Confessions of a Chef’s Wife Part III: Let’s Get Down and Dirty McGowan-Style

Now a couple of true confessions…

Our first spat…Rob and I are in Ralph’s, a grocery store in California, as a young couple. This was the last time we have ever shopped together…I’m not kidding…groceries, Christmas presents, toilets, couches, cars, houses. Let’s just say The Chef (meaning Chef Rob) and I are better off with me shopping alone and The Chef approving via FaceTime when necessary…but at this point most of the time, I just make Executive Decisions (per Leslee) and he is usually quite happy not to have to be involved…he’s lucky if I remember to tell him what’s in that gift-wrapped box before the grateful recipient says thank you. 

I was brought up in a farm family and we did not skimp on food. 

My mom always said, “If it’s going in your belly, it better be good.” 

And my dad always said, “You get what you pay for.”

I was taught that the higher the price, the better the food…but not true as I soon learned from Chef Rob. The food ingredients are best matched to the food’s purpose and method of cooking for the ultimate outcome.

Back to the Ralph’s incident…I picked up 90 percent lean hamburger and he wanted 80 percent lean hamburger for our spaghetti dinner. We had a little scuffle. Chef Rob disagreed but gave in to his sweet girlfriend. I hope you can read between the lines when I say “little scuffle” and “sweet girlfriend.”  I, admittedly, demanded to know why he didn’t want the “better” stuff.  These are the kinds of things a chef and non-chef wife fight about.  Normal people debate retirement and job offers.  Not us…ground beef! Yep. Turns out, 80 percent lean is the way to go when making spaghetti so that you have a little extra fat and thus flavor.  I now have learned my first Confessions of a Chef’s Wife lesson…more expensive doesn’t always mean better. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned from the old man…

Get the 80 percent lean ground beef when you are making a sauce or a burger…you need the fat.  Be sure to drain some of the fat before adding any liquid.  You don’t want all of the grease, just the flavor. 

Want to make a fancy shellfish dinner but don’t want to shell out the extra bucks…..get mussels.  They are $3.49 per pound. You just have to know how to cook them correctly. I have included Rob’s favorite way to cook mussels at the bottom of this blog if you want to give them a whirl!

Beef Tenderloin (Filet Mignon)…it’s great.  It’s decadent but truthfully it doesn’t pack the flavor that the fattier and less expensive cuts deliver. If you’re grilling, grab a New York Strip or Ribeye.  And if you’re buying a Porterhouse, be sure that the tenderloin side is at least two inches wide (preferably 2 ½ inches), otherwise, you’re just paying Porterhouse prices for a T-Bone.  There’s a little something my butcher in California sure didn’t think I would know, thanks to Chef Rob having my back!

And for an even less expensive cut of meat, you can grill Tri-Tip, Flank or Skirt Steak.  These just require a marinade before grilling. To ensure tenderness, when serving, you want to cut them against the grain.  Be sure to rest all meat for at least five minutes before cutting…this keeps your meat tender and juicy.  Chef Rob says, “Maybe take this time to pour yourself a cocktail while waiting so patiently for your delicious fare to rest.”

Now let’s take a little lesson out of the French Rustic Cooking Playbook for a moment. French country cooking methods were developed because the French needed to use what they had and it wasn’t always the best or the freshest. Rustic French cooking uses braising and stewing methods and marinades to get the most out of tough meats and non-animal proteins.  Usually, you can save some bucks using tougher cuts of meat that will cook up tender and delicious with the right methods. 

Did you know that it is not recommended to marinate Beef Tenderloin, New York Strip, Ribeye?  Kosher salt and pepper will work just fine for these guys. Save the marinades for a tougher cut.

If you’re going to braise your meat, you also want to use a tougher cut of protein (meaning it has more sinew and fat) such as a chuck roast. 

How about chicken?  Coq au Vin is a traditional French braised dish, typically made with the Coq which is a rooster or an older bird that is not as tender but has developed more flavor with age. All you need is a little time and red wine for this delicious French country fare.

Let’s talk beans…what an amazing protein. Take a minute to buy dry beans and soak them the day before. Canned beans will do in a pinch but they are full of preservatives and mushy. If you use dry beans and cook them right, they will be full of flavor. Don’t be afraid to use a little helper called bacon to ramp up the goodness. 

Cooking with wine…it does wonders to elevate your dinner in a very cost-effective way. Pro-tip: don’t buy the 2-buck chuck…only cook with wine that you are willing to drink, it will make a difference in the flavor. Trust me…I have bought the 2-buck chuck and it is not a good outcome on so many levels…like starting with the floor level…thus the chuck. But the upside is…there are so many great wines for around the $10-15 price point and you usually only need a cup or so for cooking and then you get to enjoy the rest!  Also, a good reason to buy a little better vino for cooking!

My lesson…yep sometimes you’ll want to fork over the dough and get the good stuff.  For me, spending an extra dollar on organic and non-GMO is a no-brainer.  I know I have spent money on much more foolish things than this (see for example, the nonsense at the checkout that those whiney kids who insist on calling me mom demand when I am just too tired to debate!). But other times, you can purchase less costly items and still have a decadent meal. Know your outcome and what goods you need for the meal you’re cooking. You don’t always have to reach for the most expensive ingredients. Don’t be afraid to ask your friendly neighborhood fishmonger or your butcher for guidance if you haven’t had a chance to plan ahead. 

If it’s going in your belly…it had better be good.  And you do get what you pay for.  But save those pennies when you can for the foods that require a couple extra bucks!

Cooking with Mussels…the Down and Dirty McGowan Method

First, mussels are alive and need to be able to breathe so don’t store them in an enclosed bag.  They will also drown in fresh water so to store them correctly, put them over ice in a colander with a drip pan underneath in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them.  Next, scrub the mussels to remove any grit and de-beard them if necessary. 

To cook them, Rob’s favorite way is to use a braising pan, large heavy sauté pan or Dutch oven with a lid.  Use a ½ cup of good diced thick-cut bacon (we prefer Nueske’s and have it available at the store!)  Cook bacon slowly over medium to medium-low heat until the bacon just begins to foam. Then, pour off the rendered fat.  (You can save this fat for making gumbo, cooking chicken breast or for making a lovely warm bacon vinaigrette for your ever-healthy spinach salad.) 

Next, add ½ cup each of diced onion and fennel and 1 clove of smashed garlic.  Also sprinkle in a pinch or two of Kosher salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper.  Cook and stir frequently for 2-3 minutes.  Add clean, de-beard mussels to the pan. Increase heat to medium high. Add 1 cup of delicious dry white wine (something you would want to drink). Cover pan for 2-3 minutes and then add about ¾ to 1 cup of diced fresh tomatoes.

At this point, some of the mussels should start to open. Re-cover the pan.  Check the mussels after two minutes.  Most should be open.  If more than half are not open, cover the pan and let it go another minute or two.  If any are still closed, discard those.  Remove from heat and stir in 2 tbsp cold unsalted butter and a couple tbsp of chopped herbs.  Rob recommends a combination of parsley, tarragon, basil and thyme.  Stir until butter melts. That’s it!! It can be that simple and cost-effective!

Serve family style with crusty bread and get to it!

Do you have any questions about food prep that you’d like me to cover in future blogs? Leave a comment! Also, if you liked these helpful tips, please like and share this blog. Each like, comment, and share are very much appreciated! Check back in in a few weeks for my next blog…Big Knife for a Big Man.  #mcgowanandsons #foodnetwork