In Praise of Crème Fraîche

Lately I’ve discovered the wonders of crème fraîche.  Similar to sour cream, but softer, less sour, and thicker, this tangy concoction can be purchased just about everywhere these days, including at your local supermarket.  Making your own is apparently quite simple, though I’ve yet to try it.  All you do is slowly heat one cup of heavy whipping cream (preferably not ultra-pasteurized) and then stir in a tablespoon of buttermilk. This mixture is left to sit, covered, in a warm draught-free place for around 24 hours. It is ready when it is the consistency of thick cream. If it still looks a little runny after 24 hours, leave it another 8 to 12 hours but move it to a warmer spot.  Then you can use it in any recipe that calls for sour cream.  It has twice the calories of its American cousin, but all things in moderation, right?

One reason I decided to try crème fraîche is that it often appears as an ingredient in the daily email recipes I receive from P’tit Chef outside of Bordeaux.  (Once on the site click on “Recevoir le menu du jour” on the right, if you’re interested.)  It’s fun because every day I can read three French recipes—an appetizer, main dish, and dessert—which, at the very least, give me ideas for meals.  Because we try to have one meatless supper per week, I was intrigued by the “Risotto aux champignons” I got from the little chef.  Although the recipes contain weights in grams instead of ounces, you can quickly find equivalents online.  To create the mushroom risotto, gently cook a clove of minced garlic in some butter for a couple of minutes, then add in about 5 ounces of mushrooms.  I found a nice 3-oz. package of sliced shiitakes to which I added a few more of the button variety.  After cooking for 3 minutes, pour in about 3 tablespoons of white wine.  Then spoon in a couple of tablespoons of crème fraîche; salt and pepper to taste and set the mixture aside off the heat.  While bringing a quart of chicken broth to the boiling point, sauté a small onion in some oil for about 3 minutes, then add in a cup of Arborio rice.  Once the rice becomes translucent, stir in one ladle of the hot broth.  After the liquid is absorbed, add in another ladleful, stirring just about constantly; continue until the broth is used up and the rice is cooked.  This should take about 20 minutes.  Put in some grated parmesan and the mushroom mixture.  Et voilà!  It’s quite a tasty dish. 

It’s funny how cooking styles change over the years.  When I was newly married, many cookbooks called for the use of high-sodium canned soups.  I have since adapted some of my old favorite recipes—like Chicken à la Parisienne—found in Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.  For this, you put a couple of boneless chicken breasts in a baking dish (browning them first, if you want) and cover them with a mushroom white sauce.  To make the sauce, brown some sliced mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter or oil; add in another couple of tablespoons of butter and the same amount of flour and stir for about a minute.  Thin the mixture to the desired consistency with a few tablespoons of white wine and some milk—or a combination of milk and chicken broth.  Stir in a few tablespoons of crème fraîche, season with salt and pepper, and pour over the chicken.  Sprinkle the top with paprika and bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. Serve over hot rice or pasta.

Another favorite out of the same cookbook is the recipe for Beef Stroganoff.  This dish can be made with strips of sirloin or simply with ground beef.  Either way, the result is delicious!  First brown the meat (a pound or less) in a little butter or oil, add in some sliced mushrooms, a half-cup of chopped onion, and a minced clove of garlic.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes and then sprinkle the mixture with a tablespoon of flour.  Pour in a cup of beef broth, a tablespoon of white wine, and a tablespoon of tomato paste or ketchup.  (I sometimes add some chopped fresh dill to the mixture.)  Cook, stirring occasionally, till thickened and bubbly and the meat is tender.  Finally, stir in a few tablespoons of crème fraîche and serve over wide egg noodles.

I hope this post gets your salivary glands working and inspires you to get into the kitchen.  Let me know if you try any of these recipes.  Happy cooking!

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Jefferson, Part 2

Thomas Jefferson loved architecture, which he considered one of the most important arts.  Nothing gave him more pleasure, he stated, than “putting up and pulling down”—something that he did several times on parts of Monticello.  Although a variety of sources went into the creation of his structures, the president’s “Bible” of design was The Four Books of Architecture by the sixteenth century Italian, Andrea Palladio.  Jefferson believed that developing an American style of architecture, based on but separate from European designs, was an important element of the national cause.  Besides his home outside Charlottesville, Jefferson helped create three other important structures in Virginia.

The cubic architecture of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond was chosen to resemble an ancient Roman temple.  The only structure of this kind that Jefferson had seen first-hand was the Maison Carrée in the south of France.  However, Jefferson’s design of the state house substituted Ionic scrolls for the more ornate Corinthian columns found at the temple in Nîmes.  The commanding and impressive building is not without tragedy.  When hundreds crowded into the upstairs gallery during Reconstruction following the Civil War in 1870, the balcony gave way causing the death of sixty-one people and injury to scores of others.  Despite calls for its demolition, the building was restored and eventually expanded.  It is still in use today.

During our visit to the state in early January, we were able to see another Jeffersonian design: The University of Virginia.  The president’s retirement project was to develop an “academical village” where professors and students would live and work in close proximity.  Called “the proudest achievement of American architecture in the past 200 years” by the American Institute of Architects, UVA’s focal point is the beautiful Rotunda.  Located at the north end of “the Lawn,” the structure was modeled after the ancient Pantheon in Rome, which Jefferson had read about in sources like Palladio and others.  After a devastating fire in 1895, the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White (of Boston Public Library fame) made significant changes to the building’s original design.  But in 1973, a three-year project was begun to restore the Rotunda to the way Jefferson intended.  Initially designed as the campus library, the Rotunda now serves as a place for lectures, meetings, symposia, dinners, and tours.  Unfortunately the day we were there, January 2nd, the building was closed for the federal holiday.  Down the hill to the east and west of the Rotunda, stretch the faculty Pavilions and some student rooms, making for a striking central campus.

While on our guided tour of Monticello, we learned that the building served as Jefferson’s public residence.  His private retreat—to escape the hordes of visitors—was Poplar Forest, located near Lynchburg.  Designed and built during the last twenty years of his life, this plantation house allowed Jefferson to experience “the solitude of a hermit.”  Once again built in accordance with Palladian principles, the Italian-style villa has a central cube room with porticos on the north and south.  Since 1986, Poplar Forest has been undergoing restoration.  Like Monticello, it is open to the public for tours and I would love to see it someday.

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Jefferson's Virginia, Part 1

In terms of natural beauty, the Commonwealth of Virginia ranks high on my list of east coast destinations.  Every time we drive through the state I’m amazed at the picturesque rolling hills, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and plains of grazing animals.  At Christmas we had the use of a GPS which routed us through some small country roads, giving us an even greater appreciation for the attractiveness of area.  But, obviously, Virginia has much more to offer visitors than simple geography.  Just driving along the highway seeing signs for Antietam and Appomattox Court House causes one to reflect upon and desire to learn more about our nation’s history, specifically the American Civil War.  Because we were so close to Charlottesville on our return trip from North Carolina, we decided to stop by and see some of the great buildings designed by President Thomas Jefferson…and we were not at all disappointed in our decision.

Perhaps the cooler temperatures of January in northern Virginia kept down the crowds; in any event, the actual experience of paying a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello was much more pleasant than fighting through the Biltmore Estate had been a few days before.  Included in the winter entry fee (of $17) is a tour of the mountain-top home, named from the Italian word for little mountain.  First constructed in 1772 and entirely redone in 1796, the current building has many architectural marvels that Jefferson either conceived of himself or adapted from his knowledge of French architecture from the time he served as ambassador to France in the late eighteenth century.  In the entrance hall, for instance, there is a clock, still functioning today, which tells both the day and the time.  The home contains 13 skylights, symbolic griffins in crown molding, and triple-sashed windows.  There is also an octagonal–shaped guest room (often used by another former president James Madison and his wife), a very bright chrome yellow dining room complete with two wine dumbwaiters, and a library which once held over 6,000 volumes (subsequently donated by the president to the Library of Congress after a fire destroyed its collection).  Jefferson designed his bed in a kind of alcove which allowed him to get up either on the right side into his cabinet (“study”) or on the left into his dressing room.  We learned that he soaked his feet in a bowl of cold water upon rising to wake up each morning!  (Wouldn't catch me doing that...)  A set of stairs in the dressing room leads up to a closet which used to contain Jefferson's clothing.  The kitchen, wine and beer cellars are also available to see in the basement of the house.

Besides the understated splendor of the neoclassical building, there are many interesting decorative elements as well: elk antlers sent by Lewis and Clark from their transcontinental expedition, native American art similar to that prized by the former president, and famous portraits of Jefferson by Thomas Sully and Gilbert Stuart.  Visitors can also walk around the property and see the president’s grave, the fish pond, and the gardens.  Thomas Jefferson was a true renaissance man whose broad interests and expertise were nothing short of outstanding.  A politician, architect, traveler, avid reader, rabid learner, and speaker of several languages, he even taught himself to read Spanish during his transatlantic trips to Europe.  A trip to Monticello helps tourists to understand what prompted President Kennedy to tell a group of Nobel Prize winners at a dinner at the White House: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."  Next week we'll examine other architectural accomplishments of this great man.

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