Josh Ayers

If there’s one thing I love more than eating, it’s talking about food. And I don’t just mean like, “Oh, that’s yummy.” I’m talking full-on, in-depth discussions on the contrasting textures of a well-made Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup to hour-long debates on whether Tom Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant is a true expression of his talent.

I grew up in the kitchen under my mom’s feet, asking to help in whatever way I could. I remember being responsible for the toppings on her homemade pizzas and how grown-up I felt when she let me make the Christmas English toffee all by myself for the first time. The kitchen has always been a comforting place for me; it feels just like home.

Now that I’ve been on my own, the kitchen is still my favorite room in the house. I love playing Martha, and I jump at any opportunity to celebrate with food. And it’s this time of year – the cold nights, early sunsets and rainy weather – that make coming home to a warm kitchen so great. Slow-cooked tender meats; rich, roasted root vegetables; and creamy, hot soups are all necessary.

One of my favorite comfort foods is Boeuf Bourguignon. It’s a rich beef stew cooked with wine. The traditional recipe is taught to culinary students as the archetypal example of French cooking. Cuts of beef are browned with crispy bacon, then cooked with wine, carrots and herbs. Small sweet onions and earthy mushrooms are then sautéed and added to the pot at the very end; they add the most delicious, buttery and homey finale to the dish.

My mother taught me how to cook this dish in her large dark-blue Le Creuset Dutch oven – the first one she could afford when she was broke and just out of college. She handed the pot down to me when I left for school, and it is my most treasured possession. I make this dish at least once a month, when the weather starts to cool down and I crave the Bourguignon’s familiar, comforting taste. The crispiness around each bite-sized piece of beef from cooking it in this well-used pan is unbeatable.

The bonus to this dish is that no pricey cut of meat is required. Some recipes suggest using filet, but I find that unnecessary. Other cuts are just as good and can be around one-tenth of the price. It’s the perfect dish to begin and then leave alone while studying or relaxing. Plus, you will be amazed by the smells coming from your kitchen. It’s a time-consuming meal to make, but it is also well worth the effort. I love to serve it with a toasty baguette and green salad to compliment its heartiness. Moreover, it’s better once you let it sit, and it makes amazing leftovers.

For nights when I don’t have much time but crave a warm, comforting meal, I love to make soups from seasonal vegetables I buy at Farmers’ Market. There is a little restaurant in Yountville that makes the best butternut squash soup every winter. I missed it so much my first year at school that my roommate and I recreated the recipe, putting our own twist on it. Sweet potatoes make this dish tasty and hearty – the perfect compliment to a homemade grilled cheese or roast beef sandwich.

So cozy up on these rainy nights and cook with some friends. These smells will bring you back home, no matter how far you are from Mom.


Recipes

Boeuf Bourguignon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1?4 pound good slab bacon, cut into 1?2-inch cubes
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1?2- to 2-inch cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 or 4 thyme sprigs
3 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
1?2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
1 cup good red wine, preferably pinot noir
12 small white (button) mushrooms, trimmed and cut in half or quarters
1 bag frozen pearl onions
Stock or water if necessary.

1. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or oven-safe casserole dish over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is crisp and most of the fat has been cooked off, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, add meat and turn heat to medium high. Cook, turning cubes as they brown and sprinkling them with salt and pepper until meat is brown and crisp all over, at least 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

2. Turn heat to medium, and add onions, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, parsley and more salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add wine and let bubble for a minute, then return meat to pan.

3. Cover and adjust heat so mixture simmers gently for about an hour. Then add mushrooms, onions and bacon. Re-cover and cook until tender, adding a little more liquid if mixture threatens to dry out. Depending on meat, the dish could be done in as little as 30 minutes more, or three times as long. Taste and adjust seasoning, then garnish and serve, or cover and refrigerate for up to two days before reheating.

Butternut Squash Soup
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sweet onion, diced
1 large butternut squash
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
2 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup Mascarpone cheese (optional)*
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives, garnish

1. Melt butter in large, heavy saucepan on medium high heat. Add onion, salt and pepper and cook until light brown and slightly soft, about 10 minutes.

2. Peel, cube and scoop out seeds from butternut squash. Be careful; the skin is tough. Add squash to onion and cook until edges of squash turn golden. Add potato.

3. Add chicken stock and enough water to just cover the top of the vegetables. Bring to a simmer and cook until squash and potato are soft, about 45 minutes.

4. When vegetables are soft, allow soup to cool slightly, either blend or mash to desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

5. Stir in a dollop of Mascarpone cheese and garnish with chopped chives.

*Mascarpone is an Italian cheese similar to sweet cream cheese and adds a wonderful creaminess to the soup.

Sinead Brennan is an agricultural business senior and Mustang Daily food columnist.

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