Julia Child is famous for saying "no excuses, no explanations." But one of the pitfalls of being a Virgo is the inherent desire for perfection. Gorgeous photos, delicious food, engaging writing; that's what I'm striving for when I post. The problem with this philosophy is that it's relatively difficult to do all three of those things concurrently and consistently, especially when the blog is a hobby and you have a day job. The idea is also antithetical to the nature of a blog. It's not a book, and is not fussed over for years before being published. This is not a complaint by any means, but an observation about the learning process I've undertaken.
I consider myself a competent-or-better cook. I am a novice photographer. I am a newb when it comes to blogging. Last weekend brought all of my shortcomings into focus. Some of the pictures were great, largely due to full daylight helping me along. But the best part of what I cooked came after dark, when it's difficult to take pictures (without a more advanced camera, or expensive lighting). Finally, I found myself with little interesting to say. Woe. There was plenty to say, but it wouldn't crystallize into anything worth reading. This is likely due to the fact that I tried to write after eating; while in a food coma, and feeling exceptionally fat, dumb, and happy.
However, I am disinclined to throw out the pictures I liked, or the recipes themselves, because what we ate last weekend was really, really good. And as a good friend reminded me, "this is my life," not content for a trendy magazine. So here we go, with me cringing all the way at the potential criticisms. But this is all part of what I want to learn with this blog; how to do something I love without being paralyzed by the desire for perfection. Welcome to group therapy, coffee is on the sideboard, choose any available seat.
It was a good weekend for comfort food. The past couple weeks had been feeling Spring-like, but Seattle has a way of backsliding into winter on you without notice. I wanted something hearty for our big weekend meal, maybe even a bit decadent, to fend off the cold and wind. I didn't necessarily want to spend the entire day in the kitchen though. I split the difference, and made one recipe which required a bit of prep, and extended cooking time. The other two dishes I made are easy favorites I know by heart, requiring little actual effort on my part.
For the "thinking recipe" I chose scalloped potatoes. It was Easter weekend and I've always had a soft spot for scalloped potatoes and spiral-cut ham, followed by Cadbury eggs. My husband isn't a ham guy, but he loves potatoes, so there we are. I've never made scalloped potatoes before. I don't know why, I really like them, but the last time I remember eating them my mother made them. Her recipe is good; simple, potatoey and creamy. It's adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Complete Step-by-Step Cookbook (1978). I didn't change much, but I did add cheese and some additional spices to try to boost the flavor, which even Mom said could seem bland.
The potatoes were delicious. The flavor was quite good; rich Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet onion, Gruyere cheese. The texture was excellent; creamy sauce and fully cooked, tender potatoes. Their appearance, however, looked a bit like an oil slick. I only used 3 T of butter, some recipes called for significantly more, but when combined with the Gruyere you would have thought an entire stick of butter was in the dish. Now, that's not to say it didn't TASTE REALLY GOOD, but had I been serving these potatoes to company I would have been a bit embarrassed at their greasy appearance. And that's what I get for not following mom's recipe, and trying to get all high-falutin' with my fancy French cheese. Mom's potatoes did not include cheese or butter and were never greasy, but rich, creamy and delicious. So in the interest of full disclosure, I did not make Mom's recipe exactly as written. This happens to be a pet peeve of hers, so I wanted to put that out there. =)
But then we ate the potatoes again the next day, after I had written the above "excuses." Disregard everything I said about the butter and cheese; I wouldn't change a thing. How could I have been so wrong? The next day, the potatoes were unreal! They reheated in the microwave absolutely perfectly (on 50% power for about 2 minutes). No separating of the sauce, no oily plate under a disintegrated potato mush. It was a solid slice of casserole, like a lasagna. The potatoes maintained their integrity insofar as shape and texture. The cheese was sublime. I cannot believe how much difference a day made to their appearance. My guess is that the post-cooking trip in the fridge gave the potatoes a chance to soak up more of the sauce. So my advice is to make 'em the day before. Reheat at 300 degrees until hot and prepare to eat way too much. And isn't that almost perfect for a recipe like this? You have a big gathering to attend on Sunday...make the dish on Saturday and relax.
For the scalloped potatoes you want to choose a good boiling potato, or one that holds its shape when cooked. Yukon Golds are my favorite potato; they have a rich, buttery taste and excellent texture. You could also use redskins, but want to avoid a russet potato that would disintegrate while cooking for a long period of time. I also think the milk you choose is important. I used whole milk and was pretty satisfied with the consistency of the resulting sauce. Some recipes call for heavy cream, but you have to be very careful to keep the temperature below a simmer to avoid curdling. I wasn't interested in having to watch these potatoes that closely, so I chose milk.
The assembly of the dish is rather straightforward. Peel and slice the potatoes 1/8" thick. You can keep the potatoes in a bowl of cold water to avoid browning; both before and after slicing. Then you dry the potatoes on paper towels, or in a clean kitchen towel, lay them in a baking dish, and layer all other ingredients on top. It took a little time, but wasn't complicated. After the dish is assembled it cooks for about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Plenty of time to prepare an entree and a side dish without feeling pressured.
For the entree and second side dish I made Filet Mignon with sauteed mushrooms and onions. There is no combination of food we seem to enjoy as much as a good steak, smothered in earthy mushrooms and caramelized onions. Simple to prepare, and takes almost no brain-power whatsoever. Filet is one of our favorite cuts because it's so tender, and at 12 noon on Easter Sunday, they were an easy last-minute option in the grocery store. These filets were not the most visually impressive I've purchased, they weren't exceedingly thick or marbled. However, they were insanely good. It's all about the cooking method; a quick sear and a short blast in a very hot oven.
For the mushrooms and onions I slice a couple onions, add a package of sliced mushrooms, and cook them down in olive oil and butter until dark and caramelized. This time I wanted to spiff it up a bit, and used crimini instead of button mushrooms. WOW that was a good decision, the mushrooms had a toothier texture and a richer, earthier flavor. After the onions and mushrooms had cooked down I added some liquid to the pan to make them saucier. This addition was a huge success and improved not only the flavor of the vegetables, but their appearance as well. They came out of the pan deeply brown in color, glossy, and intensely flavorful.
So after all the dithering, what you see here was a really great Sunday dinner. The potatoes took some time, but were worth it, especially the next day. The filet and mushroom/onion combo is a simple meal you can make anytime and is seriously delicious. If you buy your filets at Costco you don't even have to wait for a holiday weekend; you can get four fat steaks for around $20. I hope that you give these recipes a try, and I hope you come back and tell me about it. And remember, you don't have to be perfect, just have fun. It's a lesson that I need to remind myself of on occasion.
Adapted from my mother's recipe, which was adapted itself as mentioned above. Thanks Mom! =)
6-8 Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
1 small sweet onion, sliced very thinly
1 1/2 t salt
1 t pepper
1/4 t each of dry mustard and garlic granules
1/2 c flour
1 c shredded cheese, I used Gruyere
2 c milk, heated in the microwave until hot
3 T butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a large baking dish. You don't want the potatoes to be more than a couple inches thick in the pan.
Dry the potato slices in paper towels, they layer half in the greased baking dish. Then layer half of the onions on top. Sprinkle with half the seasoning, half the flour, and half the cheese and butter. Add another layer of potatoes, seasoning, flour, cheese and butter. Pour hot milk over potatoes.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/4 hours. Remove foil, stir to combine, and bake uncovered for another 30-45 minutes. You can top with a bit more cheese for the last 15 minutes to brown in the oven.
Quantity will depend on how many people you're serving, but buy at least one filet for each person.
Add 2 T of olive oil to a skillet. Heat to very hot, until oil is shimmering. Sear filet 3 minutes on the first side, then 3 minutes on the second side. Finish in a 450 degree oven until done. Timing will depend on the thickness of the filet, and how you like it cooked. The filets pictured were finished for 5 minutes in the oven and we thought they were perfect. However, we like our meat medium as a rule, and some would prefer their filet slightly less done. It's your call.
Sauteed Onions and Mushrooms
2 large white onions, sliced about 1/4" thick
1 lb. sliced crimini mushrooms
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
2 T port wine
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T Worcestershire sauce
Add oil to skillet and heat to medium. Add butter and melt. Add onions and cook until half-tender. Add mushrooms and continue to cook until vegetables have reduced by about half, and are getting good and caramelized. Heat skillet to med-high and add liquid. Cook and stir until sauce is reduced and vinegar smell/alcohol has burned off.