As fall gets into full swing, I become suffused with the mixture of joy and nostalgia that makes this time of year so powerful. The samenesses of green all around have given way to an infinity of subtle gradients; where summer is bright, garish, major-key flowers on a green background, fall is a symphony of microtonal subtlety fading in inexorable diminuendo toward the minimal months ahead.
I had nothing at all planned for dinner the other night, and I can’t remember why. In any case, come time to wrangle of the grub, I was a little short. Fortunately, just like any normal person I had eight local duck legs in the fridge–confit is imminent–so I peeled off two and built a decent dinner around them. For bonus points, it was autumnal as all get-out, coloristically speaking, on account of I have a Master’s degree in that shit.
To start, I gave the skin side of the legs a good sear to brown them and render off some fat. I poured off the fat and flipped them over, then moved them into a smaller pan where they just fit, adding some turkey stock that we brought back from Vermont in a jar, and let them cook low with the lid on. Then I took some lovely red peppers, which are still going strong since we haven’t yet had a hard frost, and sautéed them in duck fat with an equal amount of onion until all melty and soft and brown and sexy. Then I added peeled and cubed butternut squash, tossed it in the soffito, added a bit more of the stock, plus pimentón and sherry vinegar, and let it go gently with the lid on. It smelled insane in the kitchen at this point.
I also put some quartered beets into the pressure cooker with water and salt and set them hissing on the back burner while the rest of this was going on. After about 20 minutes, I turned off the heat and let it cool down normally, then opened it up when the valve dropped. I rinsed them in cold water until I could handle them, then rubbed off the skins and sliced them. I’ve been loving the blackcurrant vinegar on beets–they both have fruit and earth flavors–so I used it to make a vinaigrette with some log chèvre (which I normally never buy, but it’s perfect for this) and olive oil. I frenched the rest of the onion and cut the slivers in half lengthwise and then tossed it all together. The addition of the cheese made for a luridly appealing fuchsia dressing, which I made pop even more by adding vividly complementary chopped parsley.
Just before serving, I flipped the duck back over to give the skin an extra crisp in the fat that had come off it during the braise; wet cooking ruins the beautiful crispness of fried skin so I wanted to get it back and the stock had fully evaporated. It all came together with the help of some lovely bibb lettuce, which I arranged in a vaguely floral fashion and then mostly covered with squash, beets, and duck. I drizzled extra beet dressing on the leaves, since they had none. The sweet/sour/smoky Spanish-inflected squash was winning with the crisp duck, and the beets were too, but from the other end of the spectrum. Whisking chèvre into beet dressing works really well, and avoids any worry that the cheese will turn pink before you serve it.
All the lettuces, spinach, and other cold-hardy crops I have planted in the past weeks are thriving, and next week I’ll get the hoops set up and covered to protect them deep into winter, depending on how much snow we get. Those bright, fresh greens that seem unremarkable in summer shine like pure gold when the world is bare, and having them on hand when it’s frozen outside makes everything better.