La cucina dell’amore

Finally, I have found a recipe that I would, without hesitation, employ to seduce someone with a home-cooked meal. Didn’t get the chance to use it this Valentine’s Day, but maybe next year!

Amid all the online clamor about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie premiere this weekend, I came across a cookbook called “Fifty Shades of Chicken.” Truly, it redefines the “food porn” genre with both its language and its photography. It is intended to be a parody of the best-selling book, so the overwrought writing style is similar (or so I understand; I haven’t read any of the books in the “Fifty Shades” trilogy and don’t plan to see any of the movies made from same).

50-shades-chicken

Its Amazon listing includes a sample recipe for Dripping Thighs (if this and other highly suggestive language offends you, don’t click any of the links in this post and definitely do not watch the video on the book’s website), which I made tonight.

The chicken thighs are baked after being bathed in a sticky, sweet, savory sauce of onions in reduced white wine seasoned with cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, enriched with butter, and sweetened with honey. This unusual flavor combination is an over-the-fence home run. I regret that I had but a single stomach to devote to the meal, it was so very good. My reaction while eating it was not unlike Julia Child’s when she first tasted Sole Meunière.

If you’re nervous about clicking through to Amazon or the book’s website, here is the recipe. We can call it “Seduction Chicken,” if you prefer.

Ingredients
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry with paper towels
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp plus pinch coarse kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 c white wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs honey

Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, toss the chicken, garlic, 1 tsp salt, and pepper together.
  3. In a small saucepan, simmer together onion, wine, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt until most of the liquid has evaporated, 15 to 20 minutes. Add honey and butter and stir until butter is melted.
  4. Spoon the mixture over the chicken and toss well. Spread thighs, onion mixture, and any juices onto a baking sheet. Bake until chicken is no longer pink and onions are meltingly tender and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

I had a 2-pound package of chicken thighs, so I doubled the recipe, but otherwise made it as written. I found that “simmering” the sauce on low heat won’t get the job done in 15 or 20 minutes; you’ll need to either raise the temp to medium-high or wait a whole lot longer for the wine to reduce. Also, I was a little worried about the onions burning at 450 degrees, so I turned the oven down to 400 halfway through and they were not really caramelized but were definitely “meltingly tender.”

I’ve made some mighty tasty dishes in my day, but this one is miles ahead of all the rest. I can hardly wait to start working my way through the entire cookbook.

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Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme

I was cruising around on YouTube the other day not looking for anything in particular when I ran across this “French Chef” episode in which Julia Child holds up a big flat fish by its tail and flaps it at the camera as she warbles, “see how to turn this denizen of the deep into Sole Bonne Femme, today on The French Chef!” How could I refuse an invitation like that?

I watched the clip a couple of times, taking notes the second time. I decided it sounded “awfully good,” as Julia would say, so I decided to make it. A quick Googling for Sole Bonne Femme recipes didn’t find one that sounded at all like hers, so I started from scratch and wrote the recipe myself. I hope I have done a faithful job of recording exactly how she did it.

Watch the video first to find out why it’s called “Bonne Femme,” enjoy Julia’s inimitable cheery delivery as well as her signature live-TV foibles such as snuffing out a flaming potholder, shake your head at her cheerful disregard for potential raw seafood cross-contamination in the kitchen, then come back and print off the recipe so you can make it, too.

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme (Fillets of Sole with Mushrooms)

Ingredients
1 to 1.5 lb sole fillets (9-12, depending on size)
1/4 to 1/2 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (about 2 c)
1/2 c shallots, minced
1/2 c fresh parsley, minced
1/2 c dry white wine or slightly diluted dry vermouth
8 oz bottled clam juice or fish stock (1 c)
2.5 Tbs butter
2.5 Tbs flour
2 Tbs crème fraîche or heavy cream
Kosher salt and white pepper
.
Preparation
Fish
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine chopped mushrooms, about 2 Tbs minced shallots and 2 Tbs minced parsley. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour into a heavily buttered shallow baking dish that is both rangetop- and oven-proof.
  3. Lay fillets glossy side down on cutting board. Lightly score the fillets with shallow diagonal cuts, then cut each in half down the center line. Season with salt and white pepper and fold fillets over in half the long way.
  4. Layer the folded fillets in a crisscross chevron pattern over the mushroom mixture in the baking pan. Lightly season tops with salt and white pepper and a small handful of minced shallots.
  5. Pour wine/vermouth and clam juice or stock over the fillets until they are nearly but not quite covered. Bring the pan to a simmer on the stove top (2-3 minutes).
  6. Remove pan from heat and cover it with a heavily buttered sheet of waxed or parchment paper to keep the fish moist. Place pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 8-9 minutes or until fish is milky looking and springy (if it’s flaky, it’s overdone).
  7. Remove pan from oven, cover with a metal lid, and drain as much juice as possible into a large sauce pan. Set the baking pan aside, cover and keep warm.
Sauce
  1. Set the sauce pan with the baking juices over high heat and boil until mixture is reduced to about 1 cup (6-7 minutes).
  2. While the juices boil, make a roux with butter and flour. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes; do not allow it to color. Take roux off heat and allow it to cool for about a minute.
  3. Add the reduced baking juices to the roux, place pan over medium heat, and whisk until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds. Thin the sauce with crème fraîche or heavy cream. Pour off any more collected baking juices into the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add dairy as needed to achieve desired consistency (sauce should be thick but pourable).
  4. Pour sauce over fish and sprinkle with the rest of the minced parsley. [Option: Top with a thin layer of shredded cheese such as Swiss or Gruyère and place under broiler until cheese lightly browns.] Serve with rice or potatoes. Serves 4.

Sole Dugléré (Fillets of Sole with Tomatoes) variation: Substitute an equal amount of tomato concassé for the minced mushrooms. All other ingredients and steps are the same.

I don’t usually do cooking photo essays because food photography is not my strong suit, but here is how I made this.

mise-en-place

All my ingredients lined up and ready to go. The sole fillets were frozen; I recommend using fresh. I needed to use only one of the shallots and only three of those big mushrooms.

seasoning

The finished mushroom-shallot-parsley seasoning. Just a word of caution: white pepper comes out of the shaker really fast, and it is so easy to use too much. This is a powerful seasoning, so use a very light hand with the shaker if you don’t have a grinder (which I don’t, yet, but I soon will).

seasoning-in-pan

The seasoning mixture in my heavily buttered saute pan, which I chose because it is shallow and can be heated on both the burner and in the oven. I briefly considered ordering a special au gratin dish just to make this meal, but this pan worked fine.

buttered-paper

I made the waxed paper cover just the way Julia said to, and slathered it with butter.

covered-fish

Along with the white wine, one bottle of clam juice was just the right amount of liquid to almost-but-not-quite cover the fillets.

ready-to-cook

After bringing the pan to a simmer on the stovetop, I covered it and it’s ready to go in the oven.

boiling-juices

The pan juices from the cooked fish boiled up nicely before reducing. The fish is keeping warm there in the back, and the roux is standing by in the center.

final-product

The final sauced dish, ready for the plate. I might have added a spoonful too much heavy cream, so my sauce was a tad thin, but it sure tasted “awfully good.” In fact, I’d say the whole dish is worth making just for this “lovely French sauce.”

dishes

Oh yeah, the stack of dishes to do. But it was worth it.

My only quibble with this dish was with the fish, actually. Perhaps it was that my fillets were frozen, or maybe not perfectly fresh, or I cooked them a minute too long, but they seemed rather tougher than I think sole ought to be. Probably slightly overcooked. But that sauce, wow! I’ve cooked only a few Julia Child recipes and I always think “this is too simple to really be any good,” but they always end up knocking me backward because they are so good, and this one was no exception. Sometimes the simplest ingredients make the best food.

My best ever

The AAA man arrived this morning 10 minutes after I called, determined that the battery in my car was indeed dead, and jump-started it so I could run downtown and get myself a new battery. All taken care of in record time. AAA guys are the bestest.

Once my wheel toy was back online, I was finally able to get to the market and pick up the last few ingredients I needed for my Pan-Fried Dover Sole with Olives, Tomatoes, Capers and Beurre Blanc! I was so excited about making this dish, I can’t even tell you.

excited-animated

The sole was the real thing this time: small fillets that were as thin as a promise and as delicate as tissue. I dredged them through white flour seasoned with a bit of salt and fried them in butter. Easy!

The topping was almost as easy. Cut in half about a cup of cherry tomatoes, then cut in half about half a cup of green olives with pimentos. Throw a couple of scoops of capers on top. Melt some butter (you decide how much) over medium heat and add two cloves of thinly sliced garlic and as many red pepper flakes as you like. Heat this up—it doesn’t have to really cook so much as just get good and hot—and then pour the butter mixture over the tomatoes/olives/capers, stir it up and set it aside. Sprinkle some fresh thyme over it if you have some, and perhaps add a few twists from the pepper grinder. It’s plenty salty, so no need to worry about adding that.

Now, the beurre blanc is slightly more complicated so I refer you to the recipe. It takes about 20 minutes depending on how many chunks into which you cut your butter, I suppose. Basically you just melt unsalted butter slowly over very low heat in a reduction of white wine and white wine vinegar until you have a smooth, creamy, tangy sauce that, if you’re like me, you just want to dive right into and swim in until you blissfully drown! I’ve never had anything quite like it and man, oh man, I am head-over-heels in love with the stuff. I seasoned mine with a few sprigs of fresh thyme because I had some, but I suppose almost any fresh herb would be lovely in this.

Once the sole is fried, plate it up, cover it with topping, and drown it in beurre blanc (or lightly drizzle beurre blanc on it if you have more self-control than I do). I served mine with some oven-baked green beans (toss the beans with a little olive oil and seasoned salt of your choice and bake on a cookie sheet at about 400°F for 20 minutes).

And, voilà!

sole-and-greenbeans

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a food stylist, so please forgive me if this does not look to you like the most amazing meal EV-AR!

When my grandmother used to make a dish she’d made hundreds of times, such as potato salad, she would taste it and declare “it’s my best ever.” We have a running joke in our family that the first time you make a dish, it’s automatically your best ever because there’s nothing to compare it to. But I don’t mind saying, this is the best meal I’ve had in years, and I have had some amazing meals to which I can compare it. It is absolutely, hands-down, no-contest, far and away my best dinner ever. Lick the plate? Yes, please, don’t mind if I do!

All this cooking destroyed my kitchen so I’m going to be up late tonight doing the dishes, but it was worth it. So very worth it.

Beurre blanc is incredible stuff. As Julia Child would say, “you can never have too much butter!” I know my taste buds will be thanking me for this long after my arteries have (I hope) forgiven me.

Find your niche, find your life

live-a-life-youre-proud-of

My mother gave me the new Julia Child biography Dearie for Christmas, and I’ve been (ahem) devouring it every chance I get. It’s a lively, richly detailed account of an altogether remarkable woman who kind of floundered through life well into her 30s before she found her niche. Her devoted husband, Paul, had somewhat the same experience, although he floundered rather longer than she did because he was 10 years older than she was. Neither of them really knew what they wanted out of life until they found each other.

A line I love is one that Julia wrote to Paul early in their relationship: “When you find your niche, I believe you will find your life.” Until one matches up with the person, place or job for which one was born, everything else is merely prelude and distraction.

I find Julia and Paul’s story a hopeful reminder that even when it seems as if everything has passed you by and your glory days are behind you, the best can still be yet to come. Julia couldn’t cook at all when she first married–she knew nothing whatsoever of the culinary arts except that she loved to eat. Following her heart to Paul, to Paris, and to culinary school led her to her niche, within which she became a legend.

I hope that my niche is still waiting for me, even if I don’t become a doyenne or a legend or even rich or famous. I just want to sing the song I was made to sing, you know?

Some advice on cooking

As I suggested I should in my “Fun Stuff for Foodies” post of June 20, I went out and bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have so far (p. 459) found the tome absolutely, positively overwhelming. I haven’t seen a single recipe yet that I would dare to try making without adult supervision. Every one seems to either call for a pan I do not own (what is a fireproof casserole, exactly?) or describes a complex technique that must be followed precisely or the dish will be ruined. Too much pressure!

recipes

Nevertheless, Julia and her co-authors do offer some good general advice to “servantless American cooks” right up front, and here are the highlights I found most helpful:

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Fun stuff for foodies

I watched “Julie & Julia” last night, a great inspirational movie for foodies who blog and bloggers who eat (I consider myself more the latter than the former, but that could change).

I was puttering around in my kitchen today and wondering if I could ever actually tackle the all-day cooking extravaganza (ordeal?) that is Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon, and whether that amazing mortar and pestle of hers would do anything to improve my cooking. Hm, maybe I should read her book first before I buy any more kitchen gadgets, since I have so many.

In the meantime, here are a few of those gadgets that have made my cooking life a little easier. This is not a free-advertising blog so I’m not going to include links to where you can buy these things, but with a little Googling of the words in bold, I’m sure you can find them.

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