A balanced and pleasurable life

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Yesterday was Bastille Day and while there is not a drop of French blood that runs though my veins (as far as I know) I couldn’t let the holiday go by unnoticed. I am a self-proclaimed Francophile, after all. I’m not sure how the French celebrate this historic day in their country. I would hope it’s a little more respectful than how the majority of Americans celebrate our Independence Day. This year, Kevin and I headed down to the beach in Chicago to meet up with some friends before having a BBQ later in the afternoon. We arrived at the most popular of the lakeshore beaches and were shocked at the amount of people gathered there. Just as we were searching for a place to settle a voice came over the sound system and said, “Happy 4th of July North Avenue Beach!” People starting cheering and raising their Solo cups high into the air. Then the National Anthem started playing and not a soul took notice. Everybody went back to partying and cooking out while the American flag waved like a lonely forgotten banner up above the restaurant/bar on the boardwalk. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who stopped what they were doing and took the few moments to honor our flag and the brave people who fought for our independence. I hope I’m wrong in thinking I was the only one but I didn’t notice anybody else. It made me ashamed of my fellow Americans gathered on the beach to celebrate our day of independence.

I’ve never lived in France but I respect the history and the battle for French independence. Aaaaand it’s always good to have an excuse to have a dinner party. My girlfriends and I were planning on meeting for dinner anyway and since Kevin was out of town on business I suggesting having dinner at my house. What was on the menu? French food, of course! I consulted the recipes of Bon Appetit and put together the menu for the evening. When I came across the recipe for Roast Provencal Chicken I knew that would be our main dish. Last year, my best friend Jenny went to France with her husband and his family. She brought me back a jar full of fragrant herbes de Provence and I knew this was the perfect opportunity to use some of it. The chicken came out so moist and flavorful! Since potatoes go so well with roast chicken there wasn’t a question as to what one of our side dishes would be. This was my second attempt at making this Crispy Potato Cake with Garlic and Parsley. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing wrong but both attempts have not turned out the way this cake is supposed to. It never ever sticks together and I have ended up simply piling the potato slices together after turning them out of the baking dish. It just completely falls apart. C’est la vie. It still comes out tasking pretty yummy but it is definitely not a crispy cake. To me, leeks are such a quintessential French vegetable. Maybe it’s because I first became aware of their potential after reading French Women Don’t Get Fat. I love that book, by the way, and suggest it to both men and women alike. Forget that the word “women” is in the title. It really is a lifestyle book for anybody wishing to create for themselves a balanced and pleasurable life. Go read it if you already haven’t. Anyway, I made the quick and easy Leeks in Vinaigrette to add to the meal. I could have made a trip to my favorite local bakery to get a loaf of French bread but I wanted to make something a bit more special instead. I decided to try my hand at Classic Gougeres. I had never made this before and followed the Bon Appetit recipe to a tee. Somehow the batter DID NOT turn out the way it was supposed to. I used the electric mixer like they suggested and everything. Not wanting to give up on them I  made up my mind to consult the queen of French cuisine. I went to the shelf and took down my copy of Juila Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her recipe was slightly different (more butter, less flour) and it instructed me to use a wooden spoon and my elbow grease to get the batter to the desired texture. By God, Julia was right. The dough came out perfect and the cheese puffs were delicious. Last but not least, was a rustic Raspberry-Hazelnut Galette for dessert. This dessert was perfect and came out exactly as it should have. What a desirable way to end the meal.

Sitting at the table decorated with a simple vase of fresh French lavender and set with my grandma’s china and silver we popped open a bottle of Cotes du Rhone and toasted to the long-gone spirits of the Revolution and the incredible stand they took for a better life. My girlfriends are the best and totally indulged me with this excuse for a dinner party. Hmm, perhaps I should consider cooking in honor of other countries throughout the year…

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Flakiest, tastiest, butteriest crust

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Spring is nowhere in sight here in Chicago. This last week we were back to negative degree wind chills and several inches of snow. I made a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week and was feeling a little souped out. But I still craved the kind of soul warming fare reserved for snowy winter nights. Then like a gift from the culinary fairies the new issue of Bon Appetit arrived in my mailbox. On the cover was the most delicious looking photo of short rib pot pies. Coincidentally, Kevin and I had recently been to Billy Sunday and had split a mouth-watering short rib pot pie while sipping cocktails at the bar. I had a recipe in my hands, cold weather outside and a hungry belly. Why not try to whip up this pot pie on my own?

The pot of meat simmered on the stove for 3 hours filling the house with such an intense beefy smell that I couldn’t wait to dig in. The recipe says to stir in order to break up the short ribs but I scooped the meat out, shredded it with a fork and then added it back to the pot. The stirring wasn’t doing the job. Besides the ribs, the only other filling the recipe calls for is pearl onions. Granted, the only pot pies I grew up eating were chicken but they were always stuffed with a variety of vegetables. In this case, I happened to have carrots in the fridge and peas in the freezer so I threw those in. You can never have too many vegetables, especially in a pot pie. Despite the very satisfying and incredibly tasty filling, the one word that made my tastebuds want to scream with pleasure was “crust”. Crust. CRUST! God bless the Bon Appetit chefs for giving me this recipe for pot pie crust. I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical when the recipe called for equal parts butter and vegetable shortening. Shortening? Why on earth would I need shortening when butter is available? Butter is supposed to be best, yes? In the case of this dough, shortening was the magic ingredient that elevated this crust to something of mythical proportions. I have never used shortening. This was my first time…and it won’t be my last! Since I was at Whole Foods to buy the short ribs I went ahead and bought the organic butter flavored vegetable shortening there, as well. I don’t think all shortening is butter flavored but I would advice you not to use anything but. What came out of that oven was the flakiest, tastiest, butteriest crust I have ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth. I thought the crust would be second string to the short rib filling and boy was I wrong. This was one food moment I was not expecting. It’s such a joy and relief when a recipe you’ve never tried before comes out better than you could have hoped.

 

Happy, turkey-loving family

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Happy Thanksgiving! The week leading up to the big holiday was a busy one for me. My boyfriend Kevin and I happily hosted his family at our place for Thanksgiving this year. If I wasn’t prepping a dish I was cleaning something all week long. I’m no stranger to cooking for a group of people or hosting a get-together but this was the first time that the particular group of people were my dear love’s family. If there’s a group you want to impress and make sure is happy it’s the people your significant other loves more than you. This had to turn out as a great success. It’s safe to say that I think it was. Praise the good Lord above!

To be honest, the only thing I was really nervous about was the turkey. We bought a 16 pound turkey and I had never roasted a bird that big before. Would I dry it out? Would it be lacking flavor of any kind? Would the family regret having allowed me to host? I did a bunch of research on the best way to roast a turkey. I know I didn’t want a bird that had already been brined. I worried about everything coming out too salty. I also wasn’t thrilled about brining the dang thing myself. The thought of ice chests in bathtubs and constantly changing out water, etc did not sit well with me. I decided on a dry brine. I considered it a happy medium to achieve flavorful meat without the messy job of a wet brine. We ordered our turkey from an organic farm in Wisconsin so I feel like I already had a head start on good quality meat. Kevin’s step-father is from Ireland and grew up eating turkeys that they killed themselves. He leaned over to me and said my turkey was as good as any he grew up eating. To me, that was validation enough that I had done my turkey proud.

Taking from Alton Brown’s ultimate turkey recipe and several tips from Bon Appetit and Butterball’s website, I concocted my own recipe that resulted in a fabulous bird that was both flavorful and moist. The dry brine recipe I took from the most recent November issue of Bon Appetit. I left that on for 7 hours before rinsing and thoroughly drying the turkey. After that I gave it a good rub down with lots of butter. Butter, butter everywhere. I sprinkled it very generously with salt and pepper. Salt and pepper everywhere. Being from the southern part of the U.S. I never had dressing that was cooked inside the bird. So instead of stuffing the turkey with dressing (stuffing, dressing…tomAAto, tomAHto) I put in some of my favorite flavors. Half of an onion, half of a head of garlic, half of a lemon, and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and sage. I roasted it at 425 degrees for just 30 minutes. Just enough time to let the breast get nice and toasty. Then I lowered the heat to 325 degrees, covered the breast with aluminum foil, and added a few cups of chicken stock to the bottom of the roasting pan. I roasted it for 4 hours, only basting it twice. Some say to baste every 40min-1 hour but all of that opening and closing of the oven just lets out the heat that actually cooks the turkey which seems counter productive. The skin was crispy, the meat was moist (even the breast!) and everyone was happy. Happy, turkey-loving family at our table! I was thankful for that.

Did I mention I baked my own pies? Another first for me. My friend bought me the Hoosier Mama cookbook as a thank you gift back in October and I baked the pumpkin and pecan pies from the book. Maybe they weren’t as good as the ones I could have bought from the Hoosier Mama pie shop but honestly, I think the only difference was that mine didn’t look as pretty as theirs. The crusts even came out tasting the same. Huge accomplishment! If I sound like I’m giving myself a pat on the back it’s because I am. Haha. I was proud of myself for having managed to prepare a great meal for a group of people Kevin loves and that I’m beginning to love myself. I don’t have family here in Chicago and his family has welcomed me with open arms. A kick-butt meal aside, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about anyway?