I find myself growing more confident in my cooking as the months drag slowly by. This meal is ample evidence of that confidence and, at the risk of sounding arrogant, proof that I have developed some skills over time. Instead of agonizing over recipes and following an exact formula, this week I simply developed a sketched outline of what I intended to make and proceeded to simply make the dishes. I had read through a few recipes and developed some thoughts on where I wanted the meal to go but at the end of the day, I just pressed on and made the dishes the way I thought they would be best.
As is the norm, I made three dishes this week, centered around the concept of a cordon bleu. To this I added garlic mashed potatoes because they go so well with this sort of dish, onion-sage gravy for the mash and a creamed spinach dish. None of these preparations are earth shattering but they are all very solid and provide a great meal without too much stress of failure. All in all, it took around two and a half hours from motivation to plating the dishes.
The cordon bleu: the first and largest departure from tradition was my meat selection. Traditionally, this would be made with a cut of veal or even chicken but the combined factors of cost, availability and flavor preference pushed me to use pork. I found a selection of top loin cuts that looked to be about the right size and a good ratio of fat to meat to ensure a tender and flavorful entrée. First step is to pound the pork cutlets out as flat as possible with the flat edge of your meat mallet. Be sure to work evenly and carefully around the edges to prevent any tearing of the meat. Any break in the surface and your filling will end up in your cooking medium which is not a good thing.
Once you have your cuts of meat flattened, set aside. While I was flattening out my pork cuts, I baked half a cluster of garlic in a 350 degree oven until the cloves started to soften. Once they are soft enough to mash, squeeze the cloves into a small bowl and mix with three tablespoons of soften butter. I got all crazy and broke out the immersion blender, mostly because I really like my immersion blender. It’s a toss-up as to if my favorite tool is the immersion blender or the crock pot, lets just say I have no plans to part with either any time soon. Now… take your flattened pork cutlet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and layer on one half of the cutlet a slice of gruyere, a tablespoon of the garlic butter, two thin slices of black forest ham and a second piece of gruyere.
Fold over the other half of the cutlet and press the edges to seal. I gave it a few taps around the edges with my meat mallet but use your own judgment on that one. Just ensure that it’s properly sealed and your melted goodness doesn’t end up leaking into your oil. I let the formed cordon bleus rest while I prepared the other dishes so insert a pause at this point and get everything else together. When everything else is cooking merrily along, bread the cutlets by dredging in seasoned flour then a beaten egg and finally, breadcrumbs. Fry in medium-hot oil until nicely browned on the outside, turning once to ensure even cooking on each side.
Transfer to a paper towel lined dish to drain for about two minutes before plating. Bask in the appreciation of your dinner guests.
The potatoes: The thing I like most about mashed potatoes is how damned simple they are to make. It’s a real hands off dish when it comes down to it. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in 4 medium sized red potatoes, cut into eights, unpeeled. Boil this until they begin to soften. If you pick one up on a slotted spoon, you should be able to break it apart with a push from a fork or in my case, a finger. Once the potatoes are soft enough, drain them in a large strainer. Return the strained potatoes to the pot you boiled them in and drop in 4 tbsp butter, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup heavy cream and six cloves of slivered garlic. Mix well with a hand blender until they have a smooth consistency and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with gravy.
Onion-Sage Gravy: this dish starts with half an onion finely chopped and sweating down in a bit of olive oil. Once the onion is softened, add flour (gauge the amount on how thick the gravy is, start with about 1/4 cup but adjust as needed… the liquid and flour balance is a tricky thing), a tablespoon of sage, and salt/pepper to taste. Stir the mixture over the heat until the flour begins to brown a bit. Then, pour in about a cup of milk and stir until everything is completely incorporated. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue stirring as the gravy heats up and comes together. Its critical that you continue stirring to discourage the formation of clumps in the gravy. Adjust seasonings as desired and serve over the potatoes.
The Creamed Spinach: this dish most of all expresses the ad hoc nature of todays cookery. I had seen a few recipes but in the end I decided that making a baking spinach dish was not all that deep and I could probably work it out. Take a bag of salad style spinach greens and blanch in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes until the leaves wilt. Drain well and transfer immediately to an oven proof dish. Put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes to completely stop the cooking, this will preserve the nice bright coloration of the spinach. While the spinach is cooling, sweat down a whole yellow onion in a bit of olive oil over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent. You want the edges of the onion to just start to brown but not completely caramelize. Your spinach should be cool by this point so remove it from the freezer and drop in the softened onion.
Julianne cut two jalapenos, one green and one red for color variation for a nice appearance in the finished dish. Add these to the spinach along with 1/2 cup of cream and a liberal twist or three of salt and pepper. Stir well to mix evenly. Top with a layer of breadcrumbs and dot with butter. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Share and enjoy.
The watchword for today’s meal was subtlety. None of the flavors reached out and slapped you but each of the three dishes had subtle flavorings that carried the dish and made the overall plate a well rounded meal. I was very pleased with the results, especially the ingredients ratio of the cordon bleu. It is very tempting to go overboard with fillings on dishes like cordon bleu but with a nice thinly pounded cut of meat you get a much better balance of flavors by practicing restraint. The meal was topped off by another serving of the fine Leffe which is again the best beer available here currently.
It’s bittersweet that this is the last meal Eddie and I will have until next year as he is leaving on vacation this Thursday. Unequivocally, I am happy for him, a bit jealous that I have 13 days now to go and two meals that I will be flying solo for. Its strange, this project was original envisioned as a solo outing but fortune brought Eddie and I into the same orbit so it evolved into a shared experience. This does however offer some latitude in my next two meals, no real constraints in timing and only myself as an audience. So, I have decided to do a couple of non-dinner excursions, the first of which will probably be a Eggs Benedict with homemade English muffins and hollandaise sauce. Meal 32, scheduled for the evening before I finally fly home to see my family will be a dolled up version of a hash brown dish I have become addicted to for breakfast. I’ve been wanting to share it for quite some time and I look forward to giving it the “feasts treatment”.
Also, I plan on documenting the two meals I am making for friends and family while home, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve so be sure to check in over the holidays.