Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bide-A-Wee Confit ( X 2)

I don't know why we don't eat more duck in this country. In both Europe and Asia duck is a common sight in markets and on restaurant menus. When I taught English in China in 1989-90, duck was cheaper than chicken, more readily available than beef or lamb. What French bistro or brasserie doesn't feature magret or confit de canard on its menu, or a seared slab or paté of foie gras, a salad topped with preserved gizzards and hearts?

A well-raised duck offers the dark, succulent meat that gourmands adore, and the pleasures of game without having to shoot something. Everyone I know loves duck, so why don't we see it more often?

Oh, it just came to me: It's the fat.

As we became a nation of skinless-boneless-chicken-breast eaters, as all the flavor was drained out of commercially raised pork in the fat-phobic decades that preceded the anti-carb movement, as even our beloved American hamburgers turned dry and dull with the move to extra-lean ground beef (do not even get me started on turkey burgers!)...well, what was a duck to do? With all that dark, dense meat enrobed in noble fat, encased in gorgeous yellow skin, there was no way the duck could pass itself off as "the other white meat," or pretend in any way to be lean cuisine.

A duck must be a duck, and it's a shame we can't accept it for what it is. Fortunately, more and more people are now doing that. Perhaps the ultimate acceptance of canard-comme-canard is to face its fattiness full on, and that means confit de canard--duck legs cooked in duck fat. When I say cooked, I mean poached, immersed, completely submerged in rendered duck fat. This does not mean you have to eat a bowl of duck fat, though it's tempting.

Making a confit of fatty meat--usually duck, goose, or pork--is actually an ancient means of preserving meat. The meat was first salted quite heavily, then cooked slowly in fat, and finally sealed in jars, completely covered in fat. With the salt preventing bacteria growth, and the fat protecting the meat from air-borne contaminants, the confit would keep for months.

Following the counsel of Madeleine Kamman in In Madeleine's Kitchen I make a confit of duck legs that focuses more on flavor than preservation, though even this less salty version will keep for at least a couple of weeks.

Here in the Twin Cities, we're lucky to have a great, reliable source for nice meaty duck legs from Au Bon Canard, a foie gras and duck producer in southwestern Minnesota. We find Au Bon Canard products at Clancey's Meats and Fish, a local treasure run by Kristin Tombers. Clancey's doesn't seem to have a website--Kristin, why don't you have website? Clancey's is located in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis, 4307 Upton Avenue South, 612-926-0222. If you haven't yet aquired a supply of duck fat for making confit, Kristin and crew can set you up with that. If you want to try confit without making your own, you can buy Clancey's' house-made version, and I'm sure you'll be very happy.

Once you have the fat, though, making duck confit is simple. And you get to keep the fat, which is the best thing ever for sautéeing potatoes. It keeps indefinitely in the freezer, and even gets better with age, as it acquires the flavors of the successive confits you cook in it.

One of the things that makes Madeleine's confit (and hence, yours and mine) the best you'll ever taste is the spice mix, quatre-épices, which flavors it. This will make enough for many confits, and is good with other duck, game, or pork preparations:

Quatre-épices a la Madeleine

2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground cloves

Just mix it all up and keep in a tightly closed jar in a dark place. A little goes a long way. (Yes, the name means "four spices," and it contains six spices; I have no explanation for this.)

Now to make the confit:

4 meaty duck legs, thigh and drumstick together--if you have gizzards, hearts, wings, or necks, use those, too; the giblets and shreddy meat are great on a dinner salad

Fat to cover, about four cups (it needn't be absolutely submerged as it cooks; the legs do tend to float somewhat, and you can turn them a couple of times in the cooking)

salt and pepper
garlic, eight to ten cloves, peeled and left whole
a couple of bay leaves
fresh thyme, optional

A day before you make the confit, you must salt and spice it: Dry the legs with paper towels, then salt them. I don't use a particular amount of salt. What I do is, salt them once as you would season any kind of meat prior to cooking, but don't be mean with the salt, season them well. Now do that again, and then once more. Do that on both sides. Add a generous grind of black pepper, then just a judicious sprinkling of the spice mixture, both sides. The legs shouldn't be coated with the spices, just nicely speckled.

Cover them and place them in the fridge overnight, or for a couple of days, even. Prior to cooking, drain off any accumulated juices, and dry the legs with paper towels.

Heat your oven to 275 F. Arrange the legs in a single layer in a casserole or heavy pot large enough to hold legs and fat, without the fat coming right to the brim (I use our seven-quart Le Creuset dutch oven). Spread the garlic cloves around, and the bay leaves and thyme if you're using it. Cover the duck with the fat, but, as I say, don't worry if the legs broach the surface a bit--they will shrink with cooking, and also give off their own fat to add to the reservoir.

Cook for two to three hours, covered, turning the legs once or twice during that time. I look for the fat to be clear and bubbling at the end--it will cloud as juices come off the duck. Those juices will settle at the bottom of the pan, and you'll want to save them--they're a bit salty, but absolutely delicious.

Let the duck cool in the fat. You can use it the same day, or store it for a couple of weeks. Prior to cooking, dig the duck out of the fat and let it sit at room temp for excess fat to melt off. Then what I like to do is either fry or broil it to crisp the skin and warm the meat through.

Here's one preparation we made at Bide-A-Wee, our tiny, rustic Wisconsin cabin:

We browned the legs in the dutch oven, took them out and removed all but a tablespoon or two of fat, added some chopped onion and garlic, then some of the mixed sauerkraut of cabbage, beets, and carrots I made in the fall, rinsed, drained, squeezed dry. A little of that delicious fond saved from the bottom of the confit pan, and just a splash of water. That all simmered very gently atop the woodstove. Just before serving we added back the duck to warm, and some fingerling potatoes we had boiled separately. It made for a very pleasant table.

A couple of weeks later we were back at the cabin over Christmas, and we brought out the other two legs from the same batch of confit. This time we served it with a mixed mash of market and garden vegetables--carrots, parsnips, potatoes, celery root. Those were all peeled, cut up and boiled until tender but not falling apart. After browning the confit I left a bit of fat in the pan, sautéed a chopped leek and a couple cloves of chopped garlic in that, added the vegetables and a ladle of reserved veg-cooking liquid, and mashed it with a fork. Serve the duck right on top of the mash.

That wine, a Graves from Vieux Chateau Gaubert, 2000, was fantastic. It had been sitting around in our basement for at least a couple of years, I think. Red Graves wines are not the first thing I think of when I think of Bordeaux, but they're often very good, and a good value.

Really cuts through all that yummy ducky fat.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, December 29, 2008

Calling All Locavores

Please share with us your highlights of local, seasonal food in 2008--the products, producers, farmers' markets and CSAs; ways of growing, preparing, or preserving food; chefs and restaurants, cookbooks, and the like. You can leave your remarks in the "Comments" section below, or email me at , and I'll put your comments in digest form. Let me know if it's okay to use your name, and tell me where you're from. Doesn't matter where you're from, by the way. We're eager to hear from local, seasonal food fanatics from across the country and around the world.

I'll be putting together my list, which will probably take a few installments to do it justice. One of my favorite cookbooks of the year is shown above, Beyond Nose to Tail, by Fergus Henderson , who runs the acclaimed St John restaurant in London. The book is a treat to page through, beautifully designed and illustrated with wonderful photographs. The recipes are straightforward, allowing plenty of leeway for individual expression in their realization.

And though Henderson is famous for putting all parts of the pig into play in the kitchen, this book goes, well, beyond the trotters and snouts and ears and tails, beyond the abattoir entirely. In fact, of the three recipes I've prepared from it so far, two have been vegetarian--Welsh rarebit, a dish I've always wanted to try, and a salad of shredded raw beets, red cabbage, and red onions with creme fraiche. I'll post a fuller book report in future.

Meantime, please do tell us about your favorite local food experiences of 2008. We wish you many more, and all the best, in the year to come.

p.s.~In the upper left corner of the photo is one of my favorite breakfasts of the year, a remnant of Mary's Breton butter cake, kouign amann, made with our best local butter from the Hope Creamery in Hope, Minnesota.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We Have a Bowl of Kale Called "Sideshow Bob"...

...and a bucket of leeks we think of as...well, I imagine you can guess. To me, the resemblance to another distinctively coifed TV show character is uncanny.

I was embarrassed to admit, in a previous post, that our "root cellar" actually consisted of various boxes, baskets, and bins haphazardly strewn around our basement. But now I'm happy to report that I've since revved up my resolve, charged into the vegetable chaos, and put things in order.

We have a great spot for a root cellar, a closet space that opens into a half crawl space, half dirt-floored cellar area that we call "the dungeon." I had originally thought to put the storage shelf right in the dungeon, but it was way too scary in there--dank, cobwebby. I settled for the adjacent closet, where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees.

That should be fine for the potatoes, onions, garlic, and squash. I should have bought more onions, I realize. There's no way we're getting through the winter on what we have.

The other part of the root cellaring operation is the second fridge we have in the basement. We got it to hold extra baking supplies--case of butter, a few dozen eggs, extra bottles of buttermilk, etc. For the late fall and winter it's where we keep carrots, parsnips, apples, cabbage, 'kraut. (That's a jar of fermented baby eggplants in the gallon jar, back right; a very spur-of-the-moment attempt to save some produce that was a couple days away from the compost pile. I haven't gotten up the nerve to try them yet.)

To extend the harvest here in the frozen north, we've used root cellaring, freezing, drying, fermenting, pickling, and cold frames. One method we had not considered was hydroponic gardening, but we seem to have stumbled into that this year.

The "Sideshow Bob" kale pictured above is the tops of several lacinato kale plants we had in our community garden plot. They'd been sitting in plastic bags in the cool garage, and when I pulled them out they were looking a bit wilted. I put them in water in the big stainless bowl, and they perked right up.

That was some weeks ago. They stayed right perky in their bowl by the kitchen sink, and we've just been pulling off a few leaves as we need them. When I was changing the water in the bowl one day, I noticed that those snapped-off kale tops were actually starting to take root, and new growth was sprouting from the center.

This is not a great picture, but I think you can see the tiny white roots at the bottom, and the new, light green leaves. I suppose I could try potting them, see if I can get them through the winter.

That's where we stand for local produce as we approach the winter solstice, 2008. January, February, and March are the toughest months for keeping local, of course. Your resources become pretty limited, but that can lead to some really creative cooking. You'll see the results right here.

p.s.~ All you Simpsons-heads out there saw the resemblance immediately, I'm sure. For the rest of you, here he is, in all his diabolical glory, Mr Robert Underdunk Terwilliger, aka, "Sideshow Bob":

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw; Sideshow Bob image copyright Fox Broadcasting Company

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bide-A-Wee Hot Pot

When the cold weather arrives and the dark comes down early, there's lots of time for cooking, and much pleasure to be taken from an evening spent in a warm kitchen. But often the simplest preparations are best, and such is the case with this sausage hot pot, which we simmered up this past weekend at our tiny Wisconsin cabin, which, in that precious manner of city folks affecting rustic ways, we have dubbed "Bide-A-Wee."

Thanks to the growers who attended our Thanksgiving market, we were able to top off the "root cellar" (really, we just have stuff sort of strewn all around the basement, and heaped up in the crisper drawers or wherever else things will fit). The leeks in this dish came from our garden; everything else was from the market.

I do like a nice bit of sausage, but you could substitute chicken for the sausage if you prefer, and cooking times will be about the same, a few minutes longer, perhaps. If I were making it with chicken, I would likely use skinless thighs, on the bone. That would give you a quick version of the classic poule au pot. Other meats would be a bit trickier in this abbreviated hot pot--a piece of beef sirloin or flank steak, or a slice of lamb leg could work, but you'd want to simmer that till just medium rare--or be prepared to cook it much longer, to get it tender again. That beef version sounds really good; I'm going to try that next time.

A vegetarian version, obviously, is an option, too. The heart of it really is the vegetables, and you could put anything you like in this dish, adjusting the cooking times as needed. Everything should be well cooked, but not mushy. Turnips, kale, kohlrabi or rutabagas, sweet potatoes, mushrooms fresh or dried, precooked dried beans--this really is adaptable to anything you have on hand.

We had lots of leftovers from this, which provided another dinner for us, back in Saint Paul. We added the classic pot-au-feu garnishes of a garlic-mustard vinaigrette and some chopped cornichons (those little sour pickles), and it really didn't seem like leftovers, at all.

Bide-A-Wee Sausage Hot Pot
serves two, with leftovers
(Our sausage was a Polish krakowska from Kramarczuk's deli, an institution in northeast Minneapolis; the hot pot cooked at a perfect simmer atop our new Four Dog woodstove, handcrafted by Don Kevilus in Saint Francis, MN.)

2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
2 small parsnips
2 small carrots
2 small leeks
1/2 a large onion
3 cloves garlic, peeled
4 to 6 small new potatoes
2 wedges cabbage, about 1 1/2 inches at the wide end
1 pound smoked sausage--Polish, keilbasa, smoked brats
salt and pepper
grain mustard

Clean up all the vegetables; peel the parsnips and carrots, if you like. Leave the potatoes in their skin. In a large pot bring the water and stock up to a simmer. Add the parsnips, carrots, leeks, onion, and garlic, and a good pinch of salt. Simmer gently, partly covered, for 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, potatoes, and sausage (sometimes I brown the sausage first in a skillet with a little oil; nice but not necessary). Simmer for 20 minutes. Check the vegetables for doneness. Continue cooking until everything is tender; if anything is getting overdone, you can take it out and just put it back for a couple of minutes at the end to re-warm. Taste for salt and add a few grinds of fresh pepper.

Serve with grain mustard, crusty bread, a glass of red wine or good beer.

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Very Fine Fowl

This is the bird that changed my mind about turkey. It's an 11 1/2 pound Bourbon Red "heritage breed" from Hilltop Pastures Family Farm. That's Tom and Sara Austin, who brought turkeys and other grass-fed meats to our Thanksgiving market.

I had just about given up on the traditional Thanksgiving bird after too many anxiety-inducing turkey day experiences. There was the year we tried to grill-smoke the bird and, following a friend's stern admonitions not to even think about lifting the lid for an hour, went inside for a glass of wine. When we came back expecting to see good progress on creating a bronzed and smoky bird, we found the grill and turkey stone cold, the skin glazed with a gray film. I had forgotten to open the vents to keep a low fire going. As we stood there grimly contemplating the frigid, sooty fowl, a chunk of ice broke off from the dormer downspout, bounced off the deck overhang and hit me smack in the forehead. Ouch, I said. That's going to leave a mark. Or words to that effect.

I tried brining one year, the method du jour among turkey gurus. It did create a juicy bird--juicy with salty tap water. When I sliced the breast I was appalled by the saline flood that poured forth. Meat is not supposed to look like that. And, that salty liquid ruined the drippings for gravy, the best part of the Thanksgiving meal (well, next to the stuffing!).

And who doesn't feel a general fatigue with the annual barrage of tortured strategies to keep the breast from drying out until the legs are done, the perennial kitchen song-and-dance of Is it done yet? Is it overdone? Are those juices clear? Or are they pink? Will it be delicious? Or will we die?

But, while I don't really relish the idea of turkey dinner, others in the family do; and I like a challenge, and did relish the chance to try a pasture-raised heritage breed (that's sort of like heirloom vegetables--less standardized, old-time varieties that have been gradually phased out by commercial operations, which are now being rediscovered by small-scale producers).

Long story short, that Bourbon Red was wonderful. Seasoned with only salt and pepper, a few herbs and aromatics stuffed into the cavity (thyme, sage, celery leaves; leek, onion, carrot and garlic), it went in a 350 oven for about a half hour; it was getting nicely brown by then so I turned it down to 325 for another 45 minutes. I basted it just a couple of times with some butter melted into chicken stock. It really did cook in just an hour and fifteen minutes, and because we expected it to take considerably longer, it sat around for quite a while before we ate. Just before serving I separated the legs and breast (on the bone) from the carcass and put them in a low oven to warm a bit.

Even with that not very gentle treatment, it was great. The white meat (of which there was plenty, contrary to what some people think about heritage birds) was dense and moist and...turkey-flavored; except much more flavorful than a grocery store bird. The dark meat, off the big, meaty thighs, was something else again. Like the breast meat, it was denser and moister than is typical, with a wonderful slight gaminess that made me think of duck breast, or venison. Truly delicious, and revelatory.

I can't really say how much of that bird's qualities were the breed, and how much was due to the pasture-raising. As with all great local foods, the specifics are all-important. It's about the terroir, the place-specific taste of a thing, as well as about the skill and care of the people who produce it. Tom and Sara also brought traditional broad-breasted white turkeys to the market, and I've heard that those were unusually flavorful birds, too.

The movement in local-seasonal-sustainable foods is toward pasture-raised animals. The Austins are fans of Shannon Hayes , the author of several well received books, including The Grassfed Gourmet. Her pastured turkey cooking tips are well worth consulting next time you plan to prepare a large fowl--or just want a good laugh.

To find producers of grass-fed meats in your area, try your local farmers' market, or consult Slow Food USA's website to find a chapter near you. Here's another resource that the Austins link on their website: EatWild .

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw