Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodness, gracious, great balls o' meat! (Part 2)

I have to admit to being mildly skeptical about this recipe, which is part of the reason that we didn't make it in the same week that we made all of our other meatball-centric meals. I'm a little wishy-washy when it comes to game meats; I like a little gaminess, but I've even had lamb that's been too strong for my tastes, and venison that has been hunted in the wild is much stronger than any farm-raised lamb. I was afraid that this dish, which used up the remainder of a windfall of free deer meat given to us by our old butcher last year, would be exceptionally gamey and unpleasant.

I am pleased to report that I could not have been more wrong.

This was, hands down, the best meal we'd made in weeks, and we are now mourning the fact that don't have access to more venison so that we could make this again.

I'm sorry to say that this was not our original recipe - J did some searching on the internet for meatball recipes using venison and came up with this one, which blended the venison with beef and had them served in a dried cherry and red wine sauce. I thought that sounded pretty good, though in addition to being concerned about the gaminess, I was worried that the sauce would be exceptionally sweet. I needn't have worried about that either - the sauce was a perfect balance of sweet and savory with just a hint of tang, the sort of flavor that just makes you salivate and crave another bite. And when paired with the ultimately mild but distinctive flavor of the venison, these were just about perfect.

J took charge of this recipe, and made a few small changes - his altered version is below. The recipe for my side dish, a warm farro salad with young kale and white beans that turned out to be the perfect earthy counterpoint to the sweet and savory meatballs, follows as well.


Venison Meatballs in Dried Cherry Sauce
Adapted from this recipe on, originally from Christmas with Southern Living, 2000

The original recipe was supposed to make about 4 dozen 1" meatballs. J halved the recipe and made them slightly larger, and we probably got about a dozen or so (which was far too much for dinner but meant we had leftovers that tasted even better the next day). You can make them any size you like - simply adjust your cooking time accordingly.

1/2 lb ground venison
1/2 lb ground pork
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
3/4 tsp ground allspice
1/8 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 beaten egg
olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-5 oz dried cherries (about 3/4 cup)
1 bay leaf
3 whole black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup Merlot
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups beef stock

Place ground venison and pork in a large bowl with salt, pepper, allspice, onion, garlic, thyme, and egg. Mix with your hands, being careful not to overwork the meat to ensure a good texture once the meatballs are cooked. Shape mixture into 1.5-2" meatballs.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just shy of smoking, then add the meatballs and sear well on all sides by occasionally shaking the pan to roll them around. Use tongs or a slotted spoon (tongs work better with larger meatballs) to remove the meatballs when they are nice and browned and reasonably firm - you don't need to worry too much about cooking them all the way through here, as they'll finish cooking in the sauce later. Place on a plate or in a bowl and cover with foil to trap them in their own radiant heat, as this will also help them to finish cooking.

Add chopped onion, celery and garlic to the pan and sautee them in the remaining oil and pan drippings until softened and barely colored - keep the veg moving to avoid burning the garlic. Add chopped garlic; cook 30 seconds. Turn the heat down a bit and add the cherries, bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, wine, and balsamic vinegar, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce by half, then add the stock and reduce by half again. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf and thyme.

You want to blend this sauce to a smooth consistency, so use whatever method works best for you. We used our regular blender but if you have a stick blender you could also pour the sauce into a tall container and use that (next time, that's what we'll do - I hate using the regular blender for this stuff). Just a few tips if you use an electric blender: When you put the to on, make sure that one of the openings is fcing the pour spout so that there is a place for steam to escape, and place a towel over the top while you blend. Blending hot liquids can be an explosive ffair if you aren't careful, and once you've had searing hot half-pureed fod go flying around your kitchen once, you never want it to happen again.

Once the sauce is blended, you can push it through a wire mesh strainer if you like, but we didn't bother. Return the sauce to the pan and add the meatballs back in. Roll them around to coat in the sauce and let everything simmer together for a few minutes to ensure even heating and thorough cooking of the meatballs. If serving individual portions, these can be skewered on bamboo skewers or simply placed on a plate with n extra spoonful of sauce. If serving as a group appetizer or a party dish, pour all the meatballs and sauce into a chafing dish or large fondue pot to keep warm and provide toothpicks for self-service. They'll be the best sweet and-sour cocktail meatballs you've ever eaten.


Warm Farro Salad with White Beans and Young Kale

Young kale is paler green and has smaller leaves than the full-grown kind, and has a milder, slightly less bitter flavor. Use only the curly leaves, discarding the stems. If you can't find young kale, regular will work just fine.

I actually think that this would be equally good at room temperature or even cold, especially if dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette after chilling, but as I haven't tried that yet myself you'll have to let me know how it turns out.

1/2 cup farro, rinsed and soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
1 1/2 - 2 cups chicken stock (standard ratio for cooking farro is 1 part farro to 3 parts liquid, but I always find I need slightly more, so I start with a cup and a half and add more later if necessary)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced white onion
2 minced garlic cloves
2/3 cup canned white beans such as navy or cannelini, drained and rinsed
1 cup roughly chopped young kale, well rinsed
salt & black pepper
freshly grated romano, parmesan, prima donna (our choice, as usual), or other hard, salty cheese, optional

Place 1 1/2 cups of the chicken stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, then drain the farro and add to the pan. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and simmer until the farro has absorbed all the water and is tender but still slightly chewy, usually about 20 minutes. You may want to stir it around every so often to keep it from sticking. If you find that the farro absorbs all of the stock but is still a little hard, just add more stock a little bit at a time and continue to simmer uncovered until it is properly cooked. This may take some nitpicking, but you'll get it.

While the farro cooks, heat a bit of olive oil in a small sautee pan over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Cook together, stirring frequently, until well softened and golden brown - we're going for some slight caramelization here. Add in the kale and white beans along with a tablespoon or so of water, reduce the heat to low, and sautee until the kale has wilted and softened and the beans are exceedingly tender. Set aside.

When the farro is cooked, drain any excess liquid that there may be in the pan (I never have any, but you never know) and gently stir in the kale and beans mixture along with the red wine vinegar, good EVOO, and salt and pepper to taste. Add some grated cheese if you like. We did like, and even added a few extra slices of prima donna to our plates to nibble between bites of meatball and farro - it worked. Really well. Cover the pan and remove from heat to keep warm, but not hot, until ready to serve.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Pappa al Pomidoro

Well folks, here it is. The last Barefoot Bloggers recipe challenge for 2008. I've only been a member for 4 months, but I've had a great time trying out all of these new dishes and I can't wait to see what the new year holds for our little group. Happily, we're closing the year on a good note, as this was one of the best tomato soups I've ever made.

2008's final challenge, Pappa al Pomidoro, was chosen by Natalie of Burned Bits, and is an easy and delicious tomato-basil soup thickened with hearty ciabatta bread. I am a total sucker for tomato soup (its almost embarassing but I even love Campbell's tomato soup) and am always excited to try a new recipe. Its the sort of warm, satisfying meal that is ideal for chilly winter nights, and this one was no exception. What's different about this tomato soup is that where I would normally want a grilled cheese sandwich or a small salad to go with, this soup was hearty and filling enough to make a perfect dinner without accompaniment.

I managed to stay pretty true to Ina's recipe this time around, only really taking liberties with the garnishes, but I'll get to that soon enough.

Making the soup really couldn't be simpler. It begins with a flavor base of onions, garlic, carrots and fennel, which are sauteed in olive oil until softened and just beginning to take on some color. Then, the secret to this soup's thick, velvety texture is added - cubes of fresh ciabatta bread. We found some roasted garlic ciabatta at the store, and the extra hit of sweet garlic flavor made the finished product even more complex.

After allowing the bread to cook and toast slightly in the oil, a big can of crushed Italian plum tomatoes (mine had garlic and basil added) gets poured into the pan, along with some good red wine, chicken stock, and fresh basil. Once combined, the soup now simply needs to simmer for 45 minutes until everything is soft and the flavors are melded.

While the soup cooks, there's time to prepare some over-the-top garnishes. Ina instructs you to toss together more cubed ciabatta with cubes of pancetta, whole fresh basil leaves, and seasoned olive oil, then spread the mix on a baking sheet to toast in a high-temperature oven. I decided to get a little creative here, and instead of using diced, thick-cut pancetta, I bought some thin-sliced pancetta and roasted them flat on the baing sheet to create pancetta crisps. The fresh basil was cut into a chiffonade before being tossed with the bread and EVOO as directed, and 10 minutes in the oven yielded blackened basil strips clinging to crunchy, golden brown, aromatic croutons. I tasted one after they cooled a bit, and was hard pressed not to keep munching on them afterwards - they were the best croutons I've ever made.

Once the soup had cooked for a sufficient amount of time, I decided to go against Ina one more time and buzz everything up with my stick blender rather than leaving it rustic and chunky, because I just love a silky smooth soup. I guess I really just like the way all of the flavors combine when everything is blended together. Once blended I stirred in a handful of shredded asiago; Ina calls for parmesan, which I have no doubt is delicious (because when is parmesan cheese not delicious?) but we were buying asiago for other meals that week and decided it wasn't worth buying a whole extra block of cheese. The sharp flavor of the asiago really worked well though with the other savory flavors in the soup.

To serve, we ladled the soup into bowls and topped with an extra sprinkle of asiago, a handful of basil croutons, and two pancetta crisps. And man oh man, was it GOOD. The soup was savory and ever so slightly sweet, velvety and hearty, with a bit of creaminess from the cheese (I think a drizzle of cream added at the end would really throw this over the moon) and really would have been great all on its own. But honestly its the garnishes that made it so special. The crunchy garlicky croutons and toasty basil and the pancetta crisps crumbled over the top before eating made for exciting textural contrast in every bite, with the occasional burst of porcine saltiness. Seriously, incredibly delicious.

And believe it or not, this soup tasted even better the next day as leftovers for lunch.

This just might become my go-to tomato soup recipe, especially for entertaining. Its so easy, yet the garnishes and smooth texture make it impressive enough to serve to guests. Its even festive for the season, all red and green!

I'm considering making a big batch of this soup and jarring it, so that I can have delicious tomato soup anytime I want. I could probably eat this stuff every day. Thanks, Natalie, for choosing this fantastic recipe!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Homemade Membrillo, Pork Roulade

I love membrillo (quince paste) and have seen other bloggers make their own, but assumed I'd never have access to the fresh fruits to try it myself. As such, I'm not sure I can adequately communicate my excitement when I discovered fresh quinces at Iavarone on our last shopping trip. I think I considered it for all of 5 seconds before picking out three firm, unblemished fruits and dropping them into our cart. Homemade membrillo would be mine, after all!

That afternoon I took myself away to the kitchen to deal with my quinces. A quick search online taught me that quince were similar in texture to apples, but harder and drier, and had a tough core and skin that must be removed. This was an accurate description, and the fruit was easy to peel but difficult to cut. With a little elbow grease I managed to get all three fruit cored, sliced, and diced, and into a large saucepan they went along with some cold water, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and about a cup and a half of white sugar. From here it was easy - I just cooked the fruit over medium heat until it softened and turned a dull red, which I must say took a lot longer than I expected, close to an hour and a half. The fruit never really broke down, so when it was done I took my stick blender to it to create a smooth, slightly grainy paste. The flavor was lovely, sweet and floral and aromatic, but subtle. I poured it into a tupperware container, and after sitting in the fridge overnight it had stiffened properly into a firm, sliceable block of membrillo.

There's something really beautiful about this stuff, isn't there? Shiny and jewel-like with that lovely knobby texture on the surface, it spreads like a jam but can be cut into cubes or slices with ease. Its sticky, mind you, but I don't mind getting a little messy for something this tasty.

Now, the obvious thing to do with membrillo is to eat it with a good manchego cheese, perhaps some marcona almonds, a few water crackers. But, J and I being who we are, we had to come up with something more interesting. We had a bit of prima donna cheese in the fridge (because when do we not?) and a small pork tenderloin, and after a bit of thought came up with the idea for a quince-glazed pork roulade filled with grated prima donna and herbs.

I took a knife to the tenderloin and used a lengthwise accordion cut to create a large, thin, flat surface with the meat. A 1/2 cup or so of the membrillo was warmed up on the stove with an equal amount of water and a sprig of fresh rosemary, and kept on the heat long enough to infuse the glaze with a subtle evergreen aroma. I seasoned the pork with salt, freshly ground black pepper, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and some chopped fresh rosemary, then spread a thin layer of the glaze all over the meat. I grated some prima donna, about half a cup, and piled it near the middle of the meat, leaving an inch or so around all the edges to try and prevent leakage during cooking. Then a quick roll and tie with some butcher's twine, and it was ready for some heat.

The roulade was seared on the stovetop first, then placed in the oven at about 450 degrees to roast. I brushed it with the glaze 3 or 4 times as it cooked, creating a golden brown sticky-sweet crust.

Meanwhile, J made some simple panko-crusted zucchini slices but cutting two small zucchini into 1/2" slices, seasoning with salt, pepper, and paprika, and dredging with egg and light, crisp panko crumbs. They were lightly panfried in some vegetable oil and then left to drain briefly on some paper towels as I removed the pork from the oven and set it aside to rest and let the juices redistribute and the filling firm up a bit.

Once untied and sliced, the pork retained its shape to yield lovely spiral slices with a thin layer of sweet and savory cheese filling. To plate. we dolloped each serving with a bit of the remaining membrillo glaze and a bit more freshly grated cheese, with the fried zucchini alongside.

My goodness, this was good. The combination of flavors - salty, tangy, sweet, herbaceous - was just fantastic on the mild tender pork. The meat itself could have used a brining period prior to cooking, and next time that's what we'll do, but the concept behind the dish was definitely sound. The slightly sweet, crisp zucchini slices made a nice fresh-tasting foil to the richness of the meat, and all together it made for a fantastic meal.

And the best part is, I have plenty of membrillo leftover to enjoy. I wonder what else we can make with it?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Goodness, gracious, great balls o' meat!

Sorry. I couldn't resist.

The meatball is, I think, a vastly underrated thing. Most people think of meatballs as only those things you have with spaghetti and red sauce to make a meal more substantial, or perhaps as the little bite-sized morsels served with sweet-and-sour sauce at new year's eve, or in gloopy brown gravy over egg noodles that somehow get away with calling themselves "swedish". Usually made of beef and with far too few seasonings, quite often lacking pleasing texture or moisture, we're all familiar with the mediocrity of the standard meatball. But does that mean they can't be really, truly GOOD? I don't think so.

I also don't believe that meatballs should be relegated to the dishes above. Ground meat (or chop meat if you're from on Long Island or New Jersey, apparently... I haven't been a New Yorker long enough to hear that phrase without a certain confused tilt of the head) is endlessly versatile, refreshingly inexpensive, and usually quite tasty when its of high quality. When you start with a pound of ground meat - be it beef, pork, chicken, turkey, some sort of game, or a mix of two or three - the possibilities are practically infinite.

That's why last week we decided to devote an entire week of dinners to the humble, forgotten, oftimes-abused meatball. And 4 meals later, we've barely scratched the surface.


Meal #1: Chicken Koftas Avgolemono

I know, I know, here we go again. But hear me out. This was my brainchild, being still enamoured with the Avgolemono Soup from a month or so back and craving those flavors again, but wanting to mix it up a bit. I knew when we decided on this meatball week experiment that I'd want to do something Greek, and this dish sort of just tumbled out on a whim. Apparently the idea had merit, because J declared it a definite addition to our future dream restaurant menu.

From Wikipedia:

"Kofta ... is a Southeastern European, Middle Eastern and South Asian meatball or dumpling.

In the simplest form, koftas consist of balls of minced or ground meat — usually beef or lamb — mixed with spices and/or onions. The vegetarian varieties like lauki kofta, shahi aloo kofta, and malai kofta are popular in India, as is kofta made of minced goat meat."

Traditional beef or lamb koftas (often made in cigar shapes rather than spherical ones) are delicious in their own right, and deserve a post of their own later this year when the weather gets warmer and we can grill them properly. But for this meal, to remain faithful to the original Avgolemono that was my inspiration, I knew that chicken would be the proper choice.

Each of the components of this dish are simple, but as there are several the prep was a bit time-consuming. First, the meatballs were made with ground chicken that was seasoned with oregano, garlic, lemon zest, crumbed feta, a tiny drizzle of honey and a goodly amount of salt and black pepper. We use the Alton Brown method for cooking, and a pound of chicken yielded a dozen two- or three-bite koftas. While those baked away, I boiled some orzo in chicken stock fortified with a bay leaf and extra black pepper, prepped some baby spinach, carrots, garlic and onions for the sautee pan, and whisked the juice of a lemon into an egg in preparation for the sauce.

The carrots, garlic, and onions were sauteed until just softened, then the spinach was added and cooked until it just started to wilt. By this time the orzo was done, and I drained off the remaining stock in the pan into a bowl to use for the sauce. Finally, when the meatballs were done and resting out of the oven for a few minutes, I made the sauce by adding the hot stock to the lemon-egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly to temper the egg, then heating the mix gently on the stove to allow it to thicken.

To serve, a bed of orzo was laid down on each plate, topped by a generous helping of sauteed spinach, a trio of keftedes, and a few spoonfuls of sauce drizzled all over. Finish with a sprinkle of crumbled feta and some chopped fresh parsley, and you've got yourself a meal.

The flavor of this dish was outstanding, and the meal felt quite healthy with the lean chicken and good green spinach. I know that the sauce needs some work, as it never got to quite the consistency I wanted, and a few bits of egg curdled while it was cooking and needed to be strained out before serving. I think with some tweaks here and there and a good reliable recipe (next time, I'll write it down), J is right - this just might have a place on the menu if we are ever able to open the little cafe we dream about.


Meal #2 - Almond-crusted Asian Meatballs with Vegetable Stir Fry

Think of these as dumplings without the wrappers and a with a bit more attitude. We've made similar things before with sesame seeds that have come out terrific, but I'm a bit of an almond fanatic so when J suggested the almond crust as something different, I was hardly going to argue.

The meatballs were made with a mix of pork and beef and seasoned with soy garlic, onion, ginger, dry mustard, sesame oil, and a bit of sugar. Before dropping them into their individual muffin cups to bake, each ball got rolled around in some finely-chopped toasted slivered almonds to make a crust. Word to the wise - although the meatballs might seem rather fragile when you're working with them, you really want to press the almonds in there so that they stick. J made these and found that when he tried to be more gentle on the meatballs, the almonds all fell off as they cooked - where they'd been pressed more firmly into the meat, they seemed to adhere and get nice and crunchy as we'd imagined they would.

We ate these with a simple stir fry of sugar snap peas, carrots, green bell peppers, and onions in a basic sweet-and-salty brown sauce, which is hard to screw up and always tasty. The meatballs themselves were tasty but seemed a bit on the bland side - next time we'll up the seasonings by at least half. And my previous comments about the almond-crust aside, the bites were the almonds really got attached to the meat and got super golden-brown and crunchy were absolutely delicious and had great textural contrast. If we can get the crusting technique down next time, I think they'd be insanely good. I'd hate to suggest that they could replace J's current signature Asian meatballs for a party appetizer but, well, I think they could.


Meal #3: Curried Turkey Meatballs with Chana Masala

I've been looking for an excuse to make my new favorite chana masala recipe recently, so when J suggested an Indian-style meatball I jumped at the chance. Turkey may seem like an odd match for curry seasoning, but really, it works. Its distinctive earthy flavor was a really good base for all those aromatic spices.

J made these as well, using his own homemade curry powder blend as the main seasoning base and adding a bit of garam masala, sugar, and extra salt and pepper to round out the flavor. Nothing fancy in the cooking step here, just form and drop into the muffin tin to bake, so they were especially easy. I made the chana masala almost exactly the same way as last time, but upped the veggie quotient with some cubed zucchini in place of the potatoes, and it was just as good as I remembered.

This was definitely another winner. The best part was scooping up a bite of chana masala with my fork and spearing a piece of meatball on the end and eating it all together - the meatballs may have tended a bit toward the dry side, so the moisture from the tomatoes and onions and squash really improved the texture, and all of those great Indian spices blending together made for an intense explosion of flavor unlike anything in Western cooking. Quite exciting, really, for a weeknight dinner.


Meal #4: Italian Sausage Ball Pizza

I don't actually have any photos of this one, which is a shame because it was really, really good. Like, almost I-can't-believe-I-made-this good. But, well, because it was so good, we ate it before it even occurred to me to take pictures.

I decided that if we were making meatballs all week, we really ought to do something Italian. But I wasn't about to make spaghetti and meatballs - as a matter of fact, I didn't want regular meatballs at all. But SAUSAGE balls, now that I could get behind. But we didn't just buy sausage - we made it, fresh, from just some ground pork and spices.

Bet you didn't know it was that easy, did you? Well, it is.

A pound of ground pork mixed up with a generous amount of garlic, onion, black pepper, salt, and most importantly, fennel (we used fennel pollen because we didn't have any whole seed, and since we were making the sausage mix the day of rather than ahead of time, it would ensure a more pervasive fennel flavor) created a pretty authentic-tasting Italian-style sweet sausage. The mix was formed into slightly flattened balls and seared in a pan this time around, then sliced to make a more easily distributed pizza topping.

The pizza itself was built on some whole wheat dough I'd been saving in the freezer, starting with a thin layer of J's homemade marinara, a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella, some pieces of brie, and the sliced sausage. Into the oven on the pizza stone at the highest heat we could get for maybe 5-10 minutes, and we had a bubbly, melty pizza with a golden brown crust.

The sausage was perfect here, with just the right amount of savory spice. The creamy brie and mozz complimented it really well, and although the crust was more chewy than crispy, the whole wheat flour gave it a pleasing texture. And with the dough made ahead of time, we were able to make the whole meal in about 25 minutes. Can't really beat that!

We have one more meal planned that we never got around to making, which we have high hopes for - venison meatballs in cherry sauce. If it comes out as good as I expect it will, I'll be sure to share it with you. But in the meantime, I highly recommend that you give the lowly meatball a bit of thought, and a chance to elevate itself beyond that boring plate of pasta. Its a blank slate upon which fantastic meals can be built, and deserves a second chance at your table.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Coq au Vin

I've been gone for awhile. I know. I'm terribly sorry. Did you miss me? Because I've certainly missed this little blog of mine.

We returned from our trip out west almost two weeks ago now, and since then I just haven't had much worth talking about in here. I failed you utterly by neglecting to take pictures of the small Thanksgiving feast that J and I made on the eve of our departure, and then added insult to injury by completely forgetting to pull out the camera on Thanksgiving Day. Its really a shame, too, because where our little feast for two was slightly sophisticated, creative, and involved a bit of experimentation, Thanksgiving dinner with J's parents was unfussy, down-to-earth, and simply delicious in a very classically American way. Both were great, but sadly, a Thanksgiving post will have to wait until next year.

Aside from that, we've cooked very little recently that's been interesting. The holidays are rather kicking our rears, in terms of money, energy, and creativity, so we've sort of just been plugging along for the time being. But, the Barefoot Bloggers march on, unhindered by the coming of Christmas craziness, and I have a new recipe assignment to share with you today.

Bethany of this little piggy went to market chose Ina's recipe for Coq au Vin for the first December challenge, and I was very excited to see it. Coq au Vin is, as the name suggests, a braised dish of chicken and red wine, and is one of those classic dishes that I feel like every cook worth their himalayan pink sea salt ought to be able to make, and I don't know if I've ever even eaten it before. Its been on my "to try" list for quite awhile, and I love it when the BBs give me an excuse to knock something off of that list.

That being said, I suspect I may have screwed this recipe up with my typical substitutions and omissions, because the end-product was entirely underwhelming. Tasty, to be sure, but nothing special. I feel guilty saying that we probably wouldn't make this again since I didn't really follow the recipe, so maybe someday I'll give it another shot and actually follow the directions letter by letter, but I suspect I may just revisit the Coq au Vin thing with another recipe.

But, I digress. Lets start at the beginning, shall we?

Ina's recipe begins with chopped bacon sizzling away in a dutch oven. We didn't do this, which may have been our first mistake - I tend to discount the flavor of bacon as nothing but salt and smoke when cooked in a dish rather than on its own, but obviously its more than that, and the liquid smoke I added to the braising liquid in an attempt to compensate really didn't do the trick.

Instead we went right ahead to searing the salt-and-peppered chicken pieces in some oil instead of the leftover bacon fat we would've had if we'd followed the recipe. We used chicken thighs instead of a whole chicken broken-down, and here I think was another mistake in judgement. A) We didn't make it to Iavarone this week and couldn't get those great Bell & Evans thighs, so we had to use some sub-par supermarket chicken instead, and B) I didn't get the chicken out of the freezer early enough and did not have time to brine it, which is not called for in the recipe but which always, ALWAYS improves chicken's flavor. That aside, J got quite a nice sear on the skin, and it was all I could do not to tear the skin off of the thighs, finish cooking it in the pan, and then scarf it down, because lord do I love crispy, salty poultry skin.

After the chicken had been properly browned, it was removed from the pan and the vegetable flavor base was added - thinly sliced onions, carrots cut on the bias, and a few minced cloves of garlic. These got slowly sauteed to soften them and bring out the natural sugars to caramelize a bit.

Now here comes mistake number three: Ina calls for brandy or cognac to be used to deglaze the pan. We drink neither, and so we have neither, and I was not about to buy a whole bottle for one recipe. So, I substituted sherry. And its not that it tasted wrong in the finished dish, but I just can't help but wonder how different it might have been with the brandy/cognac instead.

I scraped up what bits of brown had collected in the pan with the sherry and let it cook off almost entirely before adding back the chicken pieces. Then, in went a heavy cup of red wine and chicken stock, and since I had to use a cabernet sauvignon in place of the requisite burgundy - it is shockingly hard to find around here - well, that was probably mistake number four. A couple of sprigs of thyme and a sprig of rosemary for extra herbal flavor went in on top, the cover went on, and the whole thing went into the oven at 250 degrees for about half an hour.

While the oven did its thing, I sliced up a whole package of baby bella mushrooms and sauteed them in some melted, unsalted butter with just a bit of salt, pepper, and worcestershire sauce, and somehow I even managed to screw this up. I salted them too early, and ended up with a whole crapload of liquid in the pan. Normally I know better than that. I think my cooking mojo must've phoned it in that day or something, because really, this more than anything else was just pathetic. I should never be draining half a cup of liquid from a pan of sliced mushrooms at this point in my cooking life.

When the mushrooms were cooked, all that was left was to mash some flour into some butter to create an instant clump-free thickener for the stew when it came out of the oven, and then all we could do was wait.

After 30 minutes in the oven, the chicken was still very pink in the thickest parts.

Truthfully, I wasn't surprised. Half an hour at 250 for chicken on the bone just didn't seem like it could possibly be right, even if you are intended to finish the cooking on the stovetop. If it wasn't enough for me with only three pieces of chicken in the oven, how in the world could it work for an entire bird's worth?

So, I turned the temp up to 300 and put it back in for 15 minutes, and this time it looked like it was cooked correctly. Out of the oven and back on the stovetop, where the herbs got removed and the mushrooms and a handful of semi-thawed frozen pearl onions got added to the pan. Let that bubble away for a few to heat up the onions, and then in went the butter/flour mash. Stir stir stir to help melt the butter and thicken the sauce evenly, cook a few minutes more to eliminate any potential for floury flavor, and dinner is served.

Not very pretty is it? Its hard to make any sort of stew really look attractive... thick brown gravy makes even the tastiest dish look like dog food. And honestly, it was tasty. Could've used a bed of egg noodles or a heel of crusty bread to sop up the gravy, but that's neither here nor there. What it wasn't, was exciting. It wasn't revelatory. It wasn't anything I didn't feel like I'd eaten a hundred times before. Would any of that had changed if I'd actually followed the recipe? Well, maybe, but who's to know. All I know is that next time I feel the hankering for a stew with red wine and mushrooms (and, well, bacon), I'm making beef burgundy. Because that's basically what this was, sans beef. And I think the beef is better.

Its ok Ina, I still love you. I'll blame this one on my insatiable need to tinker. We're still cool.