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A killer stew

 

 

I’m still mired deep in schoolwork with no end in sight. And I’m kind of grateful that it’s winter, because as everyone knows, the winters in Canada are long, dark and deep and there is far less to do, so studying does not feel like such a deprivation. Let’s face it, I’ve spent many a winter surfing the internet aimlessly and dreaming of tropical vacations, so it’s hard to say I’m missing out on much. And James is taking some courses as well, looking for a change from his present career, so we’re both in the same boat of studying every night and weekend. It’s kind of a lovely way to spend our evenings. We swear a lot.

 

It also leaves time for those ambitious, leisurely recipes that I always bookmark, yet seldom take time to make. You know the ones I mean – coq au vin made with a proper rooster, choucroute garnie, pot au feu, biryani, and many other recipes that take plenty of time and ingredients. If there were restaurants that served proper versions of these dishes, I’d gladly pay someone else to do the cooking, but there really aren’t many in Calgary, so in order to experience the glory of poor, regional cooking, I must find the time to make many of them myself. Plus I enjoy mucking around the kitchen as a reward for studying. That and exercise keep me sane.

 

Surfing a Russian recipe blog, I came across a beautiful tutorial for  a beef daube, and it looked so good that it started a veritable craving. The ingredient list seemed pretty reasonable  – not much beyond beef, aromatics, a bottle of wine, bacon, shallots and onions, and it looked and sounded glorious.  Then I remembered seeing a daube recipe on one of the most drool inducing sites, fxcuisine. (Take a peek, the photos are amazing.) I promptly combined the elements I liked in both recipes, and came up with my very own version of a rustic beef stew that was close to divine.

 

If you feel like attempting such a feat, the steps are very easy. The hard part is mentally coming to terms that it will be four days before you eat it.  (Although for the record, everyone cheats and has a small serving the day it’s finished).

 

 

So without further ado:

 

 

3.5 lbs grass-fed stewing beef/chuck/blade (preferably from your local farmer), we used the excellent Hoven farms beef

1 bottle red wine (all the recipes say the best you can spare, but we used a $6.99 store special (Naked Grape?) ’cause, well – it’s stew)

1 orange (I had some mandarins that I repurposed)

5 – 7 juniper berries (I used rowan berries, where we get to the attempted murder part), honestly you can skip it and it’ll be fine, or use gin

3 cloves

8 black peppercorns

1/3 cinnamon stick, or a 1/4 tsp cinnamon

lots of garlic, bunch of thyme, parsley

bay leaf

salt

flour

1/2 package bacon/lard/salt  pork

shallots or onions

1 lb carrots

1 pigs foot (there is no ewwww, you eat the animal, use all the parts)

1 oz whiskey/cognac/vodka (also not mandatory)

 

So the first step was pretty easy. Put the meat into a dish/bowl to marinate. Add smashed garlic cloves, chopped onion quarters, and orange quarters.  In a mortar/bowl/cutting board smash the cloves, bay leaf, peppercorns and cinnamon and sprinkle over the meat.

 

 

 

 

Aaaand this is where I improvised and instead of trying to find juniper berries, I had a stroke of inspiration and grabbed a bunch of rowan berries from the rowan tree in my front yard.

 

 

 

 

I know they have a slightly bitter, astringent taste not too far removed from juniper, although they lack the piney scent juniper has. James saw this turn of events, and proceeded to read me the riot act about how ‘everyone knows those berries are poisonous’ and how this is a plot to kill him. This is partially a long running joke in our house, and partially his very real fear of poisonous berries.  I calmly and lovingly mushed the hard berries in the mortar and added them to the meat, telling him that as soon as ‘everyone’ becomes a botanist, we can discuss the dangers of rowan berries, until then, I’ll take years worth of empirical nibbling over his prejudices. He told me ‘if you put those in there, I’m not eating it’ and I told him ‘then don’t’. On that note, I sprinkled the meat with salt, poured on the wine, and left it wrapped in the fridge to marinate for the next two days.  This was Sunday evening. Do give it a flip every day or so.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday night was when the stew was actually made. This part of the process took me about 40 minutes, you may well be faster.

 

First, take out your well marinated meat, and strain the marinade into a separate pot.

 

 

 

Then cut up the bacon, carrots and the onions that I used instead of shallots.

 

 

 

Then prepare the bouquet garni – this is where you take the pigs foot, bay leaves, and thyme (also parsley if you have it) and tie it up in a square of cheese cloth.

 

 

 

Brown your bacon, then fish it out and place it at the bottom of your stew pot, ideally cast iron.  Leave the fat alone.  Now, many classic recipes talk about blanching the lardons, including the one from fxcuisine. Apparently this is to remove excess salt and smoke. You know what I like in bacon? Salt and smoke. So I said no way to that nonsense and left the bacon as the golden goodness that it is.

 

 

Brown the onions in the bacon grease.  Also toss them in the stew pot.

 

 

Turn your heat on high, and brown your meat, in batches if you have to. Be sure to carefully fish out the bits of spices, as they’ll burn viciously. The idea is to just sear the edges, not cook much, so high heat, quick tosses. Add it to the stew pot.

 

 

Here you can multitask – turn on your thick, fragrant marinade, and add a splash of hard alcohol.  Let the whole thing come to a boil, and simmer for a few minutes to dissipate the alcohol itself. In the meantime, make a small batch of dough  – about a cup of flour and a bit of water. The reasoning here is that no steam can be allowed to escape, along with any flavor components.

 

 

Place the dough around the rim of your pot, add carrots, tomatoes, and whole peeled garlic cloves. Make a little nest in the middle, and drop in your pigs foot bundle, pour hot marinade into the pot, and smack down the lid.  Cook at 320 or so for about 3.5 – 4 hrs. Then, it’s probably pretty late, so take the whole pot and stick it outside. If it’s not cold enough to stick the pot outside, then there is no reason to be making daube. The idea here is that as the meat cools down, it absorbs a great deal of fragrant liquid, gorging on the sauce and becoming plumper than ever.

 

 

The next day, take in your pot, and break open the dough seal.  Take the substantial layer of fat off the top, and the cheesecloth bundle, and discard. Place on gentle heat to warm up the stew. Inhale the magic fragrance of the steam. See how the pigs foot contributed magical collagen to the stew, making it unctuous and rich. Dip a spoon into the sauce and taste. Now it’s time to gild the lily.

 

Depending on the quality of wine, and how much salt you added, and how acidic the tomatoes were, the stew may need a gentle tweaking of flavors. You can increase the acidity with a spoonful of red wine vinegar, or some lemon juice. You can add some umami by adding a bit of Worcestershire sauce or a mashed up anchovy, or olives, you can mellow the sauce by using beurre manie – butter blended with a bit of flour.  Our cheap vino definitely called for a bit of mellowing, and umami is never a bad thing, so I decided to go with a paste of two or three mashed up anchovies, a tablespoon of butter, and about a tablespoon of flour. While the stew was heating up, I mashed up all the ingredients and stirred them into the pot. Anything with flour should be boiled for a few minutes to remove the raw flour taste, just like gravy.

 

 

To serve, we boiled up some egg noodles and tossed them with a bit of butter and parsley. Mashed potatoes would not have been amiss at all, but we were out of potatoes and too lazy to leave the house.

 

 

So of course, the stew smells amazing and looks like comfort. The offending berries are a long forgotten danger. And James’ resolve melted slowly with the smells of a rich beef ambrosia.  And of course he could not resist the siren call of a daube, and now he’s in the hospital with food poisoning. Just kidding.   🙂   In a way we’re both right – rowan berries do contain a toxin that is neutralized by cooking or freezing, but really, they’re a pretty harmless berry. They’re too bitter to eat raw in any quantity, so they’re great for adding punch to a marinade.  Also, sorrel contains oxalic acid and apricot seeds contain cyanide, so whatever substance rowan berries have, they’re not that exciting in the culinary world.

 

 

Bon appetit! And needless to say this recipe doubles like a charm, and gets better and better each day you eat it.

 

 

 

 

Hits and misses

In my desire to make a dent in the ever increasing pile of recipes that I wanted to try, I ended up with a lovely roast, and a wonderful cake.


The roast was courtesy of Marcella Hazan, whose Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is the gold standard in many kitchens. It sounded like an intriguing recipe – a pork roast slowly braised in milk, seasoned with nothing more than salt and perhaps garlic. The milk is supposed to cook down to deeply brown curds and the tenderness is supposed to be unparalleled. And then I screwed it up, as only I can do. See I had some leeks and fennel that were languishing in the fridge, and in interests of good fridge management (and haunted by ghosts of slimy veggies past), I chopped’em up and added them to the roast with the milk. It just sounded good together, y’know?

 


 

 

And the fennels and leekses gave off so much juice, that the cooking of the milk was pretty much not happening. A loooong braise later, I had to admit that my milk was never going to develop the dark brownness that is called for, and settled for the color along the lines of baby diarrhea. Now I should mention that I grew up in a country where the visual aspect and appeal of food ranks dead last, so this was not going to stop me in any way from trying it.  And the taste delivered. It was not fantabulous by my standards, but it was rich, tender, and made for a unique meal. I rated it a 4/5 and gave the leftovers to my brother.


The second recipe – a gorgeous Mediterranean Lemon Cake was much more successful, only because I don’t know enough to mess around with baking.  The only change I made is cut down on the sugar – I used about 3/4 of a cup, and next time would be tempted to bring it down to 2/3 of a cup. I should mention, that I don’t know what it is about US recipes, but man, you guys like sugar in insane proportions! I like a decent amount of sugar, enough to support other flavors, but every time I make a recipe that originates down south, I know to cut out a third to half of sugar to make it palatable.  I’ve seen carrot cake recipes with 2 cups of sugar. Eeeek.


Moving on, I found the recipe on the fabulous blog of Leslie Land, had all the ingredients, and found her description of it somehow irresistible.  It comes together super quickly and it gets better on days 2 and 3. In fact, when you eat it on day 1 you may wonder what the big deal is. It’s a fine simple cake, but nothing to write home about. Yet on subsequent days some magic happens, and the faint grassiness of the olive oil comes through. This may not sound like a good thing, but it is, and it sings lovely duets with the lemon zest.  A keeper of a recipe  4.5/5.

 


 

 

After zesting three lemons for the cake, I had three skinned lemons to put to use, so I decided to make something I’ve never had, only read about – lemon curd. I got the recipe from a book which I plan to put to heavy use this summer – Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda Amendt.  The book is a joy to read, all the recipes sound phenomenal, and lemon curd sounded easy. For the recipe you needed a double boiler, which I didn’t have, and the bowl kept hitting the water, so I had to improvise with balancing a bowl on two butter knives in a pot of water. MacGyver ain’t got nothing on me.

 


 

 

Again, I cut down the sugar to something like less than half of what the recipe calls for. Next time I’d use less lemon juice too. In fact, I’ll just gently flavor the butter and yolks until they taste like heaven, and call it a day. But the curd was great – like a lemony pudding, rich and creamy and great with the cake.

 


 

 

And that, folks, was my lovely Sunday during our last rainy weekend. Mucking around the kitchen, baking bread, trying out recipes. Pretty much my idea of a perfect weekend.

 


Cooking and an utter inability to follow directions

It’s probably no secret that I love food, cooking and eating probably as much as I love animals. I mean, I eat animals.  Not all every day, but reasonably frequently, although I do have long vegetarian spells here and there.  And like many people who enjoy food and cooking, I visit sites like Serious Eats, Urbanspoon and cooking blogs, as well as own a ton of cookbooks.  And most of my cookbooks never get used.

 

I’ve thought a bit about this the other day, and there are very good reasons for owning cookbooks that are not cooked from. Some are visually stunning with great writing and are enjoyable on their merit as books alone. Others are so regionally oriented that to cook from them out of context seems if not sacriligeous, then at least extremely unsuitable. For instance, I have several great Southern cookbooks, and all of them are so saturated with the soul and spirit of the south, the terroir if you will, that huddled in our cold Calgary winter it seems wrong and uncomfortable to hunt out of season ingredients like okra and grits. And say what you will, but a good crabboil can only be accomplished on the coast.  This happens with many California inspired cookbooks as well. Our farmers markets don’t get going until early June, and gallop through the seasonal offering SO fast, that you can’t keep up ‘seasonal’ cooking from places that have ummm seasons.  For some reason few ‘seasonally’ insprired cookbooks really delve into the bounty and beauty of beets, cabbage, turnips and potatoes, being much more likely to praise tender asparagus, ripe tomatoes, and perfect figs, none of which we are likely to see for more than about two weeks out of the year.

 

 

Then there are the cookbooks whose recipes simply don’t speak my language. I’ve heard amazing things about the Barefoot Contessa recipes, yet every time I pick up a cookbook of hers, I am uninspired to the max. Either the recipes seem way too simple and easy – a salad! with tomatoes! thanks! or they are just not a good fit for the day. Every day. I also find that the more information is given about the origin of a recipe beforehand, the more likely I am to want to make it. Which is why Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries is fantastic to read and browse through, he seduces the reader before they crack a spice jar. 

 

But every so often I look fretfully at my growing cookbook collection, and make resolute efforts to cook more from them. Or at least work my way through the piles of randomly bookmarked recipes all over my computers at home and work.  Which is where my inability to follow a recipe exactly comes in. I’m a fickle cook, and typically a cookbook has one chance to impress me.  I will typically choose a recipe based on a complex matrix of whether I can obtain the ingredients, how much I like the main elements, how unique it is, how much the author praised it, and whether I heard great things about it on a cooking forum. 

 

I know that to do a recipe justice, I should make it as written the first time, then tweak it to my preferences if I make it again. But for some reason I am constitutionally unable to do so. Most of my tweaks are minute – a bit more garlic, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a hint of red wine, or a bit  less sugar. But sometimes I deviate from the recipe so much, I know that I was no more than ‘very loosely inspired’ by it. I don’t know why I can’t help myself. I actually have a pep talk with myself when I first make a recipe, and still I fail, as I see my hand reaching for something clearly not written anywhere. I need a supervisor. It’s not that I want to deny myself creativity in the kitchen, but it hardly seems fair to cook from books that writers have put great efforts into, and muck about right out of the gate. 

 

Next post I’ll tell you about three new recipes that I tried to make AS WRITTEN, and failed. Two were successes despite myself, and one – I should have smacked my hand harder.  Which brings me to you, dear reader? Do you follow recipes as written, or are you an improvisational maestro? Is it possible to subvert my tinkering nature and learn to give recipes a chance?