Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Advanced Intuitive Cooking

by Xani

These days, I don’t use many recipes.  For one, most of my cookbooks are packed away in a storage unit, awaiting their fate in a new kitchen (TBD).  There are millions of recipes at my fingertips on the internet, but I’m not using those, either.  Instead, I make up my own recipes as I go, also known as “winging it.”  Developing the “winging it” technique (mostly a combination of familiarity with basic cooking skills, with a little self-confidence mixed in) has been an interesting evolution in my cooking life.  I used to cling to a recipe like a life preserver, now I find freedom in trusting my instincts.

Now, that’s all well and good when you are talking about winging an omelette, vinaigrette, or other simple dish using a few pennies worth of ingredients. If it ends up terrible you throw it away (or give it to the dog) and start over.  But the stakes get higher when you are dealing with a pricey steak, or in this case, a veal breast.

Yeah, I said it: veal.  I know people feel a lot of feelings about veal, myself included.  This particular piece of veal, a three pound, boneless, butterflied breast, is not something I would usually go out and buy at the store- it was actually given to me, and was just chilling (ha) in  my chest freezer for the past few months.  You may feel eating veal is wrong- I feel it is wrong to waste food, especially food that an animal sacrificed it’s life for.  It would also be a waste to do a bad job cooking the meat and have it come out like shoe leather.  So, like I said, the stakes were high.

Previously, I had only ever cooked veal breast one way, BCD Mom’s way.  She uses a bone-in veal breast with a large pocket cut into it, the pocket filled to overflowing with a challah bread stuffing flavored with sweet paprika and lots of garlic- it is delicious. But this boneless cut was a very different shape and size, I wasn't sure the same cooking technique would be effective, so I started researching some recipes for boneless veal breast online.

“Researching” vs. using: I often read or browse a bunch of recipes to help guide my intuitive cooking.  This gives me inspiration for flavoring, ideas about cooking methods/times, and other tips.  So after browsing for a while I decided to wing it (especially for the filling), but use a little guidance on cooking technique from this recipe for Stuffed Braised Veal Breast by Anne Burrell.

First, my filling. I didn't have any challah so I knew I'd be doing something totally different than mom's stuffing. But I saw that the Burrell recipe used spinach, which I always have on hand (frozen), so I started there: 1 box defrosted chopped spinach, squeezed dry (tip: if you have a potato ricer, it’s great for this task), 2 large handfuls of panko bread crumbs, 1 large handful toasted pine nuts, 1 large handful golden raisins, 3 large garlic cloves, chopped, and an egg.  Oh, and as a nod to my Mom’s paprika-heavy recipe, I threw in about a tablespoon of smoked paprika, along with salt and pepper.  I stirred this all up until it formed a mixture that would hold together when squeezed in my hand.

Meanwhile, I gave the meat a few good whacks with the bottom of a cast iron skillet to flatten it out a bit more and try to even out the thickness.  Then I seasoned the meat on both sides with salt and pepper.  I mounded the filling down the middle of the meat, forming it into a log.  I then carefully rolled the meat around the filling, and used butcher’s twine to tie it up tight.

All Tied up
After searing

Not bad, huh??  This is probably the most advanced trussing/tying I have ever done.  I admit the underside didn't look quite as pretty, but the important thing is that it held!

One my roulade was all bound and ready, I heated a bit of oil in my large Dutch oven and seared it on all sides until it was nicely browned, then set it aside.  
These next steps I borrowed pretty heavily from the reference recipe; like I said, I didn’t want to ruin the meat by cooking it incorrectly!  I sauteed a lot of sliced onions in the Dutch oven until softened, then added garlic and bay leaf before deglazing with white wine.  I nestled the veal roulade in the soft onions, and added chicken stock until it came about halfway up the sides.  Then it was into a 400 degree oven for an hour (covered), turn it over, cook for another hour (covered) then uncover and cook for another 45 mins.  

What emerged was a thing of beauty!  My truss-job held perfectly, I could tell just by touching the roulade that it was extremely tender, and the smell was heavenly.  I let the roulade cool in the braising liquid for a while, then removed it to a cutting board while I reduced the braising liquid, concentrating all those delicious ingredients (onions, garlic, bay, plus the rendered fats and flavor from the meat) into a very flavorful sauce.

While the sauce was reducing I prepared a salad and a quick side dish.  The salad was sliced roasted beets, avocado, feta cheese, along with a squeeze of grapefruit juice and a drizzle of olive oil.  Side dish was roasted green cabbage wedges drizzled with some leftover Caesar salad dressing (Mom’s secret recipe).

These were both total improvisations, and quite delicious, great complements to...

The main dish!

I was so thrilled with how it came out.  Even after I snipped off the twine, it held perfectly, and the filling set up very nicely (because I included the egg), none of it even tried to escape.  Slicing proved a teeny bit difficult- the meat was so tender it was falling apart as I was slicing, but I suppose that is a good problem to have.  The bits off the cutting board were a great reward for this cook.  But even better was serving this beautiful plate.  

The reduced braising liquid was an absolute flavor bomb (in a good way).  And the spinach filling was a great combination- the hint of smoky paprika worked nicely with the toasty pine nuts and sweet raisins.  The meat was tender and delicious like you wouldn’t believe!  I’m not going to say this version is better than BCD Mom’s, but it certainly another delicious option.  And I did it all myself- with a little help from Anne Burrell.

Dear Reader, I hope you’ve stuck with me through this whole sensitive veal subject.  The real take-away here is that recipes are just ideas and inspiration.  Skip an ingredient, add an ingredient, switch up the flavoring, even switch up the meat (this would have worked with turkey breast, or even some cuts of pork), just get inspired, get in the kitchen and COOK!



  1. Fantastic work. This is risk and reward in action! Wish I'd stayed for dinner :)

  2. wow, such thought and care into a meal. I rarely cook with recipes or if a recipe is involved I don't have all the ingredients on hand so I use it as a reference. But I don't think my creations turn out as beautiful.

  3. Very early in my cooking life I got a cookbook called "The Flavor Principle Cookbook" (no longer in print unfortunately). It broke a world of international cuisine into flavor families (think like language families) and techniques. You only had so many of each. So Mediterranean cuisines had a base that varied between Italian, Moroccan, Greek, etc, with various additions to the base. Then you had a small number of cooking techniques such as sauteing, roasting, braising, etc. Then the book took a variety of classic dishes and explained them as combinations of the flavor principles and techniques.

    From that point on, I looked at recipes and saw them as these riffs on the basic flavor principles and techniques. And it gave me a set of tools from which to create.

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