Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pacific ring of food, where bread is baking, and ducks and goats roam

After someone on craigslist food forum mentioned going to Salmon Creek Ranch that raises duck for eggs and meat, and goats, I wanted to go too. I called them a few times, and every time got an answering machine telling me that everyone is outside with the animals. No wonder: if they have all these fine birds and beasts to tend, why would they sit in the office, waiting for my call?

This Saturday it was nice and sunny. I wanted to go for a ride with the car top down. R. wanted to see the ocean, and a snack or two. So we went on our favorite route to Bodega Bay, stopping at our friend Jed's bakery in Freestone to smell the dough, have coffee with a sticky bun in the vegetable garden, and chat with the owner.

Jed was in the shop, busy as always, but spared a few minutes to talk with us about salsa dancing and to tell the exciting news that his samba drums CD is coming soon. Yes, we’ve been waiting for it!

As we were sipping coffee and blowing on the hot straight out of the oven bun in the sunny garden, the wind started to pick up, so we hurried on before it gets too cold.

Since Salmon Creek Ranch is on the way to Bodega Bay, this time we just drove up to their gate and pressed the intercom button. The intercom gave us the same message as the answering machine, no one in the office. Luckily, John, the owner, was riding his Range Rover not far from the gate. He saw us, opened the gate, and instructed us to follow him to the house.

The gravel road winds around the hillside for about a mile before it gets to the little yellow house surrounded by emerald hills. I didn’t realize how low my convertible is until I scraped the muffler on a couple of bumps. The rainy season took its toll on the gravel road. Have to be careful, we are not in a Rover. This mostly kept me from enjoying the view, which is breathtaking, as R. told me later.

Finally we arrived and parked on the grass between the farmhouse, fenced duck yard, and a tiny wooden shack titled “Merchandise” in large friendly letters. The merchandise shack holds a cooler full of super-fresh duck eggs, and a freezer that contains a wealth of vacuum-packed Muscovy duck breasts and legs. To get fresh duck, you have to be there on the harvest day. Next time I’ll know, I’m on the mailing list.

$38 got us a dozen of huge, dirty, wonderful duck eggs, and two breasts, one large, almost 2 lb, for the smoker, one small, a little over a pound, for the grill. Beats the farmers market. And we got to see the animals.

We didn’t actually meet the egg laying ducks. They roam free, so they were probably hiding from the piercing ocean breeze on the other side of the hill, protected by the hillside and the trees. Meat ducks don’t have this luxury: their yard right on top of the hill is exposed to the wind all the time, guarded by an electric fence and a large shepherd dog Moose, their wing feathers trimmed to prevent them from flying over the fence to meet coyotes and mountain lions. So the meat ducks were all crowded together to keep warm, but refused to go into their little houses. Apparently, the fresh air is more important than comfort.
Goats are too fluffy to care about the wind. The snacks are what they want.
We were greeted by a couple of cute kids, and then the whole herd appeared from over the hill crest, coming right at me.

At some point I thought that I can actually tempt them with a handful of grass to come close enough to touch them, but they figured that I don’t have anything unusual to offer, and lost interest.

The larger goats expertly get up on their hindlegs and chew branches off the trees and tall bushes. The little kids look at them with envy. They are cute eating machines. John rents them out to clear hillside lots.

By the time we got to Bodega Bay it was blowing so hard that we didn’t want to get out of the car. I almost decided to stop and close the car top. We just drove around, took in the view, and went home.

The larger of the two duck breasts that we got at the farm I brined with red wine and blood orange, then smoked in my water smoker over cherry wood chips. Actually, a smoked duck breast is delicious even without any seasoning besides salt and pepper. I just did this complex brine because I could: the red wine that I open and don’t finish; the blood orange from the market; herbs that grow happily in the garden, enjoying this season’s endless rain.
It’s sufficient to brine the duck breast overnight. Due to circumstances beyond my control, mine spent full two days in the brine. The resulting flavor was strong, but beautiful.

Treat the smoked duck as you would treat ham. Serve it cold, thinly sliced across the grain, over green salad, roasted vegetables, or on a slice of bread with fire-roasted pepper and duck egg (or any) mayonnaise.

Smoked duck breast
Serves 4 as the main dish, 6 as an appetizer

1 cup water
1 Tbsp kosher salt
6 whole + ½ tsp crushed black peppercorns
2 sprigs rosemary
5 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 blood orange
1 cup red wine
2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 large whole boneless Muscovy duck breast, skin on

About 2 cups cherry wood or other hardwood chips

Prepare the brine: Boil the water in a small pan. Stir in the salt, whole peppercorns, rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves. Remove the skin from the orange with a vegetable peeler, cut the orange in halves. Drop the orange skin and halves into the brine. Let cool. Remove the orange halves, squeezing the juice into the brine. Add wine.

Brine the duck: Press the garlic slices into the duck breast. Season the breast with crushed black pepper. Put the duck breast into a large zip lock bag, pour the brine into the bag, close, and shake to distribute the brine. Refrigerate overnight, or up to 48 hours.

Smoke the duck: Remove the duck breast from the brine, rinse under cold running water, wipe with paper towels, and leave out to dry. Remove and discard garlic slices. Add the wood chips to the brine, and soak for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the charcoals in a smoker, or heat up a covered grill for low indirect grilling.
Put the duck breast, skin side up, on the grill. Add a handful of soaked hardwood chips to the charcoals (or put them into a smoker box and place on the hottest part of the grill).

Smoke to the enternal temperature of 160 degrees. Remove from the smoker and let cool.

With the skin side up, slice thinly across the grain. Serve.

The Sauvignon Blanc that I had with this duck was a huge mistake. This is a red meat, and it deserves a red wine. Try a big Pinot or a light bodied Merlot with it.


The farmers market is so wonderful this time of the year! The asparagus spears are slender and delicate; snap peas are still tender enough to eat with the pods; spring onions are so sweet that they don't make me cry - and I would cry if someone mentions onions in a conversation; the greens are beyond fresh, and there are innumerable varieties: lattuces, chicories, miner's lattuce, arugula, pea greens, beet leaves, nettle, spinach, sorrel, what's not. Not all of the greens are green, and this makes salads even more interesting.

And the pullet eggs. The guy at the egg stall is very excited about them. They are eggs from "teenager" hens, under six month old. The young hens are just learning to lay eggs, so these practice eggs are tiny - the ones sold at the market barely qualify as medium; they are not allowed to sell even smaller ones, - have bright yolks and very delicate texture.

Every Thursday after a trip to the market I'm tempted to skip the dinner and just slice some raw vegetables for a salad. Do I resist? No. The possible combinations are endless. I just go with what looks the best today. Two examples:

Salad #1: arugula, cresta di gallo, curly cress, mediterranean cucumber, fava beans (shelled and lightly cooked), fresh asparagus, soft-boiled pullet eggs, red wine vinegar and EVOO dressing.
Salad #2: fresh asparagus, heirloom tomatoes, avocado, snap peas, thinly sliced spring onion, soft boiled pullet eggs, goat cheese; dressed with mayonnaise made of one yolk of a pullet egg (tiny!) with about 3 Tbsp olive oil and 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grilling simplicity

I am a victim of a steak accident: the five large grass fed New York steaks that I left at my dear friend K's freezer in order for him to bring the still frozen steaks to our ski cabin in Tahoe, he forgot. Instead, he brought them to the last Saturday's picnic in Sonoma. Carefully defrosted. Together with a couple of gallons of lamb and beef kabobs, marinated with red wine and onions. For the seven of us.

Of course, after struggling to get down all the kabobs (delicious, just way too much!) no one cold even think about the steaks. So they gave them all to me, to take home. I told them I already have a large chunk of beef tenderloin at home. They wouldn't listen. So R. and I are stuck with steaks for the rest of the week.
Luckily, I have a wonderful cookbook to read for inspiration, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way . It's all about steaks and wood fire, including a recipe for a whole cow, roasted over wood coals on a metal frame. If he can do a cow, I can do 5 strips and a tenderloin. And I have the Farmers Market for the vegetable support.
Grilled baby artichokes and Russian Banana fingerling potatoes:

Remove the outer leaves from baby artichokes, trim the stalks. Cut the artichokes in half, place in a pot with cold water, a pinch of salt, and a lemon, cut in half. Bring to boil and cook until they can be pierced easily with a knife, about 10 minutes. Drain and let cool.

Cover the fingerling potatoes with boiling water, parboil until tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain, let cool a little, cut in half lengthwise.

Preheat the grill to hot.

Season 1/2 cup mild olive oil with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables with the oil. (Brush the remaining oil on the steaks.) Grill the vegetables until slightly charred, turning once.

Grill the steaks on one side without moving them, until they come easily off the grill, about 3 -4 minutes. Lift and rotate 60 degrees. Grill for 2 minutes. Turn and grill to desired donness. Press the steak (carefully, hot!) with a finger. When it's as soft as the first joint of your index finger it is rare, the medium joint is medium, and the top joint is well done. Or use a termometer.

I don't specify the quantities here. Everyone's steak accidents are different.

A simple salad of mixed greens and heirloom tomatoes is dressed with juice and minced rind of one small blood orange + 2 Tbsp EVOO + salt&pepper.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Market watch: April

After all the long winter months of cabbages, potatoes, turnips, and torrentious rains, the farmers market is getting exciting again. The new asparagus is so tender that you can eat it raw (and I do).

While the fava beans in my garden are just beginning to show their first black and white flowers, the market already got young fava beans - for a week or two their skins are so tender that no double shelling is required.

The first heirloom tomatoes and small mediterranean cucumbers show up (at stellar prices).
The strawberries are reaching their peak.

I feel like turning vegetarian. I made myself a salad of mixed greens with young fava beans, shelled and steamed for 3 minutes, heirloom tomatoes, sliced raw asparagus, and mediterrenian cucumber. I know I shouldn't eat onions before going salsa dancing; but could I leave these beautiful spring onions out?

Keeping to the local, seasonal concept, I added lardons made of my home-cured bacon, and a free-range duck egg, soft boiled.
This salad got the simplest dressing of red wine vinegar and EVOO that it deserved.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Poached salmon

Out of the hundreds photographs from the CIA cooking class that I have posted on Facebook, the most popular one is a picture that I made purely as a reference, to illustrate a variation of the classic court bouillon recipe that chef Victor was making for poached salmon, and that was so wonderfully aromatic that I spent every free minute next to the pot (we really need this Aromatography that Kodak announced on the 1st of April!)

Since I could not forget the aroma, and my friends were asking “What’s in this nice looking soup?”, I reproduced it at home as close as I could. There are many versions of a court bouillon.
The idea is to cook aromatic vegetables and spices in water with addition of white wine, vinegar, or lemon juice (I wonder whether it will work with orange). The spent vegetables are then discarded, and you use the strained broth to partially simmer, partially steam small pieces of fish.

This treatment keeps the natural flavor and the delicate texture of fish, with added aroma and acidity from the broth.

For the court bouillion:

1 leek, trimmed, split in halves
3 celery stalks, chopped to fit the pot
1 carrot, chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 parsnip, chopped into 2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, quartered (to add golden colorto the broth, leave some skin on the onion)
3 lemons, cut in halves
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs of thyme
1 small bunch of flat parsley
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 bottle white wine
3 quarts water
salt to taste

Put all the ingredients into a stockpot, bring to a boil, simmer gently for 1 hour. Strain, discard the solids. This makes much more broth than needed for the salmon recipe. I freeze the leftover broth in 1 qt. freezer bags or covered plastic containers, for future use.

Poached salmon
serves 2

1 large salmon fillet
1 qt court bouillion
Optional: 1 Tbsp Crème fraiche, 1 tsp minced parsley and chives, for the sauce

Cut the fish fillet into 2 inch pieces.
In a deep sautee pan, bring 1 quart of court bouillion to a slow simmer. Add the fish, cover, and cook at a slow simmer until just done, 5-7 minutes.

Then either serve the fish together with the broth in a soup bowl, or remove the fish and keep it in a warm place while you reduce the broth and make a sauce with crème fraiche or heavy cream and herbs. If you plan to reduce the broth, don’t salt it, or salt very lightly until it’s reduced. It will be impossible to remove the salt from the concentrated broth later.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Poor fishermens' stew

Bouillabaisse, the Marseilles fishermens stew, is my old friend Y.'s pride, joy, and a holiday special. It's is a lot of work, but the result is a perfectly balanced, fragrant, and totally delicious festive dish. Y. kindly allowed me to help with the prep, and to document the process.

Y. says he tried dozens of recipes (Y. is the type who is most comfortable following a written recipe), and this one is the winner. Y. has modified it only slightly. Since the recipe doesn't come up in search results and is very difficult to find, I'm going to write it down here, before it dissapears completely.

For the broth:
1 tsp butter
Shrimp shells and heads
white fish trimmings, heads and bones
1 teaspoon of fennel seed
3 bay leaves
small bunch of parsley, whole
1 teaspoon salt
several grinds of black pepper

For the soup base:
2/3 cup of olive oil
2 or 3 large onions, chopped
10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seed, or a small bulb of fennel, chopped
½ cup parsley, chopped fine
1 teaspoon salt
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons thyme
3 strips of peel from an orange, about ½" X 3", orange part only, no white flesh
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon saffron (yes, a teaspoon of saffron, beleive it or not!)
2 teaspoons harissa sauce
one pound of inexpensive fish fillets (we used tilapia)

For the garlic mayonnaise:
one egg yolk
2 or 3 cloves of minced garlic
about 1 cup of olive oil
salt to taste

For the croutons:
a small baguette
¼ pound of gruyere cheese, grated

To garnish:
1 pound shrimp
1 pound scallops
1 pound seabass fillet, cut into bite-size pieces
1 pound red snapper fillet, cut into bite-size pieces
2 dozen clams or mussels

Make the broth:

Heat the butter in a large skillet. Sautee the shrimp heads and shells until fragrant, about 5 minutes.

In a large pot, combine shrimp shells and heads, fish trimmings, fennel seeds, bay leaves, and parsley. Add 2 quarts of water, season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Strain the broth, discard the solids.

Make the soup:

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add onions, garlic, parsley, and fennel seeds. Cook to soften the onions and garlic. Add the tomatoes, thyme, orange rind, bay leaves, black pepper, saffron and harissa. Cook for about 20 minutes. Add the fish filets and cook until the fish is done.

Remove and set aside the bay leaves and orange rind. Puree the soup in a blender in small batches. Return to the pot, add the orange rinds and bay leaves, and simmer another 30-45 minutes. Watch the color develop from bright yellow to a beautiful brick-red. Adjust the seasoning.

While the soup is cooking, thinly slice and lightly toast the bread and make the mayonnaise:
In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolk with garlic, and beat with a whisk or a mixer with a whisk attachement until the egg yolk turns pale yellow color. Start adding the oil, first by a drop, then by half-teaspoon, whisking constantly. Add salt to taste.

5 minutes before serving, add the clams or mussels to the simmering soup, bring back to the simmer, then add the scallops and fish.
Cook gently until the fish is just cooked through and the clams and mussels have opened.
(Serve them a little salad while they wait)
To serve, spread a little of the mayonnaise on the toasts and dip the toasts into the grated cheese.

Place two or three toasts into each soup bowl, and laddle the stew over them.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Duck confit with star anise and ginger

If making duck confit with mediterranean herbs didn't much affect the flavor as compared with plain salt, the oriental spices in this confit did add some spicy, exotic character.

Also, this time I decided to do it the right way, and instead of struggling to maintain a low simmer in one overcrowded Dutch oven on the stovetop, divided the legs between two deep ceramic baking dishes, made sure they are covered completely with fat, and kept them in the oven at 200 degrees for about 4 hours, all the while suffering from the noise of the convection fan.

The noisy torture was well worth it: the duck has perfectly soft, melting texture.

Crisped it on both sides in a skillet over medium heat (the legs provide their own fat for cooking, plus some fat left over for the vegetables). Sauteed asparagus, shitake mushrooms, and parboiled and then sauteed Russian Banana potatoes.

A happy surprise at the farmers market today were bunches of lilacs from the Sierra Foothills. The smell of my childhood that I thoroughly miss - Coastal California is too hot to grow them.

We used to eat the flowers that have more than four petals and make a wish. This variety has too many of five-petal flowers, I cannot eat them all.