Barbara Mitchell makes Chicken Cordon Bleu
Historical cooking a hobby but cook prefers modern conveniences
Playing the part of a 19th century German farm wife, cooking over a wood stove and hauling water from the well, suits Barbara Mitchell just fine a couple days a month as a volunteer at Spring Valley Nature Center in Schaumburg.
But at home in Hoffman Estates this thoroughly modern retiree embraces her electric appliances, indoor plumbing and nearby grocery stores.
"I don't know if I'd like to live that far back, with 365 days a year of work," she says.
Still, Barbara looks forward to working on the 1880s Heritage Farm, dressed in period clothes, demonstrating typical German farm dishes and offering tours to visitors to the farm with its Belgian draft horses, shorthorn cows, pigs, ducks, geese and chickens.
"It's all the things I like to do, cooking, gardening, sewing," she says. "It's a little piece of heaven stuck within all the industry, shopping and housing developments."
At home Barbara cooks from scratch and grows herbs and a few vegetables in her backyard garden, but at least she doesn't have to slaughter and butcher her own hogs and poultry, milk the cows and churn butter.
"I cook most nights, and I plan around whatever is on sale," she says. "I like the whole process; I'd rather go to the grocery store than shop for clothes."
Salads are a top priority, especially for her husband, Douglas, who she suspects is "part rabbit."
The first things she preps each night for dinner are fresh salad dressing and greens.
"I make something different every day," she says. But each dressing starts the same way: combine minced garlic with extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and salt and let sit 30 minutes to infuse the oil. Then she adds flavor boosters like Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar and sherry, as in today's recipe.
For main courses Barbara spans the globe, experimenting with Indonesian bean stew, Mexican poblano pot roast, Indian chutneys and fried nuts, spanakopita, risotto and classic French specialties from her favorite chef, Julia Child.
Barbara substitutes chicken for rabbit in one of Child's all-day projects, a pot pie-like dish with fennel seeds, lemon rind, leeks, celery and wine sauce.
"The house smells wonderful," says Barbara, who offers us another French classic, Chicken Cordon Bleu, with a twist.
Instead of the classic smoked ham and Swiss cheese filling Barbara layers in prosciutto and fontina or asiago cheese. The Italian ham reappears in a tomato-wine sauce.
Instead of birthday cake, Barbara prefers her mother's Raspberry Delight, a no-cook dessert made with raw eggs, so be sure to substitute pasteurized if you have concerns.
For new ideas Barbara combs through cookbooks and newspapers. She's a fan of PBS's "America's Test Kitchen" with Christopher Kimball and "The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook."
"They offer tips I never thought of doing," she says. "They recommend food products and equipment."
I bet if we ask, Kimball just might schedule a 19th century Test Kitchen episode comparing wood-burning stoves and techniques for plucking chicken.