Sunday, January 24, 2010

Poischichade / Chickpea Dip

Monday through Thursday evenings at our house are now a little hectic. Scott has class Monday through Wednesday evenings from 6PM-9PM, and music with the boys on Thursday nights. It's often too much to get dinner ready before 5 o'clock, so that means that I have to make things that are easy to heat up or eat separately. This is definitely going to make it into our rotation, especially as the ground warms up and more local produce is available. I almost want to have a small bowl of it in the fridge just to have handy for snacking. It was that good.

This is the Provençale take on hummus. No tahini, but keep the lemon juice and cumin. You roast one large bell pepper and blend it up with two cans of chickpeas, lemon juice, a full tablespoon of cumin, cayenne and a little olive oil. I'm pretty good about keeping with seasonal vegetables, but bell peppers are my weakness. In the middle of winter when the only things available that might be local are winter squash and onions, I have an easy time avoiding tomatoes, cucumbers and most of the fruit that's being trucked up from far, far away. Peppers are the one thing that my body tells me to keep buying. This dip doesn't make it any easier to avoid them.

The book recommends serving with pita or grilled Merguez sausages. We had whole wheat pita, radishes, carrots and snap peas (the veggies organic & from California). I'm in love. I love the homey flavor of cumin, and it played well with the heat from the cayenne and the tang from the lemon juice. Filling, but light enough for the late hour of the meal. I happily took it to work for lunch a few days later in the week. I just signed up for my own classes to get ready for school in the fall at NNU, and I'm most definitely going to be keeping some chickpeas in the pantry for busy nights. Next time, I'm attempting my own pita with Canyon Bounty Farm's whole wheat flour to go along. I'm sure it'll be delightful.

Supreme de Poulet a l'Estragon / Chicken Breasts in Tarragon Cream Sauce

This was another that fell under the tried before and not quite as good the second time around. The difference: creme fraiche. The extra tang offered by creme fraiche over heavy cream helped to elevate it before. This particular recipe is one of the variations listed. We made the decision to cook the variations as well as the regular recipes because they generally have enough changes to make it worthwhile. The original in this case is Chicken Breasts with Crayfish.

I cooked this as part of the celebrating the start of Scott's semester back at Boise State. Scott's usually done the recipes involving flambé in the past. More because he likes it. A lot. I got to try my hand this time around. I'm lucky I didn't catch the house on fire. Maybe I'll leave lighting dinner on fire to my husband.

I did make a modification. I wasn't quite feeling like making a rich side dish to accompany something with a full cup of heavy cream, so I chopped up a Japanese sweet potato and a few fingerlings to make life a little easier. I know there may be some who think I'm not being true to cooking through the book, but I was thinking the other day about why we haven't added a grading system to our blog like some of the others I've seen. Aside from my general distaste for rating things that are subjective (I'm notorious for doing everything I can to avoid giving a score to wine we drink, even in a blind tasting setting), I think it also has to do with my treatment of recipes as a good base off which one can make modifications. There is quite a bit of improvisation in our kitchen, and I like to keep it that way. Instead of deciding that a recipe deserves a C, D, or A, I'd rather consider what might be done to improve it. Sometimes, that's as simple as a little sherry vinegar, as with the pork with apples. Other times, it involves addition or substitution of ingredients. I'd much rather be able to think about what kind of adjustment will improve the flavor than write a dish of completely. Obviously, some recipes simply don't match with a person's tastebuds, and I recognize that, but I'm still happier in the kitchen if I give myself some leeway to cook something my way.

How did the modification work? Fingerlings were excellent. I added them right after the wine and the broth, so they were able to cook in the sauce. I'd probably go ahead and roast the Japanese sweet potatoes on their own next time to get a crunchy outside and cook them with thyme or rosemary or another more roundly flavored herb. Tarragon is so fresh and bright. It doesn't give the same savory edge to the sweetness of the potatoes.

The sauce and chicken went very well together, but I've long been a fan of the combination of chicken, white wine & tarragon. I think we might try it out again when the weather warms up again.

Both of us were generally happy with the outcome, but I'll take the extra time to find creme fraiche (a relative rarity here in Idaho) for the next time we make it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Soufflé Moelleux Au Chocolat / Soft-Centered Chocolate Soufflé

Tuesday marked a shift in the Sprague household schedule. Scott started classes again at Boise State, so our lives have become a bit more hectic. Monday through Wednesday nights will be taken up with his class time, and that means it's time for me to work on getting signed up for my correspondence classes. Accordingly, our time for cooking together will be greatly reduced. This is actually why we decided to start cooking through the book. It's an opportunity to make time for each other. Monday night was the last night before the big upheaval, so we had to have one last dinner. We used two recipes. The second (and savory) recipe will follow with a post later. Scott's more diligent about posting than I am. I still have two more to get caught up for the week.

I did two new things in the kitchen this week. I cooked chicken skins to render the fat for a Hungarian dish that wasn’t from the book but reminded me about how much I like paprika. I also made my first soufflé. For as much as I’d been afraid of making one, it turned out to be much easier than I expected. And absolutely delicious. I’m tempted to make another one this weekend, but I’ll do my best to resist. There are two soufflé recipes in the book. We started with the chocolate one, and I’m looking forward to the savory cheese one.

Chocolate is melted with cream and then egg yolks, rum and vanilla extract are stirred in. Egg whites are whipped into a meringue and folded in. I absolutely love having my Kitchen-Aid mixer. It makes whipping whites so much easier than it was using the hand mixer. The decadent looking concoction is then baked at 425 for about 15 minutes. All in all, not long at all to make a dessert for a Monday night.

Not having made a soufflé before, I’m not sure how it compares to others. The directions say to only cook it until the top is set but shakes when the dish is moved. The middle wasn’t entirely set up, but the differences in texture made the whole thing even more delicious. I’m still a little in awe of how easy and delightful it was. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but I’m excited to have a new trick under my belt. I cooked the soufflé for the middle of the time range because our oven tends to run a little hot. I might give it a minute or two more next time, but there were some dark patches on the top that were bordering on burnt. It might be just as well to leave it as we did it before. I’d rather have a rich molten center than a burnt top.

My only problem with this recipe, or perhaps the book in general: the two soufflés call for two different sizes of dishes. We had neither soufflé dish nor something straight-sided that could be used as a substitute. I had to purchase a dish for the chocolate soufflé and will have to buy another one for the cheese soufflé. If only we weren’t already overflowing in the kitchen already… I think it might be time to clear out a shelf in the garage for our extra goodies. I think have to put a Madeleine mold, Kugelhopf mold or tube pan, and a terrine mold on the wishlist. Fortunately, we have an ice cream maker, and I have a sneaking suspicion my little sister might let us borrow her deep fryer. One of these days, we’ll have enough kitchen space to contain all of our gadgets and equipment. A girl can dream, right?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gambas Grillés au Sel de Mer/Seared Prawns With Sea Salt

Happy Saturday!

Simple Saturdays call for simple dishes. We had a bit of a late lunch at one of our favorite haunts--The Front Door--and neither of us were feeling like much for dinner. We narrowed our choices down to two, and the selection at the Co-Op helped make our final decision for us. Aside from the time involved in peeling and deveining shrimp, this was one of the easier recipes from the book.

The gist: peel & devein shrimp, toss with a mixture of cornstarch and sea salt, sauté for 1-2 minutes on each side, and top with freshly ground pepper. Not much to it.

The results were a bit mixed. Some of the shrimp were entirely too salty, drink a half a glass of water to get rid of the saline taste in your mouth too salty. The book recommends using nice sea salt or fleur de sel in this recipe, and we used some Hawaiian salt we had. Scott swears that the solution would be to give the salt a little time with the mortar and pestle. It's also possible that we had shrimp that were too small, but pickings are slim in a landlocked state such as ours. We'll have to give it a try again to see if it works. The shrimp that weren't too salty were delicious. The touch of salt was a perfect complement to the sweet meat of the shrimp. The cornstarch turned into a chewy crust, and the pepper added a nice bit of spice. The only thing we weren't sure about was what kind of sauce would be good to go with them. Buerre blanc? That might add a little delightful decadence.

For tonight's pairing, we actually had two wines. We had a little leftover Mas Carlot Grenache-Syrah that went surprisingly well with the stolen bites as we finished the batches. The main wine of the evening was Joseph Drouhin's 2008 Macon-Villages. Joseph Drouhin wines admittedly hold a bit of a soft spot in our hearts. When we lived in Oregon, Scott worked just down the street from their sister winery Domaine Drouhin (my benchmark for Oregon Pinot Noir). When we went on our honeymoon to Paris and Beaune, Maison Joseph Drouhin was one of the wineries we visited. All bias aside, this bottle is definitely one seeking out. Running around $12 retail, the Macon is light and bright, with pretty apple and lemon flavors and a touch of minerality. It went very well with the sweet/salty shrimp.

We're looking forward to giving the recipe a second shot with some tweaks to work on the saltiness issue. We also tucked the shells from the peeled shrimp in the freezer to go towards fish stock when we need it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Filets de Porc Normande / Pork Tenderloins with Apple

(Scott Here)

Coming home from a long day, we both wanted something we knew would be good. We've made this dish before and really enjoyed it, so time to knock it out, right?

First, we'll play a game called "Why Scott Shouldn't Be Allowed to go to the Store By Himself". I got the list for the grocery store and headed out, but something caught my eye. A beautiful sign on the right hand side of the road with plain red script and white background.

"Liquor Store"

Michelle and I don't drink liquor (though, I will enjoy a fine whiskey every now and then), but as I drove up to the sign I remembered something from the recipe - Calvados - something we didn't have.

Never mind we've made this before with the Apple Jack that's in the sideboard with great success. No, I just KNEW that authentic Calvados would make all the difference. So, in I went through the doors to pick up the only bottle of this stuff they had - at $42.50. You add in the cost of the Champagne we got for this meal and all of a sudden, we're talking some serious dough! Looking through the index of CCF, I have found two more recipes that call for this liquor, so I think I can justify the expense...sort of...


There is not a whole lot that's technical about this dish, aside from tying the two pork tenderloins together with twine. I've seen Alton Brown give a demonstration on this subject from the TV and there are handy frame by frame pictures to follow along with Thomas Keller in Ad Hoc, but actually doing this right without the bacon falling off or using way too much string is a challenge. Lucky for us, Michelle's know-how was tapped and dinner was back on track.

I LOVE to flambé and it was no less fun with $42.50 Calvados. Just thought you would like to know that burning expensive liquor is a gas.

After shoving the bacon-wrapped-pork (doesn't that just sound good?), I went about carmelizing the rest of the apples. Since we possess no apple coring device, I went ahead sliced the apples and carmelized them in wedges instead of the rounds suggested.

This made for a beautiful presentation on the plate when placed atop the pork.

The flavor was very different than the last time we made it - sweeter somehow. We poured over how this could be for about an hour. Then we realized the last time we didn't add the optional cream! I think I prefer this dish minus the cream, but Michelle added some Sherry Vinegar to the final sauce and that helped to give it a little more of a sharper edge, allowing the distinct flavors already in the sauce to be experienced a little more clearly. This is absolutely a comforting meal with a thick, creamy sauce poured over apples and bacon wrapped pork. All in all, great dish for a cold winter evening.

The Champagne picked for this was the Louis Roederer Brut Premier Non Vintage. Since this a creamy, yeasty style of bubbles (but not as much as Pol Roger), it went well with the creamy style of the dish. There is still enough great acidity that comes through, working well with the apples, that this combination was very well matched.

Next up, it could be a number of things, but I think we might start to get into the more "interesting" sides of Country French Cooking soon.

Until then, we'll be doing shots of Calvados.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Carbonnade de Boeuf / Beef with Beer and Onions

Michelle here this time. I cooked the recipe this time, so I was told I got to be the one to write about it. This Flemish dish seemed appropriate for the cold Idaho weather we've been having lately. We followed directions until the treatment of the croutons, when we got a little lazy. Scott had initially planned to make this hearty stew on Tuesday night, but we've had a bit of a bug going 'round the Sprague household & we opted for laziness in the form of the pizza delivery guy instead. In retrospect, it was good that it worked out the way it did.

Cubes of chuck roast cooked for 2+ hours with caramelized onions and dark beer sounded delicious, and the flavor delivered. The only caveat I'd give is to make sure you have plenty of time. While most of the time spent is unattended, it definitely added up to a late meal. Of course, our stove is quite finicky about working properly at anything below medium, and caramelized onions need to be cooked below medium. A cooking time that was supposed to be 15-20 was more along the lines of 30-40.

This definitely wasn't an error in the book. It was all our stove top. The burner serves as more of a warmer than anything else at low temperatures, and I'm always foolish enough to assume this time will be different. I let the carbonnade stew for an extra 45 minutes or so while waiting for Scott to return from band practice. It was worth the long cooking time.

Scott was in love with the flavor. It was perfect, hearty winter comfort food. The onions and beer (Full Sail's Session Black this go-around) came together in a ridiculously rich sauce. The mustard we smeared on the croutons was a bit disjointed with the other flavors, but we didn't follow directions perfectly. I wasn't feeling like eating by the time Scott got home, but the bites I did have were delicious. I'd definitely make it again. Sadly, as a lunch dish the next day, it was a bit too heavy. I think that could have been cut a bit with a thick slice of sourdough.

For the next attempt, I'll make a few adjustments. I love Session Black by itself, but it lacks a little body to be used for a cooking beer. Perhaps a Deschutes Black Butte or a similar sweeter-flavored porter or stout would work better.

There was a touch of a bitter edge that I'm pretty sure could be attributed to the beer. I'd also love to get it done early enough in the evening to follow the directions for the croutons. Broiling them with a coating of hot Dijon mustard and pan sauce sounds divine.

Tonight, we're revisting a pork loin cooked in apples that we did this past fall. It was amazing then, and I'm looking forward to the treat. I suppose we need to get into some of the more daring dishes soon instead of relying on ones we know we'll enjoy, but I'm feeling a bit apprehensive. I'm hoping we're able to count on adventurous friends to share.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Potage Picard au Pois, Cell Phones, and Family

Night two of this project and we've already had a minor setback. This morning, we awoke and started planning today's recipes to tackle. Three were selected and a grocery list was made.

However, we were delayed by Scott's phone which decided to have a stroke and loose all simple motor functions - such as the ability to turn on. Instead, it displays the Verizon logo for about 3 seconds, goes black, and returns with the same logo. This cycle repeats itself until the battery dies or we detach the phone from its power source. Trust us, after several months of putting up with the LG Chocolate's faulty wiring, pulling the plug would be considered a "mercy killing" by anyone.

After a trip to the Verizon center where we were told they couldn't retrieve the phone's info, we drove down to the Front Door to meet with Scott's parents who had driven down from McCall for the wedding of one of his old high school classmates. The Front Door has some of the best beer and pizza in town, but this day the pizza didn't exactly sit very well with Michelle and she didn't feel like eating a bunch of rich French food.

So, we opened the soup chapter, saw the Split Pea Soup, threw away the old grocery list, and wrote up a new one that we hoped would cure an aching belly.

Scott's mom always had a can of Campbell's Split Pea Soup in the cupboard when he was growing up. Many summer weekends would find a young Scott coming indoors from adventures on his BMX bike to the breakfast bar holding a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of this soup. There is just something homey about this kind of meal that transports him back to the days of his youth.

With that in mind, and a bed-ridden wife at home, Scott collects the ingredients from the store and hurries home to begin the abbreviated, but very important second day of the project.

For anyone who has made this soup before, it isn't the most challenging recipe to follow. You soak a pound of split peas for an hour, drain, and toss them into a soup pot on the stove with five cups of water, 5oz of bacon, pepper, and a few sprigs of thyme.

Cover, bring this pot to a boil, then back the heat off until it is just simmering...for about an hour and a half. Check on it here and there to make sure it isn't drying out and add some salt about halfway through, but just let it go!

The most interesting part of this comes at the end when you fish out and set aside the bacon and throw away the sprigs of thyme.

You take the mixture, run it through a food processor, and then strain it so all the fibers and...well...gunk...doesn't get into the soup.

Scott has only attempted home made Split Pea Soup once before and this last step wasn't part of the process. Needless to say, it was like the aftermath of a wood chipper made its way into the bowl.

Texture-wise, this was a home run - rich and elegant all in one! We fried up some cubes of bread in oil to act as croutons (Scott enjoyed, Michelle didn't as much), and this ended up being exactly what both our taste buds and stomachs craved for the evening.

It's obvious this recipe is much more mature than the Campbell's canned version enjoyed those many years ago, but the combination of parents and Split Pea Soup in the same day is enough to make Scott a happy guy for the evening.

Friday, January 1, 2010

First Recipe - Oeufs Mayonnaise

We thought we'd kick this off with something relatively simple - hard boiled eggs with homemade mayonnaise.

Plus, we had all the ingredients here and didn't have to brave the crazy wind and rain by going to the store.

Anne recommends using this as a cold first course, but we decided that we'd enjoy a "light" dinner and something a little out of the ordinary. Eggs and Mayonnaise? Really?

Well, we shouldn't be too surprised. Scott works with a Frenchman from Cannes who enjoys mayonnaise on fries every time they take a supplier out to lunch. However, we always think of the crappy white stuff that is Miracle Whip when people mention mayonnaise.

And what we ended up making was NOT Miracle Whip.

While we have in our possession a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, a food processor, and a hand mixer, we opted for the tried and true "mixing by hand" option here. Adding the egg yolks, Dijon mustard and vinegar were a snap, but mixing was a little tedious...especially when we had to add the Olive Oil one drop at a time for two teaspoons. Eventually, it all came together and looked amazing!

One thing we did here is use Sparrow Lane's Tarragon Champagne Vinegar to give it some more flavor and it worked really, really well.

We halved the hard boiled eggs and spread the mayo on, just as Anne said. We also took the last egg, separated the white and yolk, chopped up the white and sprinkled the bits on the mayo covered eggs, AND put the yolk through a strainer so that it made these cool tiny strings of hard yolk that we could dust the eggs with. The presentation ended up pretty nice, as you can see.

The flavor was good. The texture was a little lacking, but Anne does say that watercress could be used to cure that problem. Overall, not a bad way to enjoy the first recipe!

We pulled a bottle of Jacquesson 731 to celebrate the kickoff of this project. Champagne is one of our not-so-guilty pleasures that we take extreme delight in. This wine was released several years ago and is perfect today. There is a bit of butterscotch flavor which mingles well with the apple and baking spice notes. A superb bottling and it looks like we'll have to grab some 732 before it sells out.

It plays well with the eggs, and while not a perfect pairing, they still bring out interesting flavors from each other.

One down, many...many more to go.


Happy New Year!

For the duration of our relationship, France has been somewhat of beacon - lighting the way for our gastronomical endevors. Scott was introduced to fine wine during his first trip to Paris in 2002. Upon meeting Michelle, he decided to impress her by cooking filet mignon and based on the end result, he feels lucky she is still with him. Since then, we have collected many French recipes and cookbooks and have tried, sometimes with success and sometimes with embarrassing results, to cook and enjoy the food we love.

For our honeymoon in 2007, we made the journey to France together in order to experience the wines and food close up and in person. We made Beaune our destination and enjoyed visits to three remarkable wineries and ate several breath-taking meals which still haunt our dreams to this day.

Michelle is a substitute teacher in the Boise School District. This spring she will start the process of becoming a certified elementary school teacher. She has her degree in Chemistry from the College of Idaho and has enjoyed cooking with her mother since she can remember. Her mother owns Lazy Dog Gardens of Caldwell, Idaho and most of our produce comes from the family farm (lucky us!). Because we are essentially the Lazy Dog Gardens Test Kitchen, we can absolutely recommend the quality of the food being grown there.

Scott has always enjoyed good food and started cooking when he was just a wide eyed child, mastering buttermilk pancakes from the Betty Crocker Cookbook at an early age. Working at both the Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant and the Bistro 45 gave him an understanding of the importance of wine as it relates to meals. His two year stint at Archery Summit Winery allowed him to understand the winemaking process first hand. He has completed the first two levels of the International Sommelier Guild and currently works for a distributor in Boise, Idaho.

Last year, Scott spotted Anne Willan's Country Cooking of France at a bookstore and couldn't put it down. After several weeks, Michelle surprised Scott with the book and it has had a wonderful life on our bookshelf. Sure, we've cooked some recipes from it here and there, but the potential has yet to be realized. This is a book which won two James Beard awards in 2008 for crying out loud!

So, with that in mind, we will set out to cook every recipe in this remarkable book and we hope you will enjoy reading about our adventures with this project. Feel free to leave comments and tell us what is on your mind as you join us for this journey of food, wine, friends and family.


The Spragues