Sunday, September 20, 2009

Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child

At some point in our lives, I think we've all had some Betty Crocker-esque version of Boeuf Bourguignon, or Beef Stew in Red Wine. A little onion powder, maybe some canned mushrooms - you get the idea. However, unless your mother got a lightning bolt of slightly crazed cooking inspiration in the 1960s, you've probably never tasted authentic Boeuf Bourguignon. This is the real deal - a 3 page recipe by the late Julia Child herself.

Ever since thumbing through my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, I've wanted to try this recipe. With all the lengthy preparations and hours of labor, I've been more than a little hesitant to attempt this stew. After recently seeing the movie, Julie and Julia, and reading a bit of My Life in France, now seemed like as good a time as any to roll up my sleeves and make "the dish". I am very happy to say that I was not disappointed in the least.

The 3 cups of red wine in this recipe work their magic on the initially tough pieces of stewing meat, creating meltingly tender chunks of savory, rich beef. The aromatic vegetables and bits of bacon bring complexity to this stew, which practically begs to be paired with a big red wine. The sprinkling of fresh parsley brightens the entire dish and somehow makes it feel both traditional and extremely modern at the same time. This recipe really illustrates why some dishes are truly classics.

If you decide to attempt this dish, I would recommend preparing it on a day when you have plenty of time to spare and when you won't be bothered with any distractions. Naturally, pour yourself a generous glass of red wine while you are cooking so the stress level never rises to an intolerable level.

After making the dish for family, I have decided that it would actually be great for entertaining, as the stew can rest on the stove for quite a while before your guests arrive. Sprinkle the stew with chopped Italian parsley right before serving, and let everyone help themselves right from the pot.

Here is the link to the recipe:


Monday, September 7, 2009

Luscious Black Mission Figs

For what seems like a fleeting moment each summer, tree-ripened Black Mission figs hit the market in abundance. Glistening with a sweet, sticky nectar across the dark, leathery skin, the fig beckons with a promise of a honeyed, sexy filling of soft pink flesh. One bite into this ripe fruit leaves no doubt that it was the figs of Eden and not the apples that tempted Eve with sin.
Figs are some of the oldest described fruits in existence, synonymous with Middle Eastern culture and cuisine. Fresh figs have a honey-like flavor with a silky smooth texture, perfect eaten on their own or used in an endless array of simple desserts.
Everyone has surely eaten Fig Newtons at one time or another, but these delicious fruits are equally wonderful sliced and dropped over ice cream. Drizzled with a splash of late-harvest Riesling wine or some golden honey, a dessert doesn't get much better.
I picked up a package of figs this week at the local Trader Joe's. After eating quite a few on their own, I was inspired to use them in a simple, rustic tart - actually, a galette. Prepared in a pastry, the flavor of the baked figs intensifies and melds nicely with some exotic spices and a flaky crust.
I flavored the fruit in the pastry with a few tablespoons of brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a tiny sprinkling of ground cardamom for an aromatic, Arabian Nights kind of nuance. Once the tart was assembled, a drizzle of honey completed the decadent combination.
Fig Galette
1 rolled out, single-crust pie crust
1 T flour
18-20 ripe Black Mission Figs, halved
3 T light brown sugar
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground cardamom
2 T honey
Prepare tart dough and roll out to approximately the size of a large dinner plate on a piece of plastic wrap. Trim the dough into a round, and transfer to a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the dough with flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. Cover with halved figs, and drizzle with honey. Refrigerate tart for 15-20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 F. After refrigerating tart, bake the tart for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 F, and continue baking for 30 minutes more. Check the tart periodically, and cover edges with strips of aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning.
Cool cooked tart on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature.
Serves 6

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Singing the Praises of Monastrell

Do you enjoy luscious, fruit-forward red wines with plenty of spicy character. If so, you must try a bottle of Monastrell. Monastrell is the Spanish name for the grape from France known as Mourvedre. This grape is grown all over the world and has a particular affinity for warmer climates. It is planted extensively in France's Rhone Valley and in the Jumilla region of Spain. The grape, at its best, displays black fruit flavors with hints of leather and spice.
We recently picked up a bottle of 2007 Castano Monastrell Yecla at a local wine shop. Being big fans of Spanish wine, we are always up for trying the latest bottles to hit the wine shops. This one, at ten dollars a bottle turned out to be an incredible steal.
The Castano Monastrell has plush aromas of jam and spice. The wine hits the palate with an intense rush of ripe blackberries and notes of cinnamon. The tannins in this wine are remarkably tame for its age. We would be perfectly happy to sip this smooth wine on its own, but it is even better with food to bring out its earthy qualities. You could easily pair this wine with slow-cooked barbecue or even pizza.
This Monastrell is yet another example of why trying new and unusual wines can be so rewarding. The next time you stop by your favorite wine shop, take a risk and try something "off the beaten path". You might just discover your new favorite wine.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Bread

As most of you know by now, I am a huge fan of the artisan bread baker and cooking school professor, Peter Reinhart. His award-winning book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, has received numerous accolades from the James Beard Foundation and other notable culinary heavyweights. Every recipe in this carefully-written book has been painstakingly developed to ensure success for the home baker. If you are at all interested in making bread at home, I would recommend picking up a copy.
After a recent trip to a bakery in San Diego (Con Pane Rustic Breads and Cafe) where I had the pleasure of tasting some amazing hazelnut-studded raisin bread, I decided to try making a similar bread at home. While the bread did take some time to produce (mostly waiting for the dough to rise), the result was a beautifully layered creation, heavy with plump raisins and deep cinnamon flavor. This not-too-sweet bread is perfect for a light breakfast or with coffee/tea in the afternoon.
Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Bread - The Bread Baker's Apprentice
Makes two 1 1/2 pound loaves
3 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
4 t granulated sugar
1 1/4 t salt
2 t instant yeast
1 1/4 t ground cinnamon
1 large egg, slightly beaten
2 T shortening, melted or room temperature
1/2 c buttermilk or whole milk, room temperature
3/4 c water, room temperature
1 1/2 c raisins
1 c chopped walnuts
Stir together the flour, sugar, salt, yeast and cinnamon in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Add the egg, shortening, buttermilk, and water. Stir together on low speed with the paddle attachment until the ingredients come together and form a ball. Adjust flour or water if the dough seems too sticky or too dry and stiff.
Mix on medium speed using the dough hook for 6 to 8 minutes until soft and pliable. Sprinkle in the raisins and walnuts during the final 2 minutes (you will have to finish kneading by hand to fully incorporate the walnuts and raisins). Lightly oil and large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and ferment at room temperature for about 2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.
Divide the dough into 2 pieces and form them into loaves. Place each loaf in a lightly oiled 8 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch pan. Mist the tops of the dough with spray oil, and cover loosely with plastic wrap.
Proof at room temperature for 60 to 90 minutes or until the dough crests above the lips of the pans and is nearly doubled in size.
Preheat the over to 350 F with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Place the loaf pans on a sheet pan, making sure they are not touching.
Bake the loaves for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees for even baking and continue baking another 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the oven. The finished breads should register 190 F in the center and be golden brown on top and lighly golden on the sides and bottom. They should make a hollow sound when thumped on the bottom.
Immediately remove the breads from their pans and cool on a rack for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours, before slicing or serving.
I made a "cinnamon swirl" in the center of this bread, as recommended. Before shaping the dough into loaves, roll the dough out to a 8 x 5 inch rectangle. Sprinkle the dough thickly with cinnamon suger (1/2 cup granular sugar with 2 T cinnamon). Roll the dough up as before. The cinnamon swirl gives the bread a sweeter flavor with a decorative look.
I made a few changes to this recipe:
- Substituted melted unsalted butter for shortening (I am not a fan of any type of trans fats).
- Used Vietnamese Saigon cinnamon where the recipe called for cinnamon. This type of cinnamon is sweeter and more intense than regular cinnamon. You can purchase the cinnamon from King Arther Flour (

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Every once in a while, each of us tires of the same repertoire of weeknight dinners and yearns for something a little different. How many times can we eat the same grilled chicken breast without becoming completely bored?

In one of those moments of culinary monotony, I vowed that, "this week, we will have something new." After thumbing through some of my more recent cookbooks, I found a recipe for bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breasts. This recipe comes from a book I received as a gift last Christmas: The Ultimate Cook Book by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

The chicken is roasted with a stuffing of dried fruits and rosemary leaves, and the breast is basted and moistened by the rendered fat from the bacon. Aside from some minor "surgery" required on the chicken breasts during the preparation, this relatively straightforward recipe certainly qualified as "weeknight fare." Here is my version of the recipe:
Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Chicken Breasts
3/4 c chopped dried plums (prunes)
1/2 c chopped dried cranberries
1 T chopped rosemary leaves
2 t olive oil
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t kosher salt
4 6- to 8-ounce boneless skinless chicken breasts
8 bacon slices
4 T balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 400 F, and center a rack in the oven.
In a small bowl, mix the prunes, cranberries, rosemary, olive oil, pepper and salt.
Using a very sharp paring knife, create a pocket in each of the chicken breasts along the longer edge. The best way to cut through the chicken is to repetitively create small slits in the chicken, enlarging the cavity without cutting through the other side.
Stuff one fourth of the fruit mixture into each of the chicken breasts, and wrap the chicken around the stuffing. Wrap 2 slices of bacon around each breast so that the edges of the bacon end up on the bottom of the breast. Place breasts in a rectangular baking dish.
Bake the chicken for about 40 minutes, basting occasionally with the pan juices. During the last 5 minutes, drizzle a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over each breast. Cook until the chicken reaches about 170 F. Remove the breasts, and let them rest for 10 minutes before serving to reabsorb the pan juices.
Serves 4
Wine Suggestions: The combination of chicken and bacon with woody herbs calls for an aromatic, earthy red wine that is not too tannic. A French Cotes du Rhone, a Spanish Tempranillo or even a California Merlot would pair well with this dish.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Abundance of Blueberries

Last week at the local grocery store, the summer crop of blueberries hit, and they were almost giving them away. I bought a LOT more than I needed and decided to get creative, making something beyond the standard blueberry pie or pancakes. At the same time, I was regretting the fact that my ice cream maker had remained unused nearly all summer even though the temperatures are approaching 120 F in Phoenix this time of year. The result of my inspirations was a wonderfully intense blueberry gelato.
For this recipe, I googled "blueberry gelato" to find a basic recipe. After a little tweaking, the recipe was ready to go. The gelato was a welcome accompaniment to some leftover lemon butter cake from the previous night's dinner with friends, and the intense purple color looked great on the plate. Here is the recipe:
Blueberry Gelato
2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and destemmed
1/4 c blueberry preserves
1/4 c water
1/4 t salt
2/3 c sugar
3 egg yolks
2 c whole milk
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a heavy saucepan, combine the first 4 ingredients and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes at a slow boil.
Meanwhile, in a medium sized mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and the sugar is nearly dissolved, about 5 minutes. Heat the milk in a separate saucepan until hot but not boiling. Slowly pour the milk into the egg yolk and sugar mixture, stirring constantly to avoid "scrambling" the eggs. Return the milk/egg mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir constantly.
Place the blueberry mixture in a blender with the vent open. Do not cover completely to avoid getting burned! Blend until smooth, using a towel to loosely cover the vent.
Add the blueberry mixture to the custard and let cool at room temperature for 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice and refrigerate until cold.
Process the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. This should take about 25 minutes. When processed, pour the mixture into a cold glass or plastic container, and freeze for at least 2 hours to allow the mixture to firm slightly.
Gelato is best eaten on the day of preparation to savor the silky texture.
Serves 4

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Who Doesn't Love Cupcakes?

What is it about cupcakes that makes everyone's day just a little bit brighter? No matter what the occasion, a batch of homemade cupcakes just seems to make everyone smile.

Last Spring, Stephen and I took a trip to New York City for the first time and were amazed by the popularity of a wonderful shop in Midtown Manhattan called Magnolia Bakery. The line for this establishment was literally out the door. Cupcakes were the specialty of the house.

Each day, the bakers at Magnolia prepare an array of decadently rich, perfectly decorated cupcakes. Many of these cupcakes are prepared right in the window of the bakery for passersby to behold. Each one of these jeweled treats is little piece of heaven. We tried the vanilla and coconut cupcakes, both of which were sheer bliss to sample.

For this Independence Day, I decided to make a tradition of the fruit-topped, "patriotic" cupcakes which feature the ripe berries that are in season at the market in the middle of summer. The base for these cupcakes is a simple yellow cake that is perfect for any cake-worthy occasion. The frosting is a rich, not-too-sweet cream cheese topping that is adorned with fresh raspberries and blackberries. Needless to say, these beauties were a hit. Here is the recipe:

Yellow Cupcakes (Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens, New Cook Book)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/4 cups milk

Line 2 cupcake pans (about 24 cupcakes) with paper cupcake liners. Preheat oven to 375 F.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter on high speed with the sugar and vanilla until well blended, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating 1 minute after each egg. Add dry ingredients and milk alternately to beaten mixture, beating on low speed (or blending by hand) after each addition until just combined. Do not overbeat. Scoop batter into cupcake liners, filling about 1/2 full.

Bake at 375 F for 18-20 minutes. Cool on wire racks for at least 30 minutes. Frost with cream-cheese frosting and decorate if desired.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 t pure vanilla extract
3 cups powdered sugar

Beat butter and cream cheese well until combined, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla and beat 30 seconds more. Gradually beat in powdered sugar until spreading consistency is achieved.

Frost cupcakes using a small spatula or pastry bag fitted with a large star-tip.

Cupcakes can be decorated with fresh raspberries, blackberries, blueberries or strawberries as desired.

Serve the day the cupcakes are make, keeping refrigerated.

Yields: 22-24 cupcakes