Cassoulet

First, a note–before I made this, Chicago was well on its way to spring. It was 70 degrees, my winter coats and gloves and scarves were all put away. The day this went in the oven? Four inches of snow. I don’t know if that’s an endorsement or indictment. You’ve been warned.

Halfway there

There’s a particular kind of meal best served out of the dish it was made in, at a table crowded with full wine glasses, ready plates, and even more ready appetites. The kind of meal that lends itself to lingering at the table long after the food is gone, though the glasses never seem to run empty.

After my trip to Paris last fall, I’ve (hardly unexpectedly) been on a French food kick and all winter, the one dish I’ve been craving, but never quite got around to making until last week, is about as French as it gets and, I think, perfectly speaks to that kind of meal–cassoulet.

The basics Brined onions

If you’re not familiar with cassoulet, it’s a rib-sticking, richer-than-stew but not-really-a-casserole dish of white beans, chicken or duck, sausage, salt pork, broth, and a ton of garlic. Every person who makes it has their own recipe–which is of course the “right” way (the right way usually coinciding with the way they had it growing up–though in cassoulet’s case, it actually has a whole academie).

Salt pork Sausage Browned bits and onions

The dish has an intimidating reputation, even to me–see above re. L’académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There’s the duck confit (which many recipes include instructions to make yourself), a very specific type of bean, the multi-day cooking time, etc., etc. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’m not advocating for a microwave version (I probably made a Frenchman roll over in his grave just by typing that), but, as with any dish borne out of using what you have and stretching it to serve a crowd, it can be–and was!–simple (and, if not exactly fast, at least doesn’t require a lot of standing-at-the-stove time).

Brined beans and a few vegetables Partially cooked beans Almost good enough to stop right here

I’ve had this recipe kicking around since October, but my favorite part isn’t the recipe itself (though it’s what I used and what I modified below), it’s the article that precedes it. It addresses perfectly the intimidation factor and how to make this the way I imagine it was made at the beginning–with ingredients you have or can pretty easily get, allowing for adjustments as needed, and to your own tastes. And pretty much however you make it, it will be amazing.

To unintentionally prove a point, I actually screwed up when I made this. In hindsight, I should have added more water while it was cooking, there should have been a bit more broth-yness to the beans by the time it was done. Ideally the crust forms from the liquid, not the beans or chicken. Not a problem–it was still delicious (and totally devoured and I basically had to stop myself from picking off all the crispy chicken skin bits) and I will make adjustments next time.

2 hours later 4 hours and done!

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Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: The Beach

Sorry for the silence lately, the weather has gotten me a bit down and, with it, any kitchen inspiration other than egg sandwiches, take out, and freezer leftovers. But this weekend starts Daylight Savings and an extra glorious hour of light when I get home, the temperatures are slowly creeping above freezing, and I got to spend last weekend enjoying this view. I can’t complain.

Savoring the last few hours of warm sun and water. And slushy rum-y ice cream drinks.

I actually said yesterday "I love summer!" I forgot it was February. #heaven

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Digging In with Peterson Garden Project

You know who throw the best parties? People who love food. That pretty much explains why the Peterson Garden Project’s “Dig In!” kitchen warming and benefit for the new Fearless Food Kitchen was such a blast–an event put on by a group that helps people grown their own food in order to raise money to teach people how to cook good food. (Not to mention, it’s always fun to get a little fancy, especially for a good cause. And really, really good food.)

Community Swanky

The party kicked off with fantastically creative cocktails (many with homemade liqueurs and infusions) and a delicious spread of cheese, fruit, and other nibbles while everyone mingled and checked out the new kitchen space (and snuck a peek of dinner being prepared in the kitchen). It was wonderful to talk with so many people excited about the space and see so many equally happy to donate towards everything from whisks and spatulas to serious kitchen hardware like mixers and ovens. My favorite part, though, was watching the inspiration wall fill up as people wrote about those who inspired them to cook and garden.

Bartenders doing good work So much to choose from inspiration cards

As cocktails ended, everyone moved to the dining room, long tables beautifully decorated and perfect for a community meal. And oh, the food. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe, and really should go without saying, considering the chefs for the evening were some of the best (and some of my favorites) in Chicago. It took all my willpower (and the reality of a very small purse) to keep from swiping a basket of bread from Baker Miller to take home. Two distinctly different, but equally amazing salads, started the meal: a hearty dish of creamy white beans, potatoes, and pickled vegetables from Joe Frillman (Balena) was a wonderful reminder of what can be done in mid-winter with produce put up in spring and summer; on the opposite end of the spectrum, a fresh, bright, citrusy, spicy salad of apple, mango, and tomatoes from Patty Neumson (Herb, now topping my lists of restaurants to try). I could have been happy eating just these three things for dinner.

Time to eat Good food, good wine, good conversation

Oh but there was more. My first taste of lamb sweetbreads (they were good!), fried and served over white beans and a salad of corn and squash from my favorites, Brad Newman & Michael Taormina (Cookies & Carnitas). Perfectly braised pork with olives and melon by Chris Pandel (BalenaThe BristolFormento’s); a tasty and light tofu and vegetable dish from Alvin Yu (Fyusion Dining).

The main course that everyone was talking about at the end of the night though, was the short rib by Erling Wu-Bower (Nico Osteria). You could tell who took their first bite by the chorus of “oh my god”s running down the table–I didn’t even get a picture it was gone so fast. It was perfection down to the Roman gnocchi (my new favorite thing, more like polenta cakes than the traditional potato dumpling-style of gnocchi) and roasted celery root. I don’t even like celery or celery-flavored anything and this converted me. Lord, that was good.

My first sweetbreadsDelicious porkAnd of course, dessert. Because what would a meal like this be without it? Cranberry upside-down cakes with a perfectly sweet and sour sour cream gelato from Amanda Rockman (Nico Osteria, who is also teaching a class on making her iconic gateau basque next month) and a chocolate chip cookie from Baker Miller that was bigger than the saucer for my coffee. I wasn’t the only one who figured out that the best combination was putting the gelato on the cookie, which tasted like what every ice cream sandwich wishes it could be. (Want to know how good that cookie was? So good I actually forgot my purse in favor of searching for a cookie to take home.)

That sour cream gelato is the stuff of dreams

Garden cocktail party chic
LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project, and me.

Everyone involved in putting this dinner together did an amazing job on every detail, from the gorgeous centerpieces and the wonderfully attentive waitstaff, to the great live music, the cute garden gift bags. Extra kudos to the volunteers who came back the next day in the midst of the fifth largest snowfall in Chicago to clean up.

While digging into a great meal is always a treat, it’s almost time to dig into the soil too (I know, it’s hard to imagine the ground will ever not be frozen). PGP’s new gardener sign-up just opened this week; if you’re interested, register soon spots go fast (and don’t be afraid of the waitlist, it’s how I got in last year)!

I just renewed my little plot at “Vedgewater” and can’t wait to get back outside, tending to my tomatoes, getting dirt under my nails, trying to figure out what’s killing my cucumbers, plucking sweet peas and strawberries to eat as soon as I get home. Soon, soon!

6-5-14 garden

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
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Take That, Snow!

Snow, snow, and more snow. Tis the season, I suppose, and in all fairness this has been a not-terrible winter. While I guarantee I will still whine and complain about the waiting-for-the-snow-plow-to-unbury-my-street and digging-out-my-car parts, it is nice to have a Sunday’s-worth of plans canceled in favor of a few cooking/baking projects to basically say “Take that, snow!” (after, of course, an emergency trip to the grocery store since I was out of eggs. And milk. And sugar. All set on bread though!).

Mushroom wild rice soup

After making a veritable cauldron of roasted beef stock, I was looking to put it to good use–something other than beef barley (want to guess what I forgot to put on my list for that emergency grocery run?). Beef goes well with mushrooms, and maybe…some wild rice? Sounded good to me.

Perfect wild riceMushrooms, onions, and other goodies

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription on America’s Test Kitchen online recipe archive, so I’ve been on a bit of an ATK bender since the new year. Lucky me, one of the recipes in their archives was wild rice and mushroom soup, and easy enough to use beef broth instead of chicken. And since I had a bunch of beef cooked and shredded in bits and pieces left over from making stock, it went into the soup as well.

Cooked downMarbled soup

Well, if I can’t beat the weather (I did try!), I may as well embrace it, and this soup was basically a bowl of snow day winter coziness. Stick-to-your-ribs from the wild rice, beef, and mushrooms; a little bit bright with the lemon and chives; rich and creamy (but not so rich that you can’t have a second helping–we’re embracing winter after all, right?).

Bonus–it went perfectly with that monster loaf of rye bread.

Marbled cream

Wild Rice, Mushroom, and Beef Soup
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Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

Welcome 2015!

I’ve been a bit neglectful here over the past few weeks, but I hope everyone had wonderful holidays to end and start the year!

It was nice to reflect and realize what an incredible year 2014 was. It started with four weeks of the best cooking class I’ve taken, had a pretty nice midpoint with buying my first home and growing my first garden, and ended with my first of hopefully many visits to Paris, just to list the highlights. And of course continuing to share food, pictures, and stories with you all here. 2015 has a lot to measure up to!

Plus I got all kinds of new kitchen toys I can’t wait to play with–a madeleine pan, pretty kitchen towels, duck fat (very excited about this one! just making a note for next time not to try to put it in my carry-on as it managed to set off all kinds of alarms and earn me a TSA pat down for my efforts), cookbooks, a little chest freezer (can’t wait for farmers market season!).

For a final look back on 2014, the three post popular posts of the year (all of which happen to be three of my personal favorites as well):

Blend

Homemade Mustard
I first posted this last January and I’ve been making a batch about every two months since; it’s basically the only mustard I’ve eaten all year and it’s pretty popular at the Chicago Food Swaps too. Lately my favorite variation is with white wine and white wine vinegar, though it’s also good with stout (I’m tempted to try it with the Great Lakes Christmas Ale that’s so popular right now). The cider version was also a pretty spectacular addition to the glaze for my family’s Christmas ham.

I also love this post because it earned this comment in an email from none other than America’s Test Kitchen: “We actually saw your post yesterday and passed it around to people in our office because we loved it so much.” Still one of my proudest moments of 2014.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butter

Cauliflower Soup
Another recipe from January, this has been one of my favorite fast meals, especially when it’s cold outside. It’s five simple ingredients–cauliflower, leek, onion, butter, vinegar–that end up being far more than the sum of their parts. It was also my favorite exercise in understanding taste and flavor.

Thick and jammy

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam
If you have any bags of cranberries left over from holiday celebrations, stick them in the freezer so you can make this when strawberry season comes around again (or you can make it now if you have strawberries stashed in the freezer). It’s by far my favorite jam and is an especially nice reminder this time of year that, really, strawberry season isn’t that far off.

Happy New Year everyone!

Come in for a drink and a bite

I’ll keep this short and sweet, as it’s a busy week of travel and family and food and gifts. And in that vein, two quick and easy treats–one for eating, one for drinking.

Mulled Wine

The first may be my new favorite party snack–spicy whole grain mustard sprinkled with herbs sandwiched between flaky pieces of buttery puff pastry. They’re about the easiest thing on earth to make; perfect to make ahead, freeze, and bake right before a party (or bake off a few to have with dinner); look festive and fancy; and, most importantly, they taste fantastic and are a great compliment to just about anything on your menu.

Batons

These are from my absolutely favorite new cookbook, Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. I feel like I’m losing food blogger credibility admitting this, but it’s incredibly rare that I’ll sit down and read a cookbook cover-to-cover like a novel, but I’ve read through this at least twice (granted, once was when I was laid up with the world’s most miserable cold and I was just dreaming about being able to taste anything again). The recipes themselves are wonderful–simple, unfussy, delicious–and Dorie’s writing is equally comfortable, like a friend chatting about a great recipe she discovered.

Mustard Batons

On the libations side, this is less a recipe and more an ingenious idea for on-demand mulled wine (and really, if there’s any season that’s perfect for festive spirits on a whim, this would be it). The base of this mulled wine is actually a wine syrup infused with citrus and whole spices that is easy to customize (the spices below are just what I like, a few slices of ginger for instance would not be out of place).

And since the syrup can be made ahead (it’s actually better after infusing for a day), it’s just a matter of deciding how much mulled wine you want to make–enough for a party or a glass for a cozy treat by the fire.

Mustard Batons and Mulled Wine Continue reading