Epic Cooking

June 6, 2008

Before I met my good friend Michelle, the word “epic” had, for me, had always been in reference to a major work of literature. The Odyssey for example. Or a world class movie like Gone with the Wind. For Michelle, traffic can be epic, waiting in line at a bar can be epic, the quest for the perfect shoe can be epic. I have adopted this word and use it for things that take a lot out of me.

The dinner I cooked tonight was epic.

I should have known because I got the recipe from The Greens Cookbook. It’s one of my absolute favorite books and also one of the first I turn to when I have an important dinner to cook. The dishes are complex in flavor with lots of layers, but not fussy. I was a little stumped as I was choosing my menus for this week so I turned to the spring menus page and this leaped out at me: Artichoke and Fennel Stew with Pastry.

I love artichokes and they are in season for such a short time around here so I try and use them often in the spring. Forget that they are kind of a pain to prepare, I actually enjoy breaking them down and think that the fresh taste is worth it – so much better than frozen. Recently I bought some one cup ramekins and I am always looking for ways to use them. I love bringing my clients these single serving bowls of goodness – they look so classy and there is something so indulgent about having your very own serving in your very own ramekin cooked just for you.

As with many Greens recipes, this one had many components. First you make a mushroom stock, then you make the pastry that will cover the ramekins, then you make the sauce that will get mixed in to the stew, and then you make the stew. Oh yeah, and then you roll out the pastry and drape it over the ramekins (filled with stew) and bake them. And then you make the side dish (Brown and Wild Rice Pilaf) and salad (Greens, Green Beans, and Spice Dipped Goat Cheese Rounds) that you also planned to bring your clients.

I am pretty good at looking at recipes and deciding what can be done in advance. Stock can always be made in advance and can even be frozen, so I did do that yesterday. And truth be told, I made the side dish and most of the salad components yesterday as well, but there was still a lot of work left for me today. As I was simmering the sauce and attacking artichokes with my paring knife, I wondered, “Can this dish be worth all of this work?”. I probably wouldn’t have attempted it if it weren’t from a cookbook that I know well and trust. But in a word, yes, it was worth it.

First of all, they looked great, and they smelled even better. I walked outside to get some thyme to add to the stew and when I walked back in, my doubts began to evaporate. The smell of leeks and white wine and butter was intoxicating. And they tasted really really good. I added those little turnips I bought at the Farmer’s Market last Friday and they were a great addition along with licorice-y fennel, those sweet leeks, mushrooms that had been cooked (separately! yes another pan to wash!) with garlic and lemon juice, all tossed with a sauce that had been made from the homemade mushroom stock and herbs and thickened with a little flour. The pastry draped over top had some cream cheese in it so the tang of that went beautifully with the subtle lemon from the mushrooms. Yum.

But here is something that is not epic. Salad dressing.

In this country, it may seem as though there is no reason to make your own salad dressing. There is an embarrassment of riches in the salad dressing aisle and many of them are really not bad. The problem is that even the “not bad” ones have things like Xanthum Gum in them and I’m not really sure what that is. I know it’s not in my salad dressing I make at home. I’m relatively new to salad dressing making – it started the year we moved to London.

Randy and I lived in a lovely little flat in Kensington for a year. My kitchen was tiny but had decent counter space, decent storage, an ok gas range and oven, and even a pint-sized dishwasher. But my fridge was barely better than a college dorm fridge. It was so small that I had to grocery shop every day because I couldn’t fit more than a day’s worth of food in there. If we were having people over for dinner, I often had to let things sit out on our window sill – at least the gloomy weather was good for something. Condiments? Out of the question unless it was something very very important (think Dijon mustard), because I just couldn’t give up the real estate.

And so, because of that, I started making my own salad dressing and putting it in a mustard jar. I could fit almost a week’s worth in there and if we ran out, it was so easy to whip up a new batch. It opened a whole new world for me. I have always been a big salad eater and suddenly, it all just tasted better. So here is my basic recipe that is totally no-fail. I encourage you to taste it as you go and adjust it to your liking. If you mess up and add too much vinegar, you can just add more oil to balance it. I like using balsamic vinegar here but red wine vinegar is good too and will give you a more subtle dressing. This is the time for the good stuff – best quality mustard, vinegar, and olive oil. If you are using balsamic, splurge a little. The cheap stuff is just cheap red wine vinegar that is color enhanced!

Balsamic Vinegar Salad Dressing
Makes enough for the week
1 small shallot, minced
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
6 tbsp. olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Put the minced shallot in a wide mouth jar (like a jam jar) along with the mustard and vinegar. Put the top on and give it a good shake. Open it back up and pour in the olive oil, then add a good pinch of sea salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid back on and give it a really good shake. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

I like to make dressing in a jar because I can really get it emulsified (mixed together) that way. Also, then you can just put the jar in the fridge and you are ready to dress your next salad. You can certainly just whisk it all together in a bowl though.

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