April 23, 2007

Lamb Chops & Minted Sweet Pea Puree

For the past week, I've talked up this project with friends, co-workers, students, and random customers at the winery. Everyone seems excited. People want to come over for dinner. I've been invited to cook at other people's homes; they even offered to buy the food for me to cook.

I'm like a pseudo-celebrity chef.


So, for my next recipe-I've-never-made, I chose to grill up some lamb chops. I love eating lamb, even if that makes me some kind of baby animal hater. Honestly, I don't really care that it's the meat of fluffy baby sheep. It tastes good, damn it.

Besides, I have this sadistic streak when it comes to lamb. Let me digress: Every Easter, my Grandma Green used to make a lamb cake. It was a white cake, baked in a lamb shaped pan, then set upright on a platter, covered in shredded coconut, and decorated with jellybeans. It looked a little like this Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
only without the creepy eyes and mouth.

So, I actually hated that lamb cake. I don't know why, exactly. But I always used to cut off the head and eat it, not because I liked white cake with coconut, but just out of spite. And Grandma, God bless her, made that cake every year...just for me. I must have eaten that head with such gusto. When she moved out of her house into a retirement community, she passed along that lamb cake pan to my mother, so that my mom could continue to make the cake for her favorite granddaughter. I have no idea where that pan is now.

Anyway...if there is lamb (meat, not cake) on the menu when I go out to eat, I will typically order it. In fact, my favorite lamb dish is the grilled lamb skewers with cucumber sauce at Modesto in St. Louis. Lamb is the only meat that I want to naw and suck off the bones. So, I was mildly disappointed that I could only find lamb loin chops without the long bone sticking out. Nevertheless, it was lamb and I was excited about cooking up a very springish dish.

To start, I made a paste out of pressed garlic, chopped rosemary, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I smeared this over the chops and let it sit at room temperature for about a half hour. Then, I seared them in a hot pan for about 4 minutes a side. While they rested, I pureed the peas (a bag of frozen sweet peas that I sauteed in olive oil and garlic until they thawed and warmed) in the food processor with a couple tablespoons of melted butter, a couple tablespoons of half & half, and a few sprigs of fresh mint. I returned the bright green stuff to the pan to warm, added some salt and pepper, then topped with shredded parmesan cheese.

The chops, I must say, were delicious. The garlic/rosemary paste made a tasty crust on the meat, which was cooked medium--very red, juicy, and tender. (When I make this again, I will use more of that paste.) It wasn't as...well...lamby tasting as I expected. In fact, for the price, I think I prefer lamb to beef (I paid about $14 for four good-sized chops). And the pea puree was a nice, slightly minty, compliment to the lamb--even if they did remind me a bit of baby food.

By the way, I plan to eat the leftover puree for breakfast tomorrow...heat it up, mix it with some crumbled bacon, and top it with a poached egg.


I finished reading Julie & Julie, the book that inspired my cooking project, yesterday and now I've started reading the blog she kept while cooking her way through MtaoFC. In particular, I really like how she talks about eating animals--how she discusses having to cook live lobsters, once even having to cut up a live lobster before cooking it, how she describes extracting marrow from beef bones (eating the center of the center, the essence of life), and how much she likes cooking and eating liver.

So, I decided that part of my project has to include cooking and eating something that I have actually killed myself. I've never done that before. I think I need to do that, at least once, in my life. But, I am not a hunter; I've never even shot a gun before. And, I am not ready to actually shoot something and eat it, so I have to start small...like buying live mussels or a lobster or something to cook.

This should be interesting........

April 16, 2007

Week 1: Potage Parmentier

Julia Child called Potage Parmentier (potato & leek soup) "simplicity itself." Julie Powell called it "inexplicably good." The authors of Porcini Chronicles called it "the miracle soup."

In her first chapter, Powell meditates on the act of peeling potatoes ("There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way.") and on the simplicity of this soup. She says simplicity "sounds like just what the doctor ordered," but then admits that "'simple' is not exactly the same as 'easy'." She writes:

Lulled by the calming music of ice clattering in the cocktail shaker, I began to ponder; this life we had going for ourselves, Eric and I, it felt like the opposite of Potage Parmentier. It was easy enough to keep on with the soul-sucking jobs; at least it saved having to make a choice. But how much longer could I take such an easy life? Quicksand was easy. Hell, death was easy. Maybe that's why my synapses had started snapping at the sight of potatoes and leeks in the Korean deli. Mayve that was what was plucking deep down in my belly whenever I thought of Julia Child's book. Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be a part of something that was not easy, just simple.

I like that last sentence. I think that might be what I need, too--to have a life that isn't necessarily easy...just simple, pure.

In deciding to start with this recipe, I figured I should make Child's original, as a kind of homage to Julia & Julie, my inspirations for this endeavor. Therefore, I needed to get my hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I didn't want to purchase a new $30 edition, especially since Powell was inspired by her mother's well-worn 1967 edition. So, this morning I ordered a used 1966 edition for about $17 from Amazon. I don't plan on attempting all, or even most, of the recipes but it will come in handy when I do make a few French dishes that I would like to try...like boeuf bourguignon, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, souffles, creme anglaise, and various sauces.

Anyway, since I still didn't have my hands on the potato soup recipe for tonight, I decided to stop by Barnes & Nobel this afternoon to browse through Child's cookbook and jot down the recipe.

Side note: Being in a bookstore puts me in a state of absolute bliss. I spent an hour there today, browsing cookbooks mostly and successfully talking myself out of buying a one that contained nothing but various macaroni & cheese recipes.

One of the reasons I chose the potato soup recipe first is that it only calls for five ingredients: potatoes, leeks, water, salt, and heavy cream (and this is good for my wallet, which doesn't contain that much cash at the moment). Plus, leftover soup is one of the few leftovers I will actually eat, and I am conferencing with my students all week in a chilly, window-less office, so these leftovers will come in handy.

I peeled & chopped a pound of potatoes (3 russets), finely chopped and washed a pound of leeks (one stalk, minus the tough green parts), then boiled both together in 7 cups of water (+ a tablespoon of kosher salt) for 50 minutes. The Self-Proclaimed Chef in me wanted to saute the leeks in olive oil and garlic first, but the Food Purist in me fought off the urge and stuck with the actual recipe. When everything simmered into a monochromatic pot of mush, I got in there with a big spoon and starting mashing chunks against the side of the pot. (The recipe suggests also using food mill, which I didn't have, but cautions against using a blender or food processor.) This proved to be a bit irritating, so I starting scooping some of the soup into a bowl, mashing it with the spoon, and pouring it back into the pot. I decided to leave some chunks for texture's sake.

At this point, I decided to eat a bit of the soup. After all, here it was--Potage Parmentier in its purest form (the addition of heavy cream or butter at the end is listed as "optional" in the original recipe). Surprisingly, it was really good! And I was a bit skeptical because besides the potatoes and leeks there was only water (instead of chicken stock) and salt (with no other seasonings). The soup had a pleasing creamy mouthfeel ("It was potatoey poetry in my mouth," as they might say on Iron Chef) and a satisfying potato/onion taste that was tinged with saltiness, but I knew it would be even better with a few additions. Finally, off the heat, I stirred in 6 tablespoons of heavy cream and 2 tablespoons of melted bacon grease (though 1 would have been sufficent, as the soup got an oil spill like sheen on the top...still it did add a nice other dimension of flavor).

Ok, this is where the Purist lost the battle. The recipe says that the addition of "4-6 Tb of whipping cream or 2-3 Tb of softened butter" is optional, but everything I've read online says that the addition is essential. Not being able to decide whether to use cream or butter, I decided to use both, halfing the suggested addition of each. However, when I got home from the grocery store (and after having mowed the lawn, thus wearing stretchy pants and being all sweaty & grassy, and not wanted to venture out again), I discovered that I was out of butter. I was disappointed...until I eyed the pan with leftover bacon grease from breakfast. Jackpot. I'll just replace the butter addition with some of the grease. That can't be too bad, right? I was thinking before that it would be tasty to top a bowl of the finished soup with crispy, crumbled bacon anyway (and even a small smattering of cheese).

I resisted the bacon/cheese topping but did sprinkle my bowl of steamy creaminess with a bit of chopped rosemary (the recipe suggests parsley or chives as an option, but I didn't have either of those and wanted to use up the fresh rosemary I had in the fridge before it expired) & a few turns of freshly ground black pepper. All in all, I am very happy with my first new recipe. The soup was tasty and filling (albeit not very health-conscious). It would make a nice dinner paired with a mixed green salad with citrus vinaigrette and some sauvignon blanc.

I now understand what Powell meant when she said that while this soup is simple, it's not all that easy. I started cutting potatoes around 7:30 and didn't sit down with a finished bowl until nearly 9:00. Still, I can appreciate how a few very humble ingredients can come together to make something delicious.

What a good recipe for life as well.

April 15, 2007

Inspired: A Culinary Project

In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf wrote: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

I've always liked that quote...so much, in fact, that I had planned to stencil it all along the top of the walls in my kitchen. Of course, I never got around to actually doing that. Nevertheless, I've always whole-heartedly agreed with Woolf's sentiment. I think a good life is made up of eating good food and drinking good wine. That's basically why I still work at the winery on weekends...access to good wine, which I can and will drink for no particular reason...other than the fact it might be "Red Wine Sunday."

And, I've always liked looking at and reading cookbooks. I found myself reaching for the cookbooks recently when I was bored; I'd flip through them, browsing recipe titles and lingering on pages with color photographs, as if I were thumbing around a magazine.
As much as I enjoy reading cookbooks, and I have actually read a few cover-to-cover before, I also love reading books about cooking. So, this weekend I finally began reading Julie & Julia: "the story of Julie Powell's attempt to revitalize her marriage, restore her ambition, and save her soul by cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days." I've had Powell's book for a while now and haven't really gotten around to reading it. But, after finishing some heavy non-western novels I assigned to my literature class and a couple novels featuring dysfunctional families, I was ready for something a bit lighter and more entertaining.

Plus, I figured that I could use a little ambition restoration and soul saving myself.

I haven't written much about what's going on in my life right now; I'll just say that it has taken quite a turn. Nothing is as it was 6 months ago. And I need to have some goals, to try something new, to have an outlet for my stress & frustration, to feel creative, to do something worthwhile. Blogging used to be that outlet for me, but ever since Bloggergate 2005, I've been hesitant to be honest. In the past several months, I've written a few new posts, but I always chicken out and don't published them online. The one time in three months that I actually DID write something heartfelt, I got this comment from a relative: "Wow--it seems like you are more confused and mixed-up than I thought.......I hope you realize what you are doing before it's too late....". And that's not something to encourage me to put more of my vulnerable self out there.

Anyway, I'm already 100 pages or so into Julie & Julia, but within the first chapter I was inspired to create a cooking project of my own. There are many things I've always wanted to cook but never have, things I always say I am going to make but never do. So, I am going to cook something "new" at least once a week. I am finally going to get to making all those things I always think about making (like moussaka), and I am going to teach myself how to make some things I simply don't know how (like homemade bread).

And I'm going to write all about it here.

I'm starting tomorrow with the first recipe from Julia Child's first cookbook (and also the recipe that inspired Powell's "Julie/Julia" project): Potage Parmentier (potato and leek soup).