Category Archives: Meals

It’s A Good Thing I Can Laugh At Myself

I’m a lot of things, but “cool” isn’t one of them. The only times that word has been used to describe me it was in a sarcastic way or in a ‘it’s cool that you are okay with being such a dork’ way. And I’m fine with that. Just managing to not embarrass myself on a daily basis is enough pressure. This here is a story to make you feel just a tad cooler yourself, just because there are people like me out there lowering the bar.

When we were in Morocco back in 2012 I ate numerous versions of lamb and prune tagine. My favorite was this one, sprinkled with fried Marcona almonds and served with twelve different Moroccan salads.

The real thing - lamb and prune tagine with Moroccan salads.

From time to time I get a craving for that spicy lamby goodness and cook up my own version of what we ate in Marrakech. A few weeks ago I was thinking of those flavors while planning a family get together. Tagines are nice for parties because they go into the oven before guests arrive, fill the house with a great smell and cook slowly until everyone is ready to eat. The meat in the picture is a lamb shank but I wanted something I could cut into chunks and trim the fat off of for the dish I was imagining so I ordered a boneless lamb shoulder roast from the butchers at my local market.

All the people who work at the meat counter of my grocery store are super nice and eager to please. The day I went in to pick up my roast I was helped by a woman who is especially friendly. Being the intermittently awkward person that I am, I always feel slightly intimidated by her tallness and outgoing nature. She came out with a beautiful roast and we talked about how nice it looked and what I was going to make with it. And then.

Then came my moment of humiliation. As a ‘congratulations on your awesome meat purchase’, she fist bumped me. Yes, fist bumped me.

Not such a big deal you say? Just wait.

You’ve got to understand, I was caught off guard. In my wildest dreams I never would have guessed that I, a forty year old white lady, would be fist bumped by another white lady, one even older than me. Maybe some of you regularly fist bump in a serious way, but I certainly don’t. In fact the only person I’ve ever fist bumped is my three year old. And for us it’s always a big production that ends in the waggling of fingers and an explosion. You know what I mean, right? Bump, waggle, blowing up noise. I think you know where this is going. I’m blushing right now just thinking about it.

This meat counter woman is very tall, and I’m very much not, and she was on the other side of the counter so I really had to reach to meet her outstretched fist. It was super weird to begin with but then what did I do? I exploded the fist bump. I did. I waggled my fingers and burst open my fist. Midway through the explosion I realized that this was not right. Had I owned it, exploded my fist in a grand fashion, I could have turned a very strange moment into a humorous one, but no. Instead I just didn’t make the blowing up noise and pretended I was doing something else with my hand, not that it could’ve been mistaken for anything else. Then I said a meek and red faced ‘thank you’ while I scurried off with my five pounds of lamb and melted into a puddle of shame.

I wish I could leave you with a recipe for the tagine because it was delicious, but I don’t have one. Maybe I will work on developing one for the winter, but I need to wait a while before I show myself at the meat counter again.

 

 

Warning: Seasonally Inappropriate Post Ahead

I’m so far behind in things I want to write about that it’s still February as far as the blog is concerned. Never mind that it’s eighty degrees outside and every flower in my yard is blooming at the same time. I should be writing about artichoke soufflés and roasted asparagus with Meyer lemon and smoked salt, but am I? No, today I’m writing about the king of cold weather food, cassoulet. I shouldn’t even utter that word until next October, but I’m the boss of this venture so I’m going to do it anyway. Maybe I’ll tell you about the asparagus next time, or maybe I’ll wait until August when you can’t get any and tell you about it then. I’m such a rebel.

So, I turned 40 back in February. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not because I don’t feel 40, or look 40, and not because I’m trying to avoid being a real grown up, but because there are some things I thought I’d have a handle on at this point in my life that I just really don’t. Here I am, middle aged (!) and I still can’t walk in heels very well. If a problem with my computer can’t be fixed by restarting it then I’m completely dependent on someone else. I don’t know how to apply bronzer correctly. I have horribly uncomfortable, hand-me-down seating at my dining room table that maims people when they come to my house for dinner. I still don’t really know what WWI was about. I’m a lost cause with a curling iron. I’ve never owned a decent mop. I’m afraid of driving in cities. And I’m totally baffled by how our TV is connected to the DVD player and we have all these cables but the wifi has to be connected and I can’t get Netflix to work because maybe there is something broken but I’m not sure and what the hell is ethernet, and oh my god, how did make it this far in life without learning these things?!

Not to mention the lack of profitable career and all that.

One thing I do know how to do is plan a dinner party and I used my birthday girl status to plan the meal I wanted to eat at the dawn of my new decade. Cassoulet. Butter lettuce with fresh tarragon vinaigrette. Baguette. Triple cream brie. Cheesecake with raspberry and orange blossom coulis. Good, French, red wine. You know, a light, refreshing sort of meal. Ha.

For those who haven’t been initiated into the world of cassoulet, it is traditional French peasant food from the Languedoc region. It’s a dish that is made with white beans and an assortment of fresh and preserved meats. Every town has their own version, as does every cook. Duck or goose confit and some kind of sausage is pretty much required, but the rest of it is up to personal preference. I’ve made it a number of ways, and all were delicious. Pork, lamb, duck, goose, rabbit, mutton (not that many of us eat mutton in this country) and even boring old chicken can find a home in cassoulet.

Advance planning was key to my enjoyment of this meal. I wanted candle light, I wanted other people’s kids to keep my kids entertained and exhausted, and I wanted to eat my cassoulet in the snow. Not literally, but, you know, in a place where I could see snow out the window, so we rented a house in the mountains and rounded up some friends who aren’t afraid of eating fat. The cassoulet prep actually started weeks before when I placed my order with D’artagnan. Though they have a stupid name, this company sells amazing meat products. This is the place that a once sold me a ten pound bucket of duck fat, one of my finest purchases of all time. Classic cassoulet calls for a number of ingredients that are hard to find at most grocery stores, even fancy ones. You can definitely round everything up if you’re willing to work a little, but D’artagnan sells a cassoulet kit that is really high quality and convenient. The price isn’t bad either when you consider that it makes enough to feed a small army and that it’s all delivered to your door.

It's so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

It’s so exciting to have this box show up on your porch. At least if you are me.

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The kit contains six legs of duck confit, ventrèche (basically French pancetta), French garlic sausage, duck and armagnac sausage, coco tarbais beans, duck fat (in case you don’t already own a ten pound bucket), and duck and veal demi-glace. I’m not going to include a recipe here because I doubt many of you are going to go out and make cassoulet for 20 anytime soon, and if you do, the recipe that comes with the kit is pretty good. I have made it my own over the years and I will continue to make changes as long as I make this dish. Infinite variations. This isn’t a how-to guide to cassoulet, I just enjoy making it so much that I wanted to take pictures of these lovely ingredients and share them.

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Sliced garlic sausage ready to cook.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

Ventrèche and bouquet garni.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

These heirloom beans are the best for cassoulet because they are remarkably creamy inside yet resist falling apart during the long cooking of the dish. They are also huge, about an inch long.

The greasy splatters you have to cope with during the cooking process are not for the faint of heart. Poor Robert, a ‘clean as you go’ type of guy just can’t be around while I decimate the kitchen with this work. It would be more than he could take. The floor, the inside of the oven, the counters, every one of my six burners, bathed in grease. Such a mess, but beautiful in it’s own delicious way.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

Duck and armagnac sausages.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

The ventrèche is first cooked with the beans, then chopped and crisped in a skillet.

Duck confit.

Duck confit.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

Carrots, celery and onion cooked in the leftover fat from the ventrèche.

I find it incredibly satisfying to line up all my cooked, chopped, shredded, and sliced ingredients and start layering them into my two big casserole dishes. Making sure each portion will get a lovely brown hunk of sausage, ample shredded duck, and bits of crisp skin surrounded with beans, veggies and thyme feels a little bit like love to me. I’m not going to just throw it all in a dish, mix it up and hope for the best. No, I need to count the slices, portion out the mirepoix, and divvy up the demi-glace. Because that is how much I care about you and your dining pleasure. Plus, I’m kind of crazy.IMG_1805

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you're wondering.

Those are dabs of duck fat on top, in case you’re wondering.

I froze my cassoulets and brought one with us on the birthday trip. To me, real luxury is having a thoughtfully prepared meal in the freezer so you can spend your day having fun and still eat well. All I had to do was sprinkle the top liberally with buttery bread crumbs and put it in the oven to bake for a couple of hours. (The bread crumbs aren’t traditional, but I highly recommend them. There aren’t many things in life that won’t be improved by buttery crumbs.)

This little photo journey has a disappointing ending because I forgot to take a picture of the finished dish. Shame on me. I do have this picture of my leftovers, but I regret not getting a shot of the whole bubbling casserole because it is a sight that makes me happy. Next time.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

This dish of leftover cassoulet is less than glamorous but it gives you the idea.

After a day of sledding and snowball fighting with our kids we banished them to a playroom with enough electronic devices and macaroni and cheese to keep everyone occupied for a good long while. We ate and drank and danced stupidly until midnight, which is pretty much like staying up all night when you’re 40, and it was just exactly what I wanted.

I’d like to think that by the time I’m celebrating another milestone birthday I’ll have less items on my list of Things That Make Me Feel Like an Idiot, but I highly doubt that will be the case. All the Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos in the world won’t be able to save me from that. But I wish and hope that I will still have friends who overlook these things and are willing to raise their forks and glasses and laugh with me at the absurdity of being human.

 

 

Good Riddance January, You’re A Bitch.

Whew. That last month was a killer. I felt like I was drowning in the chirpy kind of new years optimism that makes me hate people. There was way too much talk about how 2016 was going to somehow make up for the fact that last year sucked ass for a lot of us or instantly transform us into healthier, happier versions of ourselves. I don’t know how many times over the month I heard (or read on Facebook) “2016 is going to be amazing! This is MY YEAR!” or “I’ve been to the gym every day this month and I feel so great!” or “I’ve given up sugar and I’m never going back!” I want to punch these people in the mouth. Because here’s the thing. January. It’s the worst. If you want to be part of the club then it’s all diet and exercise and fiscal responsibility. I’m sorry, but that is stuff to be endured, not stuff to be celebrated.

The first half of the month I felt too crappy to be in the club. I was in a “screw it, who cares, I’m going to eat this whole bag of candy and this block of cheese, and wash it down with a couple glasses of wine while I mope around feeling sorry for myself” frame of mind. It just so happens that two of my favorite people have birthdays early in the month which ensured that there was enough cake and party atmosphere to keep me from going down the tubes completely. Even when your birthday is in January you get cake. And when there is cake around, I eat it. It was a dismal, yet delicious couple of weeks.

Legion of cupcakes.

Legion of cupcakes.

 

It was very important to Fe that his cake say 'Happy Birthday DEAR Felix' and have balloons on it. Not one of my prettier cakes but it was for a three year old so I let myself off the hook.

It was very important to Fe that his cake say ‘Happy Birthday DEAR Felix’ and have balloons on it. Not one of my prettier cakes but he’s three years old so I let myself off the hook.

Then, half way through the month I miraculously felt better. Better enough in fact to decide I was going to pull myself together and join the January club. For the last three weeks I’ve been “eating light” and “working out” and “cutting back on all the foods that make life worth living”. I’m drinking enough water to cause a minor drought and force feeding my family quinoa. Our meals suddenly look like this:

Beet and quinoa salad with chicken breast, goat cheese and balsamic dressing.

Beet and quinoa salad with chicken breast, goat cheese and balsamic dressing.

It’s not fun, but it hasn’t been so bad. I go between feeling virtuous, deprived, and discouraged. I think that if everyone else in your house is eating potato chips and you are choosing not to, you should instantly lose three pounds. Ditto if you have raw oatmeal (which, crazy as it sounds, I actually kind of like) or sugar snap peas for breakfast. Honestly, I’m glad to be cleaning up my act a bit because I know it’s essential to detox from time to time, but my physical self doesn’t feel that different. A little stronger, maybe, from all the squats I’ve been doing, in a better frame of mind, perhaps, but there is no amazing transformation for me because of eliminating sugar or quadrupling my intake of leafy greens.

My poor husband is anxiously awaiting my fall back into culinary hedonism (don’t worry Honey, it’s coming). He has been working physically hard, outside, in the nastiest Pacific Northwest weather and all he wants to eat is meat. Or meat on bread. Or meat on pasta. And what counts as meat? Not chicken breast, I can tell you that. He tries to be supportive, since I am cooking dinner every night after all, but when he hears the words ‘squash tacos’ or ‘lentils’ or ‘kale salad’ in the same sentence as ‘dinner’ it’s hard for him to hide his disappointment. So there have been compromises all around.

I was ever so glad to turn the page on the calendar and leave January behind. There will be no more ‘Happy New Year!’ wishes, no more humble brags about resolutions, no more pinning hopes on 2016 to solve our problems. Now we are all just here, healthy or not, happy or not, having an easy time or a difficult one. The pressure is off and that feels just right.

I’m going to leave you with my un-recipe for French Lentil Soup with Sausage and Kale. It’s very much a compromise meal, healthy, but still satisfying for those who aren’t putting limits on their diet. As you may have gathered by now, I don’t cook from or write recipes very often so these are rough guidelines. Feel free to make it your own, but don’t skip the mustard seeds, they take the soup from blah to gourmet-ish.

French Lentil Soup with Sausage and Kale

1 pound sweet Italian Sausage (bulk, or removed from the casings)

1 large onion, diced

6 stalks of celery, diced

6 carrots, peeled and diced

2 cups French lentils

2 quarts chicken stock, vegetable broth or water

1 bunch Lacinato kale (this is the flatter, dark green kale sometimes called black or dinosaur kale, my favorite by far)

1 Tablespoon brown mustard seeds

Fresh or dried thyme

1-3 Tablespoons sherry vinegar, or red wine vinegar if you don’t have sherry

Salt and pepper

Brown the sausage in a large soup pot, breaking it up as it cooks. When it is most of the way cooked, add the onion and celery. Cook until the veggies are tender. Add the lentils, carrots, stock and mustard seeds, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are soft, at least an hour, adding more stock or water as needed and stirring occasionally. Add the thyme and kale and cook for another 20 minutes or so (it’s soup, the timing is not critical). If your sausage was particularly fatty, there may be oil that collects on the top as it cooks. Skim it off or leave it in as you see fit. The soup will taste a little one dimensional at this point but a couple tablespoons of sherry vinegar and some salt will transform it. Just make sure to add the vinegar a little at a time and taste as you go, too much will not be yummy.

This soup freezes well. You could be super organized and freeze it in individual portions for future lunches.

Serve with bread and cheese or salad or nothing at all.

Not the best picture as I was eating this soup and then decided to photograph it. You get the idea though.

Not the best picture as I was eating this soup and then decided to photograph it. You get the idea though.

Noteworthy 10/2/15

Some highlights from the last couple of weeks:

  • The coyotes have been noisy lately, howling up a storm every night in the open space right across the street from us. It’s loud and a little creepy, especially when there are what sounds like 40 of them yipping and yowling and probably killing something a hundred feet from our house. Felix was scared of the sound the other evening and we told him that the coyotes are just wild animals that live in the bushes and like to sing. He was quiet for a bit and then he said, “I like wild animals that live in the bushes and don’t sing.”
  • Orthodontia. We paid $5600 for the privilege of looking at this on a daily basis:IMG_1940 I have to get to crank this apparatus every evening in order to “expand Lola’s palate” over the next month. Do any of you have a fear of going crazy and doing something horrible some day? It’s one of my worst phobias, and for whatever reason this device triggers it in a serious way, maybe because it seems like such an instrument of torture. I’m afraid I’ll lose it and crank the thing too much, ripping the poor girl’s face in half. I promise I won’t though.
  • Birthday week. Lola turned 12 and made some brag worthy birthday dinner choices. First, she chose to have macaroni and cheese, not unusual for a kid, but she likes this version that is over the top and adult in every way. I use this recipe as a guide, but switch up the cheeses to accommodate what I have on hand, I up the nutmeg a bit and use white pepper instead of the black. Does that make me a pepper racist? I hope not. I also grind the bread crumbs in the food processor because I like them a little finer. I don’t make this very often because we would all weight 500 pounds if I did, but it’s a pretty great choice for a birthday dinner. IMG_1278  For dessert she wanted a salted caramel chocolate cake (can you imagine how that makes my pastry chef heart swell with pride?) No food coloring, no gaudy decorations, just a sprinkle of fleur de sel and a couple of perfect garden roses. IMG_1287
  • Lola is a remarkable gift getter. She loves all presents, and is especially appreciative of ones that are homemade or from the heart. Her enthusiasm and gratitude are delightful, one of her best qualities. I loved hearing her whoop with joy when she opened this one from my aunt:   IMG_1335 That there is a box of freshly picked chanterelle mushrooms. For a 12 year old’s birthday present. And do you see that smile? I can use this picture as proof that I’ve done at least one thing right in raising this girl. The mushrooms were the firmest most meaty ones I’ve ever seen and I cooked them into a lovely risotto with a bit of crispy pork belly on top for day two of birthday fest 2015. IMG_1341
  • As some of you know, Robert and I were a little freaked out when we found out I was pregnant with a boy the second time around. We joked in a very politically incorrect way that even though we know that you can’t turn a person gay we were sure going to try. The idea of raising a stereotypically gay son was much easier to get my head around than a team sports playing, non-showering, sloppy dressing, rough and tumble straight boy. But I overheard this conversation between Robert and Felix the other morning and I think Mother Nature has made her call. Robert: “Why don’t you ever snuggle with me in the night?” Felix: “I like to snuggle with Mama.” Robert: “Why?” Felix: “Because Mama has boobs. I love boobs.” God help me.
  • This fall weather got me feeling like making bread again so I got my sourdough starter all freshened up and made this loaf. If you are local and want some starter with which to make your own let me know, I’m happy to share.                     IMG_1401                             IMG_1410

Fantasy Summer Fête/Salade Niçoise

I’m in the mood for a really great party. Granted, my introvert version of a really great party might not be the same as yours but play along with me here.

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First, let’s set the scene: The party will take place on a grassy knoll under a grove of giant maple trees. Nearby there will be some kind of chateau or large house where the party guests will all be staying. Think English countryside to get yourself into the right frame of mind. There’s a little stream gurgling nearby. Under the maple trees is a massive wooden table that has been there for years. The very rustic table will be set with very non rustic china, a white linens and lots of heirloom roses in low vases. There will be candle lanterns hanging from the trees waiting to be lit. A few blankets and large pillows will be scattered around for lounging but there will also be comfortable chairs and small tables for holding drinks and canapés. The festivities will start at 4:00 pm and go on late into the evening. It will be a pleasant 78 degrees with a light breeze when the party begins, cooling off to 65 when we wrap things up around midnight. No bugs of course, what kind of whack job would let mosquitos into their fantasy party?

There will be ten to twelve party guests (any more than that and my poor little socially challenged brain might short circuit.)  We will dress up, to the point of being just slightly over the top. There will be some seersucker, a pair of suede ankle boots, and possibly a bow tie or two. There will be tea length dresses, drapey necklines and up-dos. A few people will probably wear hats. The colors will be soft and tasteful. Black clothing is moderately acceptable but if you even think about wearing something red, or a bright pattern to this party, I don’t want to be your friend anymore. Our children will be off at their own delightful party hosted by responsible, loving babysitters so our evening can be guilt and worry free; we will see them in the morning.

We will play croquet or go dip our toes in the stream in a very relaxed manner while we sip on some nice yeasty Champagne. For nibbling we will have Délice de Bourgogne, homemade crackers, bowls of cold crunchy cherries, and freshly roasted rosemary cashews. There will also be cucumber limeade to keep everyone hydrated.

As the games are wrapping up and the light changes from afternoon to evening we will start to think about some more substantial food. From out of the nearby house will come platters of Salade Niçoise:

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Unlike the salad in this picture, the Ahi will not be overcooked.

This particular salad was not made in fantasy land, it was made in my kitchen while I tried to visit with an out of town guest and my two overexcited children competed for the ‘Watch me! Watch me! Award.’ Also, you can’t see the greens in this salad. They are there, but buried under the mountain of other goodies.

Anyway, we will eat our perfectly cooked Ahi and salad with soft, tiny rolls that I baked off just before the party started, and home churned cultured butter (the little dishes of butter will have fleur de sel sprinkled on top because that’s how I like it). We will drink Bandol Rosé that has been chilling in a large copper bucket full of ice under one of the maples.

During our meal there will be lots of laughing. One crazy guy will probably speak in a fake accent for most of the meal. Someone else will tell a story about how they once talked themselves out of being arrested while not wearing pants. There will be a wardrobe malfunction involving buttons that keep popping out of their holes.

After the dinner dishes are whisked away we will light the lanterns and move to more comfortable seating. I will bring out a game where people have to answer questions of the personal and/or introspective and/or goof ball nature. There will be more laughing and also some very touching moments where we learn something about someone that we had no idea about.

Dessert and a selection of digestifs will appear. We will be served warm peach dumplings with hard sauce from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I haven’t made these before, but I love this cookbook and these dumplings look amazing. There will also be plates of sea salt caramels and some fantastic dark chocolate. The last of the brandy will be sipped, yawns will be passed from one person to another, and the thought of a cozy bed will cross everyone’s mind. We will walk back to our rented house together feeling the buzz of food and friendship.

So, who’s coming to my party?

 

Here are some guidelines, I definitely won’t call it a recipe, for my version of the salad if you want to make your own party:

Salad Niçoise

Toss mixed greens with a simple lemon, mustard, and olive oil vinaigrette. Arrange the greens on a platter and top with:

Roasted potatoes (I used fingerlings cut into little rounds)

Green beans boiled until tender in salted water, then chilled

Roasted cherry tomatoes (cut them in half, toss with olive oil and salt and roast in a hot oven until they are wrinkly and starting to brown)

Niçoise olives, or kalamatas if you’re in a pinch

Seven minute eggs (Start with cold water to cover the eggs, bring to a boil with a lid on, turn off heat and let the eggs sit in the hot water, covered, for seven minutes. Drain and stop the cooking by covering them with cold water)

Seared Ahi tuna, sliced

Sprinkle some salt on the eggs and drizzle a little more dressing over everything on the platter.

Serve with tarragon mayonnaise. Homemade would be great, but store bought mayo with a little lemon juice and chopped fresh tarragon mixed in is a pretty good substitute.

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