‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through Hurley House, we were losing our minds and working our tails off, trying to get everything done. This is our busiest week of the year, and yet, somehow, I managed to cook.
Week Thirteen was also when we had to say goodbye to one of our employees, Ellie. She and her husband work for Wycliffe and had been in Fort Worth on furlough for several months. We had the pleasure of having Ellie join our kitchen staff, and she was instantly knit into our hearts from the first day she arrived. To celebrate her departure, we ate Pastitsio, which I had never heard of. It was the perfect meal in which to soothe our sad hearts. I will always remember the distinct flavor of that dish and associate it with her adventurous spirit and exuberance for life. Sometime food can carry our emotions and seal experiences into our heart in a tangible, therapeutic way.
WHAT I COOKED
Winter Minestrone with Garlic Bruschetta, Foolproof
Easy Coquilles Saint Jacques, Make It Ahead
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup and Curry Condiments, Back to Basics
Croque Monsieur, Barefoot In Paris
Old Fashioned Gingerbread, Back to Basics
Roast Lamb with White Beans, Barefoot In Paris
Roasted Vine Tomatoes, Cooking for Jeffrey
WHAT I LEARNED
WINTER MINESTRONE WITH GARLIC BRUSCHETTA. This is the best vegetable soup I have ever eaten. It tasted bright, sweet, savory, interesting, and so satisfying. My daughter Annie added the apt observation, “This is the most beautiful soup I have ever seen.” I tend to agree. It was visually striking. There was an added element of comfort found in making this for dinner on a Sunday evening, and then knowing we had enough leftover for another week night dinner.
EASY COQUILLES SAINT JACQUES. Coquilles Saint Jacques is a scallop dish, cooked in wine and cream, topped with cheese, and browned under the broiler. I had never heard of this dish before this week, and the discovery of something new turned into a theme. I love the exercise in contrast that this provides. It is decadent, rich, “fancy” food, and requires very little to along side of it to complete the meal. At most, I would suggest a glass of crisp white wine and a tug of crusty bread. With nothing else required, when serving this for dinner, you in fact get out of having to do much work preparing the meal. And because it is so rich, even a first course appetizer or a dessert needs to be simple, restrained, and dairy-free. Mixed nuts before the meal and biscotti after feel appropriate, both of which could be purchased instead of made from scratch. This dish can be assembled in the morning, popped in the oven, and ready to from the oven in less than thirty minutes. You could literally walk int he door at 5:30 after work, put this in the oven, turn on music, uncork wine, set out nuts, and have a dinner party by 6:00. It’s a strange irony that at times the fanciest of foods requires the least amount of last-minute hustle from the host. Yes, scallops are pricey, but I would love to see a comparative price analysis on what this meal costs versus what a more traditional dinner party menu would cost. My experience tells me this menu might actually save money in the end. As an added feature, I love how this dish is served in individual gratin dishes which instantly elevates anything you put in them.
BOEUF BOURGUIGNON. There is nothing finer than a bowl of Ina’s Boeuf Bourguignon. Don’t let your eyes deceive you. To look at the finished product, shockingly similar in appearance to something you could perhaps get out of a can, you might think, “What is so special about this bowl of stew? I’ve had stew before.” What your eyes can’t see, and what makes this dish stand out, is the layering of flavors that meld and work together into a combination of something familiar yet fantastically surprising. It begins with bacon, then followed with seared beef, sauteed vegetables, each one taking on components of the step before it and leaving behind new flavor notes for the next stage. Then, cognac is added and lit on fire, leaving behind a trail of carmelized brandy sugar. The last step is a bottle of red Burgundy wine. The whole thing, layer after layer, is simmered together until the beef is fork-tender, and then the most important step is that it rests overnight in the fridge. The next day, all of those layers have become something distinct and sublime. The flavors are deep, beautiful, intricate, immaculate on the tongue. The stew is perfection in a bowl. It needs nothing served with it except a confident dose of restraint to let it stand alone, perhaps with a crust of bread.
WHITE HOT CHOCOLATE. I was perhaps the most resistant I have ever been about a recipe when approaching this drink. I am not a fan of white chocolate, for two reasons. First, it is not, in fact, chocolate. Not even close. Second, it is so sickeningly sweet. I can only tolerate a few tastes of white chocolate before I reach my threshold and crave a potato chip to balance it out. This White Hot Chocoalte, however, turned out to be a surprise winner. It is swimming with vanilla, and somehow the white chocolate becomes a back note, balanced by cream and surrounded by warmth to mellow it out and leave you wanting more instead of fatigued by it’s sweetness. Kara said it was like “drinking hot ice cream.” It delivered an oddly comforting, nourishing effect, which was a welcome feeling in the middle of our busy work week. It is sugar and vanilla and cream, and on a cold cloudy December day, it was perfect. It is also a recipe for a nap, so watch out.
PASTITSIO. This is tricky to describe, but I’m going to do my best. Pastitsio is a meat, pasta, tomato, creamy sauce kind of dish, but not with the typical Italian flavor profile. The sauce has cinnamon and red wine, and the béchamel is made with greek yogurt. It is delicious, different, and we tore through it, scraping our bowls and going back for seconds. It is unique in a welcomed way. This recipe is involved, and maybe a little bit hard because of all the different elements and the long cook time. If it had not been a busy week in December, I would have planned better and made this in advance. I want to introduce this to my family as part of our regular meal rotation soon.