The Gleeful Gourmand: February 2014

Friday, February 28, 2014

Sesame-Free Honey Garlic Chicken

This is the third post in my delicious series on cooking Asian food without sesame oil or sesame seeds. Thanks for reading!

When I started this project, I began by looking for different recipes on Pinterest. This recipe, from Just A Taste, was the first one that I just knew I had to make, and it seemed easy enough to simply omit sprinkling the recommended sesame seeds on top of the finished dish. Plus, it had so many components that sounded amazing: blackberry jam, soy sauce, loads of garlic, honey…how could you go wrong with those flavors working together? Plus, throwing bone-in chicken breasts into a crockpot for some slow cooking goodness makes the meat so juicy and tender. Perfect.

That is, perfect until I was in Whole Foods looking at their selection of Hoisin sauces (one of the main ingredients for the sauce), and realized with a sinking feeling that almost all Hoisin sauces have sesame oil as one of the ingredients.

Don't worry. This sauce is sesame-free.

Thank goodness I was in Whole Foods, and not my regular grocery store, because as I stood there completely baffled about what to do, one of the Whole Foods employees just happened to be walking down the aisle and asked if I needed help. I explained the situation to her and asked if she had any recommendations on what I could use as a substitute for Hoisin. She actually used to be one of the head cooks for the Whole Foods up in Charlottesville, and as it turned out, did a great deal of Asian cooking. She patiently went through the entire recipe with me, and we talked about all the different ingredients and how they worked together.

Teriyaki would have worked okay, except that Teriyaki sauce has sesame seeds in it. Funny how before our son's allergies I never even noticed that - and we used Teriyaki a lot when grilling out. More bottles were pulled from the shelf and examined. We finally settled on San-J Orange Sauce (gluten-free); an Asian glaze and stir-fry sauce. Fun fact: It's actually made right here in Richmond! The orange component would work really well with the blackberry and honey flavors. I did fiddle with the amount, though. This particular Orange Sauce already has quite a bit of honey in it, and I didn't want the sauce to become too sweet.

Chicken, bathed in its garlic and honey sauce, and ready to go to slow cooker heaven.

The chicken bubbles gently in the sauce for about 4 hours, and by the time dinner rolls around, all you have to do is make up some rice (we use brown rice) for the base, and transfer the sauce to cook it down a bit and thicken it to pour over top the chicken. I highly recommend not omitting the green onions - they really add a nice punch of brightness among the sweetness of the sauce. I also made some green beans to go along side, blanched and tossed with butter and a squeeze of lemon juice. The original recipe also recommends adding crushed red pepper for a different dimension of flavor, but we omitted that because of the kids. You can find the original recipe here.

Sesame-Free Honey Garlic Chicken

Sesame-Free Honey Garlic Chicken

3 large, bone-in skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup seedless blackberry jam
1/4 (or less) orange sauce (for Asian glaze or stir-fry)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
Sliced green onions for garnish


1) Arrange the chicken breasts in a crockpot so that they don't overlap.

2) In a bowl, whisk together the honey, soy sauce, blackberry jam, orange sauce, olive oil, garlic, onion and (optional) red pepper flakes. Pour the sauce over the chicken and cover. Cook the chicken on low for 4 to 5 hours until the chicken is fully cooked.

3) Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, reserving the liquids. Remove the bones and use two forks to shred the chicken into small pieces. Place the shredded chicken into a large bowl.

4) In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch with 3 Tbsp. of cold water to make a slurry.

5) Transfer the liquids from the crockpot into a small saucepan. Over medium-high heat, whisk in the slurry. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Pour the sauce over the chicken, and toss to combine. Serve and top with sliced green onions.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Making Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon

If we're friends on Facebook, you may remember that I threw down a culinary gauntlet for myself at the advent of the New Year. I set three culinary goals for myself for 2014, and one was a leftover from last year that I never got around to: making Boeuf Bourguignon. But not just any old Boeuf Bourguignon - Mastering The Art Of French Cooking's Boeuf Bourguignon. Otherwise known as Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon.

All set up and ready to go.

Boeuf Bourguignon, or Beef Burgundy, is a classic French dish that hails from the Burgundy region. Calling it Beef Stew doesn't do it justice. Mastering The Art of French Cooking remarks that it is, "certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man." If you've ever taken a look at the full recipe, you'll know that it's quite an undertaking. Almost every recipe in that cookbook is, come to think of it. That's what makes French cuisine so great, I think. They don't cut corners. They know that lovingly tending to something you care about will yield amazing results. Even if it takes 4 hours and around 15,000 steps (give or take).

I discussed this with the butcher at my local Whole Foods. I was looking for the first ingredient: a bacon slab with the rind still on.

"We don't have that," he said apologetically. The other butcher, a woman, was cutting the beef I had requested for stewing into 2-inch cubes.

"No one does that anymore. You just won't find bacon that still has the rind available," she said.

"Just out of curiosity, what are you making?" The male butcher asked.

"Boeuf Bourguignon. From Mastering The Art of French Cooking," I told him. He nodded in understanding.

"Oh yeah. I think they add things like what you're looking for in those recipes just to torment the butchers," he laughed. "Believe me when I say: I know that recipe, and you don't need the rind one bit. Don't sweat it." We talked some more about the book and the recipe, and I put the precious parcels of bacon and beef in my cart.

"Good luck!" said the female butcher.

"Hey," added the male butcher as I turned to go, "Just remember, make it your own and have fun."

That exchange is just one small reason why I love Whole Foods.

But fun wasn't exactly what came to mind when I thought about tackling this mammoth recipe. However, his remark made me smile broadly, and I felt a little lighter leaving the store. Why couldn't this be fun? I had read the recipe about a dozen times. I had all the ingredients, and had mapped out carefully what I was going to do, when I was going to do it. I wasn't going to leave anything to chance. The kids were being looked after for the entire afternoon by my husband, kept out of the kitchen by whatever means necessary. It was time to finally do this. If for nothing else than to prove to myself that I could do it. That is, after all, why we take on challenging recipes, isn't it? To grow, to learn something, and to prove our culinary worth to ourselves.

I started at 3:00 p.m. I already knew, thanks to the lack of bacon rind, that I wasn't going to be able to replicate this recipe precisely. But I was going to try and replicate it as close as I possibly could. And that meant simmering the bacon lardons (bacon cut into 1/4 inch sticks) first before browning it. Apparently that first step is meant to take the smoky flavor out of the bacon. Though why you'd want to do that, I haven't a clue. But no matter, I was in the throes of the first steps, and if Mesdames Child, Beck, and Bertholle said to do it, by gosh, I was going to do it.

Here's what actually took up most of my time: browning the beef. The recipe recommends that you brown the chunks of beef a few at a time so as not to bring down the temperature of the oil and bacon fat (it also makes it very clear that you have to carefully dry each piece, or it won't brown). I did about four at a time, but it was tedious work. 3 pounds of beef is actually quite a lot.

Browning the beef in olive oil and bacon fat.

The time marched on, and soon I found myself pouring an entire bottle of wine into the pot that held the beef, carrots, sliced onions and bacon with beef stock. I had to smile to myself as I recalled the second great conversation I had that morning at Whole Foods, this time with their wine expert. I had been standing in the French wine aisle, looking at my choices, and not really sure what to do. There were a couple of choices for Burgundy wine, but all of them were upwards of $30. Not only did I need to pour a whole bottle into the stew, I also wanted a second bottle to actually drink with dinner. The recipe recommended a couple of other choices that would do, but I didn't write them down, and couldn't recall. The wine expert sidled up to me and I explained my dilemma.

"What are you making?" He inquired. I told him, and he smiled, beckoning me to come with him. To the discounted wine aisle. "Here's the thing about Burgundy. It's good, but it's ridiculously expensive here. What you really want is this Pinot Noir. The grapes in the Pinot Noir are the same grapes used in Burgundy. Of course, this one comes from Chile, not France, but it will do the exact same thing, and it is delicious. It's also $6.99." He handed me a bottle of Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir.

"And of course, you're going to want a second bottle to drink with dinner, right?" He asked with a knowing smile. He also wished me good luck as I walked away.

For the record, the wine was delicious. I knew that immediately because after I added the three cups to the stew, I had some left over in the bottle and took a swig to try it out. When in France, right? Into the oven the stew went, and now I had about 2 1/2 hours to wait. I took that time to do the dishes and to make the last couple of steps: braising the pearl onions with a bundle of herbs, and sautéing the mushrooms. This, of course, made extra work, but I knew as the onions browned gently in my cast iron skillet, and the aroma of them simmering in beef stock hit my nose, that it was going to be worth it. I only realized too late after slicing all the mushrooms that they were actually supposed to be quartered. Normally, in such a concentrated state of cooking, that would have shook me up, but I just shrugged and powered on, setting a big pot to boil the egg noodles for the base of the stew.

Braising pearl onions: An extra step that's worth the time.

We finally sat down to dinner at 7:15 p.m. The kids were great - they had snacks to fortify them, and we inhaled the stew. It was beyond fantastic. I could very clearly taste all the different levels of flavor bursting from the stew in each bite. With each mouthful, I could understand how each different step added another layer of flavor, and also how they all worked together in harmony. At that moment of complete satisfaction that it had not only turned out okay, but that it was delicious, I didn't mind that my legs and feet hurt from standing still for so long,  and that I was exhausted. I didn't mind the extra paces the recipe puts you through because I finally understood why it does.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Mastering The Art Of French Cooking is insistent on time, patience, and understanding all the steps because it's not just a typical cookbook. Its authors weren't bent on making sure you turn out an okay meal on time - they were bent on the average home cook learning, growing, and understanding - truly understanding - French cuisine, from the very first bought ingredient to the finished product. They knew that no one can master anything if there isn't a high level of learning and understanding, and plenty of practice. They also knew the end result would be completely worth it.

The wine was drained, our bowls wiped clean, and our bellies full. What better outcome could come from a New Year's resolution?

Friday, February 7, 2014

30-Minute Mongolian Beef

This is the second post in my delicious series on cooking Asian food without sesame seeds or sesame oil. Thanks for reading!

The best laid plans.

I had them for this post. This recipe for 30-Minute Mongolian Beef was actually the recipe that first inspired me to jump into Asian cooking, and it comes from the delicious and gorgeous food blog, Just A Taste.

If you've ever explored my blog beyond the few last months, you'll notice that my food photography is not the best. I was really resistant to making photos a priority because I'm a writer, first and foremost. I wanted my food blog to be about words, not about what I considered to be slick photography.

Short-sighted of me, no? Then a couple of years ago my trusty point-and-click camera died a sudden and rather unceremonious death. I knew what I wanted for its replacement, though. It had to be a DSLR. Somewhere in my protestations about not wanting the photos to be the focus, I realized that I was missing the point: Blogs are meant to be a visceral experience. Words count, but in food blogging, photos count too. Sometimes even more than words. If I was going to be serious about this blog, I had to admit that I had to get competitive, and I had to learn.

Cue the big sighs. First I had to figure out the basics of how to use a DSLR. Then I had to figure out how to really capture the pictures I wanted: by shooting in manual mode - a whole new ballgame. Apertures. Shutter Speed. Reflectors. Artistry. White Balance. It's enough to make your head spin. But I was determined to try.

I'm still learning, working on it every week. I know I have a long way to go. So bear with me, will you? I want you to love the words I write, but I also want you to love the photos, too.

I want you to want me. (Don't you just love that song?)

So anyway, there I was 5:00 Wednesday evening, knowing I needed to get out of the chair I was sitting in, chin on chest, eyes closed, book open in my lap, sweater pulled tightly around my neck and shoulders fighting off a chill. Wild Kratts playing in the background to occupy the kids. I wasn't feeling great - still trying to recover from a cold. I had to get up because this was the night I had scheduled to make this meal. I had plans for photographing it, too.

Buck came home from work and I finally dragged myself off the chair, shuffling into the kitchen. He graciously offered to slice the flank steak for me.

Yes, that's a lox and cream cheese bagel cutting board. Jealous?

I started working on the sauce, which is really what makes this recipe special: spicy ginger, garlic, brown sugar, soy sauce. It's rich and delicious, and makes you feel like you just sat down at your favorite Chinese joint. Coating the flank steak in cornstarch helps to velvet it, breaking it down a little just before you flash fry it in a wok. I also added a heaping handful of sliced baby bella mushrooms for a veggie aspect.

Flank steak, hanging out in cornstarch.

Everything went wrong. The ginger. I had bought a nice big piece from the store and was excited because that meant I could freeze the rest. The ginger root had somehow gone bad in just three days, and I resorted to powdered ginger. The sauce. I tried to scale back the sugar content again, and misjudged terribly. To say that it ended up salty is an understatement. The beef. I forgot to dust off the excess cornstarch. Guess what happens when a ton of cornstarch goes into a piping hot wok? Lumps, that's what. The brown rice. I don't even understand what happened here, except it seemed to take about 5 hours to cook down.

Mushrooms and steak simmering in sauce.

Our kids were now sitting at the table and most of them were crying. I cooked. I took photos. I cursed the rice. I may have even cried a little too - when I wasn't sneezing. Needless to say, the food made it to the table, and was gobbled up by all, despite my oversight with the saltiness.

This is the shot you get when food is being whisked to a table full of crying children.

You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

Plans do go astray, and quite frequently, especially when you've got a family to feed. But sometimes it's not about getting the perfect shot, or even getting the dinner itself perfect. Sometimes it's just about taking a quick photo, and then sitting down at the table and eating. I'm okay with that.

Believe me when I say this recipe is amazing. It doesn't need to be fooled with, because it's pretty perfect as is. It's delicious and comforting and fun, and you can find it here: 30-Minute Mongolian Beef.