Our favorite grocery store, Big Y, partnered with CansGetYouCooking.com to sponsor a recipe contest. The "Cozy Crockpot Recipe Contest" required that you submit your best crockpot recipe using at least two canned goods. We entered our Slightly Smoky Ham and Bean Soup (which uses canned tomatoes, canned chicken stock and two types of canned beans) and we won! Hurrah! Click here for the easy to make, light-on-the-wallet, hearty soup recipe.
Snow was falling softly on the sidewalk but it wasn't accumulating. Indeed, it was making things rather picturesque. So New England-y. I had taken a half day off of work for a couple of doctor appointments. The kind of appointments women have to do, and should do, annually. They are not fun appointments, like massages or mani-pedis. But they are necessary. And I am of the opinion that when you have to do something you don't really want to do, you should give yourself a reward. Instead of thinking of it as a chore, think of it as something to celebrate.
And so I found myself in between the two appointments, which I had purposely scheduled for the same day, with plenty of time to take myself to a beautiful lunch. My second appointment was in the West end of Hartford, and as I am a big fan of classic French cuisine, I decided to (finally!) check out Avert Brasserie on LaSalle Road. My reward.
The decor certainly evokes the streets of Paris, with charming light fixtures, exposed brick, and a zinc bar including the requisite stand of hard-boiled eggs. The ambience affirmed that I had made the right choice - I felt special here, having a grown-up lunch by myself in the middle of the day (yes, the clock was wrong...). It's the simple things, after all.
I started with a champagne cocktail and my server brought over some thick slices of crusty, chewy baguette with a luxuriously smooth, slightly salted butter. I decided to keep it old-school and chose the onion soup for my appetizer. It was full-bodied and tasty, with lots of caramelized onions beneath a crisp, melted topping of Comte cheese. A perfect start.
I had a much harder time deciding on my entree, as so many classic favorites appear on Avert's lunch menu: Moules Frites? Beef Bourguignon? Coq au Vin? Oh, who was I kidding. I was getting the duck - Duck Leg Confit, to be exact. The very well-balanced plate was served with green lentils and a frisee salad with a warm shallot dressing. The frisee was slightly bitter, but a touch of mustard seed in the dressing brought a pleasant pungency to each bite. The lentils were sweet and smoky, with a hint of spice that I couldn't quite place, but it very well could have been cinnamon. They sat atop a bed of diced green apples which offered a delightful crunch and sweetness. The duck was the star, though. That one perfectly confited duck leg had rich dark meat that was falling off the bone, crispy mahogany-colored skin, and none of the grease or oil that confit often has. I was in heaven, and I ate every bite, leaving nothing but bare bones.
My server suggested that I finish with a pot de creme, and I agreed with him; he's the expert after all. The dense, velvety pudding had deep chocolate flavor that paired so nicely with my last sips of Cote du Rhone. I knew my second appointment was ahead, so I also got a pot of tea, which came with a pale pink strawberry macaron. I ate that, too. I was full, but satisfied and happy with myself. I had another half hour to kill, so I walked around West Hartford Center, window-shopping and breathing in the cold winter air. With a lunch like that as a reward, I almost look forward to next year's appointments. Almost.
Our typical date night is going out to dinner. It's just what we do, and we do it often. Probably too often. But anyway. Because there are so many great places near us, we like to try new places rather than become "regulars" at certain ones. And we are quite choosy, which means we hardly ever have a bad meal out. Not that it never happens, but it's rare.
So it happens that when there's a holiday on which people tend to go out to dinner, we do not. We don't take that risk, because it seems those are the times when disappointment occurs and your special occasions become not-so-special. You choose the perfect place, get a reservation weeks ahead of time, browse the menu every few days, get your heart set on enjoying that amazing dish, with amazing service, in an amazing setting, having amazing conversation and...poof! The reality sets in. It's freezing cold. You have to wait 45 minutes for a table even though you have a reservation. They are out of that one dish you really wanted. Everything on the "special menu" is slightly more expensive than you remember. Your server is too busy to pay any attention to your empty glass, and it's too noisy to hear anything your significant other is saying. Not. So. Special.
All of this is to tell you that we stayed home for Valentine's Day. Our date that day was cooking together. We put on some music and spent much of the afternoon and evening in the kitchen. We made our own bread. We prepared pots de creme au chocolat for dessert. Chris used his new butchery book and butchered a rabbit perfectly, then we browned and shredded the meat to make a rabbit ragu using this recipe (because the New York Times knows what they're doing). While the sauce simmered softly on the stove top, we made and cut our own pappardelle. Rolling those long sheets of pasta was much easier with four hands! We opened a decent bottle of wine (at its retail price!) and enjoyed our entirely-from-scratch dinner in the dining room. We talked. We ate. We used cloth napkins. It was fun. It was romantic. And, God-willing, we'll do it again next year. You should, too.
Go Local Magazine a local lifestyle magazine showcasing life around the Massachusetts/Connecticut line. Its mission is to improve the community by promoting the region (which includes Stafford Springs, Somers, Enfield and Suffield, CT; and Hampden, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow and Agawam, MA) as a destination to live, play, shop and eat, and to showcase the citizens who make it great.
In recent weeks, we have not had much free time. Not enough to put our culinary skills to task and make something good and tasty, anyway. Then suddenly we were faced with Snowzilla 2016. Even if we weren't expected to get a whole lot of snow, we decided to take advantage of the situation and cook. Really cook. "Project cooking."
The perfect project this particular weekend was that something spectacular we call "Three Day Cassoulet." Cassoulet is a slow-cooked casserole that originates in France and traditionally contains beans and meat, usually duck or goose confit and some type of pork.
And it is a project to make. However, in reality, the first two days' work is pretty light, especially if you do a little cheating, as we did. Use prepared stock and buy your duck confit - that will significantly shorten your efforts. Still, on the third day, the care and time spent on this recipe yields a hearty soulful dish, filled with spicy meats and creamy beans and a depth of flavor that is unmatched. So. Worth. It.
Three Day Cassoulet
Cooks' Notes: Try your best to find duck stock and duck fat, but if you can't, use chicken stock and unsalted butter instead. D'Artagnan makes an amazing duck confit that we often find at our grocery store for about $5-6 per leg. Finally, you can make this in one pot and serve it, but we like to make them in individual lidded dishes (it's fancier).
3/4 pound dry flageolet beans or small white beans
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
6 stems of thyme
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 carrot, peeled and cut in half
2 ounces salt pork
1 quart duck or chicken stock
2 tablespoons duck fat or unsalted butter, divided
1/4 pound andouille sausage, diced
2 legs of duck confit
3-4 cloves garlic confit, smushed with a spoon
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup Panko-style breadcrumbs
1/2 tablespoon dried parsley
Place beans in a glass bowl and cover with room temperature water; allow to soak overnight. That's it!
Drain beans and discard the water. Place beans in a large soup or stock pot. Place the peppercorns, bay leaves, garlic cloves, and thyme in a cheesecloth and use twine to close it - a bouquet garni. Throw this into the pot, along with the onion, carrot and salt pork. Cover with the stock. The liquid should cover the beans by an inch. If there's not enough stock, add water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer uncovered until beans are tender. This could take up to 2 hours. Allow to cool entirely, then refrigerate the beans and liquid overnight.
Drain the beans, reserving the stock, but discarding the vegetables, pork and bouquet garni. Bring the stock to a boil and reduce by half; set the stock aside once it is reduced. Heat 1 tablespoon duck fat in a large skillet and brown the andouille sausage; set aside. Then heat the duck confit in the duck fat so it is warmed through and brown on both sides. Shred the duck with two forks and set it aside with the sausage. Whisk the smushed garlic confit, mustard and butter into the reduced stock. Add the beans, shredded duck and pieces of sausage. The mixture should be moist, so if it isn't, drizzle with additional stock or water. Heat the other tablespoon of duck fat in a clean skillet. Add the breadcrumbs and toast, stirring often, until browned. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley. Either leave the mixture in one serving pot, or divide into individual dishes, and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs. Cover and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the lid and cook for additional 15 minutes until thoroughly hot and golden brown.
One of the things we look forward to every year is winter citrus, those exquisite jewels of the coldest of seasons. No matter how early the sun sets, satsumas, clementines, kumquats, and (our favorite) blood oranges brighten our days with their sun-kissed skins. Citrus fruits enliven a host of dishes, both savory and sweet. And it's fun (and easy!) to substitute one citrus for another in order reinvigorate a favorite dish. This time of year, we push our grocery carts past the familiar old lemons and steer it straight for the blood oranges. We need to take advantage! They won't be around for long.
We bought a dozen, but only needed eight for this recipe for Blood Orange Soufflés that found its way into our email box at just the perfect moment. Sure, there's only two of us, but we have neighbors, so why not make all eight? We texted neighbors J and B the minute-by-minute countdown so they wouldn't end up with sunken desserts. Then the four of us relished each warm, slightly eggy spoonful of tangy, orange-scented clouds.
Here are some other recipes we've made with blood oranges, each one as gorgeous and delicious as its main ingredient.