Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

roasted chileDedicated to my wonderful Nana Jean. I miss you more than words could ever express.

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Saute the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas.

Mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat.

I think my Nana would be proud!

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Jane Eyre: An Autobiography by Charlotte Bronte

I ain’t gonna deny it, Mr. Rochester is SEXY! Oh my lord almighty. Dark, mysterious, distant and yet romantic, rides a horse, is sarcastic, dresses in black. I could bang Mr. Rochester like a screen door from here til August……though it may also have to do with the fact that my very first big-screen Mr. Rochester was played by the ever-so-sexy Timothy Dalton, whom I adored as James Bond, and with whom I could have happily stayed in bed all day as his character Sir Malcolm Murray in Penny Dreadful.

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Oh, the plotline? Ahem. (fanning myself)

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It’s one trial after tribulation for poor Jane Eyre. Set in Victorian England, Jane Eyre is orphaned as a child, and goes to live with her horrible aunt and horrible cousins. She is later sent to a horrible boarding school with mostly horrible teachers and a horrible headmaster. She does become friends with Helen, who of course, dies horribly and leaves Jane alone. Jane grows up and becomes a model student, and has such good school credentials that she is able to apply for governess positions. She is hired to work caring for a little French girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall. The master of Thornfield Hall is the moody, brooding, sarcastic, attractive (of course he is!) Mr. Rochester. And the fun begins.

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Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester – who wouldn’t in that setting? – and they end up becoming engaged. But there is a mystery at the heart of Thornfield Hall, that being Mr. Rochester still has a wife, albeit a lunatic nutcase named Berthe whom he keeps in the attic with a nurse, medications, padded walls, etc., so she can’t escape and cause harm. But the truth comes out on Jane and Mr. Rochester’s wedding day.

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If you have any kind of a heart or sense, you’ll figure out how it all ends. But as with all good books, the pleasure lies in the journey and not the destination. I’d held off reading it for many years, partly because I already knew the storyline from the numerous movie and TV versions out there, and partly because I was expecting lugubrious, long-winded prose that went on for pages before moving the story forward. Not so, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless the book is. Jane is a great character, self-aware and self-effacing, yet honest with herself and others.

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Being set in Victorian England, the usual food mentions abound. Tea, bread, cakes, butter, eggs, roast beef, potatoes, etc. There’s a passage when Jane and Adele are waiting for a large party to start at Thornfield Hall, when Mr. Rochester has purposely invited Blanche Ingram and pretends to fall in love with her, to somewhat torture Jane. Jane and Adele await their summons as they enjoy a nice meal.

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“Do you think Mr. Rochester will send for us by-and-by, after dinner?” “No, indeed, I don’t; Mr. Rochester has something else to think about. Never mind the ladies to-night; perhaps you will see them to-morrow. Here is your dinner.” She was really hungry, so the chicken and tarts secured to divert her attention for a time.

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Not being a sweets person, I thought about savory tarts. Doesn’t that sound yum? Savory chicken tarts with mushrooms and tomatoes were what I decided upon, because those are three of my favorite things, and also because I was watching a rerun of those classic eccentric British cooks, The Two Fat Ladies, and one of them made mini savory tarts topped with tomato. So I was inspired to recreate it in my own way.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of butter, ice-cold and cut into cubes
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Ice water, as needed
3 chicken thighs, poached
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 shallot
1 tablespoon each of dried parsley, dried thyme, dried rosemary and dried sage
2 heirloom tomatoes, room temperature
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

METHOD
For the tart pastry, add the flour into the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid. Add the salt, and cube by cube, mix in the ice-cold butter with the pastry hook attachment so that it gradually amalgamates. You want somewhat of a rubbly texture.

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Add in the egg and increase the mixing speed.

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Add in a dash or two of ice water, and watch the pastry hook mix the dough until it forms a ball. You will likely need to increase the mixing speed but just watch. It’s like magic.

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Dump out the pastry ball onto some plastic, mold it so it’s round, wrap it up, and refrigerate for at least an hour, if not more.

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Poach the chicken thighs for about 30 minutes, and allow to cool before cutting into chunks.

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Saute the mushrooms and shallot with the dried herbs and some garlic powder. Let cool, and mix with the chicken.

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Roll out the pastry dough, and cut out small rounds. Press into a tart pan but don’t stretch the dough. (And you can see why no one has ever said to me “Vanessa, you should really give up your day job and bake tarts!”)

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Fill each tart pan with a mix of chicken, mushroom and shallot, top with tomato slices and sprinkle over some cheese.

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Bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown and luscious. Let cool a bit and remove from the tart pans. Then imagine Mr. Rochester himself feeding them to you, delicious bite by delicious bite. Oh my!

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Sometimes a girl just needs an escape, and this book provided one hell of one! It’s probably one of the most fun, and possibly my favorite, of all sci-fi and fantasy novels, The Anubis Gates is a wild and imaginative romp through time, space, and history. Basically, a literature professor by the name of Brendan Doyle chosen to go back in time at the behest of an extremely wealthy and eccentric millionaire to hear a famous lecture by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Victorian England. He gets left behind – of course – in the past with no money or resources except his knowledge of the time period, and that’s when shit gets real.

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Throw in gates of time throughout the world and history, a murderous, deformed clown on stilts, tiny homunculi with knives, ancient Egyptian magicians who can also move through time, a body-jumping werewolf, a twist of romance, some Victorian steampunk elements, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a truly entertaining read. Doyle’s specialty is the Victorian poet William Ashbless, whom he intends to meet while in the past, and how this meeting comes about is one of the twistiest and surprising parts of the book, but it’s the premise on which the entire book hinges, so pay attention to the references to Ashbless.

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As with any kind of time travel book, pay attention to the smaller details, as they seemingly have no connection to anything, yet prove to be monumentally important later on. I personally loved the freaky clown on stilts, though in real life I despise clowns with a passion. Hello,  Pennywise! Otherwise,  Doyle’s grasp of history serves him well, and part of why I love this book is because you feel the Victorian environment of London so well, but without that dreary, depressing Dickensian vibe. And when Doyle is down and out and spends his last bit of money on street food, you feel his intense hunger.

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Returning to Thames Street, Doyle expended half his fortune on a plate of vegetable soup and a trowelful of mashed potatoes. It tasted wonderful, but left him at least as hungry as before, so he spent his last three cents on another order of the same.

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To me, vegetables and mashed potatoes translate naturally into one thing -shepherd’s pie. I mean, a gorgeous panful of delicious meat mixed with vegetables and topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. Hello, heaven on a plate! Of course, depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. I personally don’t give a damn what it’s called, just that is is soooo good. This method was based on the awesome recipe at Life in Lofthouse, is an excellent way to get rid of any random vegetables hanging around in your refrigerator, land is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day dish. Ideal for  soaking up all the green beer, Irish whiskey and whatever else booze you chose to indulge in.

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INGREDIENTS
4 large russet potatoes
1 stick softened butter
1 cup warmed milk
2 lbs ground beef
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 turnip, cut into cubes
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup baby carrots, cut in half
1 onion
7 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup beef broth

METHOD
Butter a large glass or metal baking pan and heat the oven to 375.

Cut the potatoes in half and cook in boiling water until a fork pierces them easily, about 25 minutes. Remember if there are hard parts still in your potatoes, those will translate to lumps in your mashed potatoes. Drain and let cool slightly.

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Dry-saute the mushrooms with only a bit of salt. This is a trick I got from Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and holy crap, it really works!

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Put the sauteed mushrooms into a large bowl and add the frozen corn. The heat of the ‘shrooms will soften and thaw the corn.

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While the potatoes are boiling, finely chop the onion and garlic and cook with olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the ground beef, some salt, and the Worchestershire sauce, and cook until the meat is nicely browned. Drain the meat and add back to the hot pan.

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In the boiling potato water, cook the turnip, peas, and carrots until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the mushrooms and corn.

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Sprinkle over the flour on the meat, and cook again over low heat for about 10 minutes, to ensure the floury taste is gone.

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Add the red wine, tomato paste, and beef broth to the floured meat in the pan, stirring until everything is well mixed and warmed through well.

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Mash the potatoes in a potato ricer, add the butter and milk, and some salt, and stir. The potato ricer is a totally badass kitchen gadget because it negates the need to peel the potatoes. I personally loathe and despise peeling potatoes, so it makes me happy to bust out the potato ricer.

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Mix the cooked meat with the cooked vegetables, stir to mix well, and spread into the glass pan.

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Spread over the mashed potatoes. Doesn’t that look so yum?

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Bake for 35 minutes, until the potato topping has browned slightly and you can smell all the juices of the meat and vegetables and you’re drooling. Let cool slightly before serving, although having said that, it’s much better after a few hours in the refrigerator, eaten tipsily at midnight in the company of a handsome man after an evening out at the St. Patrick’s Day Blarney Bash. 🙂

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Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende

This book was one of the most wonderful and sensual I’ve had the pleasure of reading in ages. Isabel Allende is a an amazingly erotic writer, bringing to life the twin joys of food and sex……something I’ve blogged about previously. If you truly think about it, these two activities are mirrors of each other in so many ways. We must all eat to live, and we must procreate to continue life.

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But I speak of not procreation or eating to survive, but rather, the sheer joy that is inherent in both activities. The sensation of an oyster sliding down your throat, the salty crunch of roasted almonds in your mouth, the grape flavor of wine on your tongue………all are just as pleasurable as the taste of your lover’s lips and tongue, the feel of his strong hands on your body, and the sensation of being made love to.

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Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses is an ode to the joys of lovemaking and the joys of eating. Coupled with various recipes designed to be aphrodisiacal, the beauty of kissing and touching and making love, and how these sensations are heightened by specific foods and drinks, are chronicled in dizzying detail. Allende is known for magic realism, and this book retains and spills over with that flavor of magical realism and picturesque description. Probably best read and cooked with your lover, the recipes in this book run from simple – consommes and soups – to more complex meals and desserts.

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Though the entire book is devoted to the connection of food and sexual passion, my favorite passage is in the chapter when Allende describes her ultimate orgy and the food she would serve with it. Sensual reading at its best!

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What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits – especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman Empire. And mushrooms, of course, which are as aphrodisiac as oysters. The celebrated Roman poisoner Lucasta knew the popularity of those fungi.

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I love mushrooms and eat them at least once a week, whether sauteed in butter with onions and garlic and added to spinach and chicken, cooked into scrambled eggs or an omelette, or sliced raw into a lunchtime salad. And when I came across Allende’s recipe for Festive Mushrooms at the back of this wonderful book, I was inspired to recreate them, with a couple of minor changes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely minced
2 tablespoons duck liver patê flavored with truffles
Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Wash the mushrooms and cut off the stems, but keep the stems. Pat dry.

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In a food chopper, finely chop the mushroom stems and the shallots.

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Melt the butter in a skillet. Lightly saute the stems and shallots for up to 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook another 5 minutes. Let cool.

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Heat the oven to 375F, and while it heats, mix together the finely chopped stems and shallots with the patê, the heavy cream, and the lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Place the mushroom caps on a flat baking tray. With a small spoon, fill each one with the mixture.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until they become golden on the top.

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They can actually be eaten straight out of the oven, at room temperature, or even chilled. Hot or cold, they are always delicious…………kind of like love.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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Dune by Frank Herbert

Thanks to JP for the photography.

I remember discovering the planet Arrakis when I was about 11 years old and nosily poking around my uncle Greg’s apartment. He lived in a guest apartment behind my grandparent’s house and had a taste for the music of The Police and sci-fi fiction, both of which he passed along to me. I saw Dune on his sofa and the cover just grabbed me immediately – those huge spice worms! So, of course, I had to sneak away with it and read it.

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Admittedly, it was somewhat over my head but the great thing about reading something new at that age is that you’re still open to new concepts and ideas and so suspension of disbelief is much stronger. I fell in love with Paul Atreides AND Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and never had any trouble believing in that otherworldly planet of sand where the worms excrete the spice of life and the sand inhabitants have blue-upon-blue eyes.

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If you haven’t read this book, or seen the DeLaurentiis film, the basic premise is thus: Set hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, there are two warring empire families who are vying for control of the Planet Arrakis. The House Atreides and the House Harkonnen battle it out for the Planet, which is the only known place in their universe where they can mine the spice “melange,” which can extend life, grant extrasensory powers, and even allow people to travel through time. Paul Atreides is the hero of the book, and of course, every hero must have an antagonist. In this case, Feyd-Rautha, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, becomes Paul’s enemy as their families fight to control the spice, Arrakis, and indeed, the universe itself.

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It was interesting for me to reread this book as an adult, because I actually found myself not liking Paul Atreides very much, especially later in the book when he goes to war against the Baron and becomes fully the Kwisatz Haderach. I suppose when someone gains that level of power, it’s difficult not to allow it to change you, though. Another interesting tidbit that I don’t think I paid attention to was the subtext of Duncan Idaho’s secret love for Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica.

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My dad loved this book, too, and I remember he and my uncle Greg having long, intense conversations about it when I was little. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they were analyzing a book, not world politics. It just always seemed so very important, like they were debating the fate of the world or something. Not that this book isn’t marvelous and very detailed, but still. Kind of funny to realize what sci-fi nerds they both really were. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from tree, though. Ahem…..

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Anyway, when rereading this book, I came across this passage, when Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) are entertaining a group of bankers from the Empire, serving them dinner but also trying to find out if they are secretly supporting House Harkonnen. Lady Jessica calls for a most unusual dish.

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Jessica signaled for another course of food and drink. Servants appeared with langues de lapins de garenne – red wine and a sauce of mushroom-yeast on the side………..”Very important,” he agreed. “What is this dish? It’s delicious.” “Tongues of wild rabbit in a special sauce,” she said. “A very old recipe.”

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I hadn’t had rabbit in years, and though I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit tongues, rabbit braised in red wine and mustard, with mushrooms, sounded divine. So that’s what I made, using a combination of rabbit methods from Simply Recipes, The New York Times, and The Two Fat Ladies. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs organic rabbit pieces, skinned and bone-in
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
4 pieces of bacon, cut into strips
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grain Dijon mustard
2 cups red wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley

METHOD
Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces, and brown them in the butter and olive oil. Set aside.

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In the pan juices, add the bacon strips and cook until brown. Yum bacon!

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Remove the bacon, and add the onion, the mushrooms, and the thyme; and cook for about 10-15 minutes. The smell alone will transport you!

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Add the cooked mushrooms and onions to the plate with the bacon, and splash in some red wine to deglaze the cooking pan. Scrape up the lovely brown bits, as they add so much flavor to the dish.

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Whisk together the rest of the red wine with the mustard and the flour, creating a kind of thin slurry. Place the browned rabbit pieces into the pan, and pour over the red wine-mustard sauce.

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Add in the bacon, onions and mushrooms, and gently mix everything around so that the sauce covers everything.

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Cover and simmer on very low heat for up to an hour. After an hour, remove the lid, and remove the rabbit pieces to a plate. Turn up the heat, and let the winy sauce boil hard for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

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While the sauce is reducing, boil some egg noodles in salted water, until al dente, maybe 6 minutes at the most.

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Add the cream to the reduced sauce, stirring so that everything melds harmoniously. Don’t let it curdle.

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Plate the rabbits atop the egg noodles. Ladle over the beautiful, creamy sauce. Garnish with parsley.

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Soooooo good, and just different enough to make a Sunday lunch feel a bit more special. Do try this if you find some good-quality rabbit, or if you’re not a bunny boiler, it’s also delicious with boneless, skinless chicken thighs!

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Don’t you love a story told from an unexpected viewpoint, or from a character who has traditionally been portrayed in a certain way? It gives a much-needed shift in perspective, I think. Seeing things in only one way is both boring and limiting. It’s good to expand your worldview to look at something you always viewed in a specific manner, in a different way.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring is the story of a young woman in 16th century Holland, named Griet. She is ordinary, quiet, of a poor family of famous Delft tile makers, who lives a regular life. Her internal life, however, is another matter. She has the imagination and dreams of an artist and a philosopher, though she has never gone to school. Early in the story, she is taken into the household of the famous painter Vermeer to be an assistant housekeeper, and eventually Vermeer sees that she is different. He asks her to become his painting assistant, and then one of his painting subjects. The feelings between them develop, though they are never spoken.

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The overall feel of this book is reminiscent of the works of Vermeer himself – muted, subtle, calm, but with passion and emotion right beneath the surface. Just as Vermeer’s women always seem to be lost in their own thoughts as they go about pouring milk, trying on pearls, admiring themselves in mirrors, or looking out at the viewer as though inviting them into their world, so is this book a small window into another world. When Vermeer decides to paint Griet as his Girl With A Pearl Earring , all sorts of hell breaks loose – in his house, with his wife, with her family, with the other man who loves her. Oh, love…..the joy and agony it brings, often at the same time.

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The Girl with a Pearl Earring – the painting – has been analyzed endlessly. Her look of invitation – or is it fear? The exotic style of headdress she wears – is she from another country? The beauty of this painting is that it can mean anything you want. She can be a saint, a whore, a queen, a concubine, a servant. Women have been viewed by society in this black-and-white way since the beginning of time, which doesn’t take into consideration that all women have the saint and the sinner in them. The world seems to demand that we be one or the other. So silly, because all women have that capacity to be both angel and devil.

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Stories about women in history fascinate me, because there are so many tales untold. I think about all the dreams and hopes and fears of women throughout time, and wonder how it must have been to live in a certain place or era, and have to do what was expected of a woman in a certain historical time. I feel lucky to live in the time that I do as a woman, with the freedoms of choice we have, the ability to earn our own living and not be dependent upon anyone, to choose to marry or not marry, the privilege and the right to be independent. I hope it will always be so.

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In the opening passage, Vermeer and his wife Catharina come to Griet’s home to see her housekeeping skills. Griet is cooking, assembling ingredients for vegetable soup.

“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked. I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.” I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

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Later in the book, Griet becomes friendly with the butcher’s son, Pieter, who begins to give her parents gifts of beef as he courts their daughter. With the reference to pie in the book passage above, along with all the vegetables, I decided a hearty beef and vegetable pot pie was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me, loosely based on this one from The Food Network, but with my additions of peas, parsley, butternut squash, and herbs. The pie crust I made from scratch using my badass Kitchen Aid.

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 red onion, finely diced
7 baby carrots, cut into circles
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely diced

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1 rib of celery, finely diced
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Half a butternut squash, cut into small cubes
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato bouillon
2-3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 cup frozen peas
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

METHOD
In a large Dutch oven or other stovetop pot that can also go in the oven, saute the beef cubes in the olive oil, after seasoning them with salt and pepper. At this stage, heat the oven to 365 F.

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Remove beef to a plate, and set aside.

Whisk in a tablespoon of flour to the pan juices, add about 2 tablespoons of beef broth and a tablespoon of wine. Mix together, adding a bit more flour, wine and broth, until you get a roux. Keep stirring, to get rid of that floury taste. Then add the tomato bouillon cube.

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When you have a thickened roux, add the Worchestershire sauce and the rest of the beef broth. I was fortunate to have my dear friend Angela, who is one of the most phenomenal cooks I know, cook along with me today and she brought some of her homemade beef stock. Yum!

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Add to the pan the diced celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, butternut squash, garlic and parsley. Saute the vegetables over medium-low heat for about 7 minutes, until they have cooked and started to soften. If brown bits have accumulated at the bottom, stir those in as they will add to the flavor.

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Put the beef back into this lovely-scented mixture, and bring to a low simmer. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if needed. Cover, and cook in the now-hot oven for about an hour. Check for texture after 60 minutes, and cook a bit longer if the meat is not cooked to your liking.

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Increase oven to 400F degrees. Remove the pan and check the meat texture. Add 1/4 cup of broth and 1/4 cup wine, and stir to re-amalgamate. Add the peas and the paprika. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Roll out the homemade crust and press it over the top of the Dutch oven, using that as your pie pan. There wasn’t quite enough dough to cover the pan top, so I used it as a topping cover inside the pan. We do what we have to.

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Cut small slits in the top of the pie crust, and return to the oven for another 30 minutes, or until the crust has set and become golden-brown, and the juices start to bubble out. Delish!

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Serve and eat with relish on a chilly evening. So good, and comforting, too.

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