Author Archives: The Rowdy Chowgirl

About The Rowdy Chowgirl

I am a Seattle-based food blogger.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

I’ve been on the fence about whether to write about Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe here.  As you can see, I’ve come down on the pro side of that fence.  But just barely, and here’s why.  Boeuf Bourguignon is, to quote my dear friend and fellow blogger Natalie, “quite simply the best thing that I have ever cooked.” But it is also the most complicated, exacting, and time consuming thing I have ever cooked–including cassoulet, which is really saying something.

So if you decide to try this recipe, be ready to go all-in.  Shop carefully and don’t make substitutions.  Set aside the entire day for cooking. Follow the detailed instructions to the letter.  Plan to clean a fine layer of grease off of every surface in your kitchen (including yourself). Get your kitchen zen on.  And you will be rewarded richly.

Boeuf Bourguignon fully engages all five senses in the cooking process.  In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m sharing my cooking experience in a non-prose (maybe poetry, maybe not!) format.

Squashy cold meat and crisp vegetables distinct in the hand
slide under the knife blade.
Prickly fine droplets of hot fat hit arms in fiery rain.
Ease tired shoulders toward ears,
feel the floor under the balls of feet. Go get soft slippers.
Sizzling and simmering compete with loud, loud, loud music to chop and stir by.
Sharp metallic beef blood transitions to
smoky browned meat, onions sting nostrils and eyes,
a waft of cork and fresh wine–take a sample gulp from the bottle—
the mellower scent of reducing sauce.
Pale mushrooms soften and exude liquid, then
brown to just the right color as promised by Julia.
Steaming finished dish pulled from oven bubbling, deep caramelized brown.
Layer upon layer of flavor: first punch of umami in the mouth
then more subtle notes of thyme and salt and bacon and beef.
Lingering richness on the tongue.

For the original Julia Child recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon, as well as the recipes for sauteed mushrooms and brown-braised onions that are necessary to complete the dish, click here.

Sugar Shack

maple syrup bottles

On my recent trip home to Wisconsin, there was talk of cousin Spike’s maple syrup operation, which had started as a small hobby and then expanded into a big hobby with a lot of fancy equipment and a brand new sugar shack in which to house the operation.  Sissy and I eagerly hopped into our Uncle Tom’s truck and set off to see the sugar shack.  I was entranced by the whole idea, partly due to fond memories of reading all about sugaring off in the Wisconsin maple woods in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs…he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hole in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end…Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap.”

Maple Syrup Little House in the Big Woods

When we pulled into Spike’s driveway, we saw the new sugar shack.  The metal building was much larger than I had expected, with smoke coming out of the chimney and a pile of freshly split wood.

Sugar Shack

The door opened, and several guys came out to greet us.  As we went inside, they talked to Uncle Tom about the muddy conditions amongst the maple trees after the recent heavy snowfall and thaw, and how the bobcat had slid into a ditch up there while they were collecting sap the day before.  Spike showed us the little plastic taps he puts in the trees, and the shiny silver mylar bags that the syrup collects in.

tap for maple syrup

“He empties the sap into the iron kettle.  There is a big bonfire under the kettle, and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.”

Maple Syrup (2) Little House in the Big Woods

The sugar shack was steamy warm on the inside, and full of interesting equipment.  Spike showed us the osmosis machine, which removes much of the water from the sap before it is cooked down, saving hours of cooking time.  It takes a whole lot of sap to make a little maple syrup, and much of that volume is water.  The pure mineral water that is removed is drinkable.

syrup 2

Then the sap passed on to a wood-fired contraption that cooked it down slowly over many hours.  A thermostat on the wall showed the temperature inside the cooker.  Several men and a boy were hanging around this machine, and they opened the little doors in the top to let us peek down at the thin, light-colored sap.  They showed us the spout on the side where, when it was the right temperature, the darker finished syrup would pour out into a container.

syrup 3

This step in the process mostly seemed to involve a lot of pleasant hanging around in the warmth of the sugar shack, occasionally feeding the fire and keeping an eye on that thermostat.  Not a bad way to spend a cold Saturday at all.

“Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all year, for common every day.  When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar…He’s going to sugar off again next Monday, and he says we must all come. Pa’s blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for last, and he said to Ma: ‘Hey, Caroline! There’ll be a dance!’”

Maple Syrup (1) Little House in the Big Woods

Uncle Tom had already promised both of us a few bottles of Spike’s maple syrup to take home with us.  After we’d seen the entire fascinating operation and asked a million questions, Spike suggested that we come back later in the day to see the finished syrup coming out.  And maybe have a few beers.

The equipment has changed over the century or two since Laura Ingall’s Grandpa sugared off, but the process is more or less the same, including the camaraderie of working together to produce the syrup, then celebrating a bit–whether with a dance or a beer from the keg fridge in the corner.

syrup 3 keg fridge

Curds

curds

I’m just back from several days in Wisconsin.  The reason for the trip was a sad one–my grandmother’s funeral.  But it was a good trip.  Good to honor my grandmother’s long and fruitful life, and good to be with my large extended family.

You hear a lot about terroir in reference to food products such as tea, wine, or chocolate–that special combination of geography, soil, and climate in a local environment that affects the production of a product, giving it a unique taste.

Naturally enough, I’ve been thinking about my own terroir–the place of origin that has shaped me and given me my own unique flavor.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been home, to gentle rolling fields of snow-dusted corn stubble crisscrossed by snowmobile tracks, the winter-muted scents of dairy barns, and the calm mid-western good sense of aunts and uncles and cousins who work hard and enjoy life as it comes.  But no matter how long I’m away, that is my place, where I touch the ground and gain strength from it.

Whenever I’m in Wisconsin, I eat cheese curds by the bagful.  They are everywhere–bags sitting in heaps on the checkout counter of the grocery store and the gas station, which is helpful when you’re in a pinch, with a late night craving.  Much better is to stop at one of the ubiquitous cheese factories and buy them really fresh–ideally only a few hours old, still damp and milky, salty and squeaky between the teeth.

Arena cheese factory

Curds, of course, are the beginning stages of cheese.  Rennet is added to milk, it curdles, the whey is strained out, and you’ve got curds.  Press these into blocks and age them and you’ve got cheese.

curds 2

My sissy and I pulled open our first bag of them in the car and ate them while driving.  We continued with bedtime snacks of curds.  I brought home more bags of them in my luggage, freshly bought at the cheese factory on the way to the airport, and continued to indulge in the taste of home for as long as they lasted.

I don’t buy curds much here in Seattle.  Not when they appear at the grocery store (heaven forbid) with a good-through date stamped on them that is several weeks in the future.  Not even when they are freshly made at Beecher’s near Pike Place Market.  They aren’t the same, not the same at all.  Maybe it’s the terroir.

The taste of home is different for everyone.  What is yours?

The Pantry Job

It wasn’t the biggest home improvement project I’ve ever tackled—not by a long shot.  It only took a week or so, a couple of trips to the Home Depot and the container store.  There was relatively little cursing and no crying and it was over before I had the urge to burn down the house and flee into the night.  I call that a win.

My pantry was stuffed to the gills, with no rhyme or reason to the organization.  It was gloomy and un-functional and every time I tried to find something, another object was sure to fall on my head.  Usually the turkey roasting pan, but sometimes the pudding steamer. Empty canning jars were precariously balanced everywhere, threatening to cascade to the floor.  I knew the extra napkins were in there somewhere, but damned if I could find them.  It wasn’t just too full, the space wasn’t working.

Pantry Before

So I gutted it.  There was whacking with a hammer and prying with a crowbar and flying bits of wood.  I love that phase of a project.  It took several coats of primer and two coats of fresh white paint (the warnings to use Kilz primer in a ventilated area are SO right, by the way) to cover the 1950’s pink walls and blue ceiling.

I thought about what I keep in the pantry and planned accordingly.  New shelves, an assortment of wire racks and hanging devices specially chosen for my particular stuff—from aprons to whisk brooms, cat food to waxed paper to berry picking buckets, everything found its new home.

Somehow when everything went back in there was plenty of light and more than enough room.

Pantry After (1)

It might sound kind of silly, but I’m grateful to have a pantry.  It’s such a nice prosperous feeling to have storage space at all.  And now, to have a fresh, functional pantry feels like riches.

An empty shelf is like an unscheduled afternoon.  It’s an invitation to be savored, and not filled too quickly.

Pantry After (2)