Closing Out The Year

Okay, gang. Once upon a time, work slowed down after about Halloween and really slowed at Thanksgiving, giving me a chance to catch up on all the admin things that never seemed to happen, and catch my breath. No longer; now, the fourth quarter of the year is a mad, screaming dash to complete as much as possible before flying over the finish line.

Therefore, please indulge me in some partially completed thoughts and updates. And apologies for all the words – Christine has said that she’d like to take more pictures of the food while I’m cooking, but we haven’t managed to connect all the dots yet.

Pork Belly Followup
The bacon was a resounding success. I don’t know if it was necessarily better than the previous attempt, but it was still outstanding. I had hoped that the muscle layer would be more even, but even though the piece looked more uniform there were still some wide variation in the meat/fat split in the slices. I need to find a way to smoke this next time; I suspect I’ll be enlisting aid from friends, in exchange for cured pork. The flavor is delicious and cleanly pork, but would do better either with more aggressive seasoning in the cure (something I haven’t tried yet) or with smoking for additional depth. Also, the rillettes were a hit – I highly recommend serving pork from a small cooler in the back seat of your car, as it contributes to the thrill of illicit culinary pleasures. Plus, the look on people’s faces when you share is priceless. I have the second jar still in the fridge, now aged for a couple of months, waiting for the right chance to break out. I may have to throw a small party for this.

We hosted Thanksgiving this year, the first time in a few years. I brined the turkey (in a cooler on the back porch – I didn’t have anything big enough to hold the bird in the fridge, and since it was below 40F at the time, we decided it’d be safe), and despite overcooking it a touch, the brine made the bird nicely forgiving. The bird itself finished cooking about an hour earlier than I had planned…. Also on tap was mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, sweet potatoes roasted with peaches, pumpkin pie, apple pie (frozen, but we all have our family favorites), and a forgotten head of broccoli left in the fridge. (Oops.) This time, I was smart enough to do much of the prep work into the wee hours on Wednesday night, then up again on Thursday to cook the day away. All of it came out perfectly, even the turkey (who only showed signs of being dry in the leftovers), and I wasn’t nearly as frazzled as the last time I prepared a feast.

After mistaking a cake pan for a pie plate for a few years, then switching to removable bottom tart pans, I’ve been cooking quiches in 1″ tart shells. My mistake. I now own a 2″ cake ring, which is a great depth for quiches. Michael Ruhlman recently mentioned quiche in a holiday gift idea post, and the picture showed me that maybe I had been doing something wrong. After much reading and a short excursion to find a ring mold (which ended with me in Sur La Table, complaining to a salesperson that I had scoured the store for twenty minutes and could not find the ring molds – while standing directly under them) I was ready to try a new form of quiche. Keeping it simple – this was an exercise in learning technique, not necessarily after the perfect dish – I went with chunks of ham and shredded Swiss cheese for the filling.

What a difference an inch makes. The depth of the crust gives the filling much more of a luxury feel – it really is like a custard in a shell rather than a pie filling – and has much more of a “wow” factor on the plate. There’s a difference of opinion in the house as to whether a deeper quiche or a thinner quiche maintains a proper filling-to-crust ratio, but my money’s on the deeper quiche. I will say, however, that it can feed a lot of people – eight to ten easily – and while leftovers are great, this would leave me eating quiche nonstop for a few days. Must work on “quiche for one” sometime.

Pork pies
Some people get a song stuck in their heads and it won’t get out. I get images of food stuck in mine, and they won’t get out until I do something about it. It becomes an obsession. I have no earthly idea why I started to think about pork pies a few weeks back – likely I came across a mention of British food, which got me started – but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. While there isn’t a definitive version of a pork pie out there – it’s like asking for the official Italian meatball, or the authoritative American barbecue recipe – the concept is well-seasoned ground pork, cooked in a pastry shell, bound to the shell with aspic. For the French food lovers out there, this sounds a lot like paté en croute but shaped like a pie instead of a loaf. For the rest of you, think of a meatloaf cooked inside pie dough, and don’t think about the aspic part much. (It’s there to fill in the space left as the meat cooks and shrinks, keeping the pastry intact. It’s jellied stock, but in a pinch – as I planned to do – mix in a pack of unflavored gelatin with a cup of hot chicken broth.)

I took my sweet time getting this done – nothing like cooking when on vacation! – and I have to say, this is probably the yummiest dismal failure I’ve had in the kitchen yet. I winged the seasoning entirely, and was a bit ham-handed (hah! get it? hah!) with the sage and thyme to season the meat, but that can be adjusted next time. I made a more tender pie dough by swapping half of the butter I normally use for shortening, and by cutting the flour with a small amount of cornstarch (90% flour and 10% cornstarch by weight) to soften the flour and bring down the protein percentage, and I took a ruler to the pie dough to make sure I had it rolled out to 1/8 inch, perfect thickness for pie shells.

[An aside – Flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, that when water is added and flour kneaded stretch out and form gluten. When you’re making bread, you want this to happen. Gluten gives bread its structure and ability to trap the gas given off by yeast, thereby lightening the dough and making dough into bread instead of crackers. When you’re making pie dough, you don’t want this – otherwise you end up with tough, dense dough. King Arthur all-purpose flour, my choice, sits at 11.7% protein – on the high end of all-purpose flours, almost to bread flour. By cutting the flour with cornstarch – thanks, Dr. McGee – I can bring down the protein content a touch, making it closer to Southern US all-purpose brands such as White Lily or Gold Medal.]

And therein lies the problem. The shell isn’t blind baked – line a ring mold with pie dough, fill with meat, cover with a pie dough top, and bake – and as thin as it was, holding the moist meat, the dough didn’t stand a chance. My first indication that things had gone horribly wrong is when all the covers of the pies came uncrimped and rose off the base – they don’t look like the dough shrunk, more that the meat somehow grew and lifted the lid off the pie shell – but that makes filling the pie with aspic completely impossible. It would have just run all over everywhere. The nail in the coffin was unmolding the pies and finding that the crust on the sides and bottom was not at all cooked and crispy, and had holes and very weak spots in places. So, note for next time, don’t roll the dough thinner than 1/4 inch, and start the cooking at a higher temperature (to brown the outside of the crust better before cooking the meat inside).

However, omitting the aspic, the result was tasty. Jason even had some and liked it, and he’s not the biggest meat eater in the world. I just had another helping for lunch, chilled overnight, and it’s a bit on the heavy side – I may think about lightening the meat next time, or leaving it at a coarser grind – but it’s good. The crust is fantastic, and I plan to try this for my next pie shell as well.

Vacation Cooking
Being on vacation means I have more time to get some of the cooking done that I’ve had filed away in the back of my brain for some time. Furthermore, my brother hit a home run when he sent me a pasta roller for Christmas – I’ve tried to roll out pasta by hand, and even using all of my (sadly, considerable) weight on the pasta dough, I can’t get it thin enough. There is a LOT of fresh pasta in our future. So, in no particular order, over the last few days I’ve made:

  • Fresh linguini in olive oil, salt, and pepper (killer!).
  • Ravioli, sweet potato and caramelized onion filling (plus lemon juice, cream, egg), brown butter and sage sauce (filling was a bit too loose/soft and my technique needs practice; Jason described the taste as “strange, but good”).
  • Egg nog from scratch (see here, thanks Melissa for the tip, and Mom – I used in-shell pasteurized eggs to avoid salmonella risk).
  • Preserved lemons (why? because I can! They’ll be ready in a couple more weeks. Christine asked me why I had lemons in jars on the counter, I answered that they would be preserved lemons. “Why?”, she said. “Dunno” was the best answer I had. “… You’re weird”, she says with a smile.)

Duck revisited
Finally, my current project, duck confit. Back at Thanksgiving, when a friend of ours (hi, Kayla!) came to visit, she and Christine brought me home a frozen duck. It’s been in the freezer waiting for me to have the time to break it down and cook it, and having put it in the fridge to thaw a few days ago, now’s the time. (That’s also the title of a great Charlie Parker tune, but I digress.) I broke down the duck into breast, legs, stuff for stock, and fat last night – because that’s what I do at midnight, decide to butcher poultry… – and salted the legs for confit. I’ve spent much of the first part of today trying to decide how to best render the fat, something I haven’t done before, and I’m really hoping I can render enough fat from the duck to confit the two legs, as buying a tub of duck fat from any of the stores near here would cost about as much as the duck itself. Central to this debate is whether I want to pull the fat off the breast (making cooking the breast later fairly challenging, as the meat is quite lean) or not, but I think I can render and save most of the fat from the breast without overcooking it this time, my issue from the first time I tried all this.

I’m also surprised at how few cookbooks I have that really give good attention to confit. I can’t find it in Julia Child anywhere, and even cassoulet (one of the classic uses for duck confit) only mentions duck in passing. Same for half a dozen other cookbooks I pulled off the shelf, my usual go-to set. Madeleine Kamman gives a good treatise on the matter, and is what I used previously, so that’s the backbone for this. I have the duck legs salted and in the fridge, this time with some chopped garlic and shallot for flavor. And while she calls for 1/3 oz. salt per pound of duck meat – and that’s for long-term storage, use half if you’re going to eat it in a day or two – I don’t see how so little salt can coat the duck meat. However, it worked before, and she’s nothing if not proven and precise, so that’s what I’ve used. This needs 36-48 hours to cure, which means I’ll poach it tomorrow afternoon. Today, I need to get whatever else I can off the carcass, render the fat, cook the duck breasts (to render their fat), and if I really get ambitious, roast the bones for stock – but that’ll likely wait for tomorrow.

In Conclusion
And so, in conclusion, I wish you all a very happy end to 2009 and a strong, happy, healthy, positive start to 2010.