Friday, March 30, 2012


March 25, 2012
Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread
Quick and Easy Cassoulet
Green Salad
2007 Shiloh Road Chardonnay

I first learned about cassoulet from a Cook's Illustrated article a few years ago. This traditional French country dish, also called "French Pork and White Bean Casserole" by Cook's, can take days to make and includes beans, broth, aromatics, and duck confit. The thick, rich consistency of the casserole  comes in part from a bread crumb topping which is cooked until crisp then pushed down into the stew; this process is repeated multiple times during a long, slow cooking process.

I remember just a few things from the cassoulet I made using the Cook's Illustrated recipe. The first is that makes an excellent meal and excellent left overs, I have very fond memories of the dish. The second is that it makes way too much food for two. The basis for the recipe is a pound of dried cannellini beans (white kidney beans). As much as we liked it, we grew tired of eating it before it was all gone.

A few months ago, Chef John of Food Wishes published a recipe for a "quick and easy" cassoulet and I finally got around to trying it.  Instead of a pound of dried beans, the recipe uses canned beans. Chicken thighs and pork sausage provide the meat in place of duck confit. As described in the video recipe, I looked for a spicy garlic pork sausage and chose a Cajun sausage with Guy Fieri's name on it. The package contained four 3-ounce sausages and the recipe called for 8 ounces. After sampling one and finding it to be very spicy I chose to use just half of the package, freezing the other half for another day. Given the spiciness of the sausage I also left out the cayenne pepper which Food Wishes added. The topping included not only bread crumbs (which I bought at the supermarket)  but also grated parmigiano-regiano cheese and butter. This was crisped under the broiler, pushed down into the casserole, and the process was repeated but leaving some of the crisp topping intact the second time. The topping soaked up the liquid remaining, nicely thickening the sauce in the casserole.

To accompany the cassoulet I made sourdough bread using my long-ignored starter. It had a layer of alcohol on top and was an unappealing grey color. Following instructions from King Arthur, I mixed the alcohol back in with the starter, then fed it with 1 c. flour and ½ c. of water, stirred it together, and left it to sit at room temperature for about eight hours. It came back to life nicely, bubbling and doubling in volume. I combined 3 c. flour (a mixture of bread and all purpose flour, because I didn't have enough bread flour) with the starter and left it to rise at room temperature for 3 hours. Because it was chilly in the house I set it next to a tea kettle full of hot water for a while. The dough was then placed in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning, after about eleven hours of rising, the dough was removed from the refrigerator and the remaining flour was mixed with some salt and sugar and added to the dough. I kneaded it in the mixer for about ten minutes and let it rise for about three hours, using the hot tea kettle trick again.

The next step was to gently divide the dough in half and shape it into two loaves. This I could not do as the dough was too wet and sticky. I added a little flour and kneaded it into the dough so I could handle it, forming loaves which were then left to rise.  After three hours the loaves were ready to bake after slitting the top and spritzing with warm water, presumably to help form a better crust.

The bread was certainly more tangy than the loaves made with the King Arthur recipe that mixes starter with yeast. However, the color seemed a little off, being more tan than golden (though the bottom of the loaves looked better) and the crumb was a little dense, with few large holes. While a perhaps a little dense it had a nice flavor, maybe it should have risen more and the handling that was required to form the loaves probably had an effect.

I don't remember enough of the Cook's Illustrated version of cassoulet to compare the two. However, this recipe produced a very nice casserole which was just the thing for dinner on a rainy winter Sunday. I am sure that it was easier to make. From start to finish it took over an hour to prepare, and less than ninety minutes. The quantity also seems better suited to us, it should make for three, maybe four, meals all told, not enough for us to grow tired of it. The sausage was too spicy for our tastes so next time I will look for something a little milder.

Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread from King Arthur's Flour
Quick and Easy Cassoulet from Food Wishes

The beef stew served us for three more meals, and was delicious. I ate it with an open-faced peanut butter and butter sandwich. This seems odd even to me, but for some reason I think that peanut butter and beef stew go really well together. The recipe says that the stew will keep for 2 days in the refrigerator but this seems very conservative. We kept it there quite a bit longer than that with no problem, so I wonder why the say that. Perhaps liability issues?

Kitchen tip
America's Test Kitchen posted a short article on how to cut down recipes when you're cooking for two. They suggest for many recipes you should make the full amount and freeze some for leftovers, which is my favorite approach, too. I was surprised by their informative discussion about using smaller pans when you cook, though. Check it out!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A hearty winter meal

March 18, 2012
Old-Fashioned Beef Stew
Almost No-Knead Bread
Avalon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
Marionberry Pie a la mode

It has been some weeks since I'd prepared a hearty winter meal. Even in California, winter is a time for soups and stews and braised meats, for tenderizing tough, flavorful cuts of meats with long slow cooking times. While winter is fast giving way to spring, it has been grey, cool, and rainy of late, perfect weather for a stew.

The Cook's Illustrated cookbook has many recipes for beef stew. I chose a simple one with only basic ingredients and only three steps. (Not a recipe like the one that was deliciously lampooned in this video.) Step two provided an option to stop before the stew was done: I could do most of the cooking on Saturday and finish the stew on Sunday. This worked out perfectly as I had more time to cook on Saturday than I did on Sunday. Moreover, spending a night in the refrigerator would only improve the flavor of the stew.

I went grocery shopping on Saturday morning, going to Whole Foods for the meat. The recipe called for a three pound "boneless beef chuck-eye roast". I have never found this cut of beef in the store and the butchers don't seem to be familiar with it, so I just ask for chuck roast; the remaining ingredients we either had on hand or I got them at the supermarket.  I spent about an hour in the kitchen preparing the stew. Much of this time was spent butchering the meat: removing the hard fat and much of the silver skin, and cutting it into 1½" pieces. The meat was browned in a cast iron dutch oven, onions were sweated, and garlic, wine, chicken broth, bay leaves, and thyme were added. The dutch oven was placed in a 300° oven for an hour to simmer. Potatoes and carrots were added and simmered for another hour. The recipe called for small red potatoes, peeled and halved. Small potatoes are a pain to peel, so I just halved them.  At this point the stew was cooled to room temperature, transferred to a lighter dutch oven, and refrigerated. On Saturday evening I also made bread dough using my go-to recipe for Almost No-Knead Bread.

On Sunday, after a long training walk for the Big Sur 21-Miler, I briefly kneaded the bread dough, shaped it, proofed it, and baked it in the cast iron dutch oven. I removed the stew from the refrigerator, reset the already-hot oven to 300°, and put in the stew to reheat. It took about an hour to come to a simmer. I placed it then on the stove and added the parsley and peas and adjusted the seasoning. After a few more minutes it was ready to serve along with the fresh crusty bread and some of the same wine which graced the stew.

For dessert I had purchased a half Marionberry pie. Funny, when it was sliced the fruit looked and tasted a lot like cherries and not at all like Marionberries.

I think stews should be thick and soups thin. This was a good stew with a thick hearty sauce. The beef was tasty and tender though a little chewy, it could have perhaps stewed a little while longer. It made for a good meal on a winter's evening with leftovers to the coming week.

The quiche kept well in the refrigerator. To serve we generally warmed it gently in the microwave. It gave off a little water but was still good to eat, though the crust was a little soggy.

Old Fashioned Beef Stew, Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, 2011, page 112
Almost No-Knead BreadCook's Illustrated Cookbook, 2011, page 594

Note: You may need to be a member to see the recipe on an America Test Kitchen web site. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012


March 11, 2012
Classic Quiche Lorraine
Spinach strawberry salad
Cinnamon blueberry toast
Vella Chardonnay
Chocolate Chubbies with vanilla ice cream

Caryn was home from college this week for spring break. When I was thinking about Sunday dinner I texted her, before she left school, to find out if she would be having dinner with us.  Her boyfriend, Alex, lives nearby and her plans were still somewhat in flux so it can be hard to predict where she'll be on any particular day. I was pleased when she answered yes and asked her what she would like. "Ummmm, something delicious", she replied, "A quiche perhaps." I had never made quiche before but I was interested in trying. I also asked if she had gotten around to making Chocolate Chubbies; she and Alex had been wanting to make them since seeing my earlier blog post. She hadn't so that settled the dessert course.

I found a basic recipe for quiche that could be easily adapted to be meatless (Caryn is vegetarian) and which I would be able to make without a large investment of time. That was especially true since I wasn't going  to make the crust from scratch. We had purchased frozen crusts, they come in packages of two, when making chocolate pie a few weeks ago, and so still had one in the freezer. I had been thinking I should make another chocolate pie but now that will have to wait for another time.

The recipe called for cheese and bacon to be spread on the crust. The the custard mixture (eggs, milk, cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg) is then added and the quiche baked. It's pretty simple. I cooked bacon on the side for Diane and me and shredded gruy√®re to sprinkle on the crust. I wasn't sure how to handle the frozen crust. The recipe called for starting with a partially baked and warm crust. The instructions for the frozen crust, though, said to start with a frozen crust when making quiche and that is what I did. This may be why it took 15 minutes longer to bake than the recipe stated and why the bottom crust wasn't baked thoroughly. We ate the quiche warm.

To accompany the quiche we had some delicious cinammon toast. The bread comes from a local bakery but it has become so popular that it is now sold in supermarkets. This is the first time I've had the blueberry cinnamon bread and I thought the berries added a nice extra touch of sweetness. I first saw their cinnamon bread in a local farmer's market and then later in a locally owned grocery store. Only recently has it made it to the supermarket. I've never visited the bakery itself, it is not nearby (San Jose is a big town), but I should. Based on the quality of the cinnamon bread they're sure to have other delectable items worth trying.

We had received a box of fresh produce from Farm Fresh to You a few days earlier and Caryn took advantage of it to make a nice salad. It included spinach and strawberries from the box to which she added sunflower seeds, Cougar Gold cheese (from Washington State University), and balsamic vinegar.

The Chocolate Chubbies were served for dessert with Breyers Natural Vanilla ice cream. I skipped the pecans because of their cost and used just walnuts ... not quite as good but not bad either.

Caryn was disappointed a little in the quiche, I think. She has been eating quiche from a bakery where she goes to school and it always includes vegetables, which this one was lacking. I intentionally chose to make a simple quiche since it was my first time. However, the meal as a whole was very good, thanks in no small part to her salad making. It was nice to have her home for a while and we miss her now that she's returned to college.

Classic Quiche Lorraine, Cook's Illustrated Cookbook, 2011, page 546
Chocolate Chubbies from Serious Eats

Food for thought?
Round, or square ... what is the best shape for a wooden spoon? Read Chef John's thoughts and watch the fun video at Food Wishes.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

No knives required

March 4, 2012
Seven Minute Casserole
Panera Country Bread
Vella Merlot

This was a hard meal to plan, but an easy one to prepare. If cooking and eating were all we had to do in life, we could prepare elaborate feasts using the finest local ingredients all of the time. But we do other things than just eat and drink. Environment and circumstance influence our dining decisions. Our health, the weather, time constraints, work, hobbies, chores, family ... all of these and more affect what we cook and eat.

You've probably had some one tell you they were sick and tired. On Sunday, that was me. I had spent sixteen hours the previous day at the Silicon Valley Destination ImagiNation tournament. It was a good day: we helped over 700 kids become more creative problem solvers, but I was tired. I even took a nap, welcome albeit involuntary. On top of that I had a cold. The cold didn't affect me too much Saturday, fortunately, but I was really feeling it on Sunday. I had little energy and no appetite. Since I wasn't hungry and nothing I thought of preparing for dinner was appealing, it took me a long time to make a decision. (The same thing can happen when I am too hungry when I find it hard to make any decisions.)

I finally decided on a simple dish that Diane introduced many years ago and which we enjoy regularly. (The "box of frozen peas" in the ingredients list gives you an idea how old this recipe is ... I used 7 oz of peas but I don't really know how much came in a box.) It's not gourmet, not fresh, and includes several prepackaged ingredients. But I think you can say it's a comfort food for us. In a way it's also like popcorn. Popcorn is a convenient way to eat butter. Seven Minute Casserole is a convenient way to eat bottled Worcestershire Sauce and canned French Fried Onion Rings.

I don't know where the "seven minutes" comes from. It took 50 minutes from the time I entered to kitchen until dinner was served. Most of that time was hands-off cooking. No knives and no cutting are involved in the preparation. It's all just open, measure, pour, and simmer. Diane cooks this dish with the lid on in order to steam the rice. I leave the lid off and the rice seems to cook just as well, maybe a little slower.

I served it with "Country Bread" that I bought at Panera. I've enjoyed eating breakfast and lunch there but this is the first time I bought any of their bread. It was good. I didn't know until eating that it was a sourdough, it was just labelled "Country Bread". It went well with the casserole.

7-minute Casserole

1 lb ground beef
1/3 cup rice
1 can French Fried Onion Rings
1 box frozen peas
1 package onion gravy mix
1/4 tsp garlic salt
1 1/2 cups water

Brown beef and pour off any grease
Blend in gravy mix, garlic salt, uncooked rice, and water
Bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes
Stir in peas and simmer until peas and rice are ready

Serve with Worcestershire or Soy Sauce topped with the Onion Rings

Kitchen tip
Our kids liked to eat their soup with the spoons they use in Chinese restaurants, so we still have several in the silverware drawer. I use them all the time, but not to eat soup. Think of them as little ladles. For this meal I used one to remove the excess grease after browning the beef and to taste the casserole when checking for seasoning. They're also handy when transferring small amounts of powder or liquid between containers.

Diane thought the meatloaf had improved with time, I still wasn't very impressed. We reheated slices on the stove and served them after seeing this done on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Testing a Test Kitchen recipe

February 26, 2012
Meatier Meatloaf
Baked potatoes
Three Wishes Cabernet Sauvignon

A few years ago I signed up to be a recipe tester for Cook's Illustrated. All recipes are tested by a panel of home cooks before they get published in the magazine. I receive a new recipe to test about once a month. After preparing the recipe it takes only a few minutes to complete a short on-line survey. To help me complete the survey I take notes in the kitchen which I refer to when answering the questions and providing comments. There is no obligation to test every recipe that they send, so I decide which ones to test based on the recipe, the ingredients required, how much time I have, etc.

Last week I received a test recipe for "Meatier Meatloaf". That sounded good to me, it wasn't too time consuming to make, and the ingredients were readily available, so I ditched my original plan to try a new recipe for cassoulet in order to try this new recipe for meatloaf.

Frankly, I don't think I did a very good job as a tester as I strayed further from the recipe than I should have. For example, it called for 1 pound of ground pork and 1 pound of ground beef. The prepackaged ground pork at the supermarket is 1.2 pounds (I hate it that they add the extra 0.2 pounds just to boost their sales) so I used 1.2 pounds of ground pork and 0.8 pounds of ground beef. (The ground beef package was 1.8 pounds, we'll use the other pound in tacos.) It called for dried porcini mushrooms, I used dried chanterelles (because that's what the store had). Perhaps the biggest issue was not letting the meatloaf rest after it came out of the oven. I got a late start late fixing dinner and it wasn't ready until 8 PM (it took about 2 hours to prepare and bake the meatloaf) and by then I was too hungry to wait another 20 minutes.

The side dishes were easy to pick. Since potatoes bake for the same length of time at the same temperature as meatloaf they are a common accompaniment. They're better than potatoes backed in the microwave, especially the crispy skin that you only get in the oven, so you need to take advantage of the situation when it arises. And peas are our go-to vegetable ... always frozen, never canned.

I had intended to make bananas foster for dessert, but by the time dinner was done, so was I, and this interesting dessert will have to wait for another day, probably soon.

Diane and I enjoyed the meatloaf and this dinner, late though it was. So what did I report on the survey? I made a number of comments but two were most important. First, I thought that the meatloaf was good, but if there are recipes for meatloaf that is just as good but which take less effort. Second, meatloaf is comfort food because of the memories that it evokes, because it is familiar. The tangy mustard glaze, though good, evoked no memories for me as I am used to meat loaf being served with a ketchup-based glaze. It was thus less comforting than it might have been.

We had the French Silk Chocolate pie as dessert three more times during the week. It was kept covered in the refrigerator and didn't seem to suffer from the passage of time, it remained good and the crust didn't absorb an appreciable amount of liquid over the course of 5 days or so before it was gone.