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.

Cook’s Notes – Schmaltz

Read the original post here.

Rendering animal fats is a powerful technique to know. Olive oil and butter are still my most common fats for cooking, but having some rendered bacon or chicken schmaltz are so useful to alter or boost the flavor of a dish.

Like Christine said in the post, this is wet rendering. The fat is in a pot and basically starts off by melting into the water. When the water boils, the whole mixture is essentially held at 212F/100C until the water boils off – hot enough to melt the fat but not so hot that it cooks and develops off flavors.

(Dry rendering, by contrast, involves simply cooking chunks of whatever in a skillet. I do this most often with bacon, over a medium-low heat – the fat in the bacon needs to render out before the bacon starts to burn. Wet rendering takes longer but is more forgiving about this, dry rendering requires a little more focus.)

After the water boils off, the remaining liquid in the pot goes from cloudy to clear, and then you’re off to the races. Take care not to burn the fat or the cracklin’ in the pot – you want the skin to fry crisp and golden brown, but you don’t want to get to, or past, the smoke point of the fat in the pot.

If you do this with pork, you get rendered lard and cracklings.
If you do this with chicken, as shown, you get schmaltz and gribenes.
If you do this with duck, you get duck fat (swoon!) and … well, duck cracklings, I think.
And so on.

As I mentioned above, this is a tool on your way to a finished dish. To get a sense of how to use these, buy some potatoes, dice them, dry them with a paper towel, and saute them in these different fats. You’ll find that it all tastes like golden brown delicious potato, but they have background flavors from the cooking fat.


Cook’s notes – Cauliflower Leek Soup

Christine has launched the first edition of Cooking with Mike (link opens in a new window), our mostly-weekly cooking series. The soup is one we’ve eaten for a long time, and regularly makes an appearance for a quick weeknight dinner.

I won’t rehash the making of the soup itself – she’s got the key information up on her site – but I did have some extra comments worth writing here.

First, like many soups, this isn’t fussy about exact ingredient proportions. That happened to be the bunch of leeks and the size of cauliflower head I bought for the shoot. Play with it, and adjust to your taste – more leek, less leek, some shallots instead, and so on.

The flavor of this soup is pretty clean – the smokiness of the bacon, the body of the stock, the vegetable notes of the cauliflower and soft pungency of the leeks. (Editor’s note – Please don’t let me write a sentence with all those adjectives in it at once. It sounds too pretentious.) This also means it’s a great base to add all sorts of flavors – peppers, spices, herbs, booze. For example, curried cauliflower soup with pistachios.

Finally, there are many ways to finish the soup, which Christine touched on in her post:

  • The chunkiest finish is to simply serve it as it is – pieces of cauliflower and leek in a broth. If that is your intent (and add some carrot pieces, that sounds great) then pay a bit more attention when cutting the leeks and cauliflower to get them to similar, even sizes. Since this was getting blended, I didn’t fuss too much.
  • Next is to mash this with a potato masher or the like. This won’t ever get truly smooth, but it’ll get kind of smooth, but still very rustic.
  • Stick blender is next on the list. This can get you a pretty smooth soup, although you’ll still feel it – it’s not completely smooth, but there aren’t chunks to chew on.
  • If you want to get it nice and smooth, a combination is best – blend it with a stick blender then pass it through a fine mesh strainer. I have a couple of inexpensive ones from Target or the like around the house, and while they aren’t the finest mesh, they do the job well. Take a ladle and push the soup through the strainer – this evens out the soup and makes it finer than just blending alone.
  • Finally is a standing blender. The Vitamix shown was a Christmas present for me (yay!), and it definitely has some torque to it. This created an amazingly smooth, thick, velvet-like soup. I thought it was delicious. Christine decided it was odd. Your mileage may vary.

So, make the soup. Write in and tell us about what you’ve done and what you think. And, there’ll be more to come!

Poetry Breakfast – St. Crispin’s Day Speech (Henry V)

One last Poetry Breakfast entry. I wrote this about midway through the month of doing these, and knew then that I would save this for the final entry. I had great fun writing these. When I started out, I was able to keep a few days ahead of my publishing schedule. Alas, a combination of work travel and a lack of source material (hey, my knowledge of poetry isn’t THAT deep) and the well ran dry on me. Maybe I’ll do another month of these next year, if I can line up some good poems between now and then.

This remains one of my favorite passages of all time. The speech is from Shakespeare, from Henry V – Act 4, Scene 3 – as King Henry is spurring on the troops, weary from slogging across France in horrible weather, for the Battle of Agincourt. The actual passage is a bit longer; this comes from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie adaptation (). I remember clearly where I was when I heard this – junior year of high school, second semester, British Lit – and to this day the scene gives me chills.

Through the power of YouTube, you can see the scene below. It loses a bit of oomph without the context of the rest of the film – which I highly recommend watching – but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless.

(Note – St. Crispin’s Day is October 25th. After writing this, I urge anybody reading this to gather friends together on that day and share a meal. It might have helped if I published this two months ago, but hey.)

St. Crispin’s Brunch Speech
regrets to Shakespeare and Kenneth Branagh

What’s he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin. If we are fit to dine,
we are enough to do our hunger proud.
And if to eat, the fewer eggs, the greater share of bacon!
God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one diner more.
Rather, proclaim it, Westmoreland, to the table,
that he which has no stomach for this meal…
let him depart.
His tab shall be paid,
and cash for the valet put into his purse.
We would not dine in that man’s company
that fears his fellowship to dine with us.

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that partakes of this meal, and comes safe home,
will stand at tiptoe when this meal is named
and rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall eat this day and live old age
will yearly, on the vigil, feed his neighbors
and say, “tomorrow is Saint Crispin’s.”
Then will he lift his shirt and show his gut
and say, “this weight I gained on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget, yet all shall be forgot
but he’ll remember with advantages what foods he ate that day.
Then shall their names, familiar in their mouths as household words -
Pigs in a Blanket,
Bacon and Sausages,
Omelettes and French Toast,
Orange Juice and Coffee –
be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
These dishes shall a good man teach his son.
Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
from this day to the ENDING OF THE WORLD,
but we diners shall be remembered.
We few,
we happy few,
we band of brothers.
For he today that eats his fill with me shall be my brother.
Be he ne’er so full, this day shall strengthen his appetite.
And gentlemen who stayed home still in bed
shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
whilst any speaks that dined with us
upon Saint Crispin’s Day!

St. Crispin’s Day Speech
Shakespeare Henry V, from the Kenneth Branagh movie

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin.
If we are marked to die, we are
enough to do our country loss.
And if to live,
the fewer men,
The greater share of honor.
God’s will, I pray thee,
wish not one man more.
Rather, proclaim it,
Westmoreland, through my host,
that he which hath
no stomach to this fight…
let him depart.
His passport shall be made…
and crowns for convoy
put into his purse.
We would not die
in that man’s company…
that fears his fellowship
to die with us.
This day is called
the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day
and comes safe home…
will stand at tiptoe
when this day is named…
and rouse him
at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day
and live old age…
will yearly, on the vigil,
feast his neighbors…
and say, “tomorrow
is Saint Crispin’s.”
Then will he strip his sleeve
and show his scars…
and say, “these wounds
I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget,
yet all shall be forgot but
he’ll remember with advantages…
what feats he did that day.
Then shall our names, familiar
in their mouths as household words…
Harry the king,
Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot,
Salisbury and Gloucester…
be in their flowing cups
freshly remembered.
This story shall
a good man teach his son.
Crispin Crispian
shall ne’er go by,
from this day to
the ending of the world,
but we in it
shall be remembered.
We few,
we happy few,
we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his
blood with me shall be my brother.
Be he ne’er so vile,
this day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England
now abed…
shall think themselves accursed
they were not here…
and hold their manhoods cheap…
whilst any speaks
that fought with us…
upon Saint Crispin’s day!