Sunday, October 31, 2010

brisket braised in beer and onions a la carbonnade

Belgium is known for its beer, so it only makes sense that one of its national dishes, Boeuf a la Carbonnade, makes use of beer as a braising medium; after all, what could be better than a combination of beef, beer and onions?

Admittedly, this beef goes into the oven a pretty uninspired hunk of meat, but - trust me - it emerges 3 hours later a melt-in-your-mouth wonder, enrobed in an almost miraculous, deeply-flavored, caramelized onion gravy.

Ready for the oven
After 2 hours of braising
While it may seem dubious to proselytize about such a humble dish, I'm in good company. Ruth Reichl herself, asked in an interview to name her favorite recipes among the 1000+ compiled in "The Gourmet Cookbook," immediately called this one to mind.

If that doesn't convince you, consider this: I gave the recipe to a friend, who then gave it to an 80 year-old friend of hers, who reported back that ever since preparing it for his family they have viewed him with "new respect." It's that good!

Since I have yet to find mushroom bouillon cubes here in rural Vermont, I crumble a few dried porcini mushrooms into the mix. (This only works if you have very clean dried mushrooms! If not, soak them in a bowl of water, allow the grit to sink to the bottom, lift them off the top and coarsely chop them.)

This dish is great with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles and a green vegetable on the side - a truly old-fashioned, old world "square meal."

Brisket a la Carbonnade (from The Gourmet Cookbook; edited by Ruth Reichl; copyright 2004) 

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb.) beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
2 T olive oil
2 lbs. onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced lengthwise (6 cups)
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 (12-oz) bottle beer (not dark)
1 dried porcini bouillon cube (less than 1/2 oz) or beef bouillon cube, crumbled
1 T balsamic vinegar

Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Pat brisket dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 6- to 8- quart wide heavy ovenproof pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Brown meat well on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a platter.

Add onions and bay leaf to fat remaining in pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until onions are golden, 10 to 12 minutes.

Remove from heat and transfer half of onions to a bowl. Set brisket over onions in pot, then top with remaining onions.

Add beer, bouillon cube and vinegar (liquid should come about halfway up sides of meat; add water if necessary) and bring to a boil.

Cover pot, transfer to oven, and braise until meat is very tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Let meat cool in sauce, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Transfer brisket to a cutting board. Skim off any fat from sauce, discard bay leaf, and season sauce with salt and pepper. Slice meat across the grain and serve with sauce.

Serves 8

Editor's note:

The brisket actually improves in flavor if braised 2 days ahead. Cool the meat in the sauce, uncovered. Cover it with parchment paper or wax paper, then the lid, and refrigerate. Remove any solidified fat before reheating. To reheat, slice the cold meat across the grain and arrange in a shallow baking pan. Spoon the sauce over the meat and reheat in a 325 degree F oven for 45 minutes.

Slice meat against the grain
Smother with sauce and reheat before serving

  • The folks at Cooks Illustrated have written about experimenting with different beers for their own version of Carbonnade, and if my notes are accurate some of their favorites were Chimay Peres Trappists Ale (Belgium); Newcastle Brown Ale (England) and, for a non-alcoholic beer, O'Douls Amber (US). Since Newcastle Brown Ale is readily available, I have stuck to using that with great results. Keep in mind that the beer you use will have much to do with the final flavor!
  • I find that browning the meat well and achieving uniformly golden onions takes more time than the recipe allows. Don't rush these steps!
  • When braising anything, it's a good idea to cover the pot tightly with tin foil before topping with a lid to ensure a tight seal.

Friday, October 22, 2010

simple autumn muesli

My introduction to muesli, as a teenager in the 70's, was inauspicious. Thinking myself well-informed about nutrition (I ate carob instead of chocolate!) I was nonetheless growing weary of standard granola and looking for something new when I discovered a small box of muesli in the health food store. Drawn in by its graphics of Swiss alpine splendor, it screamed ruddy-cheeked health to me, and I could hardly wait to get home and partake of its vital essence.

Mais quelle horreur! I got home and opened the box to discover a vaguely rancid, dusty, dessicated-fruit-pocked cereal which no amount of milk could redeem.

It was years later, on a ski trip to Canada, that I discovered what real muesli is, and it was a revelation. Featured every morning at the hotel breakfast bar, I was surprised to learn that the toothsome concoction went by the same moniker as that store-bought wanna-be of yore. This one was creamy, nutty, slightly chewy, delicately honeyed and garnished with fresh fruit.

It turns out that the original recipe, devised by Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner in 1900, starts with an overnight soaking of the oats in water. More contemporary recipes call for soaking the oats in fruit juice, cream, soy milk... whatever sounds good, really. Nuts, dried fruit and yogurt may be added, and fresh fruit is typically tucked in just before serving. Once you've made your first batch of muesli you'll think of all kinds of variations. I have used peach juice, soy milk, almond milk and yogurt, all with tasty results. In summertime, berries and stone-fruit are irresistible additions. However, autumn brings its own rewards, like fresh apple cider, pears, apples and pomegranates. I employ them all in the following recipe.

 Simple Autumn Muesli

1 cup rolled oats
1 cup cider
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (Fage brand is less tart than others and very creamy)
1/4 cup chopped nuts (I use a mix of almonds and walnuts)
2 tablespoons dried cranberries
1/8 t. cinnamon
generous pinch nutmeg
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith; peeled, quartered and cored
1 pear, ripe but firm; peeled, quartered and cored
Optional garnish: pumpkin seeds, pomegranate seeds

Mix oats, cider, yogurt, nuts, cranberries, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl. Coarsely grate apple and pear into bowl and mix well. Cover tightly and let sit in refrigerator overnight.  In the morning, stir muesli and adjust spices to personal taste. Scoop into bowls. Top with pumpkin seeds and pomegranate seeds. This muesli does not need sweetening.

Makes 2 servings

Note: Although fresh fruit is usually added just before serving, I have found that apples and pears may be added the night before; if anything, it allow the flavors to meld.

Tip: The best way to seed a pomegranate is to cut it in half and then break the halves apart under water in a large bowl. The seeds sink to the bottom and the membrane floats to the top for easy skimming. This saves your kitchen from red splatters everywhere.

Original Bircher Muesli 

While the original recipe varies slightly depending on the source, the following appears in "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham.

1 heaping tablespoon rolled oats
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon cream
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 small apple
1 tablespoon blackberries

Soak the oats and water in a small bowl overnight.
Just before serving, stir the cream, honey and lemon juice into the oat mixture. Grate the unpeeled apple and quickly mix into the oats. Add the blackberries. Serve with brown sugar and cream.

Makes 1 serving

Thursday, October 14, 2010

eggs jeannette with bacon twists

Eggs Jeannette is an elegant name for pan-fried stuffed eggs - an unusual but delicious dish named by Jacques Pepin for his mother, who served it to him growing up. I first tasted Eggs Jeannette when my old friend Eric, whom I met in cooking school, prepared them for brunch one day. Eric and I went our separate ways and I somehow forgot about this tasty treat until stumbling upon a spin-off in Lynne Rossetto Kasper's "How to Eat Supper." Kasper kicks up the seasoning in her version and serves the eggs on a bed of salad greens.

The following take on Eggs Jeannette is a conglomeration of both recipes, and is wonderful for brunch with a spicy Bloody Mary.

I served the eggs with bacon twists, not because embellishment was needed but because I've wanted to try them ever since seeing them described  in "The Gourmet Cookbook" by Ruth Reichl. I was frankly skeptical that the twists would retain their shape while baking but somehow they did! They were easy to fashion, crunchy throughout and a visually interesting addition to the plate.

While the bacon was fun, I try to limit it in my diet, so I was just as content to skip it the next evening when using leftovers for dinner. I tossed the greens with sherry vinegar and a whisper of olive oil, added a few cherry tomatoes, and served the eggs with a bit of dressing pooled on the side - better for controlling the indulgence level. The bright acidity of the vinegar was a welcome counterpoint to the rich egg dressing, and I had no problem eating these eggs a second day in a row.

Though I haven't tried it, I don't see any reason why most of the prep for Eggs Jeannette couldn't be done ahead, making it a great option for entertaining. The eggs could be stuffed and the dressing prepared the night before, leaving only a quick flash of the eggs in a frying pan in the morning. I recommend removing the eggs and dressing from the refrigerator early to allow them to come to room temperature before proceeding. If the dressing is a bit thick, loosen it up with a few drops of warm water.

Eggs Jeannette (recipe adapted from Jacques Pepin)

6 extra large eggs, hard boiled
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 - 3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon vinegar of choice
black pepper to taste

2 -3 teaspoons leftover egg stuffing
3 - 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 - 3 teaspoons vinegar of choice, or to taste
1 - 2 tablespoons water
salt, pepper to taste

salad greens
paprika (optional)
canola oil for frying

Shell the eggs and cut in half lengthwise. Pop the yolks into a bowl. Add the remaining stuffing ingredients; mix and mash well with a fork. Fill the egg whites with the stuffing, reserving 2 - 3 teaspoons for the dressing. Sprinkle stuffing lightly with paprika, if desired.

Whisk the dressing ingredients in a small bowl until well combined. Adjust seasonings to taste and set aside. 

Coat a non-stick skillet with about a tablespoon of canola oil and place on a medium high burner. Add the eggs, cut side down, and cook until the yolks are golden brown.

Place salad greens on plates. Top with eggs. Place dollops of dressing over all and serve.

Serves 4

Bacon Twists (from "The Gourmet Cookbook" by Ruth Reichl)

Place oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F.

Twist each bacon slice into a tight spiral and arrange twists on rack of a broiler pan, pressing ends onto pan (twists will unravel somewhat as they bake).

Bake until crisp, about 30 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Friday, October 8, 2010

chicken, white bean & spinach stew

I woke up yesterday to gray skies and drizzle; the ideal weather for a comforting bowl of stew. Since my eating habits the last few days haven't been especially honorable I wanted to make amends with a healthy, light, vegetable-packed meal. For this reason I eschewed rich beef in favor of chicken, and from there knew I would have to include some type of bean, because I love beans and cook with them a lot.

What I ended up with was a somewhat bastardized version of the famed "pasta e fagioli." It was a perfect tonic to slurp down under a blanket on the couch, next to my hubby, as rain pelted the windows and the wind blew.

Chicken, White Bean & Spinach Stew

3 - 3 1/2  lbs. bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
6 cups reduced-salt chicken broth 
3 carrots, sliced
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/8 t. dried thyme
1/2 t. dried rosemary, crumbled
1 can cannellini beans
1 cup small dried pasta of choice (I used Barilla Ditalini), cooked as directed on box and reserved
1 bag baby spinach, long stems removed
salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
1 lemon, zested; then cut in half for juicing
fresh grated parmesan or romano cheese
extra-virgin olive oil

Place thighs in soup pot; cover with chicken stock. (If stock doesn't cover chicken, add enough water so it is just covered.) Add carrots, celery, onion, garlic cloves, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary to pot.

Simmer thighs  for 20-25 minutes, depending on size, until they are cooked through and tender. Remove thighs from pot with tongs and set aside until cool enough to handle. While chicken cools, mash vegetables in pot with a potato masher until well-broken up and rough looking (if vegetables aren't soft enough to crush, let simmer until they are). Continue to simmer broth, uncovered, to reduce and concentrate flavors; at the same time, pick meat off the bones and roughly shred it into bite sized pieces. Add chicken to pot, along with white beans and red pepper flakes; simmer about 5 minutes to meld flavors.

Just before serving, add pasta to warm through, then add spinach and stir until it is just wilted. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 of lemon into stew, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle stew into bowls. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top. Add a sprinkling of grated cheese and a spot of lemon zest and serve with more cheese on the side.

Bon Appetit!

Update: The sauerkraut has been burping downstairs... it's aliiive!

Friday, October 1, 2010

home-fermented sauerkraut

Here in Vermont, the autumn foliage is more spectacular by the day and the season's first wood fires scent the air. This is traditionally the best time for starting sauerkraut, as the garden cabbage is sweet and the cool temperatures are just right for fermentation.

Many know sauerkraut as the malodorous stuff that comes from a can, although more grocery stores stock "fresh" refrigerated kraut in plastic bags these days. Unfortunately, even refrigerated kraut is often pasteurized, meaning it has been heated to kill any microorganisms present, including beneficial ones. This defeats much of the point of sauerkraut, as it's the live bacteria that converts ordinary cabbage into a nutritional powerhouse while improving intestinal health.

Sauerkraut is formed when lactobacillus bacteria, naturally present on cabbage leaves, converts sugars to acids as the cabbage ferments. The process of fermentation not only increases bioavailability of nutrients in the cabbage but actually creates B-vitamins that weren't there to begin with. Add this to cabbage's high vitamin C, phytochemical and fiber content and you'll understand the nutritional allure of "live" kraut. Its only downside is its sodium content, which does make it off limits for some. However, as long as you're not on a salt-restricted diet the benefits are significant. As for the flavor, you'll find homemade kraut is satisfyingly fresh, tangy and crunchy, quite unlike the canned version. And it's simple to make.

I invested in a Harsch Gartopt fermenting crock ( because I liked the design of its water seal and the fact that it comes with weights and a lid. 

Water in a trough around the lid allows carbon dioxide to escape but blocks outside contaminants from coming in. One caveat: the last time I made kraut, I was shocked at how quickly the water evaporated - I would fill it one day and find the trough dry the next. I couldn't figure it out until today, when I was composing shots of the crock and who should enter the viewfinder but Buzz the cat.

Mystery solved. (If you look closely, you'll see his little tongue lapping away.)

For those of you who don't have a Gartopf, regular crocks or food-grade plastic buckets are also commonly used and less costly.

Basic sauerkraut consists of 2 ingredients: cabbage and salt. Proper proportions are: 3 tablespoons salt per 5 pounds cabbage, or slightly less than 2 teaspoons per pound. Canning or sea salt is recommended.

First, you'll need to wash, core and finely shred the cabbage. I used a mandoline for this task but a sharp knife works too. I haven't tried a food processor.

Shred up to 5 pounds of cabbage at a time and place in a crock or food-grade bucket. Sprinkle with salt and toss to distribute evenly. Allow cabbage to sit while you shred the next 5 lbs. By then you should see juices released from the cabbage in the crock. Tamp this cabbage down with a potato masher or the flat end of handle-free rolling pin until it's as firmly packed as possible. Repeat this process with the rest of the cabbage. By now there should be a good amount of brine forming, but if not, don't worry. Check again in 24 hours and if the cabbage is not well submersed, you can add salt water (1 teaspoon salt per cup water) until it is.

Once all the cabbage is evenly packed it must be weighed down to keep it submersed in its brine. The Gartopf comes with its own weights; otherwise, fill a large food-grade plastic bag with salt water (1 teaspoon salt per cup - the salt is added in case there's a leak) and set it on top of the cabbage, covering it as completely as possible. Place the top on the Gartopf or cover an open crock with a towel. Place in a cool area, no colder than 60 degrees.

Check the kraut every 2 days to ensure there is still adequate brine and to skim any scum that may have formed. If using a Gartopf, check the water level in the trough. Once fermentation begins you should see bubbles rising to the surface and you may begin to smell the cabbage. Begin tasting after 2 weeks; it may take 6 weeks or longer depending on room temperature and taste preference. Once the kraut is to your liking, pack it in mason jars in its brine and keep it in the refrigerator. It should last at least a couple of months this way.

My crock will live on my bottom floor. I'll post updates as the wondrous alchemy progresses!

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