18 April 2008

Confit of goose gizzard and duck

In January I made a big batch of confit, and right now it tastes so good I don't care if summer ever comes. I took a duck leg and two goose gizzards out of my 5-quart pot where they've been aging since January. A few tablespoons of fat into the saucier, and I cooked a few cloves of garlic and an onion, and then emptied a plastic tub of leftover ziti into the pan. (Last night we hosted a potluck for students interested in Peace Corps and invited all the returned volunteers in town as well. The students talked with all of us in an informal setting and heard different perspectives on Peace Corps service. We knew there'd be little kids, too, so my wife made a pan of "Italian macaroni" - at least that's what we called it when we were kids - hence the leftover ziti.) I coated the ziti in that nice duck fat; I sliced the gizzards after browning them, and the insides revealed the tight flesh, still slightly pink after all that cooking and aging. I browned the leg, too, and pulled it apart with my fingers, clumps of meat falling from the bone. I steamed a few spears of asparagus, cutting them in half and adding the bottom halves two or three minutes before the tips. I rinsed the asparagus in cold water to arrest the cooking and preserve the color, and dropped it into the mix.

Aged confit has a richness to it that softens everything. The small amount of cinnamon I added to the meat when it was fresh came whispering through the finish. The falling apart shreds of leg rewarded my patience with a nuttiness that I don't taste in other meats.

I'm surprised that many contemporary confit recipes treat the aging of confit as optional. They suggest lowering the amount of salt because un-aged confit would be too salty if it contained the traditional amounts of salt. But the preserving of meat by giving it a salt cure and slow cooking it in its own fat is the foundation that allows the meat to age so beautifully. The aging is what makes confit so remarkable. Whether I eat a piece of duck confit on a bed of wilted greens or make an enormous cassoulet, it's often the contrast between the aged meat and its counterpoint that satisfies my palate so thoroughly.

16 April 2008


Some leftovers end up as good as (or better than) the original dish. On Sunday we had friends over to celebrate six years of our children being classmates together. They recently finished their "honors project" and we wanted to thank our daughter's mentor for being such a great guide. We had grilled pork tenderloin, asparagus, an onion tart, and salad; for dessert, Madeline made a family favorite, Crazy Chocolate Cake.
We had a good piece of pork tenderloin left, so last night I made leftovers. I carmelized a big onion in olive oil and butter, sliced a large portobello mushroom, diced an apple, and tossed bow tie pasta with slices of pork. I had some rich gelatin from a duck I cooked a week or two ago; my mother-in-law marinated it with Asian spices, and the resulting gelatin is rich with coriander and five-star anise. I added a few tablespoons of that as well as a bit of water and that's it - I cooked it while the kids were enjoying the warm, windy day, and we all enjoyed it before heading off to baseball, book club, and a community garden meeting.

05 April 2008

Planting fava beans and roquette

Ahhh! The first beautiful spring day and the neighborhood was alive with kids and sunlight and seeing people without winter coats and my little garden bed by the side door gets beautiful sunlight and although the north side of my house still has a foot of snow, I was able to plant roquette and fava beans today. The roquette and fava beans are both from seeds I purchased at Vilmorin Seed Co. in Paris in 2002. Roquette (Eruca sativa) is also known as arugula; it's in the brassica family. The variety of the fava bean (Vicia faba) I planted today is "DeSeville." It a large-seeded fava and, like all favas, does best in cool weather. I put them in the ground as soon as I can because they don't flower in the heat. Favas are great beans to eat, and I'm surprised more Americans don't eat them. I see dry favas, usually small-seeded varieties, in Mediterranean stores, and I see fresh pods in markets on the west coast and in markets in Italian neighborhoods. In Europe, these are the beans people ate before Columbus and other early explorers brought back beans from North America, Phaseolus vulgaris, known as the common bean. So, when you think of 'haricots verts' as the essential French green bean or you think the Romano is the traditional Italian bean - think again. Long before Europeans ate these beans that are now part of their history and culture, they were eating fava beans.

04 April 2008

Daubière and tomatoes

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Last weekend I was alone with the kids, and by taking Friday off I had time for chores, playing, and cooking. We started with a big pot of baked beans, cooked for hours and hours in my homemade daubiere, something I made almost twenty years ago (!) when I first read about the old traditional cooking pot. I’ve still never seen one other than my own, and when I look at the saggy terra cotta clay I kind of laugh, but it’s served its purpose well for all these years. My son loves baked beans and because winter seems to be an intermidable season this year, I thought beans would be good. There’s nothing fancy about baked beans, really. I used great northerns, a hunk of salt pork, an onion, ground mustard, brown sugar and molasses, and cooked it all at 250°F for the better part of a day. Then I did the same the next day and the resulting $2.00 dish was awesome.

One of our favorite desserts is pots du crème au chocolat, and my kids regularly chant “Pots du crème! Pots du crème!” in declaration of this awesomely rich dessert. But, the other day I discovered that all our eggs had been boiled and dyed, so we had to adjust. Our chocolate craving can also be satisfied by a quick batch of chocolate pudding. Lacking the eggs and slow water bath, chocolate pudding is nearly as quick as the store-bought instant pudding, and infinitely better. We make the flavors rich by a combination of baking cocoa, semi sweet chocolate, and unsweetened chocolate. A bit of milk and sugar and some corn starch to thicken it, and it’s done in ten to fifteen minutes. We used pretty simple chocolates – all regular supermarket varieties, and the richness of the pudding is great. We brought it to a friend’s house so we added a dollop of whipped cream, and we licked the bowl clean.

I usually start my tomatoes in mid-March, but something sidetracked me this year. Luckily, schools closed early yesterday so I had to leave work early to get home. With a few spare hours I got the break I needed and started a few trays. In years past I’ve started as many as a dozen different varieties of tomatoes, and have planted tomatoes strategically to avoid cross-pollination. Last year, I planted only my two favorite varieties and had such good results that I decided to focus on the same two again. My hands down favorite is Brandywine, Glick’s strain. I started growing this variety in 1998, and got my first seeds through Seed Savers Exchange. There are several strains of the Brandywine, and William Woys Weaver, food historian and author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, can trace the pedigree of this specific strain pretty far back. I got my seed from him, and it’s been a great tomato. Last year the fruits were stupendous - big, pendulous fruits that were as full and round as a nursing mother’s breasts. Warm and heavy in the hand, the fruits from which I saved seed were in the vicinity of 20 ounces. But! but! but! but! - tomatoes aren’t about size! And true, it’s the taste that sets the Brandwine apart from its peers. A great acidity that wakes up the mouth and prepares it for the astral vibrations that follow. Rich, deep flavor with currant, tar, tobacco and brambles, a smoky finish that echoes the best Barolos. Hah! The Brandywine is a long season tomato and in our Minnesota summers I’m never sure how they’ll turn out. I’ve been selecting seeds from early ripening fruits, hoping that eventually I’ll have a plant that thrives in Minnesota’s short, hot summer. Last year our autumn was extended for so long that the tomatoes I usually pick green all ripened on the vine. My other favorite is the 1x6, a tomato that has so few seeds I usually can’t offer them through SSE. The 1x6 is a rather difficult tomato for me, and I’m afraid that my seed selection hasn’t been great because the fruits are beginning to grow away from their name: they’re a long tapering pepper-like tomatoes that are about 1” diameter and about 6” long. Mine have always been more like 1x5s but of late they’re ballooning out to pudgier 2x6s. I saved seed from good fruit last year, so hopefully I’m on the road back to seed salvation. But throughout, the tomato is a wonder. It’s a low-acid tomato that makes the sweetest sauce I’ve ever tasted, an almost carrot-like orange suffusing the rich sauce. The plant begins very spindly, with sparse foliage that makes each plant rather anemic looking. But the plant grows and grows and eventually the regular-leaf foliage catches up and while not a heavy producer, the plant bears clusters of four or five fruits. The 1x6 is rather thick-skinned and when I don’t peel the skins for sauce I’m usually reminded to do so by the many clumps of skin on my plate. So, I’ve got a tray of each started.