28 February 2007

Winter Along the Bay and Patchwork Quilts

When this is how it looks outside, your thoughts turn to hearty food — and that's what I've got on the menu for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, I wanted to call your attention to a new site that brings together "a patchwork quilt" of women bloggers, 100 BloggingBabes. As it happens, a post from this blog is today's feature.

I like the quilt analogy a lot. One of my first important gifts from Grandma Annie was a 1930s-era Sunbonnet Sue quilt, with lilac as its predominant color. I treasured that quilt for years, until I gave it to my niece Molly on the the day she was baptized. I am a firm believer in passing such gifts along in your lifetime. We are only caretakers, not owners, of family legacies.

I do not have ready access to a photo of the quilt. Instead, I share today one of the reasons we like quilts so much: Cold weather. Every bed in my house has at least one quilt. In winter, sometimes two are piled on. So, yes, they keep us warm and comfortable.

But also, quilts are a way of preserving those odd bits of material and memory and a way of paying forward. We've all heard the saying, "When life gives you scraps, make a quilt." Yes, it may be a bit corny, but it reflects my approach to life and often, to cooking.

Finally, quilts have always represented a way for women to bond. Mémére had a quilting frame (long gone, alas!) set up in her sunny living room and I am told that in the 1930s and 1940s, she and her friends often sat there in the afternoons, making warmth from remnants.

How I wish I could have watched them.

27 February 2007

Warm Salmon and Asparagus Salad

Although I vowed to experiment with chicken in 2007, I am getting a bit bored already. I've had chicken with pistachios, cashews, capers, tomatoes and red peppers since the beginning of the year.

It's Lent and seafood beckons. Looking for something light, I made my version of Kalyn's Warm Salmon and Asparagus Salad from the fabulous archives at Kalyn's Kitchen.

The recipe calls for smoked paprika, which I did not have. Otherwise, I followed the recipe to the letter, adding my own touches: Roasted red pepper and sautéed almonds.

My friends, this is among the best salads I have ever tasted. Roasted asparagus, which I have made before, has an almost nutty aroma and flavor.

I've been a fan of both salmon and asparagus for a long time, and have made asparagus as a side dish for salmon many times. This trumps anything I have done in the past.

P.S. Thanks again to Kalyn who has helped me out many times, the link should now work.

25 February 2007

Spicy Chicken Breasts With Ratatouille Vegetables in a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Winter has finally come to my corner of the Upper Midwest. It hit around 3 a.m. on Sunday morning and has been going full force. Schools are closed, kids are inside and the only sound you hear is the cacophony of snowblowers and the occasional freight train trundling through town. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to work from home are doing that.

After Blowing Us Out Round One on Sunday, my husband made chili. Hot stuff. I made something similarly spicy cobbled together from what was on hand and in the larder: Chicken Breasts with Ratatouille Vegetables in a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce.

It's a fricassee kind of dish, served with strips of eggplant, peppers and zucchini. Since I'm off carbs for two weeks, I had to make up for that sacrifice with protein and heat.

For the Chicken

  • 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • dash sel de fleur
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with roasted red pepper
  • 1/2 cup roasted red peppers from a jar
  • 1/2 cup salt-free chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme


Toss seasonings and chicken in a plastic bag to coat. Then, use a heavy skillet to lightly brown chicken in olive oil. When chicken is barely golden brown, remove it from pan; set aside. Add onion and garlic and brown lightly, adding a little more olive oil, if necessary. Cook for about three minutes. Pour in tomatoes and water. Add red pepper. You may chop this into small pieces, or even mince it. Return the chicken to the skillet and cook for about 30-45 minutes under low heat. Since I was using dried thyme, I added it midway through the cooking process.

I always use a meat thermometer to check chicken prepared this way, or any way, for that matter.

I kept checking the sauce and adding more spices. There is no prescribed amount, really; it's whatever you can tolerate.

For the Vegetables

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 2 peppers, green and red
  • 1 medium zucchini
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • fleur de sel

While the chicken was cooking, the vegetables were roasting in a 450-degree oven. These I prepared earlier in the day, working with the eggplant first, cutting it into strips, but not peeling it. I sprinkled it with sel de fleur and let it sit for about an hour to remove water. I almost always use a mix of salt and herbes de Provence (above). The peppers and the zucchini were also cut in strips. I drizzled the vegetables with olive oil before putting them in the oven.

I timed it so the vegetables and chicken were done at the same time. Usually, I get the timing all messed up, and one thing ends up being cold or overcooked.

Having nothing else to do (well, nothing else I had to do), enabled me to get it just right.

Let's hear it for snow days.

24 February 2007

Brussels Sprouts with Shallots, Mushrooms and Thyme

For me there is something immensely pleasurable about preparing a meal as night begins to fall, especially as the clouds gather outside and the wind howls. There is no place I'd rather be than in my own kitchen.

So I was thoroughly enjoying myself Saturday about 6 p.m. as I marinated steak for broiling and sliced tomatoes for a simple side salad with black olives and an herb-peppered chevre.

The long-predicted storm had not arrived (it finally hit at 3 a.m.), and as I chopped and sliced and seasoned I kept an eye on the sky.

I’ve sworn off simple carbohydrates for a while, and thus have forced my husband to do so, too, at least on weekends. Without potatoes, rice or pasta, I’m paying more attention to side dishes. It seemed a while since we’d had Brussels sprouts, and I found a recipe on Epicurious that intrigued me.

As usual, I modified it quite a bit to suit my diet and my time constraints.

Brussels Sprouts with Shallots, Mushrooms and Thyme

For Brussels sprouts

  • 3 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
  • dash sel de fleur


For shallots

  • 1/2 lb large shallots (about 6), cut lengthwise
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil


For mushrooms

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 lb mixed fresh mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • dash salt
  • dash freshly ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 425. Trim sprouts, douse with oil, sprinkle with garlic and salt. Toss. Arrange in one layer in a shallow baking pan and place in pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes, checking and turning frequently to ensure even roasting and no burning.

While the Brussels sprouts are roasting, sauté the shallots in oil and butter until they are soft to the touch and are beginning to turn golden brown. Remove from the pan and drain.

Using the same pan, add more butter and the mushrooms, sautéing until the mushrooms turn golden brown. Add the thyme about midway through; season at the end. The whole process takes about 15-20 minutes.

Finally, mix all three ingredients and serve.

Note: The original recipe calls for a white wine glaze. This was a pared-down version: I used Smart Balance in place of butter. I also used olive oil as sparingly as I could.

It was wonderful: Both sweet and herby, the tastes of the early spring woods. We will definitely do Brussels sprouts this way again.

My husband thought the vegetables were so good that he was unbothered by the mess I made of the steak. It was tough and tasteless!

21 February 2007

Lenten Sacrifice, Memere's Candy Jar and Billy Gumbo

Growing up Catholic, we took Lent seriously and were encouraged to give something up. Usually it was candy.

Nowadays that doesn't bother me in the least, but it was a difficult sacrifice for a child. My resolve rarely lasted a week. I'd be fine the first three days, and would feel highly virtuous, a feeling I like more now than I did then.

But within two days of Ash Wednesday, I craved sugar with an intensity that made my teeth chatter, and I usually found some way to sneak red licorice or chocolate into my mouth. (Giving up red meat would have been a far easier sacrifice back then, as I loathed the stuff and resorted to all sorts of ingenious ways of avoiding it.)

The entire family (except my father) was sacrifice-prone for the dreary weeks leading up to Easter. Candy jars would go unfilled until Holy Saturday when no one could wait any longer and the deprivation generally ended.

My father ignored such things, as he ignored religion. But he relished the culinary customs of Catholicism. On Shrove Tuesday, he'd prepare some fatty dish and hum "Jambalaya" under his breath, always deliberately mishearing the lyrics so he could ask, "Who's this Billy Gumbo fellow, anyway?"

During Lent, he'd order lobster and clams and shrimp, having some of it flown in from the East Coast (a huge extravagance in those days). It was for the restaurant, of course, but we enjoyed it, too: Lobster with chive-y butter, clam chowder, oysters, scallops, shrimp - oh my!

For school-day lunches, there were fish sticks and French fries and macaroni-and-cheese.

Today I try to give something up, not for religious reasons (I stopped practicing when I got it right), but because it feels good.

Note: The candy dish belonged to Mémére. I noticed today that it has a few small splashes of red paint on it, same as Annie's pressed glass goblets (Sept. 25, 2006).

19 February 2007

A Brief History of Chateaubriand

"Why didn't you include some history of Chateaubriand?" asked a reader who does not post comments but happens to sit next to me at work.

"Uh, because I forgot," I said. That's the truth. Ideas and information don't seem to stay too long in my brain these days. Stress overload?

Chateaubriand, like London Broil, is not a cut of meat, according to some sources. It is a way of cooking a thick cut of beef tenderloin. Other sources, like Wikipedia, to which I can never successfully provide a precise link, refer to it as a cut.

Does it matter? I think not. It tastes heavenly.

The dish was reportedly created for Francois René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), a statesman and writer. Born in St. Malo, he grew up in a castle in Normandy. He spent part of the French Revolution in the American Deep South, which ultimately influenced several of his novels. He is considered the father of French Romanticism.

The dish that bears his name may have been created by his chef, Montmireil, according to the Food Reference Website.

Here's what else the Web site says, "Sources differ on the other important details of this recipe. Most say it was originally cut from the thickest part of the beef tenderloin, but several state that it was originally cut from the sirloin. Some say it was one very thick cut of beef, seared on the outside and rare on the inside. It may or may not then have had the seared and charred ends cut off before serving. Others state that the thick steak (filet or sirloin) was cooked between two inferior steaks to enhance its flavor and juiciness. The inferior steaks were cooked until well charred, then discarded."

Another site, O Chef, asserts that Montmireil "placed his master's roast between two other cuts of tenderloin, burnt both the outside meats to a crisp, and threw them away, leaving the Vicomte's portion evenly pink through and through."

I must admit that while my Chateaubriand is never well done, it is rarely as pink as it should be in the middle.

There is some disagreement about how thick a real Chateaubriand must be. When I'm flush, mine is thick. When I buy a cheaper cut, it is not.

There is apparently some disagreement over the sauce. Was it originally Béarnaise or something made from white wine and shallots?

The traditional side dish is small potatoes, called chateau potatoes. They are cut into small shapes about the size of olives and then browned. Not a purist, I use the smallest potatoes I can find, or I cut larger potatoes in half. Even on my weekends, I do not have the time or patience to carve olive-sized potatoes. Also, the recipes often call for russet potatoes. We prefer Yukon Gold.

I must use shallots in the sauce, however. That is a hard and fast rule for me. I like the cross between onion and garlic taste they offer. Supposedly, they offer cancer-fighting compounds, too, another plus. While I usually roast either small or pearl onions alongside my Chateaubriand, I have used shallots, too, intensifying the shallot taste of this wonderful dish.

18 February 2007

Chateaubriand with Herbes de Provence and Cognac-Dijon Mustard Sauce

I was a teenager the first time I watched by father prepare Chateaubriand for two. He explained that it was a very romantic dish so of course, I paid a good deal of attention to its preparation, imagining that some day I would make it for someone I loved.

What fascinated me was that there were really no prescribed vegetables to surround this very tasty tenderloin. My father told me it was a good opportunity to serve seasonal vegetables. If I recall correctly, his was made with small potatoes, onions, carrots and green beans. I have made this with broccoli and Brussels sprouts and would like some day to try it with root vegetables.

I now prepare it at least once a year for my husband. My father's recipe was in his head. Here is mine, adapted from one I found online somewhere years ago.

Chateaubriand for Two

  • 2 pounds trimmed tenderloin
  • 2-3 large cloves garlic, slivered
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 4 medium shallots, minced
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon dried herbs de Provence
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • freshly-ground pepper
  • Béarnaise sauce or one package Béarnaise sauce mix


Preheat oven to 450.

Cut 3/4-inch deep slits in the underside of the tenderloin. Fill these with minced garlic. Brush tenderloin with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Heat the third tablespoon along with one tablespoon butter in a heavy skillet. Brown meat on all four sides, using tongs to turn it over so that it browns evenly. This process takes about 4-5 minutes.

Once meat is browned, set it on the top rack of roasting pan (I use the one that came with my oven, for best results.) Surround it with the vegetables you are using and bake for about 30 minutes for medium rare meat.

While the meat is in the oven, place one tablespoon of butter and shallots in the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add broth, which will deglaze the pan. Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid by half before adding the Cognac, mustard and herbes de Provence. Whisk into butter. Season with pepper.

Prepare Béarnaise sauce from scratch or according to package directions. I use skim milk and Smart Balance.

Once the Béarnaise sauce is ready, add it to the shallot-Cognac sauce in the skillet and blend, whisking. As the sauce cools it will thicken.

Serve the tenderloin on an oval platter surrounded by vegetables. Cover the entire dish with sauce. There will be leftovers.

Note It's a good idea to check the vegetables and the meat, every 5 minutes or so, especially if you are including brocolli. Sunday I used pearl onions, Yukon gold potatoes, young green beans, baby carrots and button mushrooms. It changes every time I make it, as I try to keep the vegetables seasonal. We like to pair this with Cabernet Sauvignon, something a little oak-y.

I try not to add salt to my Chateaubriad, especially when I used a canned beef broth, which I do when I am pressed for time. I used a Béarnaise Sauce mix today, but if you have time it's nice to make your own. Here's Michael Ruhlman's recipe.

Our Valentine's Day celebration was a bit delayed, but we celebrated twice. Saturday night we enjoyed pomegranate martinis, beef risotto with sage, lobster bisque with saffron and curry, tenderloin with cherry sauce and whipped parsnips, and a heart-shaped flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-raspberry sauce and another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at our favorite restaurant.

A much simpler diet awaits us starting tomorrow.