Beef Stew and Blueberry Cobbler
On Monday, my family had just returned from a long trip. I took it upon myself to spend a little more time in the kitchen making a special meal for my family. I made two recipes: Martha Stewart's Sicilian Style Beef Stew and Cook's Country Blueberry Cobbler. The blueberry recipe is behind a paywall but if you are a home cook-do yourself a favor and watch America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country. I also love Milk Street Kitchen (which does not have a paywall and features Christopher Kimball). Good recipes are hard to find and I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to recipes. They take skill to write and while there are amazing recipes that don't teach you new skills-the best ones do. You can build on those skills in other recipes and you can kind of see a scaffolding of learning. I love it. Basically, a lot of cooking is taking the extra time to make sure things are done right. If you don't have time-like I often don't- this can be tedious and frustrating. If you have a day off and someone to entertain your kid for a few hours-go for it.
Here are some tips I would pass on while cooking these recipes:
1. Stew Meat: OK, when I first started making beef stew and other stews I listened to Christopher Kimball and literally cut a 3 lb piece of beef or pork into 1.5 inch cubes. I'm not a butcher and meat got everywhere. I didn't mind it but it took a ton of time. I also had a hard time deciding how much fat to cut off. As a hypochondriac with terrible knife skills this was not a good fit. I know that stew meat is often not the greatest cuts of meat. Here's something I've learned- if you are braising it, it all works out. It saves so much time and it's convenient. You may disagree and that's your prerogative. I'm not a professional chef, again hypochondriac with less than ideal knife skills, but I've found this to be true. Disclaimer: Christopher Kimball is almost always right but this is a time saver that works for me. Essentially, it's how you want to cook and what works for you.
2. The best recipes smell and look great when they are just ingredients. What is a recipe but constructed ingredients- so every piece is important. The fresher the better and when it comes to herbs it makes a world of difference. This recipe called for fennel which smells incredible. It also called for 2 one inch slices of orange zest with fresh rosemary. I grow rosemary in my window but the plant is on it's last legs. Herbs are wonderful gifts for friends. There is something about clipping rosemary from your window or just smelling it when you wake up. It's pungent and fresh. Scents are the most powerful memory and it's good to have that energy in your kitchen. Here's a picture of the chopped up ingredients:
3. Food sounds great too. Cooking is a feast for the senses, as dramatic as that sounds, it makes cooking more fun. This recipe called for shallots to be cooking in the beef fat and dry red wine. It smelled as good as it sounded. Scraping up the brown bits is one of my favorite parts of cooking. I also love using the fat in the pan to soften onions or shallots. I know that sounds pretty intuitive but I didn't grow up cooking a lot of meat and I didn't understand the importance of reusing the fat. It just builds on the flavor. I think it was Anthony Bourdain who talked about how wonderful shallots are when you cook. They add a certain je ne sais quois. They are an ingredient I didn't understand how to use but they are indispensable in the kitchen. If you can read Alice Waters's book The Art of Simple Food. She talks about things you need in your kitchen and shallots are one of them. Trust me on this, they are awesome.
4. Follow quick bread recipes to the tee. For something called "quick bread" you would think easy is a part of it. It's not easy at all. These recipes take a skilled hand and multiple bowls. Do not add liquid until the absolute last minute so you can properly activate the baking powder and baking soda. Also, don't over mix. When I made this recipe, I added a little bit more liquid (the bane of my dough making skills) but it didn't mess with the consistency too much. Trust your chef skills and you aren't on the Great British Bake Off. Paul Hollywood won't frown at you if your dough isn't perfect. Obviously, you want to get better every time but my family has never complained about my dough consistency. Note my liquid ingredients are in a liquid measuring cup for easy pouring. Again this seems intuitive but it's something I wouldn't have thought of on my own.
4. Use hand squeezed lemon juice and zest. I didn't quite understand the importance of fresh lemon juice and zest until I really started cooking. I used to just buy the lemon juice in the plastic containers because I felt like I only used it a couple of times a year. Guys, this was a mistake. Just get a zester and a juicing tool. It adds SO MUCH to your food. Remember the aromatherapy I was mentioning earlier?, lemon zest and juice is the creme de la creme of this element. It makes fruit pop! Since using fresh zest and juice I've noticed it in restaurants. You can taste the extra time they took. Also, your home baked stuff will be a million times better-trust me. These little steps take time but if you want to sit down with your fam and demand high fives about how awesome you are-you need to walk the walk. I'm a pretty humble person but I channel my inner diva when I do a good job cooking. During the holidays I try to make truffles for my loved ones. It's a gift that keeps on giving and I found a really great recipe. The secret ingredients: love and freshly grated orange zest. Zesters cost about $10. Invest in yourself. Get one.
5. Have good cooking music on. I need a mix for everything I do. I have mixes by season and occasion. I had a mix called "Summer Disc Bulge Mix" of music I listened to while I could barely move but still made me smile. There is music for every mood. While cooking you need music that helps you think so basically really good ambient music or music you can sing along to. Music that gets you too emotional is not always the best. I made the mistake of listening to Jason Isbell's "Speed Trap Town" while I was making a salad once. My husband walked in on me mixing the greens and crying to the lyric "how long can they keep you in the ICU?" Jason Isbell is an American treasure but maybe not the best cooking music. This is a song I was listening to as I mixed up my berries for the cobbler. It's a perfect cover of the Elton John original and perfect for moseying around the kitchen. It's Maren Morris singing "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."
I'll update you with my helpful cooking tips from an avid home chef. Below is how the meal turned out. I'll try to use more recipes that aren't behind a paywall but they both turned out great. Let me know your recipes that make you feel triumphant!