19 December 2010

My blogging family: Engineer and an Oven

The holidays are all about family and having been a food blogger for almost three years now, I feel part of a lovely family here in the blogosphere. Sometimes I've met the people in real life, sometimes not, but meeting new people and the sense of community are some of the best things about blogging, in my opinion. One blogger who does quite a bit to make this happen is Kristen from Dine and Dish. Her program adopt-a-blogger (which is now running all the time -- so go check it out!) has introduced me to lots of wonderful people. After being adopted by Psychgrad and Giz at Equal Opportunity Kitchen, I went on to become a big adult blog and adopt in my turn Nic from Lemon and Cheese and Julie from A Little Bit of Everything, all wonderful experiences.

And now... I'd like to introduce the newest adopted member of my blogging family: Caroline from Engineer and an Oven. Caroline is a civil engineer who lives in Chicago where she cooks up a storm (just take a list at her Christmas cookie list. It's seriously impressive) and she tells good stories to boot. Do you have any camera advice? A kickass recipe for Osso Bucco? Some family stories you'd like to share? Feel free to comment with your insight and encouragements for Caroline!

Note: this interview was a lot longer, but I had to cut it down so I could fit in some pictures and you could read it in one sitting. I hope Caroline will forgive me! For more of her stories, read her blog!

Do any of your parents or grandparents cook or did someone particular inspire you?

It is difficult for me to talk about my relationship between food and me without divulging my entire life story. Just like a specific song can take you back to the first time you heard it, certain foods trigger very specific memories of my childhood and my family.

The Ultimate Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Growing up on the East Coast, one of the biggest treats of the summer was getting a bushel of Maryland Blue Crabs, some pre-made dinner rolls and boiling up some sweet corn. We would sit down at a newspaper-lined table for hours picking crabs, talking, and just enjoying the luxury of being able to relax and enjoy the company around the table.

I think family is what transforms ‘food’ into a ‘meal.’ I started cooking because as I got older and moved away from home, it was a way to make my own family feel closer, and make where I was living at the time feel more like home. Now that I’m married and have a home of my own, I am looking forward to starting new food traditions, as well as maintaining some of the ones I so fondly remember as a child.

What do you like about blogging?

I like being able to catalog my progress and share some of my creati
ons (like my Hokie Cut-out cookies [see below]). I love when I get comments on my blog (or in person) that someone has tried a recipe I’ve posted and enjoyed it. The idea that someone stepped slightly out of their comfort zone or tried something new just because they saw it and thought it sounded appetizing is one of the greatest feelings. I’m still new to the game, but the community is so warm and welcoming; how can you not enjoy being a part of that?

Hokie Cut-Out Cookies (aka where Caroline uses her mad engineering skills for baking)

What do you find challenging about blogging?

As an engineer, my math skills are used much more than my English skills and it is sometimes difficult for me to articulate posts in an interesting, non-rambling way. I constantly push myself to try new things. It pains me to write about kitchen disasters or dishes that just don’t live up to the hype – but I want to be realistic. Not every dish can be a masterpiece. Being a true engineer/math nerd, I love the quote from Thomas Edison - “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” And believe me, with my chicken pot pie, I’m well on my way.

The other challenging part is the photography. I rarely can get a shot of anything I make in natural light, so I have to rely on the flash of my little P&S camera. I am looking into getting a DSLR camera in the not-too-distant future, so hopefully that will help, but any advice is greatly appreciated!

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

What is your favorite kind of food and/or favorite restaurant?

Well, I may be slightly biased, but I adore Thai food. I love how spicy, sweet, sour and salty flavors are artfully balanced in their curry sauces. As for a favorite restaurant,I’m really into a place called Roy’s - a hawaiian-asian fusion restaurant. It is a chain, but not in your typical Chili’s, Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s kind of way. Many of the entrees there change depending on what the head cook has available to him/her at the time. I admire when people can make an amazing meal out of things that they have in front of them.

Roasted Butternut Squash Seeds

A favorite person/group to cook for?

Cooking for my husband is always a highlight, for sure, because he is always appreciative of the effort I put into a meal, whether it is something special for a date night, or something easier for our “pasta Tuesday” or just typical work night dinner. I also love cooking for a crowd, because I can try new recipes, and make lots of food. I have always found it easier for me to make a ton of food, especially if I’m going to end up with a dirty kitchen anyway. Might as well make the cleanup worth it, right?

Wild Mushroom Tartlettes

What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?

Thanks to my mom, who was a huge advocate of the phrase “how do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it!?,” I will try pretty much anything once. When we were in Thailand, that meant eating things like fish stomach, pig intestine, jellyfish, shark fin and durian fruit. If you don’t know what durian is, at its best, the smell and flavor is like sweet custard; at its worst, it’s like sucking on a dirty, sweaty gym sock.

What’s one dish that you’ve never cooked that you want to try?

I would love to try making Osso Bucco. I have seen many recipes for it, but I want to find the one that I could make that would taste like I had channeled someone’s Italian grandmother.

Quilt Cookies

Do you have any passions besides cooking?

Besides cooking, I love eating, of course, but I also really enjoy sewing and being crafty in general. On some of my earlier blog posts, I showcased a series of quilted sugar cookies that I made, and that was truly a combination of two passions. I do some embroidery, some knitting, sewing and quilting. I also really enjoy movies and music. I am that person that if I have good song or CD blasting on the stereo, I will be dancing and singing in the kitchen while baking or cooking. That’s a fun afternoon in my book!

13 December 2010

Pot-au-feu or how I can't speak English anymore

(A warning to my vegetarian friends: very meaty photos to follow!)

The longer I live in France, the more trouble I'm going to have writing this blog in English. See, I moved to France right after college, which is when you really start to learn how to do things on your own. Cooking, of course, but also keeping the house clean (instead of just straitening up your room), choosing paint colors, furniture, fixing things that break (or calling the repairman), paying bills, filing pay slips, doing your taxes, etc. All that stuff I learned to do in French and some of it has specific vocabulary that I don't know in English. For example: where do you bring things that are too big for the trash? Is there a word for them? Here they're called les encombrants and you can call the city hall of your arrondissment in Paris, and schedule a pick-up in front of your building on a specific day.

What does that have to do with cooking? Well, yesterday I was complaining to the mom of one of the girls I babysit for that I had a fridge drawer full of root vegetables that was getting out of control: carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, cabbage (okay, not a root vegetable, but you get the point). She said, "all you need is some meat and you have a pot-au-feu." I'm lucky because this is one of those recipes that everybody's French mother makes and thanks to babysitting, I now have two French mothers who teach me those kinds of things.

Anyway, she told me how much meat to buy and what kind and she suggested buying an os à la moelle to put in. I'd never bought any such thing (I'm a wuss at the butcher's), and so I can't tell you the name in English. All I can say is that it's bone with the marrow in it and the marrow gets all soft and flavorful when cooked in a pot-au-feu.

The French are extremely good at winter food and pot-au-feu is no exception. It's warming, hearty and uses more seasonal vegetables than you would know what to do with otherwise. Traditionally the broth is served as a first course, sometimes with noodles. Then the meat and vegetables are served in a large platter. If you don't want to separate them, you can also serve it in bowls as a sort of French beef stew (don't let any French people know I said to though). Or you can reserve the broth for another soup. Or all of the above. Pot-au-feu is also very tasty as leftovers since the more the flavors sit together the better it is. Go ahead and make more than you'll eat in one meal. If you get sick of it for leftovers, you can always make it into cottage pie.

1.5kg of beef (don't get me started on beef cuts. I don't have any of the vocab for that, but it can be a fattier or tougher cut because you're going to slow cook it for a very long time!)
2 onions
2 cloves

3 carrots
3 leeks
2 turnips
2 parsnips (If you want to get technical I actually used parsley root, but they taste like parsnips to me. You can pretty much use whatever winter vegetables you have)
3 cloves garlic
1 bouquet garni (parsley, thyme and bay leaf)

1 os à la moelle
1 head of Chinese cabbage

500g of potatoes

P.S. It is very hard to get a decent photo of a finished pot-au-feu since, if you've done it right, everything's all mushy and falling apart. Despite what it looks like, it's delicious!

Rinse the beef in cold water and put in a large pot with the onions (peeled and halved) and cloves. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat for 1-2 hours, regularly skimming off impurities that rise to the top.

In the meantime, peel the garlic cloves and peel (or wash) and roughly chop the carrots, leeks, turnips, parsnips. Add to the meat with the bouquet garni. If not covered with liquid, add more water, bring to boil and then simmer 2 hours. Add the os à la moelle, and the cabbage and simmer 1 hour more. Boil the potatoes separately and stir them in once you're done cooking the pot-au-feu. Strain the meat and vegetables from the broth (if desired) and serve hot.

Traditionally served with sea salt, mustard and cornichons.

05 December 2010

Port Wine in Porto, Portugal

Last weekend, after stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving leftovers, D. and I went on a mini holiday to Porto, Portugal to visit our friends who were moving there (or rather, had just moved there and now are moving somewhere else, maybe Australia, but that's a long story that has nothing to do with our weekend). We were amazingly lucky because while it's been freezing and snowy in Paris, it was clear and in the 50sºF in Porto. We ate breakfast both days outside in the sun looking over the ocean - an amazing luxury at this time of year. I even stuck my feet in the water and waved to Rockport!

Porto is a beautiful city, full of gorgeous old buildings...that nobody lives in. The Portuguese people prefer to live in the comfortable modern buildings that are constantly going up outside the city. We were very surprised, since the opposite is true in Paris: everyone wants to live in the old buildings in the center, and the poor people live in the suburbs with their modern apartment towers.

But of course what Porto is best know for is Port Wine. You can be sure we didn't miss out on that. On Saturday our friends took us out to the Port vineyards, which are actually about an hour north of Porto in the beautiful hilly region along the Durro River. The grapes are grown on terraces because of the landscape and, as a result, all the fruit is hand picked. They explained to us that Port is a sweet wine because the fermentation process (which turns the sugar from the grapes into alcohol) is stopped very quickly, and so to give it the strong alcohol content it's known for, they add brandy to it!

Once that's done, they send it to Porto (or rather the town right across the river from Porto, but who's counting), to be matured in oak barrels of different sizes and for different amounts of time depending on the kind of Port. In case you're interested...

Ruby Port: (made from red grapes) is matured for the least amount of time in very large barrels that are waxed on the inside so almost no air gets in. As a result, it's a very fruity wine.

Tawny Port: (also made from red grapes) is matured in small oak barrels for a longer time and has a much more woody taste. It also gets more oxygen, which makes it clearer (I think that's why...)

White Port: (made from white grapes) uses both if understood rightly and can be either "sweet" or "dry".

(Apparently, there's also Pink Port, which is something new and I don't quite understand how it's made but it taste like cotton candy.)

Also, almost all port is mixed wine. Unless there's a year on your bottle (and 90% of the time there isn't), the port is a mixture of wine from different years to get exactly the right taste. When you get "10-year-old" port or "20-year-old" port, that's actually an average, rather than an indication of what year is comes from. Isn't that crazy? (Ok, maybe that's just more than you ever wanted to know about Port :-))

Anyway, after a weekend of soaking up the sun and seeing beautiful vineyard landscapes and visiting the Port cellars and drinking lots of Port, I'm actually okay with the fact that it's snowing in Paris. In fact, I'm enjoying it.