Time for a chemistry experiment for big kids! This one involves heat, a liquid, and some acid. The result is money in your pocket and some great food in your belly.
1-2 Quarts organic Whole Milk
Acid (2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice or Vinegar, 1/2 Teaspoon Citric Acid)
Optional: Salt, Cream, Herbs
Tools needed are a large non-reactive pan ( I use a stainless steel lined copper one), a colander, and some cheesecloth. Pour the milk into the pan, and add the acid. Stir thoroughly once, and bring the milk up to 170-190 degrees. Ultra pasteurized milk works fine with citric acid, though I have not tried it with any other of the acids. The heat/acid combo causes the milk solids (curds) to separate from most of the liquid-instead of using a thermometer, you can just watch the transformation take place, as it reaches the maximum effect when the milk begins to boil right around the edges of the pan. At this point, turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let sit for at least five minutes.
Place the cheesecloth in the colander in the sink, or in a bowl, if you want to save the liquid portion, which is known as the whey. No whey? Yes whey. Pour the cheese mixture into the cheesecloth (a single layer of cheesecloth is sufficient). Let drain for a minute or two, tie up the cheesecloth and hang the ricotta to drain–I just hang it off the faucet on my kitchen sink. I leave it for an hour or more, and take it down to cook with it or store it. It should look like the above picture.
The manifold uses for ricotta are well documented, and it can be used for any meal–try some in scrambled eggs sometime. As a teaser, I’ll give notice that I will eventually post my favorite ricotta recipe, Penne alla Pastora, in the future. It’s so complicated that it has a total of five ingredients.
Creole French Bread, also known as New Orleans French Bread, is not really French bread at all. French bread, in the form of the classic baguette, is a simple bread made with salt, yeast, flour and water. Creole French Bread is closer to an Italian bread, in that it is enriched or fortified with some form of fat, and usually a small amount of sugar. (Red Star yeast has an excellent concise run down of what fat adds to a loaf.)
If you do a quick check on the internet, you will find that various recipes for this bread using a number of different fats. Commercial varieties often use vegetable shortening, though one of the most famous ones uses soy oil. Why such cheap ingredients? Because those folks are out to make a buck, and pennies matter. As a home baker not concerned with economies of scale, I use as high a quality of ingredient as possible. The following recipe, which I have made weekly for years, uses olive oil. This will make two baguettes, two po-boy buns, or a small loaf.
2 teaspoons instant Yeast (I end up buying two pound bags of Red Star regularly)
I make the dough in our thirty something year old Kitchenaid stand mixer-they weren’t kidding when they printed “Heavy Duty” on the side of the machine. Use the dough hook attachment, and mix until a ball of dough is formed.
The next step is the yeast mixture. I combine the three ingredients in a one cup measurer that I also use for the flour. Stir, and I let it sit until the mixture rises to the top of the measuring cup. That also gives the dough a little time to hydrate. Mix those together with the dough mixture, though a little additional flour is usually necessary to keep the dough from being overly sticky. Now it’s time for the rise.
Any oiled container will do to hold the dough for the first rise, but old school Southerners insist on wooden dough bowls. This one was made by Loyd George of Decatur, Alabama, out of Tulip Poplar. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel, and let rise. How long will depend on the temp of your kitchen. The general rule is to let it double in size, usually around an hour.
For baguettes/po-boy buns, a loaf must be formed by hand. Divide the dough in half, and form into an oval. Fold over once longways, and roll out the loafs from the middle outward. (King Arthur has a great tutorial showing how to do this.) For baguettes, it’s easier to put the loaves in a baguette pan; po-boy buns go onto a baking sheet, and are slightly flattened out. Loafs can go onto a baking sheet or a loaf pan. All must be covered with a towel, and allowed to rise again.
Here’s where the bread paths diverge. I cook po-boy buns at 375 degrees, loaves at 400, and baguettes at 450. Baguettes need to be slashed to keep from splitting open while baking, while slashing is optional for the loaves, and never done with po-boybuns. Cooking times are thirty minutes or more for buns and loaves, and twenty minutes or so for the baguettes.
The resulting bread should be crispy crunchy on the outside, and incredibly soft on the inside. The superiority of this bread to any commercial one will become apparent at the first bite. It only stays fresh for about a day, but can be frozen and warmed up with little noticeable change in quality. For one use of this bread, see my post on Creole Onion Soup. You’ll end up neglecting the soup for the bread.
Cold weather in the South is particularly nasty, because it isn’t that common. Today will be around freezing, which is just the excuse needed to make our favorite winter meal–Creole Onion Soup. Every cook has their own version, but my wife Melanie Jane has condescended to share her’s, which is pictured above. She also provided the photos.
Creole Onion Soup
Three or Four Onions, sliced thinly
Three Tablespoons Butter
Three Tablespoons Flour
Four Cups Poultry Stock (Chicken, Duck, or Turkey)
Thyme, Oregano, and Basil
Tabasco Sauce to Taste
Creole French Bread
Grated Cheese–Swiss, Cheddar, or Parmesan, or some combination thereof
Porcelain lined cast iron makes the best soup pot, and the best are still made in France. This one is six quarts. At any rate, slowly cook the sliced onions in the butter. This should be the result:
Remove the cooked onions and add the flour. It’s roux time! This time stir until there is a “blonde” roux. It should look like this:
More butter can be added to achieve the desired consistency. Now it’s time to make soup. Add the stock, cooked onions, soy and worcestershire sauces, and herbs. Simmer for thirty minutes and add the Tabasco, which makes this really Creole, along with the next addition.
Now it’s time to serve. Use a good heat-resistant soup bowl (that’s a handmade Jerry Brown bowl in the picture at the beginning). Top with slices of Creole French Bread, for which I will have to supply a recipe in the future, but it’s really just French Bread with olive oil (or some other fat) added to the dough. Top that with the grated cheese of your choice, and throw under a broiler. When the cheese begins to toast, it’s time to burn your tongue on some smoking hot soup.
Melanie Jane’s hair is about the color of that roux, and she responded to a blonde joke from some fool once by saying, “I guess you graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the best History department in the country, like I did.” Her best put down was of an obnoxious college Dean at a party, who asked her how he looked in his Trucker’s cap. Her response was, “You look like pig farmer.” Good times and hot soup!
What we have here is yet another recipe from the magnificent Picayune Creole Cook Book. I should start with a quote from the book itself about this dish: “It is a simple, elegant dish, within the means of everyone.” At least everyone who has a chicken in their pot. We always refer to this dish as just “Brown Sauce Chicken.”
I am going to get all Frenchified on you, as the cookbook gives the recipe names in both English and French. This is also “Fricassée de Volaille, Sauce Brune.” This is an important distinction as a Fricassee is a distinctive method of cooking.
The original recipe uses a whole chicken cut up, including the liver, heart, and gizzards, so think of this as a chicken cooked in its own giblet gravy. Mine is a simpler version for two people, as usual.
Stewed Chicken, Brown Sauce
1 Chicken Breast, preferably bone in and skin on
1 Tablespoon Lard, Oil, or Butter
1 Tablespoon Flour
1 sprig Thyme and Parsley
1 Bay Leaf
Salt and Pepper
Begin by cooking the onions in the fat (lard, oil, butter) until soft. I always use the heaviest cast iron skillet I have, but that’s just me. Then add the flour and make a brown roux with it. A roux, aka “Creole Napalm,” is really a matter of practice and patience. A brown roux should be dark brown, the darker, the better the taste. Whatever you do, don’t stop stirring, or let this stuff splatter on you. When satisfied, add the chicken, and brown it as well.
Here comes the fun part. Add stock or water, herbs, and seasonings, and stir well. Cover the pot and simmer for thirty minutes or so on your stove’s lowest setting (mine is 600 btu’s), or an hour for a whole chicken, and you’re done. Check frequently to make sure that the chicken does not stick, or “lay on,” as we like to say. Serve with rice, preferably Louisiana rice, or pasta. Potatoes will also work.
This dish is simple and amazingly good. It’s also a perfect way to practice your skills as a Fricassee cook.
What we have here is a slightly southern-ed up version of the classic German all around dish. Though it is thought of as a breakfast item on this side of the pond, it is excellent at any meal. This is a meal for two here, but it can be scaled up to practically any level.
One Slice of Bacon
One Large Potato, cubed
One-Half of an Onion, chopped
Salt and Pepper
In a heavy cast iron skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp. Remove the bacon from the skillet, and add the cubed potato while the bacon fat is still hot. If necessary, add some olive oil, though this is usually not necessary. Salt and Pepper. Fry the potatoes until brown, and add the onions. At the same time, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. Chop the bacon into small pieces, and add when the onion is almost softened.
Here’s where the Southern accent comes in. Instead of beating the eggs, place the eggs-fried egg, sunny side up style, on opposite sides of the pan. As soon as the eggs begin to set, pop the whole thing into the 400 degree oven. Keep a close watch, and serve while the yolks are still runny, if you want a dish where there won’t be any leftovers. It’s easier to clean up that way.
The variations on this dish are limitless. Add country ham, chives, scallions, garlic, green garlic, chopped tomatoes, fresh herbs, or anything else that you have on hand. Adapt it to the seasonal ingredients. That’s what good cooking is all about, anyway.
In 1947 Frenchman Louis Tellier invented the commercial food mill, and it changed the world of cooking. Hours of labor were changed into a few cranks of a handle–I should add that he also invented the french fry cutter that many people use. If you’re like me, and hate cleaning all the little fiddly parts of a food processor, the manual food mill is an excellent alternative or addition.
Why this is something of an exotic tool in US kitchens is a mystery, as even the French made food mills are inexpensive and incredibly simple. Put the appropriate milling disk in, pop in the hand cranked milling masher thingy, and go at it. That’s it. Three parts that lead to great food, from mashed or riced potatoes to pie fillings to any puree that you can imagine.
There are things a food mill can’t do that a food processor can, like making bread crumbs, but try getting the seeds out of a tomato or other fruit with a food processor. It also isn’t necessary to go the full commercial route: Moulinex makes an excellent stainless small sized food mill in France.
Food mills are not just for making baby food. Buying one will change the way you cook, and look at food.
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.
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.