Thursday, December 18, 2008

wild goose chase

For last season's edition of Novel Food, I chose a story set in France during World War II as my inspiration. This season, we're still in France, but we've gone back further, to World War I, and the story is told from the German perspective. My inspiration for the Winter 2008 edition of Novel Food comes from All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.

I know that All Quiet on the Western Front is thought of as a war novel, not a food novel, but food is a definite and recurring theme in Remarque's most famous work. The opening scene takes place at the mess hall. There's an impromptu feast prepared under shellfire. And there is one of the greatest non-romantic love scenes in literature: the roast goose.

The story is narrated by Paul Bäumer, age nineteen, who enlists in the German Army with a group of schoolmates. His closest friend is Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed Kat, a former cobbler with an uncanny ability to forage for food and make a decent meal, no matter how poor the army rations are. One day, when Paul and Kat are out on wiring fatigue (laying barbed wire), they hear the cackle of geese coming from a shed. Later that night, they sneak out, kill a goose, and roast it for supper.

"We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common - now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.

It takes a long time to roast a goose, even when it is young and fat. So we take turns. One bastes it while the other lies down and sleeps. A grand smell gradually fills the hut."

Once the goose is cooked, the two have a quiet feast:

"In the middle of the room shines the brown goose. We take out our collapsible forks and our pocket-knives and each cuts off a leg. With it we have army bread dipped in gravy. We eat slowly and with gusto.
"How does it taste, Kat?"

"Good! And yours?"

"Good, Kat."

I love this scene because the image is so simple, yet so powerful. Remarque invokes the primal fears of death and darkness, but Paul and Kat are safe, if only for a brief while, warded by warmth, food, and companionship. I decided that I definitely wanted to roast a goose for Novel Food.

Procuring a goose proved to be a bigger challenge than I expected. None of my usual haunts carried geese. A venture into Chinatown proved unsuccessful. I did learn that Savenor's carries geese, but I balked upon hearing their price per pound.* It was almost enough to make me set out with a bow and arrow with the aim of shooting my own. (I know a spot on the bank of the Charles that is frequented by a gaggle of geese.)

Almost, mind you. I can report that no geese on the Charles were harmed in the production of this post, and I have not jeopardized my fitness to pass the bar with any charges for possession of a deadly weapon. I ultimately decided that the spirit of the dish was more important than literal adherence to the form, and so I elected to roast a duck instead.

Ducks and geese belong to the same family. Geese are much larger, and the meat is a little coarser, but both are entirely dark meat, and both are insulated by a generous layer of fat. They can be cooked using the same method, and so I chose to prepare a duck as I would a goose.

Given that the inspiration for this meal was a goose roasted on a makeshift spit over a fire, I decided to keep it relatively simple, stuffing the duck with a mixture of chopped apples and prunes, and seasoning it with plain coarse salt. I served the duck with pan gravy, red cabbage, and boiled potatoes, in keeping with the vaguely German theme of the meal.

Tom and Kitty joined me for dinner. It was a welcome respite from the hell of finals week.

Roast Duck with Apple-Prune Stuffing

I roasted a duck that weighed approximately five pounds. According to The Joy of Cooking, the cooking time is fifteen to twenty minutes per pound, plus half an hour if the duck is stuffed, so my duck should have been cooked after two hours and ten minutes. However, I don't own a meat thermometer, and two hours seemed a little short to me, so my duck actually spent closer to three hours in the oven. I'll let you (or your meat thermometer) decide on your exact cooking time.

(Recipe not for one, unless you're roasting a very small duck, or you really like leftovers.)

Preheat the oven to 450F.

Start with the stuffing: Take three or four apples (depending on the size of your duck), peel them, core them, and cube them. Mix in a bowl with a handful of prunes, a sprinkling of salt, and a splash of apple brandy if you feel like it.

Next, check the cavity of your duck for neck and giblets. Set these aside for making stock and/or giblets in cream sauce (mmm). Pat the duck dry inside and out with paper towels. Use a skewer or a small sharp knife to prick the duck lightly all over. This allows the fat to render out, which makes for crispy duck and lots of leftover duck fat for other recipes. Don't season it with salt yet. (If you salt the duck at the beginning of cooking, the dripping fat tends to wash away the salt, leaving you with bland duck and very salty drippings.)

Stuff the duck. Secure the opening of the cavity with a toothpick, if necessary. Place on a rack in a roasting tray.

Turn the oven down to 325F, and put the roasting tray in the oven.

After one hour passes, pull out the roasting tray. Pour off the fat (the clear liquid) that has collected in the bottom of the pan. (Don't discard it! You can use it to cook potatoes that are a thing of glory.) Prick the duck all over again, and return it to the oven. Resist the urge to peek in on it every few minutes or so. Have a snack if the smell is making you too hungry.

After another hour has passed, pour off the fat that has collected in the bottom of the pan, prick the duck all over again, and now season it with salt. Put the duck back in the oven.

If your duck looks as though it's not browning quickly enough, bump up the heat to 400F. Cook for another half-hour or so. When you (or your meat thermometer) judge the duck to be done, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Pour off most of the fat that has collected at the bottom of the pan. Scrape the remaining fat and drippings (the brown liquid and the crusty brown bits) into a small saucepan. Add a splash of cheap red wine, and whisk the mixture over medium heat until the alcohol boils off and you have a thin gravy. Season with salt if necessary.

Carve the duck and serve with gravy and stuffing on the side. Red cabbage and boiled potatoes are good accompaniments.

*Let's just say that it would have been more expensive than buying the fixings for a full lobster dinner.

Monday, December 15, 2008

do as I say, and not as I do

I am very bad at following my own rules.

Remember how I said that finals is not the time to go on quests for obscure ingredients, it is not the time to prepare anything you've never tried preparing before, and it is definitely not the time to fuss with multi-step, multi-day recipes?

Well, I'm only two-thirds of the way done with finals, and I think I'm already zero for three. I went on a hunt for a goose, I'm going to roast a duck later this week, and, um... I made more ravioli.*

I have a good excuse, I swear. There were lamb shanks from locally raised animals at stake.

You see, Bella joined the Stillman's Meat CSA, and she was out of town when last month's pick-up was scheduled. She offered me some of the meat in exchange for doing the pick-up, and last month, the share included two lamb shanks. Bella isn't big on lamb, so I kept the shanks, and they stayed in my freezer until I could come up with some interesting way of cooking them.

The usual way of preparing lamb shanks is to braise them until they're falling off the bone, and then serve them in their braising liquid over mashed potatoes or polenta or something similarly starchy. The only problem with this method is that a lamb shank is a fairly hefty piece of meat, more than I'd really want to eat in one sitting.

Which is why I shamelessly nicked a recipe idea from the Mad Italian Chef instead.

I know I have yet to give the backstory on the Mad Italian Chef (just as I still have yet to explain my food fairy godfather), but for now, all you need to know is that the Mad Italian Chef ran the Italian restaurant I worked at for a summer a few years ago. The Mad Italian Chef did a lot of recipe development, and among the recipes he dreamt up was a ravioli made with mint pasta, stuffed with lamb ragu.

Chopping the mint for the pasta was as close as I ever got to preparing that dish, but the Mad Italian Chef did let me taste the finished product. I was struck by the way the cool, clean flavor of the mint pasta tempered the rich, almost gamey quality of the lamb filling. An attempt to replicate those ravioli seemed like a good use to which I could put the lamb shanks.

The Mad Italian Chef gave me many recipes during my time in his kitchen, but the ravioli recipe wasn't one of them. So I improvised, braising the lamb shanks in red wine, shredding the meat, and stuffing it into pasta made with freshly chopped mint. I couldn't remember what kind of sauce the Mad Italian Chef used, so I served the ravioli in a tomato sauce enriched with a few spoonfuls of porcini powder (dried porcini mushrooms). Of course, working out all the details gave me a lovely excuse to avoid studying.

Should I really have embarked on a multi-step, multi-day recipe and devoted hours to braising lamb and stuffing ravioli when I could have been keeping company with the Chevron doctrine and focusing on the intricacies of poison pill plans?

Maybe not. But the ravioli came out really well. Even Bella liked them.

Braised Lamb Mint Ravioli in Porcini Tomato Sauce

Two lamb shanks will make enough filling for one batch of dough, with a little leftover that can go in the sauce.

(Serves one, with plenty to freeze.)

This, like all ravioli recipes, is fairly straightforward but very time-consuming, and is best done over at least two days, unless you want to start at seven in the morning and do nothing else for the entire day.

Start with the lamb filling: Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add one chopped onion, two diced carrots, and two diced stalks of celery. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent. Toss in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Turn off the heat.

If you bought your lamb shanks from a real butcher, you can probably go ahead and add them to the pot with the vegetables. However, if they came from a CSA or the supermarket, you'll probably need to trim off the silverskin (the thin membrane that covers the meat) first. To do this, take a small, sharp knife and make one long cut lengthwise through the membrane, then use your fingers to pull it away from the meat. Make extra cuts as necessary if it doesn't come off cleanly in one piece.

Once the lamb shanks are in the pot, turn up the heat to medium and pour in enough cheap red wine to fully cover the shanks. Bring to a boil, and skim off any scum that forms on the top. Turn the heat down to a steady simmer (lots of small bubbles breaking the surface) and cook until you can no longer smell alcohol when you stick your head over the pot.

When all the alcohol has burned off, turn the heat down to a bare simmer (occasional bubble breaking the surface) and put the lid on the pot. Cook, skimming off any scum once an hour, for four to five hours, or until the meat falls off the bones.

Remove the bones from the pot (watch out for the little ones), bring the heat up to a steady simmer, and let the liquid reduce until the meat is bathed in a rich, dark sauce. Turn off the heat.

Take two forks and shred the meat into tiny pieces, fishing out the thyme stems as you go. (This is also the time to double-check that you didn't miss any stray pieces of bone.) Season to taste with salt. Allow to cool. Put the mixture in the fridge and forget about it until tomorrow.

Next, make the pasta dough: Dump two cups of flour on a clean counter. Make a well in the middle, crack in four egg yolks, pour in a glug of olive oil, add one-third of a cup of finely chopped mint. Stick your fingers into the well and stir so that the flour gets pulled in little by little. When the mixture starts to pull away from the counter, knead in the rest of the flour by hand. If the mixture is too dry, add a little water. Knead until you have smooth, stiff dough. (More detailed instructions can be found here.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.

To assemble, remove the dough from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature. Roll it out to the second-thinnest setting on your pasta maker. Cut the dough into rough squares, about one-and-a-half inches wide. Take one square of dough, put a heaped teaspoon of filling on it, and lay a second square on top. Push down firmly with your thumbs around the filling to create a tight seal between the two layers of dough. Use a ravioli stamp or trim the edges as necessary. Set your finished ravioli on baking trays, and either cook immediately, or freeze for later use.

To cook, start by making the sauce: Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, add one finely chopped onion, and cook until translucent. Add a splash of cheap red wine, and cook until the alcohol burns off. Add any remaining lamb filling, followed by a sixteen-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, cut into rough dice. Stir in two or three teaspoons of porcini powder, and cook until the mixture becomes thick and fragrant. Salt to taste.

Now cook the ravioli: Put a big pot of salted water on to boil, and drop the ravioli in. When they float to the surface, they're cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and place them gently in the sauce. Allow to simmer for a minute or two, then serve immediately.

*More details of the goose and the duck to come. The short explanation is that I'm cooking for Novel Food.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

when one is up to one's neck in exams, there is nothing left to do but cook*

I cook when I'm stressed. Finals period makes me stressed. Studying for exams makes me very stressed. So, flying completely in the face of law school norms, I probably cook more, not less, during finals period.

Granted, I don't usually cook complicated food during finals. It's not the time to be fussing with multi-step, multi-day recipes, or test-driving anything that requires exquisite attention to detail. I don't go on quests for obscure ingredients, and I don't try to prepare anything I've never prepared before. Culinary brilliance can wait until I'm no longer having nightmares about the Chevron doctrine.

Finals period calls for comfort food, and I cook solely to please myself. Fried eggs with oozy yolks, served with crusty bread. Warm salmon-and-potato salad, drizzled with butter and vinegar and sprinkled with capers. Big bowls of polenta, flecked with sliced scallions and thick with cheese. I eat whatever I feel in the mood for, nutrition and balanced diet be damned.

The recipe for the following dish (or basic premise, at least) came from Joey, an old friend who prepared it when Matt and I took a road trip to visit him in Rhode Island, back during our college days. It's not particularly new or exciting, but it's excellent winter comfort food - rich and warm and filling, warding against the promise of snow. It's well worth making, even if you do (or don't) have final exams.

(No photos. It's not photogenic, anyway - do you really want to see pictures of lumps that look vaguely like sausage in pinkish sauce?)

Sausage Sage Tomato-Cream Sauce

Joey served this over fresh pasta, but I find that it also goes nicely with polenta.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Set a large heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Remove the casings from two sweet Italian sausages and break them into small pieces. Drop them in the pan. Cook until the sausage has browned and releases its fat. Don't worry if any bits get stuck - you'll deal with that later.

Bring the heat up to medium, and add one diced white onion, a dash of red chili flakes, and several leaves of fresh sage. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent.

Pour in one cup of cheap white wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits of sausage that may have stuck to the pan. Let the wine reduce until you can no longer smell alcohol fumes.

Add a sixteen-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped. Cook at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the mixture in the pan thickens up.

Pour in one cup of heavy cream, and stir well to incorporate. Cook for another five minutes or so, and add salt to taste. Turn off the heat. Ladle over big bowls polenta or pasta. Serve immediately.

*With apologies to Samuel Beckett.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

two cooks

"I was at Harvard Law... By the end of the first semester, I had twenty-seven study partners, eight exercise books full of recipes, and a D average. So I dropped out."

When Ana Pascal tells Harold Crick how she became a baker in the film Stranger Than Fiction, I can definitely sympathize. Granted, I'm not at Harvard, I'm not holding any study sessions, and my average isn't quite that awful, but I've definitely spent the better part of this semester's reading period cooking and thinking and writing about food.

Reading period is supposed to be the time when you start to let the little details of day-to-day life slide. This is the time when law students stop doing their laundry, stop brushing their hair, and subsist on caffeine and whatever they can scrounge from the back of the fridge while they attempt to cram all the information they need into their poor little sleep-deprived, overworked, overstressed brains.

I, for one, am supposed to be devoting my time to untangling the intricacies of the Chevron doctrine and committing large portions of the Uniform Probate Code to memory. "Supposed to be" being the operative words.

Which is, of course, why my laundry is done, my hair is still brushed, and I went to have my usual Saturday cooking lesson with Michelle this weekend.

Michelle, as I may or may not have mentioned before, is married to Jake, my ex from freshman year of college. It probably sounds like the setup for a bad sitcom, but Michelle and I get along brilliantly.

The cooking lessons came about because Jake, though an excellent cook, has a cooking style that is very different to Michelle's. Cooks can roughly be divided into two groups: those who follow recipes to the letter, and those who think that recipes are a good start. Jake is definitely one of the former. Michelle is more of the latter. The two styles don't always mesh, so when Michelle mentioned that she wanted to learn more about cooking, I volunteered to teach her.

This week, we tackled berry scones and, using Thanksgiving leftovers, turkey pot pie. (At a glance, the two may not have much in common, but the biscuit crust on pot pie isn't all that different to scones.) After stuffing ourselves silly on the scones and pie, we settled in the living room. Jake turned on the television, but when it became clear that there wasn't anything particularly exciting on, I picked up a cookbook from Jake's collection to leaf through.

The book I ended up choosing was Dinner For Eight, which is the cookbook his mother wrote, and I spent a contented half-hour reading recipes I'd probably never make (like Peruvian-style pork and peanut stew) and recipes that I might use as inspiration (like braised short ribs in porcini-prune sauce), which are the two categories that I tend to sort recipes into. (If you haven't guessed yet, I am one of those cooks who thinks that a recipe is a good start.)

Jake gave up on television just as I got to a recipe for walnut lace cookies. I said something to the effect of how delicious they sounded. Jake remarked that they were easy to make, and that he probably had all the ingredients in the kitchen right at that moment.

Which is how we ended up in the kitchen for a second round of baking. I let Jake lead, because it ensured that we'd actually follow the recipe, and I need to follow a recipe through from start to finish occasionally, just so that I don't completely forget how to do it.

Lace cookies, which are a little like tuiles, are made by boiling up a sugar-butter syrup, then stirring in flour and any other additions you may have to form a sticky batter. You drop spoonfuls of this batter on cookie sheets, then bake until they're thin golden discs of buttery, burnt sugary deliciousness. They're wonderfully brittle - there's nothing quite as satisfying as taking a huge bite out of a lace cookie and feeling it shatter. (Not an exercise you want to attempt without a plate, though.)

As Jake promised, they were easy to make. So easy, in fact, that I'll probably whip up a batch of these myself sometime in the next few days, sometime after I've gone a few rounds with the Chevron doctrine and read through the Uniform Probate Code more thoroughly.

Whether or not I will actually follow the recipe remains to be seen.

Walnut Lace Cookies

From Dinner For Eight, by Denise Landis.

(Makes around three dozen.)

1 stick butter
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick liner or parchment paper and set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Add the corn syrup and brown sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, then remove from the heat and add flour and walnuts. Stir until well mixed.

3. Place rounded teaspoons of the mixture on the baking sheet about 3 inches apart; the batter will spread quite a bit during baking. Bake until the batter has spread and is full of air bubbles and light golden brown, about 8 minutes. Be careful not to overbake. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before removing from the baking sheet.

Optional extra: Roll the edges in melted chocolate.