January 2012 Cooking Challenge: Dijon Stew with Cognac

I admit, this stew wasn’t so much of a cooking challenge, meaning the techniques weren’t at all difficult. But it was the preface to the recipe that caught my eye. “Long before there were antidepressants, there was stew.”

This recipe appeared in the pages of the New York Times a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and I remember reading the article and recipe. Everyone was still sort of in shock, daily home chores were set aside, but getting back to the kitchen was something that was necessary, to feed both the body and soul. I remembered reading the article, which you can find here. So on a weekend of sub-zero temperatures, beef stew was on the menu.

A few notes . . .

• You might want to have your butcher select the two pounds of boneless beef chuck; I pulled a nice looking package out the fridge, only to find when I opened it, the back side had inches of fat, which subsequently was cut away. I lost at least half a pound if not more of actual weight of meat.

• I was unable to find Pommery mustard locally, so I bought a reasonably priced whole grain mustard (which has turned out to be fantastic with a little bit of mayo on a turkey sandwich!).

• The first step is to render salt pork or bacon, but you don’t keep the meat. I used bacon, and I think instead of wasting a couple of slices of bacon (well, of course, it’s bacon, they weren’t wasted!), you could use a couple of tablespoons of bacon grease. But then, maybe I’m the only one who has a jar of bacon grease from past cookings in the back of the fridge?

• The cooking time. You cook the stew for nearly 2 hours, but what I didn’t factor in when looking at this is the prep time before hand, count on 30-60 minutes. Dinner was a little late that night!

All in all, while a bit on the expensive side (I spent way more than I  normally would for dinner, but this would make a special meal for company) this was delicious, homey, and the mustard just zings through the dish. Served over buttered egg noodles with some green peas on the side, it was the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. And I tucked a container in the freezer for when we get another cold snap!

Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew
Serves 4 to 6

From The Essential New York Times Cook Book, Classic Recipes for a New Century, by Amanda Hesser, 2010.

¼ pound salt pork or bacon, diced (I used bacon)
1 large onion, finely diced
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, or as needed
2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup Cognac or other brandy 
2 cups beef broth
½ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup Pommery or whole-grain mustard
4 large carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and cut into half-moons
½ pound white mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
¼ cup dry red wine (I used a Merlot)

1. Place the salt pork in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-low heat and cook until the fat is rendered. Remove the solid pieces with a slotted spoon and discard. Raise the heat, add the onion and shallots, and cook until softened but not brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a large bowl.

2. If necessary, add 2 tablespoons butter to the pot to augment the fat and increase the heat to medium-high. Dust the beef cubes with the flour and season with salt and pepper. Shake off any excess flour and place half the cubes in the pot. Cook until well browned, almost crusty, on all sides, then transfer to the bowl with the onions. Repeat with the remaining beef.

3. Add the Cognac to pot, and cook, stirring until the bottom is deglazed and the crust comes loose. Add the broth, Dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon Pommery mustard and whisk to blend, then return the meat and onion mixture to the pot. Lower the heat, partially cover the pot, and simmer gently until the meat is very tender, about 1 ½ hours.

4. Add the carrots and continue simmering for 30 minutes, or until tender.

5. Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté the mushrooms until browned and tender.

6. Stir the mushrooms into the stew, along with the remaining 3 tablespoons Pommery mustard and the red wine. Simmer for 5 minutes, then taste and adjust the seasoning.

Speaking of Yeast…

In a revisit of last week’s post about pizza crust, mention was made by Carol, a faithful reader from Connecticut, about “pizza yeast.” I had heard about this, but never really knew what it was and said I’d return with some info. This is what I’ve discovered. Pizza yeast is, in my description, one step beyond rapid rise. You can throw it in a bowl with some flour and salt, roll it out and make your pizza, no need for a rise. It’s also has “dough relaxers” so it doesn’t “snap back” when shaping it. An interesting concept, but I have made my pizza dough with regular yeast and no rising, and bread on occasion with only one rising (see below). So if you’re in the mood to make your own pizza crust but are worried you don’t have pizza yeast, fret no longer, you can use regular. And if you do have it on hand, it will make for a delicious pie!

So speaking of yeast . . . About eight years ago, there was a PBS cooking show I used to watch called “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic,” a monk who lived I think in Minnesota. Father Dominic is a cool monk, he’d always make his bread in his robe while wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers on his feet. Every week was a different yeast recipe (Fleischmann’s sponsored the show, of course) and when he made something that looked really good, I’d print out the recipe. In doing research for this piece, I discovered he has several bread cookbooks published!

This recipe for Multi-Grain Bread is superb and has only one rising. In the dark, cold winter, I like to make a loaf of this every weekend. It’s easy, as yeast breads go, relatively inexpensive, and you know you’re making something good and delicious for yourself and your family. It makes great sandwiches and toast and also freezes well. Be sure to have a softened stick of butter waiting when this comes out of the oven. I don’t know if there is anything better than a fresh piece of homemade bread fresh out of the oven, do you?

Cooking Notes:
• I’ve typed this as it is written, but I’ve adapted it through the years, so you’ll see my notes in italics.

• If you’re concerned about the small portions of some of the ingredients, I encourage a visit to your local coop and buy things in bulk. That way you can buy as much or as little as you like. Just remember, you’ll probably want to make this again, so it’s great to have them on hand!

Multi-Grain Bread
Yield: 1 loaf
From Breaking Bread with Father Dominic, PBS cooking show

2 ¼ to 2 ½ cups bread flour (I use King Arthur unbleached white flour)
¾ cup whole wheat flour
2 Tablespoons rye flour
2 Tablespoons rolled oats
2 Tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 envelope (or 2 ¼ teaspoon) RapidRise Yeast (I use regular)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup water
3 Tablespoons honey
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large egg
¼ cup flaxseed
1 egg white, lightly beaten with 1 Tablespoon water
1 Tablespoon rolled oats

In a large bowl, combine 1 cup bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, rolled oats, cornmeal, undissolved yeast, and salt. Heat water, honey, and oil until very warm (120 to 130 degrees). Gradually add to dry ingredients. Beat two minutes at medium speed of electric mixer, scraping bowl occasionally. (I use a wooden spoon.) Add egg, flaxseed, and ½ cup flour; beat 2 minutes at high speed. (Again, I use a spoon.) Stir in enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes. Cover; let rest 10 minutes.

Roll dough into 12 x 8-inch rectangle. (I just use my hands to knead it into shape and roughly measure.) Beginning at the short end of rectangle, roll up tightly as for a jelly roll. Pinch seams and ends to seal. Place, seam side down in a greased 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Cover; let rise in warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 30 to 45 minutes. (I always let it rise longer, more than an hour.) Brush with egg white mixture; sprinkle with rolled oats. (While this is nice addition, I rarely do it.)

Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until done. Remove from loaf pan; cool on wire rack.

Slather a piece with butter and eat!

Pizza Fridays

Most Friday evenings, I come home from work, exhausted from the week, and desperately wanting dinner to just magically appear after my week-end cocktail. In the dead of winter, we don’t want to bundle up and go back out in the cold to go to our local pub. Even making a simple soup usually requires a bit of chopping and dicing, more energy than I’m willing to devote to the evening’s supper. But I have a recipe that allows even the laziest of moods to make a healthy and easy dinner—pizza.

I love whole wheat pizza dough, but it’s sometimes hard to find one that is tasty. After many tries at different recipes, this is by far the best I’ve found; I discovered it years ago online, so my apologies to the lack of direct credit. When I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make up a batch of this dough, divide it into three or four portions, wrap it in plastic, and freeze it. (This makes at least two pizzas.) Friday mornings, or any morning  that pizza is on the dinner menu, I’ll take out a portion and thaw it in the fridge. When I’m ready to make dinner, just roll it out, top with leftover spaghetti sauce (my favorite is a local one, Bove’s roasted garlic), cheese, and any vegetables that are hanging out in the bin. Pop it in the oven for 20-30 minutes, and dinner is served. I don’t worry about making a perfect circle, as you can see from photos; free form is best–and the easiest! If you’re feeling really ambitious and feel you need your greens, throw together a simple salad with some olive oil.

My favorite pizza toppings, a hold over from college (where we used to scrounge together $2.75 for a personal pizza with extra toppings; times have changed!), is green peppers and onions. Although this past week, I added black olives and chopped mushrooms. Whatever is on it, a hot dinner is waiting, and I am very happy and content, and ready for the weekend!



Basic Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
1 packet of yeast (or 2 ¼ quarter teaspoons)
1 Tablespoon honey or sugar
1 cup warm water

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup white flour
Dash of salt
1 teaspoon olive oil (if desired, it’s not imperative this is included, but it makes the dough more flavorful)

1. In a large bowl, add the water  and honey and sprinkle in the yeast. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes or so until it becomes foamy.

2. Add whole wheat flour cup by cup. Add white flour, or enough to make it elastic and ready to roll out.

3. On a floured surface, take the dough, knead until smooth. Place dough in a clean bowl that is lined with either cooking spray or oil. Place in a warm spot for 30 minutes or so, or until doubled. (Sometimes I don’t wait until it is doubled and it’s fine.)

4. Divide for later, or roll and place two crusts on a cookie sheet lined with a little bit of oil and cornmeal. Dress the pizza to your liking, place in preheated 350 degree oven, and cook for 20-30 minutes or until done.

Dumplings for Dinner!

Happy New Year! (Notice the four-leaf clovers for good luck!) 

You won’t believe this, but finding a cooking class in Vermont is difficult. Local cookbook writer Molly Stevens used to have cooking classes at her home, and I still kick myself for never taking advantage of her expertise. But a local high school offers wonderful one-night cooking classes in the fall, winter, and spring. I like to take classes that challenge me or have a guide with me that first time when I make something I’ve always wanted to try at home but am too timid. I’ve learned how to make perfect pie crust (I followed the recipe once and have since gone on to follow The Joy of Cooking’s recipe), made homemade tofu (it’s delicious, although my attempts at making it at home have not been successful), and dim sum dumplings. My past experiences making dumplings at home never worked out; twice I made a delicious cheese and basil stuffed ravioli, only to have the sides leak in the pot, making for a watery dish all the way around. They were tasty, but I wanted to have delicious, healthy dumplings I can make easily, and inexpensively, at home, and that will stay intact!

At my class we made three different dumplings: spinach with currants and cashews, roasted red peppers and goat cheese, and chipotle and corn. For the past two years for New Year’s Eve dinner, I’ve cooked a meal of appetizers and have made a couple batches of these dumplings to munch on. These recipes make enough for an army, so there are always loads of leftovers for later on in the week, or if you’re having a crowd, they’d be great appetizers. But I admit, I am a totally selfish when it comes to these; all I want to do when they are ready is sit in front of a large platter and happily munch away forever, they’re that good!

For me, the dumpling wrappers are the make or break of this dish; I’ve used the square wrappers found in the grocery store, and they’ve never worked. I have to make a special trip to the Asian market in town to get these, and while it’s out of the way, they will last forever in the freezer. (I had some in there, still wrapped, for more than a year!) The photo is of the brand I always buy, they’re made in Brooklyn.

Recipes are below, but here are my assembling instructions. Make sure the filling is cool before putting the dumplings together.

1. Brush the dumpling wrapper with a little egg white.

2. Place about a tablespoon in the middle of the wrapper.

3. Fold in a half-moon shape, and seal carefully. This is the easiest way for me, but experiment with different shapes, if you desire. Brush with a little more egg white.

4. Take a Dutch oven and add a little bit of water for steaming. Spray a vegetable steamer with cooking spray or line with oil and place it in the pot. Turn the water on to boil.

5. When the water is ready, place the dumplings carefully onto the steamer, making sure they aren’t touching each other. Before I put them in the pot, I double-check and make sure they are tightly sealed.

You’ll notice in the above photo some are touching; big mistake, although if you’re like me, eating two dumplings at once isn’t the end of the world!

6. Steam for 3-5 minutes. They will be translucent when they are ready, like above.

(I was going to take a photo of my lovely tray of dumplings and sauces, but I was halfway through eating that I remembered I forgot!)

Spinach Dumplings with Cashews and Currants
1 ½ cup chopped frozen spinach, squeezed dry (I use just one box of frozen chopped spinach)
4 Tablespoons butter
2 cloves, ground (I use a dash of cloves)
1 teaspoon each: fennel seed, black mustard seed, cumin seed
Dash of salt
¼ cup cashews
¼ cup currants, soaked
½ teaspoon Garam Masala (an Indian spice I get at the co-op in bulk)
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Melt 2 tablespoons in butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add spices and saute until fragrant. Add spinach and stir until warm. Set aside.

Warm remaining butter and begin to fry the cashews until golden. Add currants and toss gently. Pull off heat and add remaining ingredients. Mix together and cool.

Roasted Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Dumplings
3 roasted red peppers*
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tablespoons or more fresh basil, minced
Dash of salt
¼ cup crumbled goat cheese

(*This is how I roast my red peppers. Wash and cut into fourths. Place on a cookie sheet, add a little bit of olive oil, and cook at 350 degrees or so until dark and soft. Let cool, dice, then place in mixing bowl. This can easily be done the night before or earlier in the day if you want to cut a step when you’re cooking.)

Saute onion in a little bit of olive oil in a skillet. Add garlic until fragrant. Add to the diced red pepper and stir. Add salt, pepper, basil, cheese, and set aside until cool. Serve with pesto, if desired.

Corn and Chipotle Dumplings
1 medium onion, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
2 Tablespoons polenta or cornmeal
2 Tablespoons chipotle in adobo sauce**
Salt to taste
Optional: cheddar cheese (I serve these with guacamole, so I don’t think the cheese is necessary, although it would be a tasty addition!)

Saute onion in a skillet with a little bit of oil. Add peppers and garlic and saute for a minute or so. Add corn and polenta and stir (if this is a little dry, add a touch of water). Add chipotle and salt. Mix and set aside until cool. Serve with guacamole.***

**Chipotle peppers in adobe sauce come in an 8-ounce can and are found in the Spanish food aisle. There are several peppers in the sauce. For this recipe, I used one pepper with a little bit of sauce. What to do with the leftover peppers? I wrap each pepper with a little bit of sauce in a small piece of plastic wrap, and place them all in a plastic bag and stick it in the freezer. It takes maybe 30 minutes at the most for them to thaw; they also last forever when frozen.

***This is my recipe for quicker than quick guacamole: Place one avocado in a bowl and smash with a fork. Add 1-2 finely minced garlic cloves, a little bit of lime juice, a dash of cayenne pepper, and salt. Stir and make any additional changes to taste.