Friday brunch

Your life is as big as you live it. Eggs, crispy pork ribs, Frank’s red hot, and guacamole.

This is the start of a blogging experiment. While the longer form pieces on food and cooking will be over at Spoon & Knife, the rest of the food I make – all the day-to-day stuff, the weeknight dinners, etc – don’t need a full post and didn’t have a home.

Well, they did have a home. On Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, and Tumblr. My bad smartphone photography gets around, y’all.

So, I’m changing coffee corner. The same pictures come here, but I’ll come tidy them up with a little more commentary and information. Sort of a lagniappe between set pieces on S&K.

Winter is coming…

Three things came together in the making of tonight’s dinner:

  1. I spotted Rancho Gordo Flageolet beans at Revival Market the other day while getting food ready for Thanksgiving, so I bought a pound;
  2. I had a leftover turkey leg (drumstick + thigh) from Thanksgiving – browned, then braised, then roasted and fall-off-the-bone delicious – that bore no small resemblance to a very oversized leg of duck confit;
  3. and my friend Kate Hill had written over the weekend about her birthday and her love of cassoulet

Y’know, sometimes the universe just conspires to send you a message. With a relatively busy-but-meeting-free afternoon working at home, I decided to make cassoulet(*).

* – sort of.

Many, many words have been written by many, many smarter people than I about the tradition, lore, and correctness of what makes up a cassoulet. What beans are correct, what sausage is required, whether duck or goose confit should be used – I’m far from well versed in all the nuances, and will not rehash it here.

I took a different tack. Much of the world’s culinary tradition – not the high-end gastronomy, but the real back-to-roots cuisine – stems from pragmatism in the face of scarcity. Using what’s plentiful and available when it’s there and devising ways to preserve it (or reminisce about it) when it’s gone, awaiting the return when the season rolls back around and all that.

So, in the best tradition of every housewife, homesteader, cook, and grandmother that came before me, I winged it.

My cassoulet would be mistaken for its French inspiration the same way one might, say, mistake a Warhol for a Rembrandt. But instead of Warhol, think “high school art project”. Although, some of the people I was in high school with were crazy talented, so maybe “finger painting” is more apt. (It really wasn’t that bad at all. Maybe more like Banksy.)

Bottom - Flageolet. Top Left - Mise en place. Top Right - Mise en pot.
Bottom – Flageolet. Top Left – Mise en place. Top Right – Mise en pot.
Roughly speaking, building a cassoulet goes something like:
  • Cook beans with aromatics until mostly cooked.
  • Brown meats separately.
  • Build layers of beans and meats, add just enough pot liquor back to moisten, and bake until done.

Work with what’s available. I managed to run out of onions over the holiday weekend – oops! – so a leek made a valiant effort to stand in. A head of garlic, because why not? Long cooking mellows out garlic. Carrots and celery for flavor. Bacon because beans really benefit from having some kind of salty or smoky pork in the pot while the cook, and because it’s bacon. Chop it all up, mix it with the beans, and pour in the turkey broth I had remaining from Thanksgiving, just enough to cover it all by an inch or so of liquid. Pop it on the stove, bring it up to a simmer, and cover and simmer until the beans are ready.

(Things to note: I got away without presoaking the beans, but it does help. So does actually bringing the beans to a rolling boil for a few minutes rather than just up to a simmer. But hey, I’m still learning how to use dried beans.)

Turkey leg masquerading as overgrown duck confit?
Turkey leg masquerading as overgrown duck confit?

In my case, the meat came from a shredded turkey leg and some leftover ham from the Thanksgiving holiday. Shred the turkey, eat a bit, cut up the ham, eat a bit, put it in a bowl … and in the adapted words of Richard Dreyfus in Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger pot.
We're gonna need a bigger pot...
We’re gonna need a bigger pot…

In lieu of diced tomatoes, I browned a can of tomato paste just a touch in the larger pot, and built the layers. Start with beans, end with beans, and put the meat in the middle – nothing too fussy. Add enough liquid to just cover, and bake for a couple of hours or so until everything is bubbly and a light crust has formed. Traditionally, there is a crumb layer of bread crumbs in butter or oil, but I was keeping this gluten free. (I did try to go with nuts instead, and mixed almond meal in with melted butter. Best we don’t speak of that thought, just that we’re all happy I didn’t try to glop it on top of the cassoulet.)

Cassoulet: Before and After.
Cassoulet: Before and After.

Dish it out – even eating like royalty, I’ve still managed to multiply leftovers and beans into a few more meals. Topped here with a bit of beurre de gascogne(*)

* – sort of.

Traditional would be a mix of garlic pulp, rendered lard, and parsley. I did that, and it’s delicious. Then I made a more tailored version, with roasted garlic, rendered bacon fat, and parsley. Something nice to top a bowl of beans with, I suppose.

Final Dish

So what if it was 73 Fahrenheit or 23 Celsius here today? Winter is a state of mind.

Thanksgiving 2013 – or, My Life In Booze

I went shopping and ran errands this afternoon, some overdue tasks and some getting ready for Thanksgiving Remix, where we have friends over to the house on Friday and bring their unwanted leftovers, and I try and turn it into a better dinner. Recently I ran out of a few key items in the liquor cabinet, so it was time to stock up – a surprisingly rare event.

As I was heading home (actually, walking into the second grocery store of the day), I realized that I had just purchased nearly my entire life’s story in booze form. Add in the one purchase I made at the start of the day, and the story is complete.

armagnacStarting off the timeline is a bottle of Armagnac, a brandy from the southwest of France. This has been on my mind to do since the summer. When we visited my aunt and uncle in Portland, we picked up some interesting family stories including that my family traces back to a small town in Gascony. (There’s a brief interlude of around seven generations of us living in and around New Orleans between me and Gascony, but hey.) Among other things, Armagnac is as I understand it produced solely in Gascony. It’s iconic for the region. What a serendipitous way to connect to the past, and MAN, that stuff packs a punch; I suspect this bottle will be with me for some time.

bourbonBourbon. Whatever I may feel for the southwest of France, or for the Crescent City, I’m also a Kentucky boy. Sometimes, however, I admit – I kind of suck at it. I cheer on the Cats and watch the Derby each year but bourbon was a rather simpler affair when I moved away, as I recall. Ergo, I don’t exactly have a huge breadth or depth of bourbon knowledge, but no way to learn but to drink. This is one that I’ve known about but never got around to trying; I’m sure there are smoother bourbons out there and a few harsher ones, but I’m eager to cross this one off the list. If it’s good, I can horde it, and if it’s not to my taste, I have friends who will happily help drain the bottle.

ginThis one’s a little more indirect. Gin is a decidedly British drink, I’ve decided. Whether English in particular or British as a whole, it has a strong association with the isles. I lived in London for two years that had a huge hand in shaping both my career and myself. Furthermore, I was introduced to Hendricks in particular (over ice with slices of cucumber) earlier in the year by a bartender at a steakhouse bar in Calgary, where I spent a decent portion off-and-on for work this year. Double whammy. This has also been on my list to add to the collection for a while, and I’m happy I did.

I said this covered it, almost. I don’t have a particular spirit for New Orleans, although really any of these could stand in, I suppose. And I don’t have anything for Houston. I have a few bottles of Saint Arnold’s Endeavour IPA, which covers both Houston and Rice University, but since I already owned it I figured that was sort of cheating. However, if we’re really going to wrap up my identity in drink, then I managed to complete the list with a bag of Greenway coffee. We’re lucky to have access to a premium coffee culture and some incredibly talented roasters in town, people I call friends. David and Ecky are at the top of that list; they’ve not only provided consistently top-quality coffee, but educate the community about coffee habits, techniques, and economics.
So, that’s pretty much me in liquid form. Not bad for a day’s work.

Subscribing to the Chronicle – Visual Edition

I’m surprised and thrilled at the response I’ve gotten to my last post about why I feel it’s important to support your local newspaper (for me, the Houston Chronicle).

Because I’m also getting to know Haiku Deck on the iPad more, I’ve recast the last post as a presentation below. Enjoy.

[EDIT: Like I said, I’m learning. It makes a lot more sense if you view the deck on the Haiku Deck site, which includes the slide notes, which is the last blog post. Click here to see the full presentation.]

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

I subscribed to the Houston Chronicle today. Here’s why.

So, I now subscribe to the Houston Chronicle. All-digital edition – saving a few trees, but as I thought about it today, it was important to me that I do, and important I explain why.

First, I believe there is still a strong need for accountable, responsible, ethical journalism. People who break the news fast, but as importantly accurately – and can follow up and get in-depth where required. This doesn’t come without a cost, and if I value it, I should be able to put money into that. Note – this is different from expertise. I expect reporters to be competent, but I don’t expect them to be authoritative sources on their own.

By contrast, I also value the vast and rapid information network that I have in social media. This is good for alerts and fast dissemination of information – but that same speed means that, on occasion, an incorrect truth spreads like wildfire, and a later retraction doesn’t garner the same attention.

I see a need for both to exist – but while one is powered by the commons, the other requires focus, which means investment, and that won’t come through “everybody else’s” input.

Second, I realize bias and misconduct is ever present in journalism as in any other field. We can all cite examples – Rupert Murdoch and News of the World. Jayson Blair. I’m not naive enough to think that just because there is a code of ethics and accredited degrees in journalism, there won’t be this kind of conduct. However, I still believe that the vast majority of the profession are competent people with good intention and human flaws.

Please keep separate fact-based journalism from opinion-based commentary. I think commentary can play a role in deeper debates on issues, but is often overused – with great effect – to build ratings and rapport with viewers/readers.

Also, facts aren’t immune from bias. Recently, I saw five headlines reporting on the same facts of the same judicial outcome – and they were divided on whether this was guilt or exoneration.

In order to combat this, I – as a reader and intelligent human – am responsible for keeping up with various sources. Social media and traditional media. Multiple sources on the same story. No, I don’t do a good job of this every day – I’m as busy as the rest of us. But, I’m supporting my newspaper because I believe that variety and source is valuable.

Finally, my newspaper has one other quality that matters to me – it’s local. This is our paper. Stories can come in from international, national, state, or city sources, but the crew at the paper put together a set of stories that matters to me as a Houstonian. And they do it every. single. day. I’m not going to get that focus from some of the big media empires like Time, Newsweek, CNN, or Fox News. That comes from my local news folks.

So, there you have it. I’m a proud, environmentally friendly subscriber to the Houston Chronicle, and here’s my reasons.