Chaudrée au Pineau (Fish Baked with Braised Leeks and Pineau de Charentes)

We love projects around here, and since July 2016, we’ve been attempting to cook everything out of Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. Inexplicably (oh, who am I kidding? We’re slackers) we have never blogged about this, but have put photos in an album on Facebook. It’s lazy, but we do have the enormous honor of having the amazing Paula Wolfert be a follower of this album. Every time she comments or ‘likes’, we squee.

As with our other cookbook project, we’ve made everything harder on ourselves by being on Weight Watchers. WW is not exactly friendly to foie gras, cream, sweet, life-giving butter, confit and duck fat, which are, of course, essential ingredients in southern French cooking. BUT we are determined to finish this book, largely because there has not been one single recipe that hasn’t been utterly wonderful. This new one is no different.

So, recipe number forty-six, Chaudrée au Pineau. It’s super simple, as are many of the best recipes in this book. It’s braised leeks, which are a bed for filets of fish, mussels and scallops. But the devil is in the details. To the braised leeks, you add white wine and Pineau de Charentes. Pineau is an amazing aperitif that’s made from Cognac and sweet unfermented grape juice. It tastes like…(runs downstairs to have some) maybe a young sweet white port? It’s hard to describe but worth tracking down. 

 

The braised leeks go into a casserole, then the filets of fish (we used gray sole and haddock) get rolled up and placed on top, then stuck in the oven, then mussels and large scallops are added and put back in the oven. Once this comes out, it’s finished with an utterly decadent sauce of crème fraîche and brined green peppercorns (thanks, Amazon), and parsley, tarragon and chives.

Holy cow, this was good. The fish was perfectly cooked and lightly perfumed with all the fragrant herbs, and the leeks – OMG, the leeks. They were rich, buttery, silky, leek-y, and a genius-level contrast with the simple fish. The one thing that went a little amiss (and it’s not us if something doesn’t go amiss) was that the enormous mussels Nathan bought weren’t quite done. Next time we’ll buy smaller mussels or put the big ones in earlier. The cooking time in the recipe was spot on for everything else and it would have been a crime to let it cook longer. But still. Wow. Sadly, we did not have bread to sop up the juice, but never fear, we did not hesitate to drink it straight from the bowl. This was totally worth using more than half of our allotted daily WW points. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.

 

Chicken Legs Braised with Tomatoes, Onions, and Garlic & Cranberry Bean Gratin

As I told you in our last post, Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food (book number 5) is one of the handful of cookbooks that Kate and I turn to again and again. Subtitled “Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution,”the book distills Alice’s years of experience and philosophy of cooking seasonal, sustainable ingredients simply and respectfully into a series of lessons on organizing one’s kitchen, basic cooking techniques with representative recipes for each, and a battery of basic recipes for every course and season. Whether you are an inexperienced cook who wants to learn, or an experienced cook who wants to hone your skills, this is truly an essential book. We can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Art of Simple Food is one of the main books we had in mind when we set our guideline that we couldn’t cook any recipe that we had made before as part of this challenge. Alice’s roast chicken recipe, for instance, is the one that we always rely on, as is her Caesar dressing recipe and her biscotti recipe. So, part of the challenge this time was picking a recipe that we hadn’t already cooked using the seasonal Autumn ingredients we had on hand. Happily, we had a pair of plump free range chicken leg quarters and the rest of the bunch of sage from our Leaf & Caul meat CSA box, onions and incredible fresh garlic from Whatley Farm, and, as always, a supply of our friend Steve Sando’s Rancho Gordo beans. Add a big can of Muir Glen tomatoes, and we had all that we needed to cook two recipes: Chicken Legs Braised with Tomatoes, Onions, and Garlic accompanied by a Cranberry Bean Gratin.

Our first tasks were to cook the cranberry beans simply in water and season the chicken legs generously with salt and pepper. While the cooked beans were cooling and the chicken coming to room temperature, we prepared the vegetables and herbs for both dishes: diced onion, carrot, and celery, sliced garlic, and chopped sage leaves for the bean gratin; chopped onion and sliced garlic for the chicken. For the beans, the mirepoix was cooked in olive oil until tender, followed the garlic and sage, and next diced canned tomatoes. The drained beans were mixed with the sautéed vegetables and poured into a gratin dish with enough of the bean broth to almost cover the beans. Before going in the oven, the beans were drizzled with olive oil and covered with breadcrumbs.

Meanwhile, we browned the chicken in olive oil until the skin was brown and crispy. The chicken rested while we prepared the braising liquid: onions cooked in the rendered chicken fat until translucent, then garlic, a bay leaf and a sprig of rosemary, and, again, canned diced tomatoes. The chicken was nestled among the vegetables moistened with a cup of chicken broth. After bringing the broth to a boil and then back down to a simmer, we covered the chicken and put both the chicken and the beans into the oven. Both dishes were supposed to cook for about 45 minutes but at slightly different temperatures, so we took advantage of having two ovens. If we’d only had one, we could have braised the chicken on the stove top, but I prefer taking advantage of the steady heat of the oven over our ancient electric range whenever we can.

Both recipes came out great. We served the chicken on a bed of the vegetables from the braise alongside a generous scoop of the bean gratin. The chicken was moist, succulent, and toothsome, as only a heritage breed free range bird can be, and the beans were crusty on top and fragrant with the aromatic herbs and vegetables.

The leftover bean gratin played a supporting role again the next night at Kate’s birthday dinner along with a green salad and amazing Jersey ribeyes from Otter Farm, and the balance of the beans made a great clean-out-the-fridge soup combined with the reserved bean broth, the braising liquid from the chicken, and some cubed leftover piri piri turkey breast a few nights later. I love being creative with leftovers, and often times, the new dishes are just as good as the original ones.

 

Up next: Chez Panisse Vegetables.

Parsnip Soup with Sage and Toasted Walnuts

Continuing with our sub-collection of Alice Waters books, book number 4 is The Art of Simple Food II: Recipes Flavor & Inspiration from the New Kitchen Garden. We have both volumes of Alice’s Art of Simple Food, and have several go-to recipes from volume I (coming up as book 5), but, inexplicably, neither of us had ever cooked anything from volume II. This book focuses on vegetables and, in contrast to volume I, which has recipes organized by cooking technique, this one features recipes and techniques organized by type of vegetable.

Since we had a bunch of beautiful parsnips from the Midcoast Winter Farmer’s Market in Brunswick and a bunch of freshly harvested sage from our Leaf & Caul meat CSA box, we decided to put them to work in a batch of Parsnip Soup with Sage and Toasted Walnuts. I’m sure that I must have eaten parsnips at some point in the past, but I really feel like I have just discovered them this fall in Maine. Related to carrots, but more subtly flavored and starchier with an intoxicating perfume, parsnips have been a regular component of our weekly roasted chicken and root vegetables the past few months. Similar in texture to a chunky leek and potato soup, but with the natural sweetness and perfume of the parsnips, this hearty soup is enriched with the addition of a spoonful of fried sage and toasted walnut pesto just before serving.

 

The soup started with sautéing thinly sliced shallots in butter until they softened and then adding the sliced white of a leek, a sprig of fresh sage and a sprinkling of salt. After a few more minutes, peeled and chunked parsnips went into the pan to sauté for several minutes before adding chicken broth and simmering until the parsnips were tender. Meanwhile, we toasted walnuts in the oven and crisped a handful of sage leaves in olive oil. When the sage was crisp, we tossed the toasted nuts with the oil and sage and seasoned them with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Along with a few cloves of garlic and some olive oil, we pounded the sage and walnuts in a mortar and pestle to make the chunky pesto that garnishes the soup. Total cooking time was only about half an hour from start to finish, but the flavor and aroma were amazing. It was rich and satisfying without being heavy and was the perfect dinner for a cold night.

 

The leftover soup was also spectacular a few mornings later with a runny fried egg on top. So far, I have to say that we’re batting 100 percent on these recipes.

Up next: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution.

Mussel Soup with Saffron, Fennel, Cream and Spinach

This wasn’t the recipe I’d intended to make. Initially, I skimmed past it because it contained (ominous music) cream and butter, our forbidden friends. I skimmed past a lot of recipes in Paul Bertolli’s gorgeous Chez Panisse Cookbook (book #3) ’cause oil, butter, cream…sigh. We’re also constricted by the fact that we live in semi-rural coastal Maine, and we can’t just pop down to the Berkeley Bowl for any unusual ingredients we might need.

My first two choices had been fish soups. Glorious, complicated project soups. Given the proximity of the, you know, ocean, one would expect that there ought to be fish heads all over the place here, but nooo. None of our local-ish fishmongers had any whole fish other than salmon, which isn’t what I wanted (or, rather, Paul Bertolli wanted) for fish broth. Starting to feel desperate, I re-read the seafood chapter again and decided that this mussel soup wasn’t as pointy as I’d initially estimated.

 

And I’m glad I settled. This was outrageously delicious, and very simple. The mussels are steamed in wine and herbs, then you make a sauce with the wine, butter, cream, saffron, fennel and spinach. We got a new jar of Iranian saffron, and its perfume was heavenly. We’d toyed with making a full batch and freezing it, but wisely decided against it. The servings in the recipe are fairly small, and there’s no way we wouldn’t have gobbled up the whole batch of mussel-y goodness. This is a DEFINITE make-again. It’d be a terrific first course for a dinner party. It’d also be good for lunch like, right now. Next time we’re serving it with bread so we don’t have to lick the bowl.

Next up: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food II.

Oh, and coincidentally, this time last year we were finally having dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse to celebrate Anton’s and my birthdays. It was…exceptional. If you can go, go. The power went out early in the meal, so the place was lit only by candles and by the massive brick oven in the kitchen. Alice herself came out and mingled with us all in the darkness. The experience could not have been more magical. I’m glad that we’re paying tribute to her vision this week.

Lobster salad with green beans, apple, and avocado

We made recipe #2 of our global cookbook cook-through on Friday night from Patricia Wells’ Salad as a Meal. The book, subtitled “Healthy Main-Dish Salads for Every Season,” is packed with recipes, and suggested wine pairings, that I look forward to going back to, but for fall in coastal Maine it was easy to settle on Lobster Salad with Green Beans, Apple, and Avocado.

Since Kate and I are doing Weight Watchers (we have both lost over 30 pounds since August, by the way. Go us!), we have been watching our oil consumption, so the fact this this salad’s dressing is made of Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard, minced chives, and a bit of sea salt was both a bonus and an eye-opener. The combination of the tangy yogurt, hot mustard, and what seemed like an insane amount of minced chives (1/4 cup to a cup of yogurt and tablespoon of mustard) made a wonderfully light and creamy dressing perfectly perfumed with chives that ticked the salt, fat, and acid boxes. As a rule, we avoid non-fat dairy substitutes and just try to use judicious amounts of the real things. Our one exception is non-fat Greek yogurt, which we have found to be nearly indistinguishable from low or full-fat yogurt for cooking or eating with fruit and granola for breakfast. Chobani non-fat Greek yogurt, which we used for this recipe, is particularly good.

This dressing is tossed with blanched green beans, cubes of apple and avocado, and bite-sized pieces of lobster meat. The contrasting colors and textures in the salad were spectacular: crisp-tender green beans, crunchy apple, unctuous melt-in-your-mouth avocado, and sproingy lobster. And it paired beautifully with a bottle of ever-reliable La Vieille Ferme Rosé. This is definitely a salad that we’ll make again and again. We’re also going to experiment with substituting shrimp for the lobster to make this as a potluck dish that should be equally delicious but a bit more economical.

Although lobster is much more reasonably priced and fresher here in Maine, the pound of lobster meat called for by the recipe for four servings is still rather extravagant. We’ve found that a 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pound lobster contains four to five ounces of tail, claw, and knuckle meat which is useable for a salad or lobster roll. We halved the recipe and used the meat from two lobsters to make two very satisfying servings. Already picked lobster meat is available, but it is much more economical to buy whole lobsters and shell them oneself. And of course the bonus to picking one’s own lobsters is that you have the shells and heads to make stock with.

Up next: Paul Bertolli & Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Cooking, the first, or rather last, of nine Alice Waters/Chez Panisse books on our shelf.