The Pot on the Fire

melancholy kitchen workWinter can make me sentimental and romantic when I cook, especially on a blustery, grey day. As part of my work to cook one new recipe a week, I have been perusing my cookbook collection. I’ve also been reminiscing about some of my best food memories, and many of those are in France. No small wonder, then, that this recipe came to mind as one to share. “Pot au Feu”, or in English, “pot on the fire”; it’s a classic recipe that seems to go back to the 17th century. One could say it’s just beef stew, but it’s so much more than that. Chef Raymond Blanc, a Michelin-starred chef who is in England but well known for his French heritage, once said that pot au feu was

“the quintessence of French family cuisine, it is the most celebrated dish in France. It honours the tables of the rich and poor alike.”

The recipe below is one I wrote out  for an entry in the first of two cookbooks I compiled, quite proudly I might add. That cookbook was all recipes translated from their original French (many of them from books written hundreds of years earlier). it was a project I undertook as part of my year living in France. To me, this recipe personifies the French culture: its poetic nature that embodies a love of “the good life” – that appreciation of quality  time with friends, especially when it involves food and drink.

I include the original text below:; the actual recipe I cooked this week is in the link for Pot au Feu

“Take 2 pounds of good honest beef, and tie these two pounds lovingly with an untreated string.

Place this generous parcel of meat in a paunchy clay stock pot. Add 6 litres of cold clear water. From your antique  wooden salt box, take a large handful of coarse, crunchy salt. Let this salt also fall into your stock pot.

In the company of the beef, place a cute morsel of lamb breast or a nice pork spleen. This will give the juice in which the meats cook a better texture.

Put your clay stock pot on Mr. Fire. Make sure the latter is good and hot. A whitish foam will form on the surface of the stock. Skim it off without pity, as soon as it forms. Continuing until only half the original volume of stock is left. Then, put carefully beside the beef 3 tender leeks, which you have cut into pieces the length of your finger, or thereabouts. Bind them, vagabonds that they are, wandering left and right in the tonic that encircles the cooking beef. Add 2 healthy carrots, a small morsel of parsnip, an unsuspecting turnip, a glorious bay leaf, and a pot-bellied onion. On the rounded surface of the onion, just like 3 assassinated flies, should be stuck 3 black cloves. As soon as all these delectable vegetables are in your stock pot, stir up the Fire so as to awaken the bouillon.

You must let 6 hours of the clock pass by with the pot on the Fire. The whole pot should boil gently, grumbling satisfactorily.

Sacrifice a few small onions, burning them shamelessly and throwing them with confidence into the pot. They will act as painters, endearing the stock with a lovely brown colour.

Skim the fat from the stock and purée it as smoothly as possible.pot au feu bowl   wine pairing Pot au Feu

Serve the beautiful and tender beef on a sturdy platter, surrounded by the loyal vegetables which cooked in its company. There should be proud steam and delicious odour escaping from all.

Mustard from Bordeaux may add in the digestion of these foods. For the wine, a  red wine will do nicely, not noble but strong; rather thick, full-bodied, and having spent at least 6 months in a secure cellar.

Condiments for the meal:IMG_6189 Rustic flowers on the table, around which should be the bright and happy faces of women, the familiar face of an old friend, dinner with friendsthe attentive eyes of a loving dog (who also loves human food), Ella happy puppy facethe  triangular muzzle (deceivingly indifferent and disdainful) of the cat, who asks for nothing but watches nevertheless; a hearty stomach, happiness, good health and the absence of thought for anything which is not part of the dinner.

Outside should be the fairy scene of sparkling Parisian lights or the touching charm of a country garden.

Without these essential condiments, alas! The most exquisite meal will seem bland.”

Need I mention that not only the poetic method of cooking but also the accoutrements create a beautiful balance for an enjoyable meal? Down to the presence of the pets, this atmosphere seemed to me to be the perfect blend for a memorable meal. I have used it as a template ever since. I hope it provides you with some inspiration of your own.


A Gourmande’s Resolution

stack of cookbooks

I’m going to visit my cookbook collection more often this year!

Okay, I’m a bit slow getting going, but I showed up, didn’t I? I resolved this year to not only cook 1 new recipe each week, but then also to post those recipes here for all to see. I may have some that I’m not going to make again, but I figure that information might be valuable for fellow readers to know, too! So, I have made my recipes but I’ve just managed to get them all written down, hence this mish-mash of a post to get caught up. Will you indulge me?

The first week it was grey, with no sun. I mean not a single ray since the calendar page flipped to 2016! For a Prairie girl such as myself, this was tortuous. If I couldn’t have blue skies, I needed a bit of brightness on the dinner table. Thankfully, my Saveur magazine came to the rescue with pictures and a lovely article on winter salads. (sorry, no link, as issue #180 isn’t online yet.) I added my own twists, and reduced the dressing quantity as I still had leftovers even making half, and voilà! Winter Herb Salad with Fruit If I do say so myself, it was truly wonderful. The flavours of the herbs came through well, and the pomegranate and apple were just the thing to brighten my day. We had it with some sautéed snapper that had an Asian rub – a perfect Monday meal!

The second week has still been grey, with the exception of 5 minutes of sunshine I caught one morning while walking the dogs. We were talking about a trip to New Orleans in the fall, and of course my online research strayed easily when I saw native recipes. I knew about King Cake from my time in France, but when I saw the recipe from New Orleans, I realized it was a completely different animal. Instead of puff pastry, this was a sort of brioche dough. Well, what better occupation for a home body on a grey winter day than a yeast dough? Away I went with New Orleans King Cake.Rabbit Hollow winter sun

 

Granted, one probably doesn’t need a stuffed brioche right after the holiday season, especially when preparing to be fit and trim for a beach holiday (Jamaica looms on the horizon, only two weeks from now.) But, it’s for a good cause, right? I can tell you it was worth the sacrifice. This is a great Sunday recipe. Your man will love you when it comes out of the oven about half time :)

I’ve just signed up for the #PulsePledge too, since it’s the Year of the Pulse. No, not as in staying alive and keeping your heart beating, although that will be a part of it. This is about legumes – chickpeas, lentils, beans and the like. The idea is to cook one recipe a week for 10 weeks using some kind of pulse. I may include my pulse recipe next week, alongside an entrée recipe (pork, I think).

I hope these posts will help those cooks who are always looking for ideas, day after day. I hope it will help me to stay organized, cooking and writing more this year. I look forward to staying in touch!

 

So what’s in store this year?

2016 hoopla

A new calendar year begins, and we all get a chance to be pundits. Since food is my topic of choice, I thought I might as well weigh in, so here are my top 3 picks for trends, and some gratuitous commentary on what I have read from other sources. Feel free to add your two cents below, please!

Food Trend Predictions for 2016

  1. HYBRID DRINKS – it’s not enough that bartenders have created shrubs, syrups and other concoctions to come up with weird and wonderful cocktails… now we have to combine what we already have! Have you heard of “boffee”, or nitro coffee? I wondered at first if that was just a redneck version of a wine spritzer, but no, apparently it’s a real drink: iced coffee served “on tap” using nitrogen to create bubbles, just like a draught beer. superfood cocktailsCoconut water, Red Bull and all kinds of superfoods are being added to cocktails; just think, you can get drunk and prepare for your hangover at the same time!
  2. CLASSY SNACKS – crackers and cheese just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, folks. You need ethnic dips, ancient grain chips, popcorn with exotic oil & seasoning… or at least use goat cheese drizzled with honey on those gluten-free crackers.funky small plates Serving snacks is an art as well; if you haven’t invested in funky small plates, then you’d better visit Pinterest soon for a cool idea using something you can find in your pantry and “up-cycle” with a bit of burlap and a hot glue gun :)
  3. COOKING WITH GARBAGE – If you have been in a hole and not listening to the outraged food geeks in our part of the world, you won’t know that we suddenly realized our penchant for having every kind of food available year round and it all being perfect and unique has meant we are wasting an obscene amount of food. Chefs have now made it cool to use the stuff our moms used to regularly transform from the back of the fridge to the table. cooking with garbageDan Barber from Blue Hill in New York served “Dog Food” on his menu last summer during his themed period of working with food otherwise not used – it was ground meat using the cuts the butcher couldn’t sell.

If you aren’t already trying out these new concepts, then here’s your chance to jump on the bandwagon. After all, you don’t want to be the last person in the lunchroom still eating a tuna sandwich, do you?

One trend whose demise I’d like to support is the use of the word foodie. Adam Sach’s recent editorial in Saveur is right on the money:

Maybe we can just focus on the pleasures of eating, cooking and drinking and leave the labels where they belong – on modified corn and the side of wine bottles.

As much as there are chefs innovating with new foods, new fusion and new science, there are also restaurant brands that are working hard to be everything for everybody. McDonalds has coffee now, and menu items which can be custom made (including lettuce wraps instead of buns). Forgive me for sounding snobbish, but I don’t think that improves anything. Do you really go to McDonalds for a healthy meal? That’s like going to Robuchon for take-out, or cheap chicken wings. As consumers we should encourage businesses to be unique, to do what they do best – not to be like every other place in town. Laziness doesn’t benefit anyone in the food chain.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but I do believe wholeheartedly in the importance of good food and the time to enjoy it properly. And when we want to enjoy junk food we should make that an authentic experience as well. No labels, no obligations. Life is too short.

 

 

I Know Santa Claus

Santa Claus Happy Gourmand

Okay, have I got your attention? That’s the idea. Santa Claus is an important part of Christmas and he doesn’t just belong to the children, either. He is an integral part of the spirit of Christmas I think, and his importance has very little to do with his big list of toys.

In an age where everything is about knowing the intimate details and having the “behind the scenes” scoop, people seem to think that reality is never what it appears to be. Famous people must not really be happy; there must be some scandal behind their smiles. Spectacular events are not really as special as you initially thought; special effects done on computer and stunt doubles are the reasons behind it.

This kind of skepticism is infectious and it makes us think twice before believing anything. But does that mean there is nothing worth believing in?  Quite the contrary – we need to believe now more than ever.

In 1897, Francis Church wrote that now famous letter to a young girl named Virginia. Today there is talk of the newspapers folding their operations because no one is reading them. Somehow we still need to get the message out to the world that just because you cannot understand the magic of how something good works does not mean you need to discount its value. If we are ever to achieve greater heights in our existence, there needs to be something out there we have not yet imagined to which we can aim our sights. Otherwise, quite frankly, what is the point?

In 1947, a movie was released called “Miracle on 34th Street”. It was the story of Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who showed skeptics how important it was to believe in Christmas… he also talked about the importance of imagination, and faith. All of those, he said, were wrapped up in the spirit of Christmas.

Christmas frame of mind Miracle on 34th

In 2004, Robert Zemeckis directed a movie entitled “The Polar Express”. In it, a child gets a ride on the mysterious train that goes to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and he learns the secret of Christmas. Believing in the power of Christmas – with its spirit of giving, and forgiveness – is the key to it all.

Christmas spirit Polar Express

I am calling on all souls that wish upon stars and throw pennies into fountains – you are needed now to share your faith with those less fortunate, and to ensure that children keep that twinkle in their eye that makes them want to believe. For you see, it is the children that save us all. Those of us who can hold onto the glimmer of wonder that comes from believing are trying to keep some of the magic of childhood with us.

 

And by the way, for you skeptics in the crowd, I really do know Santa Claus. I have touched his beard and felt his smile warm my heart; I have even shared coffee with him! He is alive and well, and quite busy this year I am happy to report. You see, there is hope for us yet, if we keep believing. If you would like to get in touch with him, you can always start writing again. He doesn’t mind if he hasn’t heard from you in a while :)

In closing, I am reprinting Mr. Church’s original letter for you here as I think it still says the right thing, more than a century later.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

From the Editorial Page of  The New York Sun,
written by Francis P. Church, September 21, 1897

Virginia, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age.  They do not believe except they see.  They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.  All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s are little.  In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!  It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.  There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.  We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.  The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus!  You might as well not believe in fairies!  You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove?  Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.  The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.  Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?  Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.  Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.  Is it all real?  Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus!  Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever.  A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Happy St Nicholas Day

st nicholas Happy Gourmand

In many European countries The Feast of St Nicholas is the start to the holiday season. Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.

Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)

Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.

There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.

I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas, Shortbread Cookies.  My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works created by Michelangelo.

If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you. If you feel you have overindulged leading up to the holidays and can’t eat them all, then feel free to share!

BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD

1 cup Butter

½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed

½ teaspoon Vanilla extract

2-1/4 cups Flour

½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 325F.

Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn; thicker cookies will be even more “melt in your mouth”.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.

 

NOTE: If shortbread is not your thing, check out my blog’s recipe archives for other ideas.

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