It’s been a year; my twelfth article for Chronogram is now out.
photo by Jennifer May
So I got a deli slicer for my birthday. Which I sort of asked for, in that not-exactly-asking-but-making-it-pretty-obvious-way that my expert wife has figured out over the years. It was a tough call, since I really want a new juicer (the old one suffered a child-related mishap, rendering it useless) but the one I want is three times more money than the slicer. So I got a slicer. It was win/win, really, since she knew that the minute I opened it I’d rush out and buy hunks of meat to cure, hang, and then slice into glistening tissues of salty splendor for us all to enjoy.
And that is pretty much exactly what happened.
First, some things cassoulet is not.
Fussy. Difficult. Complicated. Intimidating. Very good for you.
Some things it is? Very good to eat. Peasant food. Food for people who really should have spent most of the day chopping wood with their bare hands in order to work up a need for the caloriffic ordnance that this dish also happily happens to be.
Cassoulet- notwithstanding the sputtering, indignant protestations of traditionalists- is beans slow-cooked with a shitload of decadent meat. Period. The beans should be white, yes, and duck or goose confit is pretty standard, true, and garlic sausage is always welcome in a pot of legumes- duh- but lacking one or more of those things is no reason not to make and stand proudly behind a big, bubbling, name-brand cast iron Dutch oven full of awesome and call it whatever you like. Including cassoulet. Anyone who has a problem with that can feel free to get the hell out and not eat any.
In this case, we had us some leftovers that were hankering hard to be transubstantiated into just such a dish: half a gallon of goose pho, two legs of duck confit, bacon skin, and newly-cured bresaola. I like making skin-on bacon, because the skin allows for tossing it into pots of beans to add smokiness and extra unction- even after the bacon is all gone. So I soaked about a pound of local, organic pinto beans and then simmered them in goose pho with bacon skin and a few slices of the cured beef for a couple of hours until tender.
Next, I heated up the duck and shredded it into chunks. I browned diced carrot, celery, and rutabaga in the duck fat along with herbs and a lot of garlic, then deglazed with white wine. To this I added two spoons from the quivering jar of goose gravy left from Thanksgiving, a couple of crushed canned tomatoes, and then all of the beans. Once bubbling gently, I dusted the top with panko rubbed with goose fat and moved it into a 225˚ oven. A couple more hours, and this:
The genius of this dish is really in the second cooking; there was very little liquid in the pot, but since the beans were cooked they didn’t need much. They just got super-tender and harmonious with all the meaty goodness. The finished product had no remaining liquid, just perfectly cooked beans and shreddy meat all the way down.
I did make sure to sauté some spinach with garlic while this was cooling down so there’d be something green on the table. And that was dinner. It almost made me wish that it had been 15˚ below outside, with a howling gale- just so I could have gone out after dinner (barefoot, in shorts) and had a good laugh at the feeble elements. The only bad part about this meal was the wine- a 2005 Choffelet-Valdenaire Givry. I’ve been waiting for the ’05 Burgundies to come around- my first forays were not happy ones- but this wine just plain sucks. Tight, sour, thin- it was hard to see how it will ever amount to anything good to drink. Re-tasting today with lunch (a cassoulet burrito with homemade red onion-habañero pickles and smoked salsa) confirmed it.
Btw, cassoulet burritos are full of win. And cassoulet.
For the last two Thanksgivings I have thrown down 11-course extravaganzas (links here and here; menu for second link here) which took days to make and hours to eat. This time around, we were to have the meal in Vermont, and I just couldn’t deal with having to bring lots of components and more than a few tools, gadgets, and plates to do it there. So I just did a straight-up all-on-the-plate at once dinner, using traditional flavors but swapping in a much tastier goose for the bland, annoying turkey. Taking a cue from myself, I cut the goose apart a couple of days beforehand and made confit with the legs. The breasts I dropped in a marinade of wine, salt, maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, and herbs, and then let them sit in the fridge for a day or so. The carcass became 6 quarts of goose phở, from which I removed the fat after it chilled overnight. A lot of fat. A lot of goose fat.
So we are now well stocked with a big container of one of the world’s great cooking vehicles. My grandfather used to talk fondly of goose fat; growing up in a shtetl in Poland at the beginning of the last century, calories were in short supply. Slathered on bread with salt was how he liked it. Made into a roux and then gravy with goose phở and local hard cider is how we had it.
I scored and seared the breasts until they were just rare, then popped them in the warm oven while I got everything else together. The confit, crisped and heated through, went on my now-trademark cream-baked sweet potato rounds with some kale wilted in the skillet with the crispy confit remnants. The sliced breasts I fanned over cider-braised napa cabbage with homemade bacon on a dollop of celery root purée from the garden. Some cranberry sauce in the middle because it goes with everything.
We had kir royales for aperitifs- with sparkling wine and blackcurrant cordial both made in the Hudson Valley- and then moved on to a couple of great Thanksgiving wines, both California Petite Sirahs. The first was a 2002 Carver Sutro, and the second was a 2001 Sirius. For dessert, pumpkin pie; I had made the filling here at home, along with the crust, so when we got to Vermont I rolled them out, filled them, and baked them. I made whipped cream flavored with local apple brandy, and the combination was well received.
It worked pretty well; I was particularly happy with the contrast between the rare meat and the confit. More interesting than turkey, that’s for damn sure. Next year I think I want to do it again my way, though.
As an addendum, it’s definitely worth noting that the next night we had burgers. There was some of the goose breast left, and a lump of the bacon, so I minced them both finely and mixed them into ground bison along with chopped scallions, salt, and pepper. Cooked in the fireplace over hot coals, these were pretty damn extraordinary. If I ever open something, the bison-goose-bacon burger will surely be on the menu. And it will be served with something very like the 1997 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet we opened to go with them.
The wife is afflicted with a seasonally induced craving for cranberry sauce, and she’s been buying bags of berries on a regular basis. Yesterday, she made a big pot of sauce, and then asked me “what do we have in the freezer that goes with cranberry sauce?” The answer: “Quail.” In this way was dinner determined.
I had various pieces of a goose undergoing various operations in fridge, stove, and oven, so I figured I’d take advantage of the large amounts of fat and stock which were being generated. Fat and stock pretty much equals gravy, so I figured I’d go all Southern-fried on their tiny asses. I soaked the four little semi-boneless birds in buttermilk for a couple of hours, then dredged them in flour seasoned with smoked paprika, salt, pepper, and 5-spice. While they fried, I made a pot of polenta, and whisked up some gravy with goose fat and goose phở. And steamed some kale.
This was every bit as good as it sounds. Kinda Thanksgiving-y, too, which is good, because I won’t be posting again until next week. Happy overeating and fighting with your obnoxious relatives to all.
I’ve been getting earnest requests lately for authentic Chinese and Indian food; up here in the sticks the choices are pretty slim, especially after a decade in the Best Ethnic Takeout City in the whole world™. I tried some Chinese the other night, but got lazy and basically combined two dishes’ worth of food into one and made a muddy (if decent-tasting) mess. The key there is to feature each ingredient in its own dish, or paired strategically. Otherwise you get into “your former roomate’s pretty awful stir-fry” territory. Which is territory I loathe as much as my former roomate.
So last night I got serious about making some Indian food that someone drunk or with their eyes closed might think was actually from, you know, an Indian restaurant. And that road always begins with grinding spices. So I threw peppercorns, fenugreek, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, and mustard seeds into the little suribachi and ground them to a coarse powder. I took some lovely local lamb stew meat and browned it in ghee, then added the spices and minced onions to soften. And boom- just like that, it started smelling a whole bunch of authentic up in this piece.
To follow, carrot, parsnip, daikon, and chioggia beet (the observant among you will notice that every meal these days is basically a different take on the same damn roots from the garden) plus half a can of coconut milk and some water. Then a low simmer for about an hour, though two would have been better. Meanwhile, I took all of the greens from the roots- plus chard and kale- and simmered them in garam masala (store-bought) with onion, chopped cashews, and some more of the coconut milk. Once tender, I blended it all smooth and adjusted seasonings. Cashews are pretty sweet, so some cider vinegar was required along with the salt. I used leftover brown rice from the Great Leap Backward to complete the meal, adding saffron, peas, scallions, salt, and water to turn it into a pullau kind of a type of a sort of a thing.
If I had thought of it, I would have made pappadums for an appetizer. But even without, it did the job; tastebuds were fooled, and contented sighs issued forth. The meat was a little dry; I need to remember to cut it into smaller chunks if there’s not going to be enough braise time. But overall, success- and a jar of lime pickle didn’t hurt in the condimentary department.
OK, I skipped a day, but it’s not too shabby considering how much work I have to do. (And considering how half-assed most bloggers are). Even with all the many tasks at hand, I found time to make some decent dinners and write about them. (Last night we ordered pizza, because I had an article due, and I dug up a photo from the recent archives to fill in another wee lacuna). And the pizza was the first time we’ve ordered anything in months. You may reward me with lavish praise in the comments.
Tonight, article finished, I allowed myself a bit more time, beginning with a foray in the garden. There aren’t any surprises, but the hardy stuff continues to delight with its plenitude; everything but the meat and sauce was homegrown. I gathered chioggia beets, carrots, celery root, leeks, scallion, Chinese cabbage, celery, and daikon.
The center of the meal was a lovely moulard duck breast, scored, seasoned, browned, and then covered on low heat to finish cooking. I removed it from the iron pan post-searing to finish in a little skillet so I could use the luscious renderings to cook a finely chopped mixture of all the greens (beet, celery, leek, cabbage, radish, scallion). I deglazed the greens- once wilted and beginning to brown- with a splash of smoked chicken stock sitting in the fridge. The celery root I just steamed until soft, and then blasted into a purée with yogurt and some of the steaming water. For the sauce, some red wine, cranberries, black pepper, and maple syrup cooked, strained, and then reduced to a thickness. The carrot, beet, and daikon I kneaded with salt, then rinsed and dressed with soy sauce, yuzu juice, rice and balsamic vinegars, and olive oil.
Oh, the joy. Fall offers so many pleasures, especially when it’s mild like this one; the other night we had a hard frost, but last night it rained and today was bright and soft. It even smelled a little like spring. So far it’s been wonderful, and things have actually grown a bit since October. It’s almost making up for the shit June and July. Food like this helps too. And wine, which I’ve been drinking less of lately (to help reduce the fat fuck factor going into winter) can really add an exclamation point. In this case, a 2000 Thackrey Aquila Sangiovese. Brunello it ain’t, but sexy, rich, and glorious it ai.
This soup bears a resemblance to the soup I linked to in yesterday’s post- it’s wontons, broth, and some vegetables. But the flavors were completely different. To start with, the broth was made from a smoked chicken carcass I saved from my birthday party on Sunday, just simmered with a little carrot, onion, and celery for about two hours. The wontons (round wrappers this time) were filled with ground local veal seasoned with grated ginger and garlic, yuzu juice, shichimi, and pepper. After straining the stock, I simmered slices of lotus root in it while I cooked the dumplings in batches, and then ladled it all together with a chiffonade of radish leaves (dakon, red, and black) beet greens and arugula with a big heap of kimchi and some jalapeños to finish.
As Omar might say, “This here be a muhfuckin’ bowla SOUP, feelme?” The yuzu in the meat and the tart kimchi juice did a thing, as did the slippery pasta and the crunchy lotus root, and the heat from kimchi and peppers, all enveloped in the smoky seduction of the stock. I sorely wanted more when it was all gone.
This is from a while ago, actually- back around the time I made merguez wontons in turkey phở. The leftover merguez mixture- after a day or two in the fridge to get extra sausagey- was the base for a pasta sauce with the last of the local heirloom tomatoes, garlic, onion, herbs, and white wine. I reduced it to a rich thickness, and tossed in a bunch of Israeli couscous.
Just ridiculous. If Chef Boy-ar-dee had a Moroccan cousin named Chef Boy-al-Medina, this would be the dish that made him famous. It had all the softsaltymeatysweet qualities that made that canned garbage so pupil-dilating back when you were 8 (full disclosure: I only had it a few times, at other people’s houses, but the memory stuck) but with all the complex Mahgreb spices and lamby funk intertwining warplike through the weft of toothsome starch. And the sweet was all tomato.
It made me miss Marrakesh. 20 years is a long time.