Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas roast beef well done. Lesson learned.

I don't use my convection oven too often. In fact, I even try to adjust some oven recipies for stovetop.

I know, it's a luxury to have a convection oven in a rental place, but in a small place with an open kitchen the loud oven fan sounds so annoying that it takes most of the pleasure out of cooking, and there is no escape from it. If I have to use the oven, I'd better know how long it would take, and go for a walk to get away from the sound.

As a result, I don't know the oven's character too well. It's OK for slow-cooking braises, where an extra 15 minutes won't make a lot of difference, or for baking small things - I'll just sit outside in the garden, and come check my cookies every five minutes.

A New York beef roast is different. It takes a while to cook, and the timing should be precise. I had figured 10 minutes searing at 500, then 1 hour at 325 for a 4 lb. roast should be good. So I seared the roast, reduced the temperature, and went for a short hike in the hills.

When I was back, the roast was medium-well done! You can see that all the bloody life is gone out of it's center. It turnes out that the convection cooks beef much faster than the usual 15 minutes per pound.

Well, this made R. happy - he thinks that I usually undercook my meat (not that it would stop him from enjoying it), and I learned a lesson.

I was very happy with the rest of the dinner: red wine and mustard sauce, roast potatoes and garlic, steamed bok choy, baby arugula salad with persimmons and pomergranate vinaegrette dressing, and especially with the wine. A forgotten bottle of Dry Creek Mariner meritage 2004 turned up on the bottom of the wine refrigerator by surprise; the wine was wonderful, and the cork was at it's limit, a couple more month and the wine would be in trouble.

Tasting a new mushroom:

Matsutake mushrooms have been all the rage recently. From the Farmers Market to foodie blogs everyone is very excited about their unique aroma.

I approached them in the market a few times, but I didn't like the smell at all, and ended up getting other mushrooms instead.

This Saturday, while shopping at San Francisco ferry building, we were confronted by the wealth of mushrooms at Far West Fungi. The selection is overwhelming. They have black and white truffles ("Why so expensive? Are they hallucinogenic?"), porcinis, two tipes of chanterelles, and about any other mushroom I've seen in this country; fresh, dried, canned, and mushroom-seeded logs to grow your own. I had to satisfy my curiosity this time, and gor fresh matsutakes.

I cooked them with a little onion and rice, smelling all the time in the hope for the wonderful aroma to emerge in cooking. They smell the same cooked. I find their sharp resinious smell mildly irritating, chemical, and not food-like at all. They smell of a pine forest all right, but not of a sunny bright pines by a sea shore that I hoped to get, but of wet, cold pines on a rainy day, with a highway nearby.

It reminds me of retsina, the Greek wine that was traditionally preserved by sealing it with pine resin. I managed to develop a taste for chilled retsina on a hot afternoon, with bright lemony Greek summer fare; similar smell in a fall mushroom just doesn't make sense to me.

So this fashionable mushroom didn't take. I'll give it another chance by grilling it next time. But the first impression is that for the same money I would rather have porcini every time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fat, skin and guts: Italian sausage with garlic and sage

The latest addition to my cookbook collection, Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand, is not strictly a cookbook. It has recipes, all right. But with it's lyrical narration, whimical structure (the book is not organized by course or ingredient, but is composed of chapters dedicated to various icons of traditional Italian cooking, like tomato, balsamico, pasta, ragu, sausages, wine), charming black-and-white photos, and method-based rather than step-by-step recipe presentation it's more suitable for fireside browsing for ideas and inspiration than for use in a busy kitchen. Totally my kind of book. Love it. My plan of getting into the holiday mood included making Italian sausages. One of the ideas I got from this book was adding cooked pork skin to the sausage mix, to add texture and flavor. The book arrived just as I trimmed a pork shoulder picnic and a belly slab, wrapped the skins in plastic bag and prepared to toss them into garbage. Taking a short break to check out the book paid off. I unwrapped the skins, trimmed, chopped, and cooked them for about 50 minutes, rinsed, and refrigerated them alongside the seasoned meat, to grind into the sausages the next day.
The seasoning included fresh sage leaves, garlic, fennel seeds (required to make them Italian), salt, sugar, InstaCure #1 (I plan to smoke some of them, and it's a good idea to add a pinch of sodium nitrite to keep bacteria from growing in the smoker), and red wine.

My meat grinder surprised me by not making any trouble this time. Nothing got stuck, nothing became an awful mushy mess. Just good clean grind. May be I am getting better at trimming and chilling the meat.
What I used:

2.2 lb pork shoulder picnic, trimmed
a little over 1 lb. pork belly
skin from both, cut up, boiled for 1 hr, rinsed and chilled
1/2 bunch sage (leaves only)
5 large garlic cloves
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
about 3 Tbsp basic cure (1 part pink salt, 4 parts sugar, 8 parts kosher salt)
1/2 cup iced red wine
2 lengths hog casing (mine come cut in about 3-ft lengths, packed in salt; I soak and rinse them through)
This made 18 short plump sausages, just under 3 oz each. One serves as a snack, two as a regular dinner serving; when I come home from work, starved, I'd eat three.

I wrap portions of two, three or four sausages in parchment paper and freeze them in labeled freezer bags. Well wrapped frozen sausages keep without losing moisture for at least two month, and they will thaw and be ready to cook after three hours in the refrigerator.
They are good sauteed, roasted, or gently grilled over indirect heat. On the side, steamed and quickly browned root vegetables and/or cabbages.
Good, unhealthy, Old World food. R's praise caught me by surprise: he said how meaty and juicy my sausages taste, and much leaner than the store-bought ones. Wait, I know for sure that they are about 40% pure pork fat, I put it in! Magic of the seasoning and careful mixing? Or are store-bought sausages all fat?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The longest night of the year

It's not just the longest night, it's the darkest, the storm raving outside, the power going off every 15 minutes. Cold. Dark. Wet. Coyotes cry in the hills.

The good news is that the days will get longer from now on. And that the rains brought fresh tender greens to the farmer's market. As a matter of fact, these market greens are never green. The chicories range from pink to deep blood red:

And the purple kale shows a dramatic combination of grayish-blue with bright violet.
The pea shoots are green all right. They just made their first appearance this season, and they are oh so tender.

So the dinner for the longest and darkest night of the year is all about color: beef tenderloin steak with red wine sauce, sunny soft polenta, wilted pea shoots, and a salad of bitter greens with balsamic vinaegrette.

And a bottle of Bordeaux.

The spring is coming.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Study in brown: Duck legs confit

I am finally in the mood for the winter holidays. After a week of near-freezing temperatures and a spell of after-hour maintenance at work, just sitting here with a glass of Bordeaux, watching the fire in the fireplace, the warm smell of the rendering duck fat spreading from the kitchen throughout the house, 8am-11pm workdays with an office pizza for dinner forgotten, gives me a wonderful sense of fullness of life.

While making duck sausages and roasting duck for Thanksgiving, I collected good three cups of duck fat for making confit. And now I'm making it.

The first time I tried confit de canard was at a friend's place in Paris. He got it in a jar from a charcuterie (sausage and cold cuts shop) next door, left it out in the kitchen till the next day to warm up, then fished the pieces of duck out of the fat and browned them briefly in a frying pan. (Thank you, P.! I didn't marry you because you were learning to play violin, and my survival instinct tells me I shouldn't be living with anyone who is learning to play violin; but your food, wine and human-computer interactions lessons influensed my life more than I realized at that time).

He also explained that it's an essential French dish, developed by farmers who used to raise ducks and geese for foie gras, and when they slautered them all in November and sold the delicious fat livers to restaurants and wealthy housholds, they were left with lots of legs, breasts, fat, and no refrigerators. So they figured that if they salt the meat and then cook and keep it in fat, it will keep in a cool cellar for a few months.

And it worked! Even in this age of refrigerators in every household, duck confit is one of the best ways to cook duck meat. The taste of the sweet gamey dark meat is fully preserved, the meat melts in your mouth, and it doesn't taste fatty at all. The first time I tried it, I was sold.

Here in California we cannot get the duck confit from a neighborhood charcuterie, we have to mail-order it (the shipping costs more than the goods, and it just doesn't feel right), or make our own. Fortunately, we can buy cheap, good, fat frozen Pekin duck legs from a Chinese grocery store.

I bought 6 large, fatty legs, and I also got a "Young duck, parts missing" for almost nothing, in case I need more fat. The "young duck" was missing a wing (and giblets! What have they done with the the giblets?!), and it gave me a fine carcass for a stock, a breast that was not large enough to serve one, so I had to cut off the thighs to supplement my dinner that night, some additional fat, and a couple of small drumsticks to add to the confit.

After trimming the legs and rendering the fat, I had four cups of fat, and almost three pounds of meat on the bone.

Confitting a duck takes a lot of time, but it's mostly the duck's time, not the cook's. Rub the duck with salt (I used 25g/1oz kosher salt and added a little coarse-ground black pepper and two bay leaves), putting more salt on the thicker parts of the legs; refrigerate, covered, till the next day; rinse and dry with paper towels; leave out for about an hour to redistribute the seasoning; place in a deep heavy pan, cover with fat, bring to a simmer, skim, and cook at a lowest simmer for about 2 hours, or until the meat falls off the bones and the fat is completely clear.

Then either cool and refrigerate for up to ten days, or remove the meat to a clean deep glass or ceramic dish, strain the fat over it, leaving all the pan juices behind (save the juices for a soup or a sauce) and covering the meat completely with the fat, let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to six months.

To serve, leave the confit at room temperature for a few hours to soften the fat, fish out the pieces that you want, brown on both sides in a hot skillet. Reuse the fat for the next confit.
Here, the duck leg confit and duck/sage sausages are served with buckwheat kasha with mushrooms, onion-balsamic marmalade from Zuni Cafe cookbook, and cornichons.

Buckwheat kasha with mushrooms
Serves 4
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp butter or ghi (clarified butter)
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup toasted buckwheat
salt, pepper

Cover the mushrooms with hot water, let sit for about 20 minutes to soften. Strain, reserving the liquid. Slice the mushrooms into large chunks.

Heat the butter or ghi in a wide saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook until the water has evaporated.

Add the buckwheat; stir to mix. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through a fine sieve and add to the pan. Add hot water to cover the grains by 1/2 inch (about 2 cups). Cover. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Taste. If the grain is not tender, carefully add a little water and cook for another 5 minutes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Duck, the better turkey

Better late than never: Our Thanksgiving table.

We actually had to have the Thanksgiving dinner a day earlier, since we were going to use the long weekend to make a trip to Death Valley, and the Thanksgiving Day is the best time to leave the Bay Area without getting stuck in traffic for hours. For the same reason there could be no leftovers. And I like duck better than turkey anyway.

Surrounded by sautéed winter vegetables, home-cured olives, fire roasted red bell peppers, a salad of mixed baby greens, and accompanied by duck stock reduction with shallots and porcini mushrooms, the duck was just enough to serve three - no leftovers.

The purple cauliflower, when cooked, turns very un-food like blue color, just as the grower at the market told me. I was so proud to have found an authentic blue vegetable!

The next day, while the entire nation was consuming millions or turkeys, we ate a late-night dinner in Denny’s in Bakersfield, CA (I had an omelet), with warm memories of our small tasty birdie.