Bistro at Home
As we enter the heart of winter, my thoughts and tastes turn towards France and the dishes served in the bistros of Paris and Provence. I imagine warm, dimly lit places, full of people and the clanking of dishes and the din of congenial conversations over comforting food and good wine. The daubs and roasts call out to my soul. The kitchen and my New York apartment fill with the extra heat and smell of a slow cooked braise while I sip that extra glass of wine for which the recipe didn’t call. Maybe it’s because January is the month when my wife and I first visited the city of lights and I remember the early dark of a winter evening and the welcoming siren’s song of a perfectly roasted chicken. Or maybe it’s because we are all in hibernation mode and our genes push us to seek out soft, comfortable things.
Whatever the cause, it is this time of year when I pick up my dogeared copies of favorite bistro books and read again the recipes while I dream of what to cook. Each book provides memories and a bit of an armchair journey to other lands. Maybe La Camargue's beef stew with black olives from Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, or roast lamb shoulder from Edward Delling-Williams’ Paris Bistro Cooking, or maybe again take on the three-day process of one of my favorite dishes, cassoulet, from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. The dreaming about what to cook is as enjoyable as the actual cooking itself.
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You need love. Hopefully it’s love for the people you’re cooking for, because the greatest and most memorable meals are as much about who you ate with as they are about what you ate. But love for what you’re doing, and for the ingredients you’re doing it with, will more than suffice. I suggested once to a maniacal barbecue professional that cooking well was not a profession, it was a calling. He laughed and went further: “It’s an illness.” I knew just what he meant. You must like cooking for other people, even if you neither know nor like them. You must enjoy the fact that you are nourishing them, pleasing them, giving the best you’ve got.
You must ultimately respect your ingredients, however lowly they might be. Just as you must respect your guests, however witless and unappreciative they might be. Ultimately, you are cooking for yourself.
Bourdain, Anthony. Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook (p. 19).
Bistro cooking tends to be simple ingredients transformed into sublime dishes through technique and time. Good cooking, true cooking, comes from the need to make something edible from ingredients that were historically of lesser quality. There is a dichotomy between affluence and what used to be known as “peasant food.” Cuts of meat that used to be inexpensive and considered beneath the middle-class now cost as much per pound as steak. As we gain the ability to access foods that were once out of our price range, we begin to crave the comfort of the foods of our ancestors. The dishes that take skill, love, and time to create. They are not fussy dishes. They do not require a lot of ingredients. They do not require “cheffy” technique. They only require good, local ingredients and time. And love, all good cooking requires passion. The comfort received from the food is directly proportional to the amount of love put into the process from the one who cooks the dish.
I love making a braise. It reminds me to slow down. It reminds me to be present. There is something delightful about putting on music, pouring a glass of wine, and taking care of the mise. This is the part that you should truly enjoy. This should be your moment of zen in the kitchen. The calm before the storm. I love focusing on the knife work, making sure all of the ingredients are prepped correctly and in place, and then properly building the dish, slowly building the depth of flavor before placing the pan in the oven and retiring to the living room to read while the aroma of the braise begins to fill the apartment, enveloping everything in a warm hug. This is my definition of a winter weekend happy place.
For this post the menu is simple, seasonal, and satisfying. Gougeres for an appetizer, red wine braised boneless lamb shoulder over creamy polenta for the main, and simple carrot cake for desert. All of the dishes share ingredients to maximize economy as well as tie the meal together.
Gougeres are savory cheese puffs that are a popular appetizer or snack in France. They are made with a choux pastry dough and are usually filled with cheese, but they can also be filled with other ingredients such as ham or herbs.
Pro tip: I like to make a full recipe of gougeres dough and then freeze what I’m not going to use for a quick appetizer later. They are best right out of the oven, but also are great on picnics.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup low-fat milk
4 large eggs
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 cups coarsely grated cheese. I prefer Comte or Gruyere. They add a nuttier flavor to the puff.
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat your oven to 425°F (220°C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, butter, and salt and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour all at once and stir vigorously until the mixture comes together in a smooth ball.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the dough cool for a few minutes. Then, add the eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. The dough should be smooth and glossy.
Stir in the grated cheese until it is well-combined.
Drop the dough by the tablespoonful onto the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches of space between each mound of dough.
Bake the gougeres for 15-20 minutes, or until they are puffed and golden brown. Remove them from the oven and serve them immediately.
Red Wine Braised Lamb Should
This braise uses a classic French red wine based braise and is basically a bourguignon.
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces (170g) bacon, roughly chopped
2-3 pound boneless lamb shoulder
3 large carrots sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 large white onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch coarse salt
2-3 grinds of freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons flour
12 small pearl onions (optional)
3 cups red wine
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 pound fresh cremini mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
Preheat your oven to 300°F (150°C).
In a large Dutch oven or oven-safe pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until it is crispy and the fat has rendered, about 8-10 minutes.
While the bacon is cooking, season the lamb with salt and pepper. Once the bacon is cooked, remove it from the pot with a slotted spoon and set it aside.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the lamb to the pot. Brown the lamb on all sides, about 8-10 minutes total.
Once the lamb is browned, remove it from the pot and set it aside.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the carrots, onion, and garlic to the pot. Cook until the vegetables are softened, about 5-7 minutes.
Stir in the flour and cook for an additional minute.
Add the pearl onions, if using, red wine, chicken stock, tomato paste, rosemary, parsley, and bay leaves to the pot. Stir to combine.
Nestle the lamb back into the pot and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Cover the pot and transfer it to the oven. Braise the lamb for 2-2.5 hours, or until it is tender.
During the last 30 minutes of cooking, heat a separate pan over medium heat. Add the butter and mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms are tender and browned.
Once the lamb is done cooking, remove it from the pot and let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Place a colander over a large pot and carefully empty the braise liquid into the colander to collect the sauce. Discard the herbs.
Return the lamb, vegetables, and mushrooms back to the dutch oven.
Skim any fat off the sauce( if any) and simmer for a minute or two to reduce until the sauce just coats the back of a spoon. You should be left with about 2 1/2 cups.
Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables.
Slice the lamb and serve it with the braising liquid and vegetables.
3 cups water
1 cup milk
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
1 cup yellow polenta or coarsely ground cornmeal
3 tbsp butter
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
In a medium saucepan, bring the water and milk, and rosemary to a boil over medium-high heat.
Add the salt and slowly whisk in the polenta, stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming.
Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring often, until the polenta is thick and tender, about 20-25 minutes.
Stir in the butter and cheese until the cheese is melted and the butter is incorporated.
Remove the rosemary sprigs
Serve the polenta hot, garnished with additional chopped rosemary if desired.
Simple Carrot Cake with Butter Cream Frosting (adapted from recipe by Edward Delling-Williams)
2 cups grated carrots
1 cup neutral vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup sifted flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup Sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Mix oil and sugar to make a slurry
Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl
Add eggs to oil/sugar and incorporate
Add carrots to the mix a handful at a time
Mix in flour mixture until incorporated. Don’t over mix as you don’t want gluten to develop and make the cake dense.
Pour batter into a metal bread loaf pan or cake pan lined with parchment paper. Batter will be a bit wet.
Bake for 50-60 minutes
Let cake cool before frosting
Butter Cream Frosting
1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1/2 cup of cream cheese at room temperature
1 cups powdered sugar
Mix butter and cream cheese until mixed
Slowly mix in powdered sugar
If frosting is a bit soft, place in refrigerator for a bit.
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