Easy Recipes, Food, Fresh made soups, Friends

Graduate School, Cooking with Friends, and Coq au Vin

My love affair with coq au vin began at a particularly difficult moment for my then younger self. I was inching in on finishing my master’s degree in communication at Ohio State University in 1980. I defended my master’s thesis and my committee gave me 6 reasonable changes. Except, at that point, I wasn’t reasonable. I was tired. The typist for my thesis, my friend Rick, was tired. There was a lot of political scrambling in my academic environment which was very uncomfortable. Competitive professors didn’t want students to work with other professors, a competitive graduate student culture, demands on my time as a speech coach. I wanted to be done. So,… I decided I was. I went home from my defense, opened the door to our house and said to my typist and my roommates “I quit! I don’t need a master’s degree and I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. They were stunned into silence.” My roommate Trish, rarely lacking for words said, “Awesome! Let’s party! I want to make coq au vin. Where’s the wine?” As she and our roommate Mimi started preparing food, Rick helped me box up everything related to my thesis and put it in the basement. I was done! I felt free! It was exhilarating! That day we cooked; laughed; drank wine (a lot of wine). We invited friends over and played in the rain. I breathed. We were all a bit (or a lot) “happy” by the time the coq au vin was ready, several hours later and together we enjoyed one of the best, most delicious, meals of my life.

Three years ago, my friends at Wichita State University, Mara, Glyn and I began a tradition of spending a day cooking together that we have done several times (but not nearly often enough). We begin the day at Mara’s with brunch, sometimes just the 3 of us. Sometimes with more friends. Mara always makes palachinque (Bosnian pancakes – which will be the topic of a later blog post); the rest of us bring whatever we want to eat with the pancakes. Then if we’ve decided what we want to cook, again with wine, usually also with music and dancing, always with laughter and friendship, we cook dinner together. The first time we cooked together, I told my graduate school story as we were trying to decide what we wanted for dinner. That did it. The decision was made. Coq au vin it would be. It was a wonderful day and the coq au vin was as delicious as I remembered.

The third time I made coq au vin, again for my friends on one of our cooking days, my last as a resident of Wichita, was in celebration of my birthday, my retirement, and my moving to Colorado. For more on my retirement decision, click here: The three of us shared a delicious brunch and couldn’t decide what we wanted to cook. We reviewed what we’d made on prior occasions: pilaf, curry, cioppino, pasta… Mara looked me in the eye and with great certainty said, “Coq au vin. I want coq au vin. Let’s go shopping,” And off we went.

Throughout the day, more friends came and left, Jan, David, Carolyn (a new friend), Randa, Julie, Jeff. They wrote to me on a “Congratulations on your retirement, Happy Birthday, Good luck on your move” poster Mara had taped to the wall. Like always, we laughed; we danced; we talked; we ate; we drank wine; we prepared more food; we ate some more.

Glyn acted as my sous chef and we spent the day in Mara’s open kitchen preparing food while our friends floated in and out, enjoying all the tasty food everyone had brought. Food made in an atmosphere of love and friendship always tastes the best! It was another precious day!

Coq au vin is typically a rustic French chicken and wine stew with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and potatoes. We had salad, roasted vegetables, hard bread, more wine. Purists make coq au vin with bone-in chicken. I’ve done that twice and the recipe below is my newest modification, boneless chicken. I prefer this version for a number of reasons, most important, how much more quickly the chicken cooks, and how much easier it is to eat. As always, I perused various online recipes for inspiration. Our basic recipe was inspired by Ina Garten’s: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/coq-au-vin-recipe4-2011654, Alton Brown’s:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/coq-au-vin-recipe-1952021, and the New York Times recipe: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018529-coq-au-vin?mcubz=3. Below I’ll share our portions in such a way that they can be halved or quartered for easy adaptation of the number of people you need to feed. We were cooking for 10 people and hoping for leftovers.

Ingredients and preparation:

1 pound thick cut bacon (based on the theory that one can never have too much bacon) sliced into ¼ inch strips)

6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (washed, dried, and cut into 2×2 inch chunks)

12 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (washed, dried, and cut into 2×2 inch chunks)

1 ½ pounds of cremini mushrooms (or your favorite type – washed, dried, sliced with stems – I always trim off the tip of the stems because they are typically dried out)

1 pound of carrots (cut into 1 inch chunks – we cheated and got the peeled baby carrots – they worked perfectly)

2 large yellow onions (or 1 onion and a bag of pearl onions – 1 peeled and cut into chunks, the other roughly sliced – pearl onions replace the roughly sliced onion)

16 oz container Italian spiced tomatoes (optional – I prefer spiced tomatoes with garlic, oregano, and basil)

3 Idaho potatoes (optional –  can be peeled or unpeeled, cut into rough 1 inch chunks) ((We decided to serve the dish with fresh Italian pasta, so I didn’t add potatoes))

1 bottle dry red wine. We used Malbec (our favorite)

1 cup plum brandy (You can also use any type of brandy, cognac, etc. – we used what we had on hand)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 handful of fresh Thyme (washed, uncut – about 1-2 oz – 12-15 sprigs)

1 ½ tablespoons Garlic (Spice World Minced garlic or 5 or 6 fresh cloves)

Olive oil (as needed)

8 oz Chicken Stock

3 (or 4) tablespoons salted Butter

1 ½ tablespoons Flour (your favorite – All-purpose flour works fine)


2 pounds hearty pasta (your choice – this is a hearty dish, so you want a hearty pasta to go along with it – rigatoni and cavatappi ((which we used)) are examples. I prefer Italian pasta (as in pasta made in Italy).)

Making the dish:

  1. After preparing all ingredients above, salt and pepper chicken to taste and set aside
  2. Preheat oven to 250°
  3. Fry bacon in a heavy skillet (cast iron works well) on medium high heat until crispy (About 10 minutes) (Everything will be prepared in this skillet until we transfer it to a stock pot to put into the oven. It will be used again when we saute the mushrooms and onions. Don’t wash it!) Set aside.
  4. Brown chicken pieces in bacon fat until golden brown on all sides. (About 5 minutes per skillet – we browned about 3 skillets of chicken for this recipe.) Set aside.
  5. Salt and pepper all veggies to taste. Add veggies (carrots, potatoes ((optional – great if you don’t serve with pasta)), onion chunks ((reserve the onion slices for later)) to remaining bacon grease.  Saute for 10-15 minutes until carrots are just softening, potatoes are still crunchy, and onions are lightly browned.
  6. Add chopped garlic and cook for 1 additional minute
  7. Add brandy – make sure to scrape all the delicious chunks off the bottom of the skillet
  8. Transfer everything to the stock pot
  9. Add wine, chicken stock, and Italian spiced tomatoes to the stew – Bring to a gentle boil on top of the stove
  10. Add thyme and gently push into broth. Cook in the oven for 30-40 minutes until chicken is white inside, but still moist. (Note, the outside of the chicken will take on the lovely color of the wine.)
  11. About 20 minutes into the oven cooking time, saute the sliced mushrooms over medium heat in 2 tablespoons of butter (About 10 minutes). (We used the cast iron skillet to take advantage of any remaining bacon juice and dripping residue. This is why you don’t want to wash the skillet.)
  12. Add sliced onions to the mushrooms and saute for the last 3 minutes of the mushroom cooking time. (Add another tablespoon of butter as needed.) Set aside.
  13. When the chicken is done, remove the stock pot from the oven and place it on the already medium hot burner. Remove the thyme. (If some stalks are left, people can just pull them out.)
  14. Combine 1 tablespoon butter and 1 ½ tablespoons of flour. Mix thoroughly and add to stew. Stir gently, but thoroughly.
  15. Add the sauteed mushrooms and onion slices to the stew. Simmer on top of the stove for roughly 10 minutes to allow the flavors to co-mingle. Stir occasionally.


Prepare pasta according to package instructions. (For this dish, I prefer al dente – Cooked, but still firm.)

Serve hot in soup bowls either on top of the pasta or with the pasta on the side.


Side dishes:

Wine – more Malbec or wine of your choice

Mixed green salad with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper

Hearty bread

To make long stories more manageable. I did finish my thesis. In fact I went on to get my PhD (I built in 2 months of “unreasonableness” during my dissertation writing process, just in case I needed to “quit” again. I did!). I have had a wonderful career as an academic and now I’m moving on to new adventures with wonderful friends to visit in Wichita. This party was delightful and the coq au vin delicious! Memories, food, and friends. More of each to come!

Bon appétit!!!

Florence, In Tavola Cooking School, Italy 2014

The Florence Journals: Cooking a 4 Course Meal at In Tavola Cooking School

I love Italian food! That probably goes without saying. Italy is known for its food, so, it’s not surprising that one of the classic things to do in Florence is to take a cooking class. I’ve taken two at In Tavola at via dei Velluti 18/20r and I had a blast both times. Not only that, I will definitely try the recipes at home. There’s something about preparing a meal with a group of strangers in a test kitchen that inspires confidence, especially if the result is delicious. It also fosters a sense of camaraderie within the group which makes for a truly delightful time. There are many cooking schools in Florence to choose from. Some are extremely expensive. Others more modest. In Tavola was an excellent value for the money.

I decided to jump into the deep end first thing and try a 4 course dinner class. It cost me 65 Euro. Chef Helen was the guide and task leader for our multilingual group of 17 would be culinary experts. She taught us slicing tips, how to blanch tomatoes to remove the skins, and how to peel mushrooms. I learned that you never wash mushrooms. They are mostly water and washing them makes them mushy. You just peel off the outer layer of skin and have fresh, clean, mushroom underneath.  Who knew?! In general in this class, we peeled things I wouldn’t have and didn’t peel things I would have. It was very interesting.

Chef Helen

Chef Helen

At my table were a French couple on a short holiday from Paris and two delightful, American woman on vacation exploring Italy. Our work station was a stainless steel table with drawers full of all the food preparation implements we would need and a four burner cooktop, At our table we also had all the ingredients for our meal.

Our meal consisted of an appetizer, an eggplant caprese (griddle fried eggplant slices with just a touch of salt and pepper, tomato slices, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper and, of course, olive oil. Slices were assembled by layers, each layer topped with breadcrumbs, seasonings and a touch of olive oil, and then baked for 5 minutes.

Eggplant caprese

Eggplant caprese

Our first course was pasta. We prepared two types of gnocchi. Gnocchi are small potato dumplings. We prepared a classic potato gnocchi and a green potato gnocchi. I am a gnocchi fan from way back, so I was really excited for this course. While I’ve made gnocchi myself (once), I was looking forward to learning how to do it the Italian way. The only difference between the two types of gnocchi was that the green gnocchi had parsley. I found a new cooking toy I’ll need to get when I get home. It’s called a rice masher. We used it to shred the cooked potatoes. The recipes were very easy. You can either bake or boil the potatoes. If you use a rice masher, there’s no need to peel them, then blend with flour, cornstarch, egg, finely diced parsley and season with salt, pepper, and the secret ingredient, nutmeg. You then knead the dough quickly, roll it into a long string about ½ inch thick on a floured table and cut it into one inch pieces. Sprinkle it with flour to keep it from sticking together and then cook the gnocchi in rapidly boiling water for 2-3 minutes.

We topped the regular gnocchi with a tomato and garlic sauce. We quickly blanched the tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute, then ran them under cold water to cool, and peeled them. We added two cloves of unpeeled garlic to the tomatoes in a pan with olive oil in the bottom, then seasoned with salt, pepper and pepperoncino (hot peppers) and sautéed for 10 minutes. Toward the end we added about 6 leaves of basil cut into strips. Chef Helen taught us to roll the leaves like a cigar and then cut thin slices. We added the basil at the end so as not to overcook it. We removed the garlic, added the pasta, tossed it all together (literally), and we were done.

For the green gnocchi, we did a simple, yet delicious sauce that I never would have thought of as a pasta sauce. We sautéed diced carrots, onions and celery in olive oil, cooking them until the onions were translucent. Then we added ground turkey and cooked it over high heat until browned. We added brandy and cooked it off, then water, and thyme, and rosemary wrapped in sage leaves and tied off so the packet could be easily removed later, chopped parsley, salt, and pepper. Ideally this sauce would cook for a couple hours, but as our time was limited, we did the cheater version and added a bit of tomato paste and called it good.

green gnocchi with meat sauce

Green Gnocchi

Me serving gnocchi with tomato garlic sauce

Me serving the gnocchi with tomato and garlic sauce

Our second course was turkey with herbs and saffron. First, we about ½ teaspoon if saffron into some vegetable stock to dissolve. Our  turkey was skinned, boned, and precut into two inch by two inch chunks for easy cooking. We coated them in flour, then pan friend them over medium heat in a skillet with olive oil and butter. In a separate pan, we sautéed the sliced mushrooms with olive oil and garlic. Once the turkey was browned nicely, we added the sautéed mushrooms and about a half cup of white wine which we let evaporate. Finally we added the stock with saffron and the herbs (bay leaves and rosemary), and a dash of salt and pepper. When everything was done, we garnished the dish with chopped parsley.

turkey and mushrooms

Turkey and mushrooms

For dessert, we made tiramisu. To start with we mixed 3 egg whites with sugar and beat them until they were stiff and peaks formed. Then we gently stirred in mascarpone cheese and set it aside. We dipped lady fingers in a espresso/brandy mixture, then lined our dessert cups with them, topped with the mascarpone cheese mixture, repeated the steps and ended with cocoa powder sprinkled on the top layer of cheese. These we refrigerated an hour before eating.

me making tiramisu

Me making Tiramisu

The best part, after preparing our meal, we got to enjoy it together accompanied by a lovely In Tavola wine. It was an absolutely delightful time and the food was delicious, if I do say so myself. None of us were ready to leave when the meal was over. I think that is the sign of a successful experience. I strongly recommend it! Check out In Tavola at: http://www.intavola.org/

French friendsAmerican friends

French Friends                                                        American friends

Buon appetito!

5 Day Sugar Detox Challenge

Mindful Eating: Taking part in my friend Lori’s 5 Day Sugar Coma Detox

Ok, the holidays are coming and I have a huge sweet tooth. I love See’s California brittle (yes, this is on my Christmas wish list for those of you looking for gift ideas). I make fudge and delicious buckeyes (peanut butter balls dunked in chocolate – my family prefers them frozen and with super chunk peanut butter, but that’s a story for a later date). I love cookies, and pumpkin pie (I make this from scratch), and cheesecake, and 7-up salad (another family favorite). For me, holidays are a lot about the desserts, well, the sweets, well, the food really, but the sweets in particular.

In preparation for mindful eating over the holidays (note, I WILL mindfully eat all of the above during the holidays), today I’m starting a 5 Day Sugar Coma Detox facilitated by my friend Lori Vaughn who is a Beachbody.com consultant (you can find her on Facebook). I do have a sweet tooth, but don’t really eat a lot of sweets. Well, I don’t eat a lot of sweets ALL the time. Hmmm… getting mindful already. I do regularly eat dark chocolate (because it’s good for my heart…) ((and because it’s yummy)). I have been eating very mindfully since I’ve been in Italy, but I have fallen into a bit of a morning habit recently of enjoying a cappuccino (with 3 sugars). Cappuccino is bitter and if it’s really strong, I need 3 sugars to compliment the bitterness – if it’s a bit more mild, I only need 2 sugars. Ok, maybe I do have a bit of a sugar issue, even here.

So, because I’m a researcher, once I made this decision, I hopped on the internet to,… well,… research. Specifically I was interested in how much sugar there is in, as it turns out, everything. I consulted my girl Siri (yes, I know she and I fight all the time, but sometimes she is helpful) and this is what I learned.

It is impossible to eliminate all sugars from your diet, well, unless you eat only salmon,… all the time… Almost everything we put in our mouths will contain at least some natural, if not artificial or processed, sugar. Sometimes only very small amounts, but sugar nonetheless.

I knew that I didn’t want to substitute natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. Most contain neuro-toxins and are simply not healthy. My next decision was to eliminate all processed and added sugars from my diet. In Italy, I eat very healthy anyway, no processed food, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, fresh pastas, so I think I have that one.

Ok, I’m getting there.

Then I wondered if it was possible to eliminate natural sugars as well. As I noted above, I learned that there are naturally occurring sugars in everything. There are sugars in fruits: A serving of grapes can have 24 grams of sugar; an apple can have 18.68 grams; a serving of cherries, 16.4 grams; a serving of blueberries, 14.7 grams; a banana, 14.4 grams; a peach, 12.6 grams. Double digit fruits seem like something I will want to avoid in these next 5 days.

As I continued to research, I learned that some berries have a much smaller amount of sugar per serving. A serving of strawberries, for example, has 6.85 grams of sugar, while a serving of raspberries has 6.9 grams.

I had this nagging feeling that vegetables also contain natural sugars. Here’s what I found. They do. A tomato has an average of 3.88 grams of sugar; a green pepper has 2.86 grams. An avocado has 2.41 grams of sugar while a serving of broccoli or zucchini has 1.45 grams. A serving of cucumber has 1.3 grams of sugar. Even a serving of head lettuce has .981 milligrams of sugar.

I decided to look at starches just for fun, knowing that even if they didn’t have sugar, our bodies transform starches into sugars. A sweet potato has 10.3 grams of sugar, about what I expected. I was surprised by other starches. Corn has only 3.22 grams of sugar per serving. A potato has 1.9 grams per serving. A serving of squash has 1.87 grams of sugar, while a serving of pumpkin has 1.84 grams.

Now Siri and I were on a roll and I wondered if there is sugar in protein. There is!!!! Well, at least in meats. Not much, but still sugar. A chicken egg has (253 milligrams), a serving of pork (376 milligrams), a serving of beef (26.9 milligrams).

Then I found it, the one natural food group with no sugar, fish (and shellfish). I should note now that I am not really a fan of fish. I can eat it once in a while, if it’s salmon or swordfish and it doesn’t taste, well, fishy. After a particularly bad meal I had here in Italy, I may never be able to look at a shrimp again. (Don’t ask!) and no one can eat a lot of lobster. A serving of salmon, swordfish, shrimp, or lobster have 0 grams of sugar. A serving of trout, .02 grams. Ooops! Tilapia has 4 grams of sugar per serving! (Sometimes I like tilapia.)

So, what about nuts and seeds? Sugar there as well – but not much.

Cashews contain about 1.56 grams of sugar per serving; Almonds have 1.37 grams per serving, Seeds are better with sunflower seeds containing around 876 milligrams of sugar per serving.

Ok, my research has led me to realize that almost everything has at least some natural sugars present. So, my decision is to cut out refined and processed sugars for the next 5 days. I will also eliminate anything from the list above with double digit grams of sugar.

I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m going to go make a big pot of veggie soup and grab some berries at the shop. Wish me luck! Caio for now!