One of the biggest adjustments for me with this new cohabitation thing has been figuring out dinnertime. Suffice it to say that the food of my bachelorette days just doesn’t cut it when it comes to feeding a hungry guy (wait, you mean dudes aren’t down with scrambled eggs or a “big salad” and three bites of reheated lunch leftovers for dinner every night?!). So my new challenge in the kitchen is to come up with meals that are satisfying for the male half of the household but not too taxing after a day’s work*. That, and planning ahead enough to have certain ingredients on hand so as to minimize after-work errand-running that cuts into my cooking time.
That said, there’s a part of me that chafes at the thought of the fast-n-easy Rachel Ray-style school of cooking. I’d rather spend all Sunday in the kitchen making a huge pot of stew or something else we can reheat a couple times through the week. I’m fine with making the occasional quickie meal (pasta puttanesca or weeknight omelettes are favorites), but sometimes I want something a little snazzier; plus, someone complains if they feel too protein (ahem, *meat*)-deprived for too many days in a row.
Having splurged recently on some nicer-than-usual wines at Western Market, I decided to try a recipe I’ve had my eye on for a while, a braised salmon in Pinot Noir from Molly Stevens’ excellent book All About Braising. Folks, I’ve sung the praises of this book and its recipes many times before, and if you haven’t yet picked it up I would highly recommend it! Although the recipe required some slicing, dicing and infusing, it was really easy and I was able to do the prep work while the side dishes (a Wehani rice and some Puy lentils) cooked. All in all I’d say the meal took a little over an hour, not too much effort considering the fantastic results.
I wasn’t sure if my skillet handle was ovenproof so I decided to do the braise on the stovetop. The salmon came out a tiny bit on the dry side (my fault, not the recipe’s), but paired with the flavorful sauce, it was still very good eats. The red rice and lentils were the perfect earthy accompaniments to the mushroom and bacon-laced wine sauce.
I was inspired a few nights later to pan-sear some venison tenderloin and make a similar pan sauce of shallots, mushrooms and wine. It’s a shame that Marvin wasn’t home to enjoy it with me; he was in NYC for his first gallery show (nice, right?) so I had the tenderloin all to myself. I would’ve waited to make the dish for us both, but due to a freezer debacle (cough*dontbuykenmore*cough) I was trying to use things up before they spoiled. I salted the meat, seared it in clarified butter to medium, then let it rest while I cooked shallots in the butter and deglazed it with red wine. The mushrooms were cooked in a separate pan while the meat was cooking, and added at the end. I ate it with the lentils and rice left over from the salmon dinner and it was nothing short of spectacular. Next year I’m begging my dad for more tenderloin! Also, I want to try one of these venison tenderloin recipes from Hank Shaw’s blog when I have the time/ inclination to get slightly fancier.
I just want to leave you with this: If you’re cooking meat in a skillet and not making a pan sauce, it’s like leaving money on the table. Any crusty bits that remain contain so much flavor and it only takes minutes to create a sauce that will have you scraping your plate. I also like to make pan sauce from chicken drippings that remain after roasting a chicken in a cast iron skillet. Red or white wine can be used, just use whatever you’re drinking. For red meat, cognac or brandy can be used instead of wine; just boil the sauce enough to get rid of any harsh boozy flavor. If you salt your meat, you shouldn’t need to salt your sauce, but taste and see. A couple turns of black pepper is de rigeur as well.
Notes: I scaled the recipe down to serve two, but this version serves four. If making for two, halve the salmon quantity and reduce the other ingredients by about 1/3.
4 wild-caught salmon filets, skin-on, each about 6 oz and about 1 ½ inches thick
4 ounces mushrooms, regular button or a mix
5 slices bacon (about 4 oz), cut into ½-inch strips
1 leek, white and light green parts only, washed and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small shallot, chopped
2 cups light, earthy red wine such as Pinot Noir or a cru Beaujolais (not Beaujolais Nouveau) (yes I know that’s bossy but you’ll thank me)
3 sprigs fresh thyme, each about 2-3 inches
2 Tbs unsalted butter
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
Examine the salmon to see if it contains any pinbones by running your finger down the center. If you feel any small bones, remove them with a tweezer or needle-nose pliers. Season the filets with salt and a little pepper and set aside.
Brush any dirt from the mushrooms (I like to just peel them by gently pulling the outer layer off, just don’t wash them with water). Trim the bottoms of the mushrooms and separate the caps from the stems. Thinly slice the caps and set aside. Dice the stems and reserve separately from the caps.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Prepare the braising liquid: Select a skillet just large enough to hold the salmon filets in a single layer (12-13 inches diameter). Add half the bacon to the cold skillet and cook over medium heat until it cooks through and renders much of its fat; do not allow to crisp. Increase the heat slightly, adding the leek, carrot, shallot and mushroom stems and sauté until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to brown. Add 1 cup of the wine and the thyme and bring to a rapid simmer until the wine is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 cup wine and simmer an additional 5 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, fry the remaining bacon in a medium skillet until crisp; remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towel to drain. Discard most of the bacon grease and add 1 Tbs butter, swirling off the heat to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté over medium high heat until the mushrooms have thrown off their liquid and become golden. Remove from pan and set aside. You will reuse this skillet to finish the sauce. so just leave it on the stove, no need to wash it.
When the sauce base has cooked, add the salmon, skin side down. Cover tightly with foil and/or a lid, and place in the oven. After 15 minutes, check the salmon by discreetly slicing into the thickest part of a filet; if you see just a bare hint of dark pink, it’s done (it will continue cooking as it rests).
Remove the salmon to a plate and cover with foil. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into the medium skillet, pressing down with a spoon to obtain as much liquid as possible. Bring to a rapid simmer for 2 minutes and reduce to a gentle simmer, whisking in the remaining 1 Tbs butter.Add the reserved bacon and mushrooms and the parsley. Taste for salt and pepper, adding if needed.
Plate the salmon and top it with the sauce; serve immediately.
…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!
It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries. Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin. In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing. Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.
So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale! Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get. They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.
Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection. She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen. In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her. But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.
I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half. Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong? I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen? Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh. This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding. However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.
The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene. As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf. The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce. Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce! I think I was more upset about it than anything.
That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left. I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so. It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them. At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body and flavor to my sauce. I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).
I’m still not sure what happened with the meat. I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled. If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know! Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.
P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley. Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!
For those of you who read my post last week about our Valentine’s day near-disaster, you know that we had originally planned on having oxtails. I’m happy to report that I was able to make them the next day without any problems, although we did still eat late, around 9PM. This really is a dish to make the day before, or to start first thing in the morning!
I wanted to make oxtails for many reasons- because I’d never had them before; because I’d read recipes in 2 of my favorite cookbooks saying how great they were; and, OK, just because it’s a cut of meat with a cool-sounding name!
(I have to pause here and chuckle a bit at a couple friends who asked me, quite innocently, “What are oxtails?” It was as if they couldn’t quite believe it would actually be what it sounded like. I hope the photos give you a vivid understanding!)
I’m going to be lazy and not post the whole recipe for the oxtails, since it runs a few pages long, and because I think you can probably get a good oxtail recipe several places on the internets. I read two different recipes before settling on one- one was from the Zuni Café Cookbook, and the other from All About Braising. I chose the latter, not for any reason in particular except that it seemed slightly simpler (that, and the fact that I don’t often have an excuse to use a whole bottle of wine in a recipe).
To start, after trimming as much fat as I possibly could, I marinated the meat in a bottle of wine with a sachet of aromatics in cheesecloth: bay leaves, peppercorns & allspice. The allspice made it smell like mulled wine after it had sat for a day, and I was afraid its flavor was going to be too dominant, but it turned out fine. The instruction to marinate the meat for a day or so caused me to ponder: wouldn’t this cause the wine to oxidize and lose flavor? We used a pretty decent bottle of wine on this recipe since we were “splurging” for Valentine’s day, but I have to wonder if after being open to the air all that time, plus the 4-hour cooking time, would anyone be able to tell the slightest difference between that and something for $4 from Trader Joe’s?
The recipe instructed me to broil the meat before braising, to get it browned. I liked this method; you just have to keep a careful eye because it can quickly go from browned to blackened. Meanwhile, I cooked onions, carrot, celery and garlic with diced pancetta. I have to say, I thought the pancetta was gilding the lily a bit given how much fat was in the oxtails, and I don’t know that I would have missed it had I used olive oil instead. (The Zuni Café recipe actually called for a pig’s foot to add “body” to the braising liquid!! Call me a philistine, and I do love my pork, but I think there’s plenty enough bones and fat in oxtails without having to pork it up.) After the veg was cooked and the bottom of the pan started to get brown, I added some tomato paste and dried porcini mushrooms that had been soaked in warm water, and then a couple tbs brandy to deglaze the pan. The next step was to add the wine, mushroom liquid and some stock in stages and reduce it on the stove. Then the meat went in the pot, nestled tightly so it was nearly covered by the braising liquid, and into a 300-degree oven it went.
The recipe I used suggested a 4-hour braise, but after 3 1/2 hours we were getting pretty hungry so I pulled the meat out to check it. It looked plenty tender, so I removed the meat from the braise with tongs and let it cool a bit. I’m glad I decided to take it off the bone before serving, because it was so incredibly fatty that we would have ended up eating big chunks of fat had I not separated the meat and thrown a lot of the fat away. Despite my best efforts, a good deal of fat still made it back into the dish because it was so marbled in with the meat. I probably skimmed about 1 1/2 cups of liquid fat from the braising liquid as well. I knew this wasn’t going to be diet food, but I had no idea it would be THAT fatty. I am pretty inexperienced with beef though!
The meat and braising liquid (more of a compote at this stage) formed a thick, chunky ragu that we served over polenta. Chopped fresh parsley was an absolute must- I don’t know about you, but I need to taste a little something fresh and green on my palate when eating a rich meat dish. I didn’t completely shred the meat; I tried to leave it in bigger chunks, but once it was separated from the bone it pretty much fell apart. I hadn’t intended it to be a “sauce” necessarily, but then I had never made it before so didn’t know quite what to expect. I added a small amount of tomato juice and diced tomatoes (from a can) to loosen the sauce a bit and add a bright acidic note to counterbalance the richness. I think if I made it again, I would add a can of tomatoes to the braise instead of just tomato paste. That was what the Zuni recipe called for. But I think in the recipe I used, the wine was supposed to be the star ingredient; perhaps more tomato would have thrown off the balance.
We definitely enjoyed this dish immensely, and I’m glad I got to try my hand at something new, but I’m not sure if it will become part of my repertoire. For one thing, the cost of the dish was just about as much as a fancy dinner for two in a restaurant! In addition to the $13 bottle of wine we dumped in there, the cheapest oxtails we found were at the Honeybee Market for $3.50/lb, and it called for 5 lbs. I would guesstimate that we ended up with less than a pound of actual meat at the end of the cooking process. I do kind of want to try Judy Rodgers’ recipe at some point for comparison’s sake though- she salts the meat a day ahead rather than marinating it, and her recipe calls for less wine (1 3/4 cup) and more tomatoes. I also wouldn’t mind trying an oxtail recipe from a different part of the world- my cousin mentioned she’d had a Chinese-style oxtail dish with star anise and it intrigued me!