Beef Stew Al Fresco

Is Al Fresco related to Al Pacino?

This is nothing but a simple beef stew, but it was cooked in a cast iron camping Dutch Oven over an open fire, which always makes everything taste better. I will disclose the small wrinkles which add layers and layers to the dish. First, marry-nate some cubed up chuck roast, in red wine, salt, and pepper. I left mine in the fridge overnight, and then browned it in some home rendered lard, over some blazing heat.

The One Spoon

It helped that I had the One Spoon to cook with, which I got from a small fellow with furry feet. He told me it was the one spoon to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them. Actually, I made that monstrosity out of some Carolina Buckthorn, a weed tree if there ever was one. It’s almost as long as my Amish made fireplace poker. It does keep your hands away from the fire.

Deglaze

I threw in a whole chopped onion, cooked it, and deglazed the whole thing with some apple wine that was mysteriously sitting next to my fire pit, and the red wine marinade. Who would have guessed?

Milled Tomatoes

The next step is to add milled tomatoes, and cook for an hour or two. Throw a lid on that thing, to conserve heat.

This is Merely Medium Sized

I’ve always thought of Dutch Ovens as something like primitive pressure cookers, because it takes some serious steam to leak through that massive lid. The last ingredients are salt, pepper, carrots, and naturally, taters, precious.

Ready to Stew

It would take another good hour to finish this, so I just went back to work on my great American novel, which is closing to a finish. If only it was as good as this stew turned out to be.

Soft Scrambled Eggs

A DIY Scrambled Egg Kit

Seriously, a post about how to scramble eggs? I would have thought the same thing a few years ago, before the great English food writer Elizabeth David caught my eye. Jane Grigson, an equally talented writer, gave me my first account of David, in what has become one of my all time favorite books, published under various titles, but now sold as Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. There, Grigson discusses several of David’s recipes from her book French Country Cooking. I immediately bought a three books in one collection of her work, published by the appropriately named Biscuit Books. I now own four of her books, each better than the last.

David hated overly complex and pretentious food, and instead focused on the real thing, such as perfectly scrambled eggs. Her method is superb, taken from a French country cook. The secret is to cook the eggs at the lowest temperature possible, which is something of an antithesis to the more common get your stove as hot as a flamethrower approach. Here’s my paraphrase. This is a two person version.

Ingredients

2 Eggs, Beaten

Salt and Pepper

Heat up a skillet coated with olive oil–I like these Lodge carbon steel ones. Turn the stove down to minimum temp, and let the skillet cool off for a bit. Then pour in the seasoned eggs, and do nothing. Wait until the egg begins to set, and s-l-o-w-l-y stir the eggs with a fork. I always prefer wood utensils, so I made my own.

The eggs should cook slowly, so it is much simpler to serve it at the soft, creamy stage that is the goal of using this method. After a couple of tries, cooking this way will become second nature. It doesn’t hurt any to begin with quality pasture raised eggs, either.

Morel Omelette

Breakfast is Served

I may be the only person in North America who puts dried mushrooms on my Christmas list every year. First on the list are Morels, as they are something of an extravagance, and are five times more expensive than dried Porcini mushrooms.

I always get Morels from the Left Coast, from Pistol River Mushrooms in Oregon, and the quality is always superb. My two favorite Morel dishes are Turkey Breasts in Morel Cream Sauce, and this Morel Omelette. As it was a holiday this July 4th, why not go for the gold?

Ingredients

2-3 large Morels, rehydrated and chopped

Morel Water

1 sweet Pepper, chopped

3 Scallions, chopped

3 Eggs

1/4 cup diced Ham

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar Cheese

Parsley

Salt and Pepper

Diced tomatoes are also great in this, but I forgot to add them. Begin by cooking the pepper and the white part of the chopped scallion in olive oil. Then add the morels. In the meantime, mix the rest of the ingredients together, including the green parts of the scallion. When the veg is cooked, pour in the egg mixture, and have a 400 degree F oven ready. No omelette folding or flipping here.

After the egg mixture has started to set up, throw the whole thing in the oven. Have a cup of coffee and chicory, and listen to Beethoven or Wagner. Then take it out when it’s firm, and serve a couple of people with this. An English muffin goes well with it.

I never use all of the Morel water, as it is always full of grit from the wild harvested fungi. I should start using the method described by Marcella Hazan in the priceless Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There she describes how Italians will filter dirty mushroom soaking water through paper towels or a fine strainer, and save it for soups and stocks. Now that’s what you call a food culture.

Tuscan Style Grill

A Work in Progress, but another Rustico Design

This is an idea that came about from my sudden interest in Tuscan outdoor cooking, where a fire is built on a hard surface, and then a grill is placed above. I thought, why not make it as flexible as possible? Also, I had a number of leftover bricks to do something with. So Rustico decided to make a multi level open hearth grill.

How Firm a Foundation

The foundation may not look like much, but that is one hundred pounds of concrete. The grill is behind my wood burning oven, and next to my rustic cabinet. No worries, there will be a brick wall between the fire and the cabinet.

Grill in Progress

Eventually the inside will be lined with slate, as soon as I find an adhesive that can take the heat. I’ll probably go with thinset mortar mixed with fireclay, and buy a couple of grates to go along with my Lodge ones. Then it’s off to a dream project–Stew Stoves like the ones in the kitchen at Monticello. Old school is the best school.

Fire Pit/Outdoor Hearth

Dutch oven and “Camp” Dutch oven in the Outdoor Hearth Hybrid

This mammoth version of a fire pit actually doubles as an outside hearth, which can be used like a similar arrangement in many colonial kitchens. The key to the set up is the crane from which that dutch oven is hanging.

A Multi-tasking Fire Pit

The crane, like those in colonial kitchen open hearth fireplaces, makes all the difference. The cook can’t immediately control the temperature of a wood fire, but they can control the amount of heat that reaches a pot, by swinging it from side to side, or raising and lowering it up and down via an s-hook. Additionally, the rebar grid at the bottom allows the cook to sit a dutch oven directly over the fire, as in the first photo.

The Holes Drilled in the Bottom are Not Visible

So there are at least three ways to cook here–on the fire, close to the fire, or swinging in the air. And if you just want to use it as a fire pit, the crane is on a hinge, and can swing completely behind the pit.

This was made from an old industrial grade propane tank, so it is recycled as well. An oak fell on it once, and I mean a big one, and it knocked the pit into the ground up to the top of the legs. The only damage was to bend the crane support slightly. We pulled it out of the ground, moved it, and I twisted the support slightly around, and put it back to work. Now that’s rustic.

Brick Oven Tools–Pizza Peels

Traditional Peel–Sort Of

Pizza peels are handy things, if you want to keep the hair from being burned off your arms. The one above is the traditional wooden variety. It was too short, so I added a handle made from a broken hickory axe handle, making this possibly the sturdiest peel in the world.

Metal Peel

These aluminum peels are popular in the pizza industry, and they are light, thin, and durable. Not as long as my wooden one, but can live outside at the brick oven. Note the straight, not curved, front, which makes it easier to scoop up a pie.

Round Peel

These little round peels are surprisingly useful. I use mine to move pizzas around inside the brick oven, though a welding glove is a good idea if you go that route.

Peels are also good inside the house, especially if you have a pizza brick of some kind. I use one of those giant Lodge cast iron pizza pans as a hearth, and turn up my oven as far as I dare. Wait a few minutes for it to reach temperature, then use a peel to throw a pizza on it. The results are surprisingly good. And, of course, bakers use these for sourdough loaves, and other concoctions.

Chicken Sauté a la Créole

Great cookbook, or greatest cookbook? The latest reprint is available from Amazon.

I have made the following recipe from this cookbook literally more than a hundred times. Here’s what the Times Picayune had to say about it, when it is made properly:

You will then have a dish for which any old Creole would go on foot from Carrollton to the Barracks, a distance of fifteen miles, merely to get a taste of.

And now this is the modern version, that doesn’t require two whole chickens or two large onions. It’s for two people.

1 Chicken Breast

1/2 Onion

1/2 Sweet Pepper

1 Clove Garlic

1 Tablespoon Peanut Oil

1 Tablespoon Flour

1 Pint of Tomatoes

White Wine for de-glazing

Salt and Pepper

Thyme and Oregano

Heat the oil in a thick cast iron skillet, and add the flour. It’s time to make a roux! That’s what thickens the Creole sauce. I’m channeling Marcelle Bienvenu, who wrote another great cookbook, Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?

A “blonde” roux is preferable for this dish, so stir the flour until it browns only slightly. Add the chicken and let it brown nicely. A bone in, skin on, breast is preferred

When the chicken is browned, add the onions and pepper, which should be finely diced. When they are softened, add the garlic. Then de-glaze the pan with white wine.

Now it’s time for a little technique: milling tomatoes, using the finest insert that comes with the food mill. 

Moulinex #1 Food Mill

Truthfully, this step is optional, but the end result is a seed free sauce of superior texture and taste. It doesn’t hurt to have some home canned, locally grown, tomatoes to mill, as pictured. Just crank the tomatoes right over the skillet. I’ll do a deep dive into food mills eventually–they are a French invention, and the best ones are still made there.

Once the tomatoes are milled, season with salt, pepper, and herbs. Once the sauce is simmering, put a lid on the skillet and turn it down to the lowest setting possible, the lower, the better. Just add water or stock as it cooks down. In forty minutes or so, you have a dish worth walking fifteen miles for. And that is just to taste it.