My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Morning Scene

This is the view from my balcony on the 50th floor of Marina Towers in Chicago.
I really love this old building. . .

Friday, October 29, 2010

You're Never Too Old . . .

You're never too old to learn new tricks. I'd like to think that Julia Child kept learning new cookery ideas into her nineties.

There always seems to be tricks-of-the-trade when it comes to prepping food items. I love watching cooking shows and reading endless cookbooks. When I learn a new shortcuts, all the better.

When I was a restaurant manager in my late twenties, a little woman with Down syndrome showed me a really cool method that I have never seen or heard of from any chef, book, or TV program. To this day, no one has ever demonstrated this. . .

She had been a prep cook for years at the same restaurant. One day, I was helping her by prepping a whole case of grapes, picking them off the stems. She brushed me aside, took an entire bunch of grapes between her hands and rubbed them back and forth, quickly and firmly, between her hands. The grapes fell off the stem and into a bowl almost by magic.

Try it! In just a few seconds, you'll have a bowl of grapes and the "grape bones" left behind. To this day, I've never known of any TV cook or chef know of that technique. They're too busy telling us to wipe every mushroom off with a damp towel - - - like any of them have actually ever done that to a whole case of mushrooms - - - bah!

We love pomegranates nowadays but those delicious, pulpy kernels are a pain to get out. Solution: Simply cut the pomegranate in half across its hemisphere, hold the cut side down over a bowl and whack the skin side with something heavy. (I prefer the side of a large cleaver.)  Really give its backside a good spanking all over. The kernels will magically tumble into the bowl -- every one of them -- and not a bit of the bitter pith.  (Thank you, Nigella Lawson, for that tip.)

Here's something I learned just recently. Grape tomatoes. I really enjoy them because they taste just about as close to home-grown tomatoes as you're gonna get. However, one can spent an inordinate amount of time cutting each of the little boogers in half.

Here's the solution:

Thanks to Chuck Hughes of Chuck's Day Off for that one. It's brilliant.

I would love to think that some young kitchen assistant showed him how to do that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I recall one of Julia’s cooking segments which was a nod to vegetarian cuisine. In this program, she acknowledged that some folks don’t eat meat, so she acquiesced and offered a vegetarian option. It consisted of crepes, sautéed vegetables and grated cheese all layered in a mold which was then filled with a cream and egg mixture and baked.

Cheese, crepes, eggs, and cream. That was Julia’s foray into vegetarianism.

During the program, she acknowledged that there were vegetarians who don’t eat any animal products such as her beloved cream, eggs and cheese. She said, “In that case, I suppose you could serve them something like -- oh, I don't know -- maybe granola with tomato sauce.  A better option would be not to invite these people to dinner at all.”

Doncha just love her?

I have to admit that I eat a do vegan diet much of the time and even enjoy it. Eating a healthy, plant-based diet at my age makes me feel good and enables me to enjoy Julia’s boeuf Bourguignon without any guilt, so there you go.

Awhile back, my friend Diane had heard about the Raw Food diet and wanted to try it. Diane loves just about anything New-Agey and enthusiastically wants to try it. (We love that about her.) From reincarnation to Reiki, from crystals to colonics, our Diane is "in on it."

The Raw Food restaurants in Chicago were awfully expensive and trendy. Here's a menu example.  So, I decided to prepare and serve an entire Raw Food meal for our Diane and friends. Everything was plant-based. Nothing was cooked.

Julia wholly disdained a “fear of food”. Can you imagine what she would think of the Raw Food movement in which there’s not only a fear of any animal products, but also a fear of cooking food? 

Oh my gosh!

So, from Julia's boeuf Bourguignon to a complete Raw Food meal, here we go.

Appetizers: Portobello mushrooms stuffed with macadamia nuts and a sauce from dried tomatoes, dates and fresh basil, then dehydrated a bit. These were awfully appealing and very rich. They could have been an entree.

Tomatoes stuffed with raw peanuts, parsley and mint. Very light, but packed with flavor.

Not pictured: Lettuce wraps stuffed with mashed avocado, raw corn and cilantro. (From here on out, I will always add raw corn to my guacamole. It’s fantastic that way.)

Main course: “Fettuccini” and “meatballs”.

The “fettuccini” was comprised of shaved yellow squash that had been marinated in olive oil and lemon juice. The sauce was the aforementioned sun dried tomato-date-basil concoction but with the addition of garlic. The “meatballs” were made from ground cashews, a bit of the sauce, and then dehydrated. It was all served on baby spinach. Again, this was very, very rich and tasty.

That was one recipe that I got off the internet. It was for Salsa Finta and Almond Polpetta, but I adapted it for cashews to make it richer. Also, I'm not fond of the texture or taste of almonds.

Dessert: Ice cream made from pureed macadamia nuts and mango served with fresh raspberries and pomegranate. It was a big hit.

I was pretty proud if this meal. A meat-lover enjoyed it. Everyone did. 

Yes, I admire the Raw Food diet but, my goodness, it is time consuming. A lot of recipes call for beans and grains, all of which have to be sprouted since you’re not cooking them. (If you're wanting to make flat-breads or tortillas out of those grains, they have to be sprouted, ground, pureed with sprouted beans and then dehydrated for 24-36 hours. Whew!)

What I do like about Raw Food is that everything in the recipes is something one should be eating. Take a look at the menu above. Every ingredient is good for you. That’s pretty remarkable.

Yes, it’s tasty. Yes, it’s all good for you. But one bite of Julia’s steak au poivre and you realize what food should truly be about. I would never find myself ecstatic over a raw, vegan meal. Appreciative, yes; enthusiastic, perhaps; delirious? hardly.

However, I am continually astounded whenever I prepare Julia's recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Not to mention appreciative, enthusiastic and delirious.)

On that note, if you’re serving steak au poivre and you have friends who are strict vegans, take Julia’s sage advice: Simply don’t invite them.

Problem solved.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sortilège - Still Life

Here's a nice photo of the Canadian liqueur, Sortilège. 

It's that incredible blend of Canadian whiskey and maple syrup liqueur. You can order it here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Paella to the Rescue

Sometimes, sheer necessity can decide a menu. My apartment doesn't have a dishwasher and only one studio-sized sink in the kitchen. After Saturday night's Julia extravaganza, the last thing I wanted to do was to face any more dishes to wash. I'd been soaking and washing dishes for two days.
What to do? 

I realized that I had a tiny plastic box of saffron that had been hanging around in my cupboard for about ten years. Presented with that, paella was the answer.

I'd never made paella before but, to me, it seemed like a Spanish risotto free-for-all. A sofrito of Cuisinarted onion, tomato and garlic went into olive oil. Chorizo, chicken and red bell pepper were close behind. Medium-grain rice was sauteed. Soaked saffron, chicken stock, turmeric, and pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) did the cooking. 

By the way, if you don't have pimentón on hand, get some. It's just about the sweetest, smokiest thing ever and can zhoozh up just about anything.  

Shrimp came at the end. Lemon wedges, parsley and olive oil were festooned. 

One pan on the table, two plates, two forks, a good friend, laughter . . .  I can see why the Spanish are such happy, relaxed people. We couldn't stop eating.

And the dishes are done and put away as I'm writing this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bavarois au Chocolat Blanc - White Chocolate Bavarian Cream

On Saturday night, I had four friends over for another Julia Child meal. I knew that my friend, John, really likes Julia’s boeuf Bourguignon, so that was definitely on the menu. Besides, it’s easy to serve; no fiddly last-minute sauces to prepare.

Here’s a table setting.

Yes, I had a course in napkin folding when I went to restaurant management/cooking school many years ago. This one, the “artichoke fold” is the only one I remember.

John's wife, Carla, has to have salad with every meal and here’s one of our favorites: Spinach with grape tomatoes, mangoes, with an orange-balsamic vinaigrette. Besides, I really like the primary colors of red and yellow on my blue plates.

And here you go: Heaven on a plate. Julia’s boeuf Bourguignon and asparagus with Julia’s beurre blanc.
Incidentally, beurre blanc tastes fantastic on boeuf Bouguignon. I don't know if it's ever been served that way; perhaps I'm just being an obscene American, but maybe it should.

Dessert was my favorite (something you’ll rarely hear me say.) I’ve been preparing Julia’s Bavarian creams in all their variations: Orange, strawberry, plain, almond praline, and chocolate. There were no more variations left in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had done 'em all.

My favorite cookie is a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie – why not make a white chocolate macadamia nut Bavarian cream?

I melted lots of white chocolate into the custard which became the Bavarian cream. For the topping, toasted macadamia nuts went into the whipped cream. Here it is.

Perhaps I need to figure out a way to make it more presentable. This sort of has a Rachel Ray glop-n-slop thing going on here. Next time, I’ll pipe the whipped cream around the sides and mound the nuts on top.

But, holeee COW this was incredible! Somehow the white chocolate caused the Bavarian cream to have a double layer. One layer was fluffy, as it should be, and a larger layer was thick and custardy with white chocolate. It's definitely my favorite dessert now.

Now this is what I love. After making all five types of Julia's Bavarian creams, I can honestly say that she taught me how to make a Bavarian cream. Now that I had Mastered the Art of Bavarian creams, it was time to venture out on my own.

So, here's the recipe for Bavarois au Chocolat Blanc:

2 Pkgs gelatin
1/2 cup warm milk

Scatter the gelatin over the warm milk. Stir until dissolved.

7 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar

Gradually beat in the sugar into the egg yolks and continue beating for 2 to 3 minutes until mixture is pale yellow and forms a ribbon.

1 1/2 cups boiling milk
8 oz. white chocolate chips (2/3 pkg)
2 tsp vanilla

Beat the milk in a thin stream of droplets into the egg yolk mixture. Pour into a large saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir with a rubber spatula until mixture thickens enough to coat the spoon lightly. Do not overheat or egg yolks will scramble. Remove from heat and immediately add the milk and gelatin mixture, white chocolate chips and vanilla, stirring until the gelatin and chocolate have dissolved completely.

5 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 Tb granulated sugar
Large bowl of ice.

Beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks are formed; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed. Using a rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the hot custard. Set over the ice. Fold delicately with the spatula frequently while mixture is cooling to keep it from separating. When cold and almost but not quite set, proceed with the recipe.

1/2 cup chilled whipping cream

Beat the cream over the preceding bowl of ice with a balloon whisk until it has doubled in volume. Fold in the whipped cream into the custard. Line a 9-inch springform cake tin with plastic wrap, leaving extra plastic wrap over the sides. Pour the mixture into the tin, gently place the overhanging plastic wrap over the mixture and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

1 cup chilled whipping cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup toasted macadamia nuts, chopped.

Beat the cream as before, adding the sugar halfway during the process and fold in the chopped nuts once the cream is fully whipped. Unmold the chilled Bavarian cream on a serving platter. Spread the whipped cream and nut mixture over the top and serve.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nigella's Roasted Seafood

Besides Julia, I also enjoy the talents of Nigella Lawson whose motto is “maximum pleasure with minimal effort.” Yes, I find a lot of pleasure in the maximum effort that some of Julia’s creations entail. But there are times when one is pressed for time, when the workday leaves you a bit worse for wear, and the idea of creating a perfect beouf bourguignon seems insurmountable.
Enter Nigella.

I have made a few of her recipes and, yes, they are amazingly effortless and tasty. (Her chocolate Guinness cake is absolutely astounding and, true to form, is very easy to create. On a recent episode of her new program, Nigella Kitchen, she featured a “roasted seafood” that caught my attention. I made it after a harrowing day at work and am very glad I did.

No fiddly techniques are required whatsoever. Bung the following items in an oiled roasting pan: A couple of potatoes cut into one-inch chunks, a sliced onion, a lemon cut into quarter-inch bits, and a head of garlic separated into cloves. Bake at 400 for an hour. You don’t need to peel the lemon, garlic or potatoes (see? easy-peasy). The lemon peel caramelizes and the garlic cloves become crunchy savory-sweet morsels of yum.

After an hour, scatter your choice of seafood over the roasted bits. Nigella used clams (in the shell), squid and unpeeled shrimp. The heat from the roasted potatoes, etc, gets the seafood jump-started. Give the pan a splash of white wine (about a quarter cup) and return to the oven for 10 minutes.

I used a half pound each of scallops, shrimp and a couple of salmon filets. I’m always wary of using clams because one gritty clam can ruin a whole meal. I love squid but the seafood lady didn’t have any.

Plunk the entire roasting dish on the table and dig in.

Even Nigella has mentioned Julia’s motto:
Everything in moderation . . . including moderation.

So, in the vein of obligatory immoderation, I served Nigella’s creation with Julia’s beurre blanc. Each diner was supplied with a bowl of it for dipping and slathering. What a meal!

Trust me, Nigella’s roasted seafood didn’t require it. Lemony, garlicky, savory seafood. It’s pleasurable enough on its own.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sortilège - The Best Liqueur Ever

A few years ago, my friend, Jack, was touring Montréal and came across this very unique liqueur called Sortilège. The tour guide explained that Sortilège had been produced in Montréal for over three hundred years and could only be obtained there in Québec. So, naturally, he bought a bottle of it and brought it home for his friends to sample at the next dinner party.

I was amazed the first time I tried Sortilège. (By the way, sortilège means "magic spell" in French -- a very appropriate name for this elixir.) It's a blend of Canadian whiskey and maple syrup liqueur. Got that? When you taste it, you first get a hit of sweet, vaporous, whiskey followed by . . .
. . . pancakes!

Seriously, the maple syrup flavor comes through after the whiskey makes itself known. Every time I've ever served it, it's been a big hit. People love this stuff. As a matter of fact, when it comes to distilled spirits, I've been more of a gin-and-tonic guy, have never liked "anything brown" (whiskey, bourbon, Scotch) but Sortilège was the exception. 

And yes, you can obtain it outside Québec. It's a little difficult, as distributors seem to come and go, but you can get it. Click here -- this seems to be a pretty good price for it. ($19.99 for a 375 ml bottle.)

A couple of years ago, I ordered a case of it and it was the best money I ever spent. A bottle of it makes the best gift ever. No one's ever heard of it but, like I said, everyone loves it. Need a last-minute Holiday gift? Something truly unique to bring to a dinner party? Having Sortilège on hand comes in so very handy. If you don't want to spring for a whole case, go in halfsies with a friend. You'll both be very glad you did.

The slender, amber-filled bottle is also quite elegant and impressive.

I like it best at room temperature. When served chilled, the whiskey-ness seems to get muted. Once I tried to be clever by adding cream to it -- sort of heading in a Bailey's Irish Cream direction -- and it just made it bitter for some reason. So, yes, room temperature is best in my opinion.

I've been so enamored with this liqueur that I even wrote a song about it called O Sortilège! sung to the tune of O Canada. You can sing it at your next dinner party if you know the tune to O Canada.

First, here are the words to O Canada:

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

And then here are my words to O Sortilège:

O Sortilège!
We drink a toast to thee.
Sipping liqueur imbued with maple trees.
With glowing hearts, oh Canada
With each glass we partake;
We Americans do love thee more
The elixir our neighbors make!
Oh Canada, free up your stores
Sortilège upon our nation’s shores; 
With Sortilège upon our nation’s shores!

The holiday season is right around the corner. Time to put in my Sortilège order. 
Christmas shopping -- done!