bacon back into the pan. Toss with salt and pepper. Then, sprinkle the flour over the mixture and toss again. Place the pan, uncovered, on the middle rack of the preheated oven for 4 minutes. Toss the mixture, then cook for 4 more minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees.

Add the wine*, beef stock, tomato paste, garlic, and thyme. Add just enough beef stock to barely cover the beef.

*Julia recommends Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Burgundy. I use whatever dry red I have on hand, usually Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Pinot Noir. Use something you enjoy drinking. While you’re at it, go ahead and pour a glass. Julia wouldn’t mind. In fact, I think she would have encouraged it. Cheers!

Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Then, cover the pan, and place it in the oven. Cook, covered, for about 3 hours. Adjust the temperature slightly, if necessary, so that the liquid maintains a gentle simmer throughout the cooking time.

While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms.

For the onions:

Heat the butter and oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about 10 minutes, occasionally shaking the pan to allow the onions to roll around in the pan and brown on all sides. Then, add the beef stock. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat. Cover and simmer slowly for about 15-20 minutes. Check the pan towards the end of the cooking time. Most of the liquid should have evaporated and formed a brown glaze around the onions. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

*Julia’s recipe calls for fresh, peeled white onions, about 1″ in diameter. Since my grocery store does not regularly carry the small onions, I use about 1/2 a bag of frozen white pearl onions. The added convenience is that they’re already peeled! Just be sure to defrost completely and pat dry before sauteeing. Fresh onions will require longer cooking time, about 40-50 minutes.

For the mushrooms:

Heat the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms. Cook for  about 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

*The mushrooms will at first appear to absorb the melted butter, but will eventually release the butter and their own liquid. As the liquid evaporates, the mushrooms will acquire a golden brown color.

Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

Once the beef has finished cooking, carefully pour the mixture through a sieve or strainer. Allow the sauce to collect in a large measuring cup (the 4-cup kind) or glass bowl. Return the beef and bacon to the dutch oven pan. Discard the carrot and onion pieces.

Arrange the brown-braised onions and sauteed mushrooms over the beef.

Allow the sauce to rest for a few minutes. The excess fat will rise to the surface as it rests. Use a spoon to collect and discard the excess fat. Repeat until much of the excess fat has been discarded.

You should have about 2 – 2 1/2 cups of sauce. If you have much more than this, pour the sauce into a small saucepan and simmer uncovered until it’s reduced a bit. It should be quite flavorful and thick enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired. Pour the sauce over the beef, mushrooms, and onions.

Serve over boiled potatoes or hot-buttered noodles. Julia recommends a side of buttered peas as an appropriate veggie side.

This dish reheats exceptionally well. Simply bring to a gentle simmer on the stovetop for a few minutes, until all components are heated through.

If you’ve got 30 minutes to spare, you can watch Julia cooking her beef bourguignon during the first episode of The French Chef  HERE.

How to Juggle Cooking and Kids

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I’m often asked, How do you do it? How do you cook all of that yummy stuff with the three boys running around?

Well…sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes it feels downright near impossible. And sometimes I don’t even try. We pick up some prepared salads or sandwiches from the grocery store, order a pizza, or I give the kids what I call ‘snack dinner’, which is essentially a random collection of snacky type things like a mozzarella cheese stick, cup of yogurt, handful of grapes, or some carrots sticks and dip. (Snack dinner happens to be the boys’ most favorite meal.)

But I do cook a lot and I’ve developed a repertoire of strategies which I employ to get the job done. Perhaps they’ll work for you too…

Involve the Kids

Strategy 1 – Involve the Kids

I love cooking with the kids. It’s an activity which is bursting with very natural learning opportunities, plus it teaches kids about foods and flavors and makes them more willing to try out new things. Best of all, when they’re engaged in helping you, they’re not off doing other sorts of mischief. You can read a bit more about involving kids in the kitchen in my special section devoted towards cooking with kids.

Dance Party!!

Strategy 2 – Kitchen Dance Party

Sometimes, getting the kids involved in the meal preparation just isn’t logistically possible. When that’s the case, I initiate kitchen dance party. I have an ipod dock sitting on my kitchen counter. We cue up my running mix and pump the volume. And then we dance our butts off while I tend to whatever I’m whipping up that day. All three boys come running when Ice, Ice, Baby starts pumping through the kitchen. Who doesn’t love a song which includes lyrics about a pound of bacon??

Serve an Amuse Bouche

Strategy 3 – Serve an Amuse Bouche

In fancy restaurants, they often serve an amuse bouche. Amuse bouche translates literally to ‘mouth amuser’. It’s usually some small bite-sized hors d’oeuvre of the chef’s choosing; a little blini topped with smoked salmon and caviar or a tiny cup of seasonal bisque or a bite of perfectly-cooked truffled risotto. The entire idea of an amuse-bouche makes me absolutely gleeful. It’s like a bonus course, a little surprise. And it helps makes the time between ordering your food and the arrival of your first course more pleasant. In the home, an amuse bouche may buy you the time you need to cook the actual meal. Of course, I’m not serving salmon, truffles, and caviar to my children. A handful of cherries, scoop of cereal, or a strawberry spinach smoothie usually does the trick…it just needs to be something which keeps them busy and adds a bit of nutritional value to the coming meal.

‘Mise en Place’ for Penne ala Vodka

Strategy 4 – Cook in Parts

I rarely cook a meal from start to finish all at once. I cook in parts, when the opportunities present themselves. If the kids are playing independently, I hop into the kitchen and chop the onions for a tasty penne ala vodka. Then I stick them in a baggie in the fridge. A little while later, while the baby’s napping, I may measure the cream and chop the prosciutto. When the boys are eating lunch, I grate the cheese. In the culinary world, chefs use the term mise en place, which essentially translates to ‘everything in its place’. It’s basically referring to the process of prepping and gathering all of your ingredients prior to cooking. It’s a good practice to get into whether you have kids or not. Gathering and preparing everything before you get started will save you a whole lot of scrambling around while you cook. I prepare my ‘mise en place’ in little bits all throughout the day so that when dinner rolls around, I just need to put it all together.

Melon Sangria, Anyone?

Strategy 5 – Put on Your Blinders and Charge Onward

Sometimes everything else fails and you just need to plug along. In fact, just this morning, as I was preparing a cake for a pool party potluck we’ll be attending tomorrow, I had a nightmarish cooking experience. I tried our dance party tactic, which worked for a while, until my 5-year-old threw himself head and hands first onto the floor in an attempt to do some sort of headstand type move, which he clearly has no business doing. While performing this ambitious maneuver, he managed to injure his hand, which resulted in the immediate need for icepacks, pretend bandages, and snuggles. I then moved onto to the ‘amuse bouche’ strategy in an attempt to get the cake in the oven. In this case, I gave everyone a scoop of the peanut butter chips I was using in the cake. The baby ate a few and then abandoned his peanut butter chips in favor of clawing at my legs and screaming at me to pick him up. The dog wasted no time and immediately stuck his tongue into the baby’s snack bowl. I threw the now slimy snack bowl into the sink, picked up the baby and held him on my hip while I continued preparing the cake batter. At this point, I realized that in my distracted state, I’d almost forgotten to add the cocoa to my chocolate cake. As I moved to the pantry the grab the cocoa, commotion ensued in the living room. Turns out that my three-year-old had found his favorite shoes outside, put them on, and proceeded to spread dog poopy all over the house and his toys. I stopped again to clean the mess, then thoroughly washed my hands in scalding hot water and proceeded to finish the cake with the baby on my hip. Sometimes you just need to charge onward.

And when all else fails, a glass of melon sangria usually helps…for you, not the kids, silly goose!

How to Prepare Fresh Pumpkin

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Welcome, October! Quite possibly my favorite month of the year. Well, maybe except for December.

Because December means Christmas. And Christmas makes me burst with happiness.

But October means beautiful changing leaves, my birthday, Halloween candy, warm sweaters, soft hoodies, and pumpkins; lots and lots of pumpkins!

As I write, there are a few pumpkins roasting in the oven, making my home smell like autumn. I’m working on a new pumpkin recipe today. Think fresh, roasted pumpkin with rich cream, and perhaps a touch of caramel. Oh, and it’s not a dessert! Look for it later this week.

In the mean time, I thought you may want to brush up on your procedure for preparing fresh pumpkin puree by taking a look back at my no-fuss step-by-step guide. Click HERE to begin your pumpkin journey.

You may also want to check out these delicious pumpkin recipes:

Fresh Pumpkin Coconut Pie

Autumn Harvest Buns

Pumpkin Chocolate Chunk Bread

Pumpkin Gingersnap Parfaits

Fettucine with Pumpkin Alfredo Sauce 

Shrimp Cocktail Bruschetta and a Dinner Party Plan

About a month ago, two of my favorite people in the whole world ran off to a funky little motel in the Catskills and secretly eloped. (This place looks seriously cool! You can check out some of the wedding photos on the Roxbury facebook page.

I was ecstatic when I heard the news. And then, almost instantly, my mind went into dinner party mode. If there were ever a perfect reason to throw a dinner party, this was it.

Don’t you just love the idea of a dinner party?? Good food, plentiful drinks, amazing company… I love every bit of it; planning the menu and decor, preparing the meal, presenting each course, coming up with a few special touches… It’s something that I wish we could do more frequently.

But with three little kids (including a teething four-month-old, who’s fully convinced that sleep is for suckers), it’s hard enough to get a simple macaroni and cheese dinner on the table on any given day of the week. The thought of preparing an elegant, five-course plated dinner for ten is a bit overwhelming even to consider. It can be done though. It just requires a little careful planning.

A carefully crafted menu is the most essential component of any successful dinner party (aside from your guest list, that is). For our feast, I wanted to use fresh, seasonal foods which would bridge the transition from summer to fall. In order to spread the preparation throughout the week and keep things as simple as possible during the party, I wanted to serve dishes which could be easily reheated without any loss of quality. And then the big thing… I wanted to be able to sit down to enjoy each course with my guests. I mean, who wants to spend the whole time in the kitchen while your guests are laughing at the table (and threatening to eat the cupcakes prematurely)??  My goal was to create a menu where each course could be effortlessly completed and served within ten minutes of the previous course.

Here’s what I came up with…

Sunrise Champagne Cocktail

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Shrimp Cocktail Bruschetta on Toasted Baguette

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Heirloom Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart in a Pine Nut Crust with Balsamic Reduction

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Seared Scallops over Sweet Potato Bisque with Applewood-Smoked Bacon

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Braised Beef Short Ribs in a Fig and Red Wine Reduction

with

Creamy Brie Mashed Potatoes

Roasted Asparagus

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Pumpkin and Nutella Wedding Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

Aside from the anti-sleep demonstration, which my four-month-old staged throughout the entire party, the dinner went off without a hitch. Preparation between the courses was a cinch and everyone enjoyed the meal.

Interested in hosting your own simple and elegant dinner party? Here are a few little tips:

Start with a signature drink; something fun, unique, and fitting for the event. We were celebrating a wedding and what wedding celebration is complete without champagne?? My Sunrise Champagne Cocktail is a simple twist on a classic Bellini. Fill champagne glasses a little more than halfway with champagne. Top with passionfruit juice. Finally, drop about 1/2 teaspoon of grenadine into the glass. The grenadine will fall to the bottom and disperse, creating a beautiful layered color effect…an effect which happened to match the layered colors of the bride’s wedding dress. Coincidence? I think not.

As guests arrive and mingle, have some little hors d’oeuvres available. Keep ’em light though. You don’t want your guests to overfill their bellies before dinner. And, you don’t want to be busy in the kitchen fussing over snacks as your guests are arriving, so keep it easy. The shrimp cocktail bruschetta I served during our party is an ideal option. It takes the concept of a tomato bruschetta on toasted baguette and combines it with chunks of fresh shrimp and the flavors of cocktail sauce. Simply arrange on a platter and set out for your guests to enjoy. You’ll be free to greet your guests and enjoy a cocktail as you focus on preparing the first plated dinner course.

For the first plated course, serve something cool or at room temperature. It will make it easier to get things started. I served the heirloom tomato and goat cheese tart I recently shared with you. You can prepare and freeze the crust a week or more ahead of time. It takes only a few minutes to finish the tart on the day of your party. Pop it in the oven just as your guests begin arriving. It will make your house smell delicious and will be ready in perfect time for the first course. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of balsamic reduction.

Serve a soup as part of your second course. They’re easily reheated and offer a ton of options depending on the season. I served my seared scallops over sweet potato bisque with applewood smoked bacon. The bisque can be completely prepared a few days ahead of time. Refrigerate the bacon pieces and freeze the bisque to keep it fresh. During the party, you’ll only need to quickly sear the scallops and reheat the bisque and bacon before serving. Within 5 or 6 minutes, the second course will be ready to serve.

The main course should typically be the heaviest item on the menu. Try to plan something which gives you flexible timing. I served braised beef short ribs in a fig and red wine reduction. This dish is an ideal main course, since it actually does best when prepared a day ahead of time and can be reheated and held until you’re ready to serve. Preparing a day before allows the sauce to chill, making it easier to remove the excess fat which will rise to the surface. You can then adjust the seasoning of your sauce and slowly reheat the short ribs, keeping them hot and ready in the oven until it’s time to serve.

To keep things easy during the party, do whatever little preparations you can ahead of time. On the side of the short ribs, I serve creamy brie mashed potatoes, which can be fully prepared a day ahead of time, and roasted asparagus, which take only a few minutes in the oven. Get your asparagus ready for roasting by washing, cutting, and arranging on a baking sheet earlier in the day. Before roasting, toss in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then simply pop them into the oven.

For dessert, serve something which can be made ahead of time and requires little or no preparation during the party. I served pumpkin-nutella cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. They made a beautiful centerpiece on the table and were ready to eat when the time came. This meant that I could sit back and relax once the short ribs were served…Well, I would have been able to sit back and relax if the aforementioned anti-sleep demonstration weren’t still underway. Alas, what can you do?? He’s lucky he’s so stinkin’ cute!

Recipes for the short ribs, creamy brie mashed potatoes, and cupcakes will be coming up soon! For now, let me whet your appetite with this simple and delicious shrimp cocktail bruschetta!

Shrimp Cocktail Bruschetta

Ingredients

  • 6-8 plum tomatoes, seeds removed and finely chopped
  • 2 cups shrimp, deveined, cooked, and chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 3 teaspoons prepared horseradish
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Tabasco, to taste
  • 1 French Baguette, sliced
  • Olive Oil

Directions

Combine tomatoes, shrimp, green onions, horseradish, lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, salt, and tabasco. Adjust seasoning as desired. Refrigerate until serving. Brush the slices of baguette with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a 375 degrees oven until lightly toasted. Serve shrimp bruschetta topping with toasted baguette slices.

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