Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Golden Beet & Pear Soup

Whenever someone hires me to prepare a meal, the first thing I do is ask them about their food preferences.  Of course I want to make sure that I know about allergies and food dislikes…but mostly I’m interested in finding out what they really love to eat…or what they are in the mood for right now—basically what will make the meal special for them.  Most of the time people request a certain protein for the entrée…or a seasonal ingredient that they would love to have somewhere in the menu.  Occasionally someone will request a particular classic dish.  But most of the time the requests are general in nature.  Whether general or specific, I use their preferences to design a few menus (that sound delicious to me) that they can then choose from.


Recently as I was getting ready to prepare a special lunch for two women who have been coming to my classes since the very first class I taught (almost 20 years ago!), I was surprised to get a very specific request in response to my query:  Golden Beet & Pear Soup.  I had never thought of making a golden beet soup (a great idea because you get the delicious beet flavor without the shocking color of a magenta soup)…much less combining it with pear.  But beet and pear are a classic salad combination…and I knew the flavors would work well together.  So I included a golden beet and pear soup in my proposal.  I was not surprised when they chose it for their first course.

Almost all of my puréed soups follow the same formula:
  cook some aromatic vegetables (always some onion/leek/shallot…often garlic, carrot and/or celery…occasionally fennel or peppers) in a fat of some kind (butter, olive oil…sometimes bacon fat) in order to infuse the fat with the flavor of these vegetables.  This step gives depth and roundness of flavor to the finished soup.  (You should never skip it.)  You can add spices and herbs with the aromatic vegetables if you like.  Then, add the main vegetable(s)—either in their raw form or already cooked (roasted, for example)—along with some stock or water.  All of this is then simmered together to soften the vegetables (if they were raw) and blend the flavors.  You can also add herbs and other flavors towards the end of cooking if you would like their flavor to be more prominent (rather than the background flavor of those added at the beginning).  Finally, purée and pass the soup through a sieve (to give the most velvety texture) and finish with cream if you like. That’s all there is to it.

Most of the time the main vegetable will provide all the thickening that you need for a puréed soup (they don’t need to be super thick).
  Although occasionally you will find recipes that incorporate potato with the main vegetable since the potato will add thickness and body.  Frequently I will add a little rice to cook with the vegetables.  This provides a small amount of starch for thickening, but mostly I like it because it seems to help emulsify the liquids and solids together (adding to that aforementioned velvety texture).

Because I thought the beet and pear would make a subtle soup, I was careful not to get carried away with my additions.
  I didn’t add any carrot or celery, which could easily have overwhelmed.  To the onion-shallot-garlic base, I added a little coriander (to accentuate the sweetness of the beets and pear) and thyme (which I love with pear and apples in savory preparations).  I also added some ginger, which I thought would light up both main flavors (it did!).  I could have added it at the beginning with the aromatic vegetables, but in this case I felt this would soften the flavor too much.  Instead I opted to add it towards the end.

It is always a good idea to finish a puréed soup with a nice garnish of some kind.
  This will provide complimentary flavor…or a great textural contrast.  It also adds to the beauty of the final dish.  Something as simple as a drizzle of olive oil…or lightly frothed cream…or crème fraiche…and a sprinkling of herbs (maybe parsley or chives) is sufficient.  But all kinds of things are possible:  seasoned oils, bits of cheese, seeds, nuts, a complimentary or contrasting vegetable purée, pesto, croutons or garlic/cheese toasts.

For this soup I added a drizzle of olive oil and some crumbled blue cheese and minced toasted walnuts—which complimented both the beets and the pears…as well as each other.
  It seemed like an obvious finish to me.


I was astonished by this soup.  It is subtle…and suave…tasting of beets, with a fragrant, slightly sweet finish from the pear.  A truly special and elegant soup.  I wouldn't have thought of if it hadn't been suggested to me.  It will now have a permanent place in my repertoire.  I hope that you will give it a try.  I know that I will remember my friends…and their special lunch…every time I make it.

Golden Beet & Pear Soup

1 1/2 T. olive oil
1 large onion (about 1/2 lb.), thinly sliced
1 shallot (1 oz.), thinly sliced
1 fat clove of garlic, sliced
1/2 t. coriander seed
1/2 T. picked thyme
1 T. unsalted butter
1 lb. gold beets, peeled, halved if small, quartered if large, and sliced a scant 1/4-inch thick
1/2 T. Arborio rice
1 large firm, but ripe, pear (about 1/2 lb.)
3 c. Chicken stock, plus more as needed for consistency
1 T. minced fresh ginger (or more to taste)
1/4 c. heavy cream
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, if needed
Salt & Pepper
Garnish of your choice:  drizzle of olive oil, spoonful of crème fraiche, crumbled blue cheese (something like a Danish Blue or an aged Gorgonzola), minced toasted walnuts, etc.

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, shallot, garlic, coriander and thyme, along with a generous pinch of salt.  Cover and gently sweat until the onions are soft—about 15 minutes.  Add the butter and melt.  Add the beets and cook for 5 to 10 minutes—until they are beginning to soften.  Add the rice and cook another 2 or 3 minutes.  Add the pear and cook for a minute or two.  Add the stock and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook until the beets are beginning to be tender—about 40 minutes, add the ginger and continue to cook until the beets are tender—about 20 minutes more. (It will seem like the beets are taking forever to cook.  But don’t worry…at right about the one hour mark the will go from being a bit crisp to tender.)  Purée the soup and pass through a fine meshed strainer.

Return the soup to the pot and add the cream.
  Add water or more stock if the soup is too thick for your liking.  Heat through.  Remove from the heat.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt & pepper.  If the soup tastes flat or out of balance, add a small squeeze of lemon. The effect of the lemon should be to make the sweet flavors in the soup pop.  You won’t need much…maybe a teaspoon.  If you add too much, the soup will become tangy (which is not the goal).  You may also add more freshly grated ginger if you like—but be careful, the flavors of the soup are subtle and too much ginger will overwhelm the beet and pear.  Serve with a spoonful of crème fraiche, or a drizzle of olive oil, blue cheese crumbles and minced toasted walnuts.

Makes 5 cups or four servings (recipe is easily multiplied for more)

Printable Version

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Winter into Spring Salad

Recently while scrolling Instagram a beautiful salad from AOC in Los Angeles caught my eye.   It isn’t really surprising that this happened…I love Suzanne Goin’s salads.  They are always beautiful.  But more importantly, they taste even better than they look.  She has a gift for combining not only colors and shapes, but textures and flavors.  I don’t think I have made all the salads in her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques…but I have made a lot of them (some I have shared on my blog).  I have never been disappointed.


Of course I didn’t have a recipe for the salad pictured on Instagram, but that didn’t stop me from making it.  The combination of arugula (a long time favorite lettuce) and radicchio (my current favorite winter “green”) with oranges, dates, pistachios and goat cheese rang all my bells.  And because I have been keeping radicchio as part of my “lettuce pantry” this winter, I had all the ingredients on hand.

I did make a couple of changes to the salad.
  First, I added some roasted beets. I don’t always have roasted beets in my fridge, but for some reason that escapes me now, I had some.  When I began pulling the ingredients for the salad out on the day I intended to make it for lunch, I pulled out the beets because my memory of the picture included beets.  When I checked the IG post before I made my salad to make sure I had everything, I realized there were no beets in the image.  All I can say is that they clearly belonged in my version of the salad. 



The other change I made was the kind of cheese. I had goat cheese out and was going to use it, but decided at the last minute while I was making the salad that I wanted a salty element.  So I used Feta instead of goat cheese. It was delicious—not only did I really like the salt with the sweet beets and dates, I liked the crumblier, firmer texture of the Feta.

I mentioned in my last post that I like to keep a versatile mustard and shallot based vinaigrette on hand.
  The one I had in my fridge was a simple champagne vinaigrette that is good with bitter winter greens (like radicchio) and winter fruits… so that’s the one I used.  It worked very well. 

The salad was just excellent.
  I’m sharing it here as I made it: for one.  But it would be an easy thing to multiply the ingredients to make a big platter for a crowd…or several individual plated salads.

The day I made the salad, I posted a picture of the salad on Instagram.
  When my sister-in-law saw it she commented that the plate just screamed springtime.  I was struck by her comment because the ingredients (citrus…winter lettuces….beets…) seemed very wintery to me.  But she was right about the brilliant colors.  So I’m calling this my “Winter into Spring Salad.” 

 

Winter into Spring Salad
(Arugula with Radicchio, Citrus & Dates)

1/2 a large or 1 small, Cara cara orange
1/2 oz. Arugula
1/2 oz. Radicchio (about 2 leaves), torn into large bite-sized pieces
1 T. (or to taste) Champagne Vinaigrette (see below)
1 medium beet (about 3 oz.), roasted and cut into 8 to 10 wedges or halved and sliced crosswise (dressed with lemon or vinegar of your choice, if you like)
2 Medjool dates, pitted and each cut into 6 to 7 lengthwise strips
A mounded tablespoon of pistachios, lightly toasted (or not—as you prefer) and very coarsely chopped
1 oz. Feta in brine, broken/crumbled

Prepare the orange:  Slice off the stem and blossom ends. 
Set the fruit so that it is resting on one of the flat, cut surfaces.  Using a thin, sharp knife, cut away the rind in strips.  As you cut, follow the contour of the fruit with your knife and use the previous cut to guide where you make the next cut so that you remove all of the peel, pith and membrane...but as little of the flesh as possible. Slice from top to bottom and rotate the fruit as you make each cut.  You should end up with a smooth, sphere of citrus that is free of membrane, pith and peel.  Cut the orange in half from top to bottom (direction of the segments).  If the orange is large, I only use one half.  If small, I’ll use the whole thing.  Cut the halves into quarters, lay them on their side and cut cross-wise in quarter inch or so slices.

Place the arugula and radicchio in a small bowl. Season with salt and drizzle with enough vinaigrette to barely coat—don’t weigh the greens down with the dressing…you can drizzle more over the salad after you build it.
  Toss to thoroughly coat the lettuces.  Give the beets a drizzle of the vinaigrette and season with salt & pepper if you didn’t dress them with vinegar and season them when you roasted them.

Scatter half of the greens over the plate.
  Arrange half of all the other elements over the greens.  Repeat these two layers.  Drizzle with more vinaigrette and serve.  Serves 1…but multiplies easily to serve as many as you like.


Champagne vinaigrette:
2 T. Champagne vinegar
1 small shallot, peeled and finely minced (1 1/2 to 2 T.)
1/4 t. salt, or to taste
1 t. Dijon mustard
6 T. extra-virgin olive oil

Make the vinaigrette:  Place the vinegar in a small bowl with the shallots and salt.  Set aside for five minutes or so to let the shallots soften a bit. Add the mustard and whisk until smooth. While whisking constantly, add the olive oil in a thin stream to form a slightly thickened, emulsified dressing.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.  Set aside.

Printable Version



Sunday, February 28, 2021

Spinach Salad with Blue Cheese, Cranberries, Maple-Glazed Pecans & Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette

This has been a winter of green salads for me.  Ever since Christmas it has seemed like I have always had an abundance of salad greens in my fridge…left from classes, pop up dinners, etc.  Baby lettuces, spinach, arugula, romaine, radicchio, endive….  I’m sure I’m missing some.  There are worse problems to have.  These leftover greens have provided the foundation for many a delicious winter lunch—satisfying my depths of winter craving for things fresh and raw.


If you want to be able to make spontaneous salads, you just need to make a point to keep a well-stocked salad pantry.  In addition to greens (if you don’t know how to store your greens so they keep for a while, check out my long ago post onhow to do so),  you’ll want to have nuts and seeds, dried and fresh fruits (this time of year: apples, pears, and all kinds of citrus),  cheeses and olives… things like eggs, avocado and canned/leftover meats/fish for substance…and finally, things like celery, radish, onion (red, scallion, shallots) for sharpness and crunch. 

If in addition to all this you keep a couple of nice homemade vinaigrettes in your fridge, you will be able to have a delicious and simple—or complex—salad anytime you like.  I almost always have a plain/basic vinaigrette in my fridge—one that will go with just about everything (usually mustard and shallot based).  And then another one with some kind of interesting flavor profile that fits the current season.  For example, in late winter and early spring, I like to make one with reduced orange juice (great on citrus, green vegetables like asparagus and green beans, beets and avocado).  And the maple one that I am sharing today is perfect for the fall and winter months. If all else fails, if you have olive oil and lemon juice (or a selection of vinegars), you can dress your greens with a squeeze of the latter and a drizzle of the former…and a sprinkling of salt & freshly ground pepper.

The salad I’m sharing today happens to be the one I served at my most recent curbside pickup dinner, but it could easily have been a spur of the moment pantry salad.  Most of the time after I have spent a lot of time cooking something, I’m not really in the mood to eat it myself.  (Hasn’t everyone experience this after big holiday meal preparations?).  But I was tired enough after my last curbside that I didn’t really want to start my dinner from scratch, so I had the salad I had served to my clients.  I was so glad I did.  Even in my “I’m tired of this food” state, I thought it was exceptionally good.  I knew I had to share it here.


It is just a simple spinach salad … enhanced with a few of the pantry elements listed above:  cheese…nuts…dried fruit…a tasty vinaigrette.  But don’t be fooled by its simplicity.  With just a few ingredients, it manages to hit all the right salad notes.  It is refreshing, tangy, salty and slightly sweet.  The addition of a little shredded romaine to the spinach, plus the crunchy maple glazed pecans and chewy dried cranberries, give texture…and the maple syrup spiked vinaigrette brings everything together nicely.  If you maintain a salad pantry, you probably have all the ingredients on hand to make it right now.

 

Spinach Salad with Gorgonzola, Dried Cranberries & Maple Glazed Pecans

5 oz. baby spinach (weighed after any obtrusive stems have been removed)
2 to 3 oz. romaine or radicchio, sliced in 1/4- to 1/2-inch wide ribbons
3/4 to 1 c. Maple Glazed Pecans (recipe below)
3/4 c./3 oz. dried cranberries/craisins
2 1/2 to 3 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola (choose a harder/crumbly aged variety—piccante or naturale), or substitute Feta
1 oz. shaved red onion, rinsed under cold running water and blotted dry (optional)
1/2 to 2/3 recipe Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette (recipe below)


Place all of the ingredients except the vinaigrette in a large bowl.  Season with salt & freshly ground pepper.  Drizzle a third cup of the vinaigrette over the salad and toss until everything is well coated…adding a bit more if necessary…but be careful, you don’t want a sodden salad. 

Mound the greens on a platter or divide among four individual plates.  If you like, drizzle a little more of the dressing over the plated salads. 
Serves 4
 

Maple-Dijon Vinaigrette

1/4 c. white wine vinegar
2 T. minced shallot
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 T. Dijon mustard
2 T. Maple syrup
5 T. olive oil
5 T. vegetable oil

Place the first three ingredients in a bowl and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the shallots to soften.  Add the Dijon and whisk until smooth.  Whisk in the maple syrup.  Add the oils in a thin stream, whisking constantly.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  You may need as much as another 1/4 t. of salt, depending on your palate (I add almost that much).

Makes a generous cup of vinaigrette.

Maple Glazed Pecans

Place the pecans (halves or coarsely broken pieces) in a bowl and add 2 T. of maple syrup and a slightly mounded 1/4 t. of kosher salt for every cup (115 g./4 oz.) of pecans.  Spread the nuts in a greased/oiled/sprayed baking sheet that is just large enough to hold the pecans in a snug single layer.  Transfer the pan to a 325° oven and bake for five minutes.  Give the nuts a stir with a heat proof spatula or pancake turner and return to the oven.  Continue to bake until the syrup is thickened and bubbling…and has darkened slightly.  The amount of time this will take will vary greatly according to how many cups of pecans you are preparing.  For one cup it might take 2 or 3 minutes, for 4 cups it will be closer to 6 or 7 minutes.  Do not under bake or the pecans will remain sticky.



Remove from the oven and immediately transfer the nuts to a second greased/sprayed/baking sheet, quickly spreading/separating the nuts…and continuing to stir and separate every few minutes as they cool.  Store in an airtight container at room temperature. 

 Printable Version 



Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Fettuccine with Leeks, Walnuts & Cream

I love pasta “sauces” that showcase one main vegetable. A quick scan of pastas I’ve posted over the years will bear this out:  peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, zucchini, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, corn, peas, winter squash, Swiss chard, tomatoes … although… maybe tomatoes don’t count….   Anyway, I obviously can’t get enough of these kinds of pastas.  They are a great way for someone in a small household to use up vegetables…or for the cook in any sized household to take advantage of seasonal abundance.  They are also usually fairly straightforward in their preparation…which means they can make for a quick dinner.  Furthermore, from a cook’s perspective they are instructive in that you can learn what spices, herbs, etc set off that one vegetable to advantage—making these pastas a great way to get to really know a vegetable and at the same time train your palate.    


Recently I was reminded of a “single ingredient” pasta I hadn’t made in a while when I found myself with several leeks in my pantry that had been intended for an event that ultimately didn’t happen.  (A lot of my eating this past year had been dictated by having to find ways to use ingredients that were purchased for an event that was canceled due to the pandemic.)  I could have used the leeks for an overdue “leek weekend” (
à la French Women Don’t Get Fat)…but I didn’t really have enough for a whole weekend of dining (or to be more precise, not dining….). So I settled on other uses:  in a tart…a soup…and a pasta.  I was able to spread my leek fest out since they—like most winter vegetables—store pretty well.

The pasta I made is from a book by Janet Fletcher called
Four Seasons Pasta.  If you have never run across this book…and you love pasta…you should check it out.  The book is organized by the seasons and is filled with recipes featuring authentic Italian sauces that aren’t necessarily familiar to American audiences.  The recipes work well…and are delicious.  And if you are interested in learning how to make your own pasta, there’s a good section on that too.


To make the leek sauce, leeks are softened in butter…reduced with a bit of cream…and finished with minced toasted walnuts and parsley.  Like other members of the onion family, leeks become sweet with prolonged cooking.  This cooking also gives them a silky texture.  The cream enhances both the sweetness and silkiness.  The slightly bitter toasted walnuts provide a nice flavor counterpoint and interesting texture.  Once the leeks are cleaned (the most difficult part of the recipe) the sauce comes together quickly and easily, making this a simple, elegant…and slightly different…winter weeknight meal. 



 Fettuccine with Leeks, Walnuts & Cream 

4 T. unsalted butter
5 or 6 leeks—white and pale green parts only—halved lengthwise, sliced thinly crosswise and well rinsed (5 to 6 cups sliced leeks)
Salt & Pepper, to taste
3/4 c. chicken stock
1 c. heavy cream
1 lb. fettuccine
2 T. minced flat leaf parsley
1/2 c. walnuts, plus more for garnish—toasted and chopped medium fine


Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium low heat.  Add the leeks and season lightly with salt.  Stir to coat with the butter.  Cover and cook gently until the leeks are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes—reducing the heat if necessary.  There should be a few tablespoons of flavorful liquid in the pan when they are done.  Add the stock and cream to the leeks and bring to a simmer.  Cook briefly, until the sauce is just slightly thickened.  Remove from the heat and keep warm.


While the leeks cook, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot.
  Add 2-3 Tablespoons of salt.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid.

Add the parsley, walnuts and a generous amount of pepper to the leeks.
  Add the pasta and toss to coat—adding some of the reserved pasta water if it seems dry.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Serve, garnished with more walnuts if desired.  Serves 4 to 6.

Variations:

  • Add a clove or two of minced garlic and/or some minced fresh thyme to the leeks while they cook.
  • Stir in a few tablespoons of mascarpone to the finished sauce.
  • Garnish the pasta with crumbled goat cheese or blue cheese.

(Recipe from Four Seasons Pasta, by Janet Fletcher)

Printable Version



Monday, January 25, 2021

Roasted Potatoes & Carrots with Glazed Pearl Onions & Olives



The recipe I’m sharing today came about on Christmas day after a holiday season of scrambling to work as much as possible—and consequently spreading myself too thin—in order to prepare for the looming slower than usual January.  More tired than I have been in past years after a normal food-service industry pedal to the metal holiday pace (due to the stress of the past year, I assume), I hadn’t even bothered to shop for Christmas dinner.  I had meat options in my freezer…and an assortment of orphan vegetables (left from various private events) in my pantry and fridge.  I figured I could come up with something.  After all, I was only serving two.

As often happens at moments like this, the meal turned out to be exceptionally delicious.
  I don’t know if it was due to low expectations… or having the freedom to prepare foods that aren’t on the extended family-approved list… or the fact that it was truly a simple meal (small number of ingredients…simply prepared).   It is likely that it was the intersection of all these things. 


In any case, it will live in my memory:  Lamb rack—flavored with salt, pepper & rosemary; haricots verts with hazelnuts, shallots and orange zest; and garlic and thyme roasted carrots and potatoes with pearl onions and black olives.  That’s it.  It had more the character of a fancier than usual week night meal than a holiday meal, but it was perfect for the day.  The lamb and green beans were already a part of my permanent repertoire.  The potatoes and carrots were a gussied up version of a simple dish I have made on and off over the years.  The pearl onions turned out to be the surprise star of the show.  

Glazed pearl onions are a garnish found often in traditional, classic French cooking.  When I was at Le Cordon Bleu, it seemed like they were in everything.  Peeling pearl onions was frequently the first thing you did when you entered your daily practical.  And peeling them is the most difficult part of the preparation.  But it isn’t really difficult…just a bit tedious.  It isn’t an activity that I would choose to do as often as we did it in school, but as I discovered on Christmas day:  it is occasionally worth it (especially if you are only preparing a few). 


To peel pearl onions, start by trimming the ends (getting rid of the roots and the stringy blossom end).  Then, place them in a bowl and cover them with boiling water.  Let them sit a few minutes until the skins begin to soften.  Lift them out of the water and peel away the skins while the onions are still warm.  To do this you will need the help of a paring knife (choke up on the knife and use just the tip).  If some of the outer layer of onion comes off because the skin seems stuck, don’t worry too much.  It is likely this outer layer is tough and dry if the softened skin won’t pull away and in such case it’s best to discard it anyway. 

To cook, place the onions in a saucepan that will just hold them in a snug single layer, cover them with water and add a bit of butter, sugar and salt.
 


Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered until they are almost tender (the tip of a knife will encounter a slight resistance in the center).
 


Remove the lid completely, increase the heat to moderately high and boil rapidly until the water has evaporated and the onions are sizzling in the butter/sugar mixture.
 



You may stop at this point if you just want a pale glaze…or you may continue to cook (over a slightly reduced heat, swirling the pan regularly and keeping a close eye on them) until the glaze caramelizes and the onions are coated in the golden brown glaze. 


In classic French cooking these onions are often used as a final garnish. They are simply warmed and scattered over the surface of the dish.  One of the most famous uses is in the à la grand-mère (grandmother style) garnish of meat stews: combined with fat chunks of bacon and sautéed mushrooms….a beautiful and delicious touch.


For Christmas dinner I used them as the final addition to a pan of roasted carrots and baby potatoes…along with some salty black olives.
 I don’t normally keep pearl onions.  They were part of the odds and ends I had left from my busy season.  As I stood in front of my pantry on Christmas day, it occurred to me that they would add a special touch to our meal.  And they did.  The interplay of savory, salty and sweet lit up the plate.  If you are looking for a simple side that punches lots of flavor buttons to go with a plain cutlet or chop, you could do worse. 

I’m glad I rediscovered glazed pearl onions.
  I think when I left school I wasn’t planning to ever cook them again of my own volition.  But revisiting them after all these years has elevated my opinion of them.  I will probably make a point to keep a bag in my pantry during the late fall and winter months from now on. 
 


Roasted Potatoes & Carrots with Glazed Pearl Onions & Olives

1/2 lb. creamer—or similar small—potatoes (about 8 potatoes), scrubbed
1/2 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks using a roll cut (see below)
4 to 5 cloves of garlic
Several sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
5 oz. yellow or white pearl onions, peeled
1 t. butter
1/2 t. sugar
10 to 12 pitted Kalamata olives, halved
1 T. minced flat leaf parsley
A squeeze of lemon, optional (see note)


Preheat the oven to 375°.
  Combine the potatoes, carrots, garlic and thyme in a roasting pan large enough to hold the vegetables in a snug single layer.  Drizzle liberally with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. 


Cover the pan with foil transfer to the oven.
  Remove the foil after 25 minutes.  Continue to roast until the vegetables are tender and beginning to caramelize—another 15 to 20 minutes. 


While the vegetables roast, prepare the glazed pearl onions.  Place the onions in a small saucepan just large enough to hold them in a snug single layer.  Add water to cover.  Add the butter sugar and a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook until almost tender.  Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high to high and boil until the liquid is reduced to a glaze; reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook until the glaze turns a golden brown, swirling the pan to coat the onions with the glaze.   Set aside.


When the roasted vegetables are tender, add the pearl onions and olives to the pan.  Return to the oven and roast for another five minutes.  Remove from the oven.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon, if you like.  Fold in the parsley and finish with a drizzle of olive oil.  Serves 2 generously.

Notes:

  • To roll cut carrots, place the carrot on the cutting board and cut a 1-inch segment, making the cut on a diagonal. Roll the carrot forward a quarter turn and make the next cut, using the same angle. Continue to roll and cut all the way up the carrot.
  • You may or may not need lemon juice. If the carrots and onions are fresh and sweet, you might not. But after tasting the finished vegetables, if they are well seasoned, yet still seem a bit one dimensional or flat tasting, give them a squeeze of lemon to lift and brighten the flavors.
  • You may substitute cipollini onions for the pearl onions if you like. 
  • The recipe is easily multiplied.  Just choose appropriately sized pans.

Printable Version 

 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Classic Beef Stew

My first cooking class of 2021 was called Classic Comfort Food.  Even though the phrase "comfort food" is a bit of a cliché, I am unapologetic about the title.  I think it is useful in describing what we all seem to need at the moment.  It is meant to describe food that transports us to tables and moments past when simple, familiar food—prepared by someone who loved us—had the ability to momentarily hold our worries at bay.  I could use some of that right now.  Furthermore, for me, these foods also remind me of people that I love—and meals shared with them.  Since I’m eating all of my meals alone these days, I could use some of that too. 


The beef stew my mother made when I was growing up was delicious.  I was a picky eater…but I loved her stew.  The stew I make today is actually very similar to the one she made.  I have returned it to its French roots (with a bit more attention to technique…and added red wine, bacon and mushrooms), and I have omitted her final addition of peas.  But otherwise, the tender meat, carrots, and potatoes, suspended in a rustic “broth” –lightly thickened by virtue of the flour-dredged beef, the onions that have disintegrated from long cooking, and the starch released from the potatoes—is exactly like hers.  There are no tomatoes…or peppers…or other odd ingredients that I would have resented as a child—just a simple, straight forward, bowl of beefy goodness.  I always think of long ago family meals when I sit down to a bowl of that stew.

If you have never made beef stew, this one is a good place to start.
  It gives back loads of flavor for minimal effort...and is a perfect activity for a homebound Saturday or Sunday. As with all braises, it will take the better part of the afternoon to make.   But since most of that time is in the oven with nothing required of you (other than the occasional peek under the lid), it counts as easy in my book.  If you aren’t familiar with the hows, whys and processes of a braise, check out my basics post from a few years ago before getting started.

One important thing to note: when you’re shopping, make sure you purchase beef chuck or boneless short rib meat—not the “stew meat” sold at most butcher counters.
  Generic stew meat is usually a mystery conglomeration of beef trim that serves as a way for the butcher to make money from what would otherwise go in the trash.  To prepare a good stew, you need specific tough, sinewy cuts from around the joints and well-used muscles of the animal.  “Stew meat” may or may not contain these cuts. 

Furthermore, the pieces of meat you use for your stew need to be on the large side—certainly larger than the nubbins in the stew meat bin.
  Small pieces of meat will disintegrate into the broth.  The large pieces will look more attractive and be easier to serve.  It is an easy thing to just cut up a chuck roast or some boneless beef short ribs yourself when you get home.  Cut the meat into 1 1/2- to 2-inch cubes.  These pieces will seem large…but they will shrink as they cook.  And you needn’t worry that the large pieces will be difficult to eat from a bowl:  when cooked properly, the meat is tender enough to be “cut” into bite-sized pieces with a spoon.   Another bonus in cutting the meat yourself:  you can be as fastidious as you like in removing the fat.  I generally only remove obvious, large knobs since most of the fat will dissolve and add flavor and moisture to the stew.  Any excess can be blotted off or skimmed away from the finished stew. 


I had hoped that this year would be less traumatic than last.  So far the year isn’t very promising.  One of the things I have control over is how I feed myself.  So, I continue to cook….every day.  I highly recommend it.  Occasionally preparing and eating a bowl of stew…or some other delicious and simple food that reminds me of people I wish I could be with and better days…gives me a measure of hope that things will one day be better again. 


Classic French-style Beef Stew

2 1/2 to 3 lbs. boneless beef short ribs or chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Salt & freshly ground pepper
4 oz. thick-sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 onions, (about 1 lb.) cut in a 1/2-inch dice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
3/4 c. dry red wine
3 to 4 c. beef or chicken stock—if using canned, use low-salt
2 or 3 sprigs thyme
1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut crosswise on a 1/2-inch short diagonal
1 lb. Yukon potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and halved (quartered, if large)
1/4 c. minced flat-leaf parsley


The day before you plan to prepare the stew, season the meat generously with salt.  I use 3/4 t. of kosher salt per pound of meat (so about 2 t.).  Wrap loosely and refrigerate overnight.

To prepare the stew: Render the bacon in a large stew pot or Dutch oven set over medium heat.
  When the bacon is crisp, remove it along with the fat, reserving each separately. 


While the bacon cooks, dredge the beef in the flour, shaking off the excess.  


Return enough of the bacon fat to the pan to coat the bottom of the pan and increase the heat to medium-high.  Brown the beef on all sides—it may be necessary to do this in batches so the pan isn’t over-crowded.  


Add more bacon fat as necessary.  Remove all the meat to a platter 


and add more bacon fat or olive oil to the pan.  Add the onions.  Regulate the heat as necessary to sweat the onions just until softened and beginning to take on a golden color (about 5 to 10 minutes).  


Add the garlic and continue to cook for a minute or so.  Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the caramelized meat and vegetable juices.  Reduce the wine by at least half. 


Return the meat to the pan and add enough broth to cover the meat.  


Add the thyme.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and transfer to a preheated 300° oven.  Bake for 2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the stew is cooking at a bare simmer.  It should not boil hard…but it should maintain an active simmer.  Reduce the oven temperature if necessary.

After 2 hours, remove the stew from the oven.  If there is a lot of grease pooling on the surface, spoon it off, or blot with a paper towel.  


Add the potatoes and carrots, season with salt and pepper, cover and return to the oven until the meat and vegetables are fork tender (about 45 minutes to an hour more).


While the stew finishes cooking, sauté the mushrooms in some of the bacon fat (or olive oil or butter) until nicely browned; Season with salt and pepper and set aside.


When the vegetables are tender, carefully stir in the mushrooms and bacon.  Taste and correct the seasoning.  Remove the thyme sprigs and serve, sprinkled with minced parsley.  Serves 6
 

(Recipe adapted from The Kansas City Star November 11, 1992)

Variation

  • Classically, this French-style stew would be finished with glazed pearl onions in addition to the mushrooms and bacon.  To prepare the pearl onions, place 8 oz. of peeled pearl onions in a saucepan and cover them with water.  Add 1/2 T. of butter, a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt and bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook until almost tender.  Uncover and increase the heat to high and boil until the liquid is reduced to a glaze; reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook until the glaze turns a golden brown, swirling the pan to coat the onions with the glaze.  Scatter the pearl onions over the stew with the mushrooms and bacon.  Or, for a more classic presentation, reheat the pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon separately and garnish each bowl of stew individually with them.
  • For a more American-style beef stew, omit the red wine, mushrooms and bacon.  Brown the meat in vegetable oil.  Add a cup of frozen peas to the stew during the last five minutes of cooking.