Bottles And Jars

I spent some time last Thursday talking to students about the practice of painting, and how after all these years building said practice I have total confidence in it, even if as now I’m on a hiatus from working in the studio. That trust makes for a real absence of stress, since I know that it will be right there when I start to feel the pull to get back to it. It’s a dividend of all the time and effort I’ve invested in working over all of these years. And cooking is the same, in a way; I don’t beat myself up if I’m not really feeling it, and sooner or later I get it back and all is well. The difference is that taking a hiatus is not really an option, so when I’m not in the mood I still have to do it. But diligence does pay off, and sometimes a really good idea just sort of falls out of the sky.

It was ludicrously warm today–in the 70s and sunny–so in addition to transplanting some blueberries so they’re all in the same area and moving all the dug and potted herbs indoors, I also took a walk to get some groceries. I’d had salmon on the brain all day, thinking how good it would be over some fresh-dug red potatoes and leeks sautéed in a bit of duck fat. So I grabbed a nice piece, and also a six pack of Keegan’s Hurricane Kitty IPA. Local, bitter, hoppy, and just the thing to reward the exertions of a drop-dead beautiful October day. I reviewed it and other local beers here back in February.

As I walked back from the store, I started to think about cooking with the beer. Salmon loves a red wine sauce, especially one made with something on the more transparent end of the spectrum like Pinot Noir or Cab Franc. And, being fatty, it likes a bitter foil like the green mash I make so often. This IPA has good acidity, and is plenty bitter, and has those hoppy fruity overtones, so I decided to make a sauce based on the beer. And luckily, I had something on hand to take it to a very special saucy place: the gelled duck jus from making confit a couple of weeks ago. This miracle liquid settles to the bottom of the cooking vessel, so after the fat is carefully strained and decanted it can be chilled in the fridge, yielding a parfait of pure double-decker cooking gold.

Those two jars (there might be a couple more, too) contain two versions of the same genius byproducts: one is from roasting a couple of chickens, and the other is the duck. There used to be a lot of fat on top of the duck jelly, but somehow it got all used up. After scraping the very last of that fat into the pan for leeks and potatoes, I spooned out a couple of quivering blobs of jelly and melted them in another pan, then poured in about half a beer and let it simmer and reduce.

After the spuds and leeks got a brownness going, I also dropped a dollop of it in that pan, along with a glug of beer, then lowered the heat and covered it so they could get fully soft. I seasoned the salmon and put a good crispy sear on the skin side, then flipped it to finish. As it did, I whisked a fat knob of butter into the beer-duck reduction to thicken and luxuriate it. I tasted it, and added a pinch of sugar to balance the bitterness, and then served it all together:

So simple and so very good. Now it helped that the vegetables had been pulled screaming from the ground only minutes before being cooked, and it helped that this fish was treated about as well as a piece of salmon fillet can be (I LOVE this stove) but the star of this ensemble was the sauce. Tangy, sexy, complex, and gently bitter, it played so seamlessly with the melty leek-swaddled potatoes and the crisp and assertive fish that it was both foreground and background at the same time. The cold pint next to my plate didn’t hurt, either. And it was all made possible by my collection of jellied bird juices with the fat on top; beer and butter would be a good sauce, no doubt, but duck jelly made it great. Save your various drippings, and use them.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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