Friday, May 30, 2008

There are Wednesdays and then there are Julia days...

A few weeks ago, it was my turn to conceptualize our Wednesday menu, and I thought – ooh, I'm still so excited about my new Julia Child books, and haven't had a chance to try many things from them yet. But after some couch time with the books that Tuesday night, I came to realize that Julia and Wednesdays just don't really mix. All the wondrous things she asks me to do demand much more time and patience than we have between running out of work and turning on the TV. So that night I put down MTAOFC and picked up a book that's been sitting neglected on my shelf for years, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. The first collage above shows its Tunisian Vegetable Stew, which we found to be incredibly quick, healthy and delicious, with a perfect balance of textures. But, because I don't want to deprive you of Julia, and because I'm equally enamoured with quick+healthy and slow+luxurious cooking, the second collage is her Coquilles St. Jacques À La Provençale. My mom, sister and I made this one weekend in April, and it was perfection. Recipes for both follow...

Moosewood cookbooks are well represented on my Mom's shelf, and this one has one of my favourite mom's-comfort-food recipes, Spicy Cauliflower Pasta, which will have to appear on a Wednesday sometime... I've been in the mood for simple food built from a few healthy fresh things lately. But usually when this mood strikes I just shop for the particular veggies I'm craving and make something up. Going back to cookbooks like this though can be worthwhile – in this case it encouraged me to use a veggie I don't much (cabbage) and reminded me how much of a difference garnishes can make because of the texture contrast they create (they're not just pretty!).

Tunisian Vegetable Stew
[from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home]
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
1 tbsp olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
dash of salt
1 large green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne
3 cups undrained canned tomatoes, chopped (28 oz can)
1 1/2 cups drained cooked chickpeas (16 oz can)
1/3 cup currants or raisins (optional)
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
salt to taste

[ garnish]
grated feta cheese
toasted slivered almonds

In a large skillet, saute the onions in the olive oil for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the cabbage, sprinkle with salt, and continue to saute for at least 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell pepper, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, and cayenne to the skillet and saute for another minute or so. Stir in the tomatoes, chick peas, and optional currents or raisins, and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, until the vegetables are just tender. Add the lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve on top of couscous (we used whole wheat couscous – yum) and garnish with feta and almonds
A note about the optional raisins: they're so good! I think they really make a difference here, but others disagree, so we cooked the dish in two pots, one raisin-free, ha ha. What do you all think, are raisins wrong in savory dishes? I remember when I was a kid, my uncle Ken looked after my sister and I one weekend and afterwards we couldn't stop talking about how he was the coolest because cooked raisins in the rice. So good.

And then there's Julia... Her techniques are definitely a departure from my usual throw it together and see what happens kitchen approach, but man do they produce good results. Our Scallops Gratinéed with Wine, Garlic, and Herbs (which we didn't gratiné, as we skipped the swiss cheese) were so so so delicious. Together with steamed asparagus and Israeli couscous and navy bean salad, they were one of the best meals we've ever made. There's just a difference between a great, delicious, simple homemade meal and a meal in which every bite is classic and special in a way that makes you think about the luxury of our lives and our incredible luck in being able to eat this way... Okay, I guess I feel lucky like that while eating every great meal we make, but there is a special feeling French food taps you into, isn't there? Try making these and let me know where they take you!
Coquilles St. Jacques À La Provençale
[from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck]
1/3 cup minced yellow onions
1 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp minced shallot or green onions
1 clove minced garlic

Cook the onions slowly in butter in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or so, until tender and translucent but not browned. Stir in the shallots or onions, and garlic, and cook slowly for 1 minute more. Set aside.

1 1/2 lbs washed scallops
salt and pepper
1 cup sifted flour in a dish

Dry the scallops and cut into slices 1/4 inch thick. Just before cooking, sprinkle with salt and pepper, roll in flour, and shake off excess flour.

2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
A 10-inch enameled skillet

Saute the scallops quickly in very hot butter and oil for 2 minutes to brown them lightly [we did this in several batches, as they didn't all fit in the skillet at once].

2/3 cup dry white wine, or 1/2 cup dry white vermouth and 3 tbsp water
1/2 bay leaf
1/8 tsp thyme

Pour the wine, or the vermouth and water, into the skillet with the scallops. Add the herbs and the cooked onion mixture. Cover the skillet and simmer for 5 minutes. Then uncover, and if necessary boil down the suce rapidly for a minute unitl it is lightly thickened. Correct seasoning, and discard bay leaf.

At this point, Julia has you spoon the scallops and sauce into scallop shells, sprinkle them with grated Swiss cheese and run them under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes. This would probably be great, but they were still amazing without.

So, the question is – simple food or luxury food? Is it possible to have an equal passion for each, or is this a point of division among foodies? And, if Julia doesn't do it for you, who do you turn to for your luxury?

Tomorrow I head off to Toronto, and hope to spend a week eating both simply and luxuriously!


Leeeeesha said...

I suppose I'm more partial to the quick + healthy variety of cooking, purely because it's what seems possible for me to do on a regular basis. I love the feeling of creating something tasty and satisfying just by amassing a few ingredients.

Last night, I was chatting to Laura and Michelle about how cooking seemed so daunting to me before I'd really gotten comfortable doing it. I remember at the time, when tasting something especially yummy, I'd conclude that it must have been difficult and complicated to make, and therefore out of my culinary realm. Of course I know now that I was just being silly, and that good food doesn't have to be complicated at all.

I do understand your point about the luxuriousness of classic French food, though I've recently gotten into watching 'French Food at Home' on the food network, and the host, Laura Calder, often makes extremely simple French dishes, that aren't time-consuming. Perhaps we should try one of her recipes on an upcoming Wednesday . . . ?

Laura said...

Alisha, I'm totally into trying a Laura Calder recipe. My mom loves her and recommends her. Meg, what a great post. Gorgeous way to present the photos too. I like how you've combined two sorts of cooking, and a Wednesday and a weekend post in one. I think cooking together in a Wednesday-type-situation has given me the courage to explore food on a deeper level.

Julia's still a bit daunting - her title alone seems a little out-of-reach - but perhaps I should read Julie/Julia? And just give it a go? As for raisins - they are spectacular! (though I suppose my position doesn't surprise any of you, as I was in the raisin-in camp). Looking forward to seeing some of the food you had in Toronto!

Meg said...

Hey guys - I'm totally into learning some of Laura's French food at home to, let's do it! I don't want to give Julia a bad rap - she does have some great simple recipes, it's just when I go looking for a whole meal, I get enticed by the fancy ones... But last night I made her buttered green beans and they were PERFECT. And very quick and simple. Although she's all about technique, sometimes it's just a simple change from what I would have done and makes a big difference.

Laura, you should definitely read Julie/Julia - I have it back from my mom now, so I'll bring it to you tomorrow.

You're totally right Alisha about how great it is to feel like those amazing tasting things are all within our reach now... (well, not all, but so many).

Toronto food coming soon... we mostly stayed closer to the simple end of things as we were so busy exploring, stopping for afternoon beers, trying on vintage dresses (just me!), etc. But there was one absolutely sublime lemon tart in a very nice restaurant...

heather said...

Hello Meg,
Your mom passed your blog on to me and it is a sensual pleasure indeed. While waiting for the sun to chase the clouds away as promised, I salivated my way through a few menus. The Israeli couscous will be coming to an Edmonton plate real soon. That oregano soon as Maria's oregano is plentiful, I'll be on it.
Glen and I are delighting in eating greens from the garden as well as parsley, basil and armfuls of dill. With only two of us to cook for I am having loads of fun cooking to empty the cupboards and the garden. I'm off to the deck to work on "the quilt". Thank you for taking the time to contribute something so pleasing and inspiring to my day.

Tessa said...

I am sitting in the kitchen waiting for my experimental wheat-free bread to come out of the oven so I can go to bed and have become pleasurably distracted by your blog. Scrolling through the posts, I am delighted to see a meal that I so fondly remember cherishing this spring. While the meal was amazing, I remember best stealing bites of the left over couscous from the fridge the next day. I wish there was some in my fridge right now!