Thursday, November 10, 2011
"90 Percent of Good Cooking..."
"...is good shopping," is a chestnut (pun fully intended, as you'll see) I keep trotting out when I'm talking to people about the book. I think sometimes people don't believe me. I get these skeptical looks, as if people are thinking, "Well, yeah, you can say that 'cause you know how to cook...". I stand behind the sentiment steadfastly. But please note that I did not say the 90 percent of good cooking is shopping. I said: good shopping. That means knowing where to get the best stuff; it means anticipating seasonal goodies like, for example, chestnuts. And it means knowing when to get out of the way as a cook and just let the ingredients shine.
Case in point: the dinner pictured above, prepared here in Saint Paul last night. Bison blood sausage from Seward Co-op; Iowa chestnuts, also from Seward; savoy cabbage, onions, and fingerling potatoes from the Minneapolis Farmers Market; Bide-A-Wee apples. A splendid autumnal tableau, prepared in one skillet. What I contributed in the area of cooking skills: I used duck confit fat to brown the vegetables; I deglazed the pan at the end with a little chicken stock and a splash of red wine, little water.
That's right: I said bison blood sausage. I imagine that this is the sort of thing that will have a polarizing effect. On the one side: blood sausage? Eeewww! On the other: blood sausage! (Accompanied by Homer Simpson-esque drooling sounds.) But really, this is nothing so radical. The Seward butcher counter has become well known for its amazing array of sausages and their inventive combinations of flavors. I prefer the subtler palate, and believe it or not, the bison blood sausage is definitely on that end of the spectrum. The ingredients are: bison, beef, pork, bison blood, buckwheat, onion, salt, sage, white pepper, granulated onion, marjoram, cardamon, nutmeg. The spice profile is distinct and wonderfully appetizing, but not overpowering. The texture of the sausage is fairly fine, not too rich. The salt level is just right, letting the other flavors of meat and spice come through (this is surely a matter of personal taste, but I sometimes find Seward's sausage a bit too salty, which is about the only criticism I've ever had).
I don't have a drop of Scandinavian blood in me, but this sausage struck me as very Swedish, in a good way. I can easily see it as the centerpiece of a Nordic holiday table, resplendent in candlelight that glints off the ruddy cheeks of a tow-headed crowd of hungry Swedes. Please pass the aquavit. Tak.
But I digress. The sausage was excellent, and the chestnuts were lovely, too, sweet and fragrant with spicy, caramel notes. Cabbage and fingerling potatoes cooked in duck fat--what could be wrong with that? But the apple, from one of our Bide-A-Wee trees, browned on the outside, almost custardy within--that was the perfect match to the sausage, and a bite of each taken together was sublime.
Best of all, this was incredibly simple to put together. I did the potatoes first, and moved them to the oven to keep warm. Then the sausage, cabbage, and apple all cooked together. I brought the apple and cabbage out of the skillet when they were cooked, and added the onion to brown a bit, then the chestnuts and a little water, covered and cooked five minutes or so. When everything was done and out of the pan I added two cubes of frozen chicken stock, and maybe a quarter cup each of red wine and water. Deglaze, reduce, serve it forth.
Peeling the chestnuts was accomplished by cutting an X into the flat side of the shell with the tip of a paring knife, then roasting them in a dry pan in a 375 oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until you see the flaps of shell start to peel back around the cut. Then remove the pan from the oven, cover with a dish towel for five minutes, and peel while hot--the skin is likely to adhere to the nuts if you let them cool. You'll be seeing a lot of chestnuts here in the coming weeks. They're among the seasonal products I anticipate most eagerly.
Here's another great thing about honing one's shopping skills: This meal was extremely economical, delivering maximum flavor for the dollar. The chestnuts are a bit pricey, $9.99 a pound, but I probably used less than four ounces. The sausage was just $6.99 a pound, so our .69 pound package cost $4.82. So flavorful was the sausage, and really, the whole plate, that we had leftover sausage--bison blood sausage sandwich for lunch! Everything else cost around a dollar, total. The delightful bottle of bourgueil we drank with it was by far the most expensive element (what, 13 or 14 bucks?), and well worth it. I'm not averse to spending money on food or wine. I just want to be sure I get the good stuff.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw