A Very French Beef Stew

If you are like me, you have made what seems like hundreds of variations on beef stew; the classic tomatoey American version, a Korean version, Chinese, Irish, with beer, or with wine. It’s all done in the name of variety and the constant quest for new flavors to excite the taste buds. We do it in order to make dinner ever more interesting, because let’s be honest, if you only cook the same 5 or 6 meals and present them over and over again at some point they become lackluster and boredom sets in. This is not to say, as a cook you need to know how to cook a hundred variations on beef stew because you don’t. If you are like me though you are curious, always looking for upgrades, and it is nice to have some surprises in your back pocket when you need them.DSC_2888

While I call this a French stew it is far from a classic daube.  Daube’s make use of lots of red wine, olives, and orange peel. This stew does not. What this dish does do is keep flavors separate. By cooking the meat on its own, roasting the vegetables, then combining them only when it is time to serve the dish some very wonderful flavors only become present when everything is in the bowl.

Let me say a few things about clay pot cooking.  Clay is unique, so if you have a clay pot stored in a cabinet somewhere begging to be used then this is a great place to start and here is why.  Cooking in clay pots feels like cooking.   The smell of the clay as it heats, the aroma that reminds you of the last meal you cooked,  the cracks in the glaze, the smell of olive oil as it heats seems basic in an elemental way.  It is comforting.  It’s as if you a are connected to every cook that came before you and every meal too.

When you heat clay on the stove the culinary history of the particular pot makes itself well known very quickly. Often pots are dedicated to certain kinds of cooking like curry, or rice, or beans. They are used for meals made with similar spices.  They are the original slow cooker and you can find them being used all around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia and throughout South America.

The recipe doesn’t require cooking in a clay pot for it to be good but it does add to its mystic. It can be cooked in a slow cooker or in an enameled Dutch oven on the stove top.

 

Clay Pot Beef Stew with Roasted Vegetables (serves 4)

2 TBS. olive oil

2 pounds beef brisket, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 1/2 TBS all-purpose flour

3 medium yellow onions

15 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

3 cups homemade beef broth of sodium free beef broth

1 1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence

1 tsp. kosher salt

2 tsp. Japanese tonkatsu sauce or Heinz 57

1 bay leaf

2 tsp. flat leaf parsley, minced

3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch cylinders

7 fingerling potatoes, washed and halved

  1. Peel and trim one onion.  Halve it and dice both halves into a small dice.
  2. Place a 3 1/2 quart clay pot or enameled Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add olive oil and let it become hot.  Add half the beef and brown it on all sides.  Remove the meat to a tray.  Repeat with the remaining beef.
  3. Add the flour to the oil and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour begins to color and smells nutty (do not taste the roux it will burn your tongue off.)
  4. Add diced onions and garlic.  Stir.  The roux will stick to the vegetables and clump.  This is as it should be.  Add the hot broth while stirring. Continue to stir until the liquid comes to a boil.
  5. Add a 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, Herbes de Provence, tonkatsu, bay leaf, parsley, and a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper.  Add the brisket back to the pot, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and let it gently bubble until the brisket is tender but not falling apart.  About 4 hours.
  6. About 1 1/2 hours before the brisket is tender heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Peel the remaining 2 onions and cut each into 6 wedges.  Place the onions, carrots, and potatoes into a bowl.  Toss with enough olive oil to coat them.  Season them with salt and fresh ground pepper.  Toss them again.
  7. Spread the vegetables out onto a sheet tray and roast them for 1 hour or until they are brown and blistered.  Remove them from the oven.
  8. To serve place a sprinkling of vegetables into the bottom 4 bowls, ladle over meat and broth over the vegetables and them top with some vegetables.  Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

 

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Cheats, Lies, and Hucksters (How to Cook a God Damned Grilled Cheese Sandwich)

As a kid, learning to cook a fried egg and bologna sandwich is like teaching me how to load a gun without establishing any safety guidelines. While the combination of griddled bread, egg yolk, mayonnaise, seared bologna, and American cheese is white trash foie gras, perfecting the fried bologna without having made a grilled cheese, well, it is Picasso without a Blue Period, Miles Davis having composed no song book before Bitches Brew. There is no reference and no history, a drifting ship with no anchor. At the time, I didn’t understand the damage done by using the cliff notes without ever reaching for the novel.

But here we are, in that time of year when we think about grilled cheese. It is the age old discussion, as if we forgot the combination to the safe and it needs to be cracked again, of how to cheat a grilled cheese. As if the answers locked away are new kinds of offerings; in a waffle maker, with an iron, use mayonnaise instead of butter, or turn a toaster on its side.

So I am just going to say it, I am tired of hucksters and cheats. It pains me to be over sold or even worse, blatantly lied too. I am not putting myself on a pedestal, far be it from me to cast stones, I am no practicing perfectionist and neither am I an Elmer Gantry. I have my faults and I try to be honest about them. Even so, when I witness an egregious wrong I can’t keep my mouth shut. After all, I can’t have my children wondering around this world thinking they will be able to succeed without ever learning the fundamentals. It happens everywhere and now, of all arenas, the kitchen is under attack.

Why can’t we just learn to cook a god damned grilled cheese? What are we afraid of, actually learning how to cook? There are so many basics to be learned by placing a sauté pan onto the stove to griddle two pieces of bread with cheese stuck in between and yet at all costs we try to avoid it. I don’t care what kind of cheese is put between the slices of bread, I don’t even care what kind of bread you use but I do care that you know how the different kinds of bread are going to react to the heat, that types of bread with more sugars and fats are going to brown faster then lean breads made with nothing more then water, flour, and yeast. Or that certain kinds of cheese are so stringy when you go to take the first bite every bit of the cheese is going to come along with it.

Cheats and shortcuts are wonderful but only after you know how to cook the original dish in the tried and true fashion, only after you have mastered the grilled cheese is it okay to riff on it. If you ignore, or fail to recognize, the subtle nuances of cooking you can follow a recipe to the T and still have it fail. It is because there are so many variables that can lead you down the path to disappointment that it becomes imperative to learn how to cook, which is wildly different from simply following a recipe.

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Grilled Cheese Sandwich (makes 2 sandwiches)

4 slices Pullman bread
1 1/2 cups gruyere cheese, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon green onion, minced
a splash of heavy cream
fresh ground black pepper
unsalted butter, softened

1. Combine the grated gruyere, horseradish, green onions, and a splash cream in a medium sized bowl. Add a grind or two of fresh ground black pepper. Mix everything with a spoon to combine.

2. Place a 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat. Liberally butter one side of each of the pieces of bread making sure to cover the whole surface. Place the bread, buttered side down into the pan. Top each piece with one quarter of the cheese mixture. Turn the heat to medium low.

3. Once the cheese begins to compress and soften check the bottom of the bread. If it is browning to fast turn the heat down. Once the bread is browned and the cheese melted put the sandwiches together. Cut the sandwiches into 4 crusty cheese sticks and serve.

 

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Searching for the Perfect Risotto

I don’t get the allure of risotto. Years ago at culinary school, every student revered the dish except me, and slowly I’ve come to hate it. It’s overrated.

I’ve practiced making it at home with the guidance of some of the best cookbook authors of the day. I stand at the stove as instructed, stirring, hot broth on the back burner, and all of the ingredients at hand. Inevitably after the required 19 minutes of stirring, ladling, and coddling as instructed, I have a pot of hot, goopy rice, but I am never impressed.

I never get tired of cooking, but eventually I did tire of making risotto.

I had given up ordering risotto in restaurants long ago for the same reasons I quit making it at home. But on a chance, just like the dollar I dropped into a slot and pulled the arm as I walked by, I ordered it. I took the gamble and it too payed off, just like the $1600 slot earlier in the day.

I don’t eat at restaurants often. Not because I don’t enjoy them – because I do – it’s more that my wife, Amy, and I splurge when we go out to eat. A few times a year we spend lots of money at a few restaurants. A weekend in Napa or New York City is perfect for this. This time we headed to Las Vegas where there are lots of great restaurants tucked within a confined space. We made plans to hit several famous chef’s restaurants. It’s what we do when we go to Vegas. Others gamble, we eat.

On a whim, we decided to go into Le Cirque, the off shoot of the famous New York City restaurant. Le Cirque is whimsical. It ’s dinner under the big top, draping curtains hanging from the ceiling like a technicolor circus tent, highlighting a huge chandelier centered in a huge circular room. No corner table. Gaudy at best but it pairs perfectly with Cirque Du Soleil playing one ring over.

As I glanced at the veritable circus around us, the ringmaster balanced hot plates on his arm and delivered them to our table. The risotto dish set in front of me was the most exquisite rice dish ever. Tender rice but with a spring to it. The acidity of the white wine, added and burned off au sec, is a perfect match for the Parmesan and the starchy rice. Brothy, but not too much so. Fine dinning at its best. It is out of place in Vegas: to simple, not garish enough. Still, that rice dish will hold a place at the front of my mind for the rest of the weekend and follow me around for a long time to come.

I arrived back home with renewed determination. I had to figure out how to make risotto like that. It’s like a three-ring circus in my kitchen: ingredients spread all around while I’m stirring and ladling and stirring and measuring and stirring some more. Another carefully measured attempt ends yet again with disappointment. How could it not? I can make a perfect pot of rice, but I can’t make risotto. No amount of hope can fix that.

I did my best to just move on. There are so many wonderful foods in this world; there is no point in getting hung up on any one failure. It’s not like anyone notices a gaping risotto hole in my cooking repertoire. And what if they did? It’s only risotto.

But I do. I notice. And for me it is an empty pan smoking over high heat. Cooking is what I do. Making food the best that I possibly can is what drives me. Once my palate has experienced something new and exciting there are no lengths to which I won’t go in order to replicate that experience.

And so I head back to the stove with another recipe for Risotto Milanese, seeking yet again that illusive pairing of a creamy texture and toothsome rice. I carefully ladle in the broth, stirring and stirring and seeking to master the ultimate balancing act.

Perfect Risotto Milanese (serves 4)

2 tsp. unsalted butter

1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup arborio rice

1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 3/4 cup homemade or sodium free chicken broth

1/2 tsp saffron

2 TBS. unsalted butter, cold

1/2 cup Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

1 TBS. chives, minced

  1. Place a 4-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat.  Add the butter, and when it begins to bubble, add the onions.  Sauté until the onions begin to soften.
  2. Add the dry white wine and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the wine by half and add the rice and stir to coat.  Add salt, chicken stock, and saffron, and bring the liquid to a boil.
  3. Lock the lid into place and bring the pressure to high.  Once the pot is to pressure start a timer set for 7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and use the cold water release method to drop the pressure.  Remove the lid.
  4. Stir in the chilled butter followed with the Parmesan.  If the risotto is stiff, add more broth 1 TBS. at a time until you reach the desired consistency.  Divide the rice into 4 bowls, garnish a little more cheese and chives.  Serve immediately.

 

 

Middle Eastern Braised Green Beans

I don’t know when it came to be that chefs and cooks decided that your veggies needed to be cooked al dente. While I know they retain more of their vitamins when cooked a minimal amount I also know it’s not like the vitamins just vaporize into thin air but instead I am pretty sure, and take note I am not a scientist, that they wind up in the cooking broth.

Either way and no matter how you slice it I like veggies that can stand up to multiple cooking methods giving me choices as how best to enjoy them. I like green beans blanched then sautéed al dente but then I also like them long cooked. That doesn’t mean I want mush because I want something that still has character and a bite.

So after cooking green beans and eating green beans pretty much all my life with potatoes or onions, and even bacon and onions I was looking for a change. This last summer I found a wonderful recipe for okra that was stewed and I liked the recipe so much I made it two or three times.

The other night I was thinking how good that recipe would be with green beans and, actually even easier and less time consuming then the okra. So here is a link to the original article and recipe from the New York Times’ Recipes for Health by Martha Rose Shulman http://tinyurl.com/7ebxpk3 just in case you have any interest in the original okra recipe which I will make again this coming summer.

Middle Eastern Braised Green Beans  (Serves 6)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon all spice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 pounds green beans, clipped and cleaned
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
juice of half a lemon
14 oz chopped tomatoes
2 teaspoons tomato paste
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

  1. Place a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and once it is hot add the onions. Season the onions with a pinch of salt and some pepper. Sweat the onions until they begin to soften trying not to brown them.
  2. Add the garlic and once it becomes fragrant add the all spice and sugar. Then add the beans and stir them to coat with the oil.
  3. Now add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. Cook on medium until you hear the pot sizzling then reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for an hour remembering to stir about every twenty minutes. They may take longer the an hour but not much.
  4. Taste, adjust the salt and pepper and serve.