Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boeuf Bourguinon a lá Weight Watchers

I'm reading the current issue of Weight Watchers magazine. I turn the page to find an article titled Just Like Julia. The hyperbole at the top of the article states, "If you liked the movie, you'll love our recipes." Liking the movie has nothing to do with liking their recipes. The next sentence tells the real story. "We've updated the beloved chef's timeless classics, keeping the French flavor, but trimming the fat." The idea was to make Julia's recipes low in points, fitting in with their weight-loss program better than the original one does. But does it really?

I turned to the recipe pages. Their changes were much bigger than the statement in the article implies. I don't have a problem with them making similar recipes that fit the Weight Watchers plan. My problem is with them saying they're "Just Like Julia's", especially considering the technique changes would kill the intense, deep layers of flavor in the original recipes.

Take the Boeuf Bourguinon recipe as an example. They decreased the calories, simplified the techniques, and shortened the cooking time. When you oversimplify the techniques and reduce the cooking time, along with reducing the calories, you end up with less flavor, which doesn't inspire me to want to substitute it for the original.

Here's an analysis of what I see as being the biggest problems with their dish:

  • They omitted the bacon completely. But the bacon added one of the flavors that made it her dish.

  • They reduced the wine to one cup. A cup and a half would be the amount to use if you also reduce the beef from three pounds to two, as they did in their recipe, because it keeps the ratio of ingredients the same.

  • They cut the beef into smaller pieces and toss them with flour before it's browned. The original breaks this into a two-step process of browning the meat, tossing with flour and browning the floured meat in the oven. I'd never tried that technique before this recipe and it's the first time the sauce actually thickened the way it's supposed to.

  • They add the mushrooms, onion, and garlic raw with the liquid, herbs, and seasoning. The original browns the carrots and a yellow onion in the pan after the beef is browned. The mushrooms and pearl onions are cooked separately and added after the meat is cooked.

  • They cooked it on top of the stove for a mere hour, added the raw carrots, and cooked another 30 minutes. The original called for a three to four hour simmer in the oven.

As you can see, there are a lot of steps in the original that the Weight Watchers recipe condenses or skips altogether. The original does have a lot of steps, as is usually the case with classic French cuisine. You wouldn't cook this as a quick weeknight supper. But those steps are necessary to build the flavor layers that gave classic French cuisine its status as one of the finest in the world. And the beauty of it is that if you enjoy cooking, you can take a day when you're at home and make it in advance. It's better after sitting in the fridge overnight, anyway.

I haven't tested the following changes, but here's what I'd do if I wanted to reduce the calories, but retain the flavors of the original:

  • First, I'd decrease the serving size, making the recipe serve eight.

  • Since a half pound of meat is twice as much as anyone needs at one meal, I'd use two pounds of meat for my eight servings, cutting it into the large cubes called for in the original.

  • I'd use four slices of bacon, rather than the six ounces called for. That's two ounces and usually is plenty to give the flavor I'm looking for.

  • I'd reduce the wine to 1-1/2 cups, which maintains the proper ratio for the flavor I want.

  • I'd follow Julia's original techniques for browning the meat, onions, and carrots. She only uses 1 tablespoon of olive oil, which is the same amount in the Weight Watchers recipe. She also pours out the leftover fat after everything's browned.

  • I'd make two small changes to Julia's original recipe--about a minute before the carrots and onions are done browning, I'd toss in the garlic and sauté it to release the oils. Then I'd add the tomato paste and mix it well, cooking until it's a more rusty-red color. It's called the Maillard reaction and it adds to the browning, intensifying the flavor, in the dish.

  • I'd follow the original for cooking the dish.

  • At the end, she strains the sauce and skims off the fat. Skimming fat is a pain and nowadays there's the handy fat separator. I strained the sauce into mine and poured the defatted sauce back into the dish.

  • I'd follow the original recipes for cooking the pearl onions and the mushrooms, reducing the oil/butter for browning them by using olive oil spray in a nonstick pan and a half-teaspoon of butter for flavor.

  • I'd do what I did on New Year's--cook the whole thing in advance and reheat it for serving.

Back to my original question: Does their version really fit better into their plan than the original version? Well, since Julia's recipe has several steps devoted to ridding the dish of excess fat, there must be something else causing it to be 17 points per serving. I keep coming back to the portion size. Weight Watchers calculated the points in Julia's recipe using the number of servings in the cookbook, which is six. But Julia's portion isn't the same size as Weight Watchers portions. I decided to recalculate the points of Julia's basing it on serving the same size portion as Weight Watchers uses in their recipe.

Using the portion size of the meat as a guideline, 1 serving of Julia's recipe contains 8 ounces of meat and 1/6 of everything else. The Weight Watchers version contains 3-ounce portions of meat and 1/6 of everything else. If I increase the number of servings in the original so each serving has 3 ounces of meat and a proportionally smaller serving of the remaining ingredients, it's 16 servings. I did the math and it's 6 points per serving. The Weight Watchers version is 8 points per serving. Hmmm....It looks like Julia's recipe is more of a weight loss winner than Weight Watchers, when you compare the same size serving side-by-side. I guess I can toss my list of calorie-reducing ideas and just make Julia's.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fast Food

One of the things I've noticed about people's reaction to my comments that I cook from scratch is that they think they don't have the time or expertise to cook that way. Many people rely on packaged foods, complete meals frozen by food processing companies, and fast food or restaurant food because they think cooking from scratch is too time-consuming or too hard. But neither is true.

Last fall I had a juxtaposition of things that got me to one of those aha! moments. I read two books that used the idea of preprepping ingredients. They were Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Judith Jones was Julia Child's editor and Tom Colicchio is one of the judges on Bravo's series, Top Chef. Both of these books are about creating food and using it in multiple ways. They're about making ingredients to be used in the recipe, but having extra to use in another recipe.

Although that seems like a fancy term for "leftovers", they're not like the how to use leftover articles I see in women's magazines after Thanksgiving. Those recipes don't have the creativity I see in the above mentioned books. That creativity is one reason I think of them as ingredients, not leftovers. Another reason is that you can make the food without making the original recipe and just use it in other dishes. That's an ingredient, not a leftover.

The second aspect of the things that got juxtaposed in my mind was when a weekend came up and I had some rare free time. I wasn't using the recipes or cookbooks I mentioned. I don't think I had them yet. I was just trying to be more efficient. So, I cooked granola, oatmeal, rice, beans, baked some potatoes and browned some ground turkey. I don't remember what else I made, maybe some salsa? The next week I was able to prepare meals from scratch in about the same time as if I'd used packaged ingredients from the store. I realized that by time-shifting as much prep work as I can, I can work the odd hours and run the weird schedule I have without sacrificing fresh meals.

Those two things came together in my mind and I realized that cooking from scratch when you don't have hours to spend before dinner making dinner is mainly a matter of planning and having preprepped ingredients, along with a pantry stocked with staples, you can use to create meals.

I've always enjoyed pulling things out of the pantry and fridge and just cooking whatever comes to mind. What's a new concept for me is the idea that I don't have to cook everything at the last minute. Nor do I have to cook entire meals in advance or an extra casserole to freeze for later. I don't like to do that because there are only two of us and we end up eating the same thing for days if the whole meal or main course is completely prepped in advance.

But most people, including me, weren't taught how to break recipes down into prep steps and how to figure out which of those can be done in advance. If people manage to do that, there's the problem of how to prep the ingredients so you can store them without losing flavor and nutrition or having them spoil before you make the dish. That's why it seems hard.

I've learned a lot from professional chefs, experimentation, and research about how to do this. I think I need to practice what I already know and continue to study how to use that knowledge because becoming proficient in planning, making and using preprepped ingredients is the best way I can think of to achieve my personal goal of eating at home and reserving restaurant meals for special occasions. I'd much rather eat out less often, but eat at really good, which usually means more expensive, restaurants.

Sometimes it's not the time to make dinner that makes people go out. It's the added time to clean up the mess from cooking that makes eating in seem like too much work after a long day. Foods like one-skillet dishes from a box or microwaved meals from the freezer or take-out pizza guarantee fast, easy clean up. Planning and prepping ingredients in advance also gives you easy, fast cleanup on the busy nights because most of the cooking mess is from prepping, not cooking the meal.

So, one of my goals for this year is to streamline the planning process, which will allow me more time to do the actual cooking, and use the knowledge gained from my aha! moment to allow me to get meals on the table at a reasonable hour even if I get home from work late.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

2010 & Lots of Changes

My last post was in November. I'd just started my second job at the Steinway Society. I had already made commitments that made December a super busy month. Adding a second job ensured that I was not going to find time to write anything, including this blog, in December. Now it's January and one of the things I'm doing is writing more.

Last month's concerts went really well. I enjoyed every one, whether I was attending or participating. I had the opportunity to hear a local pianist, Sandra Wright Shen, presented by the Steinway Society as part of this season's concert series. She's awesome. The other concert I attended was the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's joint concert with The Choral Project called Winter's Gifts: Hope. Daniel Hughes wrote an awesome Alleluia that I'd love to sing someday.

I sang in three concerts, plus the Christmas Eve service at church. STOCtet sang our annual concert in the lobby at the opening of Ballet San Jose's Nutcracker. That was fun and some people came up to the mezzanine and listened to the whole thing. We sang the same program for our holiday concert. Prince of Peace Sanctuary Choir did Sing Noel, a piece arranged in a similar way to a lessons and carols service. It has readings intermingled with music.

We went to a bunch of holiday parties. Caroling parties, work parties, post-concert parties. We gave a party on New Year's, at which I cooked Julia Child's Beef Bourguinon. I can see why that recipe sold the book to Judith Jones, who became Julia's editor. It was "superb", to quote one of my guests. We attended the Nutcracker,which is a delightful production. We had a great time throughout the season.

Despite the busyness and rushing from one thing to another, I only gained a pound and a half over the holidays. My last weigh in was 2 pounds down, so I lost that plus a half pound more. So my strategy to eat normal days and holiday days worked pretty well. It was the last week of the year where I had problems sticking with my plan. That makes sense because that was when I had the least control over my schedule, my food, my exercise.

I hope to be at least 50 pounds closer to my goal by the end of 2010. But I realize I have no control over that, so my goals are to continue to exercise regularly; to keep track of everything; to continue to eat a healthy diet and see how it goes.

The first concert of 2010, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and the Cypress String Quartet, is tomorrow. We're almost sold out, so I'm off downtown to work today.