Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This Month's Flavor: France

When someone poses the question ‘What is your favorite cuisine?’ I immediately launch into an inner struggle, ever vacillating between two possible responses.  I am the central divide on a tug-of-war rope.  On one side is the Italian team, offering up such indulgences as lasagna, cannolis, cheese and wine.  On the other side is an equally strong competitor, team Francais, offering comforting stews, luscious cream pastries and, well, cheese and wine.  Hmm, a very perplexing choice indeed.

Perhaps being half French yields the slight advantage of giving just the bit of edge to pull my response in favor of my heritage; the varied cuisines of France may win out by a fractional margin.

To be appreciated in French fare are the various influences, to which we may thank the surrounding nations that hug France’s borders.  Most people think of French cooking as the sophisticated haute cuisine found in the capital city’s upscale Paris restaurants, and on one level there’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, what’s not to love about rich creamy sauces and decadent desserts?  Geographically however, France has embraced the benefit of taking the influencing flavors from its neighbors, incorporating these prime ingredients that each region has to offer, and offering a country of culinary styles that are varied enough to please any palate.

From the eastern Alsace region which borders Germany, we can enjoy such tasty eats as quiche, a savory single-crust tart with a cheese custard-like filling studded with bacon, ham or shellfish and often vegetables as well.  Choucroute also hails from this region, a platter of cabbage cooked in wine along with several different sausages and/or cuts of pork, potatoes and carrots, seasoned with juniper berries and herbs.  Some wonderful beers are crafted in this region as well; and speaking of beverages, nestled right in between Paris and the Alsace region of France is the origin of bubbling happiness from the Champagne region.

Traveling a bit further south along the eastern border, such delicacies from Switzerland grace the French table, including fondue, the perfect pairing of melted cheeses and crusty baguette.

To the south, France shares some of its border with Italy, and both nations engage in Mediterranean cookery that includes key ingredients such as olives, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, herbs, seafood and what many of us would call summer vegetables, such as zucchini, peppers and eggplant.  Provence is the crowning mecca of this region, giving rise to ratatouille, a vegetable stew, as well as a seafood stew called bouillabaisse, aioli which is a garlicky mayonnaise best enjoyed as a dip for vegetables, and pistou which is actually the French form of pesto.  Soupe au pistou is basically a soup of summer vegetables that is served with a topping of pistou.

Spain borders the southwest corner of France.  From here we enjoy spicy sausages, tomatoes and peppers. One well-known comforting dish of this area is the cassoulet, featuring sausages and white beans.

The Burgundy region offers many of the dishes that our minds evoke when we think of French cooking, such as boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin and chicken Dijon, all of which are entrees cooked with wine, the stellar ingredient that is vastly produced in this area.

With the Atlantic Ocean washing over the western shores, oysters are an abundant indulgence in France.  The west coast is also teeming with mushrooms and truffles.  The western region of Normandy produces apples for cider and for Calvados, as well as Camembert cheese. 

Finally as we move inward we traverse through Auvergne, home of some renowned cheeses including Bleu d’Auvergne; and the Brittany region where crepes are prepared in many a kitchen.

To summarize, each region of France has something special to showcase, a starring ingredient that is utilized in the kitchen to full advantage.  Foods are chosen and prepared according to what the local market has to offer in its particular climate.

I now pass along to you a recipe for ratatouille.  While many of us cannot take in the suggestion of this dish without visions of a certain cute animated rodent sharing the nomenclature dancing in our heads, this is one of the simplest French dishes to prepare.  It is versatile, in that it can be served in a number of presentations, and it can be very flexible in its ingredients.  Don't have a zucchini on hand, but have a couple of yellow squash in your fridge?  No problem.  Got a red bell pepper instead of a green one?  Use that.  As long as you have the requisite squash-eggplant-tomato-onion-bell pepper combination, it will be comforting and delicious.  It is also very rustic in its preparation; vegetables can simply be coarsely chopped into chunks rather than taking the time to finely and uniformly cut the ingredients.  The following is a slight variation on my mother's basic recipe for ratatouille.  Some other variations and serving suggestions will follow, but always start with this base recipe.

1 coarsely chopped onion
4 chopped cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 eggplant, unpeeled, cut into large cubes
2-3 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 zucchini, sliced crosswise
1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh basil, chopped

First, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil in a Dutch oven.  Then add the eggplant cubes and sauté.  Once the eggplant begins to brown, add all remaining ingredients.  Simmer for about one hour, uncovered, stirring occasionally.  For a soupier texture, cover the pot while simmering.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serves 3-4.

The ratatouille can be served as is, alongside a main dish.  Another option is to serve it over pasta. 

Ratatouille can also be served as a main vegetarian dish in the following presentation:
Make the ratatouille.  Saute four bags of fresh spinach until cooked. Arrange the spinach on three plates.   Meanwhile, broil three portabello mushroom caps until they start to brown.  Place one mushroom cap in the center of each plate, right on top of the bed of spinach.  Ladle the ratatouille over the mushroom cap and spinach.

Here is another interesting twist:
Make the ratatouille.  During the last 20 minutes of simmering, add one can of chick peas, drained and rinsed, and also half of a cup of kalamata olives.  When ready to serve, ladle the ratatouille over couscous.

Lastly, if you have a husband like mine who simply must have his meat, here is a main dish compromise that will satisfy the meat lover in your life: 
Before sautéing the onions and garlic, first brown six chicken drumsticks in the olive oil until browned on all sides.  Remove.  Saute the onions and garlic, then the eggplant.  When adding all of the remaining ingredients, add the drumsticks as well, cover the pot and simmer until the juices from the chicken run clear when poked with a fork.  
For a change, you could substitute six Italian sausages for the chicken drumsticks, following the same order of cooking as in the chicken recipe above.  This would pair well served over pasta.

Cooking up a pot of ratatouille is an opportune way in which to use up the influx of harvested summer vegetables that begin taking over your counter at the end of the season.

While the cooking of France is diversified and delicious, if I had to be completely honest, I think that this virtual tug of war will be tied to the bitter end, as I will always equally embrace the tasty ingredients, enticing aromas, culinary cultures and oh so heavenly dishes that both the French and Italian tables alike have to offer.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stew's On!

Last month we talked about chili , and also about soups.  We ushered in fall last October with the topic of chowders .  Now we conclude this four part series with a final look at a winter repast of meat and vegetables cooked in liquid, the stew.

The word stew may be applied as either a verb or a noun.  As a verb, stew means to cook by method of using liquid in the pot and simmering the food slowly for an extended period of time in a covered pot.  The noun stew is used to describe a dish that contains vegetables and usually meat, cooked in the aforementioned method.  Stews are heartier than soups, the liquid often thickened by stirring a combination of equal parts butter and flour into the cooking liquid during final moments of cooking.  While certainly appreciated as the quintessential winter fare, lighter stews are enjoyed in warm climates, such as bouillabaisse served at Mediterranean cafes.

Most stews contain a meat, typically beef because it is well adapted for slow cooking.  However, chicken and pork may also be used, as well as seafood.  Other requisite ingredients in a stew include a combination of vegetables, such as onions, carrots, tomatoes or peppers.  Starches such as potatoes or beans are often incorporated into the mix as well.  Seasonings of herbs and spice may also be added. 

While some cooks use water as the liquid base of their stews, more flavorful options include stocks and wine.  Some recipes call for additional liquid, such as cognac.  Carbonade flamande is a Beligian stew of beef and onions, stewed with Belgian beer.

Variations on stews from around the world include the French boeuf bourguignon, distinguished by the use of burgundy wine, mushrooms and pearl onions.  The aforementioned bouillabaisse is a fish stew that originated in the French region of Provence.  Also from France we have the cassoulet, a stew of pork and beans.   Irish stew is made from lamb and includes potatoes.  Another fish stew, the waterzoi, hails from Belgium.  Waterzoi can also be made with chicken, and both versions use cream to thicken the broth.  A tajine is a Moroccan stew so-named for the conical chimney-like pot in which it is prepared.  I shared my recipe for tajine with you last month in a feature on Moroccan cuisine.

And now I impart to you my recipe for a basic American beef stew.  There are hundreds of ways to make a stew.  Some call for browning the meat first, others call for filing the pot and relegating the entire cooking process to the oven.  Some stews cook entirely in the oven, some are start to finish on the stovetop, and others are prepared in a combination of both stovetop and oven.  I have found that the combination route takes less time, you will not have to sacrifice several hours to present a piping hot pot of stew for dinner.

Beef Stew (4 servings)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds stew beef, cut into equally-sized cubes
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups beef broth
2 cups red wine
15 new potatoes, halved
2 cups baby carrots
1 cup green peas
2 cups frozen pearl onions
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons butter, room temperature
¼ cup chopped parsley.

Preheat oven to 250-degrees.  Heat oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Sprinkle the beef with salt and pepper and cook in the pot until browned on all sides.   Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add the chopped onion and the carrots to the pot and stir, cooking until the onions are transleucent.  Add the garlic and sauté for another two minutes.  Add the wine and deglaze the pot.  Stir in the stock and return the meat to the pot.  Bring to a boil, cover with a lid and cook in the oven for  1 hour.  Add the potatoes and stir, cover and continue cooking in the oven for another half hour, or until the carrots and potato are tender.  Transfer the pot to the stovetop over medium-high heat.  Thoroughly combine the butter and the flour and stir mixture into the stew.  Add pearl onions and peas  and continue to stir until liquid is slightly thickened.  Remove from heat, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Remember to serve your stew with some freshly baked bread from your local bakery to help mop away every last bit of gravy your plate has to offer.

The nice thing about stews is that you can get creative by varying ingredients to conjure a whole new ethnic twist.  For example, for a Mediterranean influence, use the above recipe but omit the potatoes and peas, and double the amount of garlic.  When adding the liquids, add 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, one-half tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves and one teaspoon freshly grated orange peel.  When adding the pearl onions, add one cup of pitted black olives, such as Kalamata olives, as well.  Love chick peas?  When you heap in the olive, go ahead and add a fifteen-ounce can of drained and rinsed chick peas as well.  Prefer not?  Serve this stew over a bed of couscous instead.  For variations that do not include potatoes in the recipe, stews can be ladled over noodles, couscous or mashed potatoes.  The flexibility of stews ensures that this winter comfort fare is always interesting, always warming and always welcoming to your dinner menu.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Andouille Sausage

As the fanfare of Mardi Gras hits the streets of New Orleans, this presents an opportune time for us to cook up some Cajun fare.  Just what is it that adds a unique smoke and spice combination to gumbos and jambalayas?  The ingredient to be credited with that special zip in such Cajun entrees is the Andouille sausage.

French immigrants who settled in Acadia, Canada were later driven south by the British; and so they fled with their andouille in tow, thus introducing this heavily smoked pork sausage to Louisiana where is has earned its rightful place among Cajun culinary ingredients.

Andouille is made from pork, typically seasoned with garlic, salt, cayenne pepper and black pepper.  The sausages are then smoked over a pecan-wood fire for a ten to fourteen hour period.

Andouille is an essential ingredient in jambalaya, an entrée also containing rice, tomatoes, shrimp or crawfish, chicken, peppers and onions.  It is also used in gumbo, a stew-like dish containing any of a number of meats, shellfish and vegetables, usually thickened with the addition of okra.  Andouille also makes a flavorful addition to omelets and soups.  For a simple cocktail party nibble: cut the Andouille into bite-sized chunks, lightly brown in a frying pan until heated through, poke a toothpick into each piece and arrange on a platter around a bowl of honey mustard for dipping.  The sweetness of the honey mustard plays well with the spicy smoke of the sausage.

In one of my previous blogs I shared with you my recipe for jambalaya:

Here is another one dish meal that reaps the flavorful benefits of Andouille sausage.

Cajun Sausage & Beans
8 Andouille sausages, sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 green bell peppers, chopped
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons parsley
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 15-ounce cans red beans, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional sprigs of parsley and thyme, for garnish
Hot sauce, optional

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Fry the onions, garlic and sausages until the onions are translucent and the sausages browned.  Add the pepper and sauté for another two minutes.  Add the wine; boil until reduced by half.  Stir in the tomato paste, the tomatoes, parsley and thyme.  Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil.  Stir in the beans, cover the skillet, reduce heat and simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.  Garnish with parsley and thyme sprigs and serve with hot sauce, if desired.  Serves four.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Chocolate and Valentine's Day: Perfect Together

Purchasing the ubiquitous heart-shaped box of chocolates and making dinner reservations at a romantic Italian or French restaurant head the list of tasks to be completed in the coming week.  Yes, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and love is in the air, to be made sweeter still with the enticing aroma of chocolate.  Valentine’s Day and chocolate are the inseparable perfect pairing.

Make your beloved feel extra special by presenting a chocolate dessert that you create for the occasion.  There are so many possibilities to accommodate every schedule and every level of culinary ability.  I always find a trip to Williams Sonoma inspiring as I peruse the aisles, browsing at the seasonal items and baking paraphernalia.  One year I purchased a heart-shaped Bundt pan and surprised Brian with a dark chocolate-raspberry cake spiked with Chambord and dusted with confectioners sugar and red decorator sugar.  Another year I baked a batch of heart-shaped cookies with a cookie press, which you can also find at Williams Sonoma or any other gourmet cooking shop.  Last Valentine’s Day, with red velvet being all the rage, I made my sweetie red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, sprinkled with red sugar and crowned with a piece of dark chocolate.

Creating truffles may seem daunting; it really is not that difficult, although it can be time-consuming.  The process usually involves melting some high quality chocolate, allowing it to firm up a bit in the refrigerator and then using a small scoop to grab bite-sized morsels and then rolling those morsels in your hands to form balls.  The balls can then be rolled into coatings of chopped nuts, powdered cocoa or confectioners sugar, and then refrigerated once again until firm.

The flavor of chocolate combines extremely well with certain liqueurs, including Kahlua, Chambord, Crème de Menthe, Cointreau and Frangelico.  I highly recommend adding any one of these when making truffles.  The use of instant espresso powder, freshly brewed strong coffee or Kahlua liqueur in most recipes really enhances the depth of flavor of the chocolate.

For those who are either creativity challenged, pressed for time or the very idea of baking strikes irrational fear into your heart, there is always the simpler all-American chocolate classic: the brownie.  Brownies are about as easy as baking gets, so easy in fact that I can never comprehend why people insist on buying instant boxed brownie mix.  Homemade always tastes so much better, richer and more natural.  Brownies are also versatile, allowing a vast array of possibilities for final ingredients to be stirred into the batter, toppings and even packaging, thus lending themselves a welcome treat on any occasion.  They are the ultimate in easy comfort chocolate dessert.

Brownies (makes 9)
½ cup (one stick) butter
1 ½ ounces semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 ½ ounces bittersweet baking chocolate
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup flour, sifted
1 cup stir-in (see note below for ideas)
Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Grease an 8 or 9-inch square baking pan.  In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter and chocolates together, stirring constantly.  Once completely melted and combined, remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes.  Stir in the sugar and salt.  Add the eggs and vanilla and stir until well blended.  Add the sifted flour and stir until just combined.  Add the stir-in of your choice.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes.  Be sure to start checking for this at 30 minutes, as you do not want to over bake brownies.  Remove from oven and allow to cool before cutting.

Choose Your Stir-In!
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup salted cashew halves
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnut pieces
1 cup chocolate-coated toffee chips
1 cup peanuts

Of course, you may choose to stir in a combination, such as ½ cup of chocolate chips and ½ cup of walnuts, for example. 

These ingredients can also serve as a topping, if desired.  Once the batter has been poured into the prepared pan, for topping sprinkle a layer of whichever ingredient(s) you choose over the batter and press them VERY lightly.

You can also add one of these into the batter if you want to spike up the flavor once in awhile:
1 tablespoon Kahlua (coffee liqueur)
1 tablespoon Cointreau (orange liqueur)
1 tablespoon Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
1 tablespoon Amaretto (almond liqueur)
1 tablespoon Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
1 tablespoon Crème de Menthe (mint liqueur)

Or you may choose to swirl one of these additions into the batter.  Once you have poured the above batter recipe into the pan, drop four teaspoons of one of the following onto the batter.  Then take the blade of a knife and gently swirl the dropped item of your choice throughout the batter, taking care not to touch the bottom of the pan with your knife.

Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut spread)
Smooth peanut butter

Whatever variation you choose to bake, make the presentation special.  Once completely cooled the brownies can be packed in a Valentine-themed tin, a box lined with red tissue paper, a red cellophane wrap or bag, secure with red, white and pink ribbons.

I could say that once you lavish a chocolate delicacy upon your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, Cupid will take care of everything else; but once chocolate gets involved and leaves your Valentine spellbound, there’s very little left for Cupid to do!