Saturday, April 25, 2009

Duck à l'orange…gastrique

Ah, Wednesday. Sometimes, when it's one's own turn to choose the meal consumed that week, all creative and rational thought flees the head, and meal ideas are found sorely lacking. A few Wednesdays ago it was my choice, and having left the decision late (the day of! tsk tsk!) I 'went to' my new 'go-to' cookbook: Martha Stewart's Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook. Emphasis on the 'lessons' part of things; the book is comprised of many how-tos (how to 'steam, poach and simmer,' for example, or how to carve a prime rib roast) and recipes that illustrate those how-tos.



All the recipes I'd tried so far had turned out well (particularly a tasty Wednesday wiener schnitzel that I shall have to document here soon), and so when mentions of duck caught my eye, I thought, 'Hey, it might actually be doable!' See, the preparation of duck is one of those things I've always thought left best to the pros, but I've found out how terribly wrong I was.

This should come as no surprise, as I had a phase (though I'm loathe to admit it) where I thought even soup wasn't something made at home, but, of course, after many tasty homemade soups (butternut squash, french onion, hot and sour, tortilla, and broccoli and stilton to mention a few of our more recent triumphs) I concede defeat. Perhaps anything at all can be made at home!

We were about to find out that cooking duck doesn't involve some arcane process that only chefs know about – it is, indeed, poultry, and though there are lots of tasty and slightly more complicated things you can do with duck (confit, Peking), it fries in a pan much like any other meat.

Except with perhaps more fat! Michelle had found us some duck breasts of the specified size (one large breast being about a pound, which would feed two people: we needed to feed five, so purchased two large ones and one smaller one) and Alisha scored them diagonally crosswise on top of their fat layer, making sure not to cut through to the meat. They looked exactly like the ones in Martha.



They rendered a whole lot of fat out on their first introduction to the pan, skin side down (ie. layer of fat side down too). This I manoeuvered out of the pan and into a heat-proof container through a complicated wrist motion that you could only emulate if you held a heavy pan containing three duck breasts and a vast quantity of hot fat.

I read now that Martha recommends a spoon for later transfer of fat. I must say I used the wrist method throughout, but Martha does instruct, right at the beginning of her book, to fully read each recipe through before embarking on any cooking. Which is a fabulous idea, I have to say, simple, but something I often forget to do. The book is really useful as a basic primer, and it spells things out that other cookbook authors often forget. I find Martha's publications often do this, and though some might say they take you too firmly in hand, I'm quite glad they do.

While I was practising my strange hand motions, Michelle and Alisha were making the side dishes. Martha had recommended turnip and a bitter green veg to complement the sweet fruitiness of the duck dish. We made mashed turnip, though not with the traditional milk addition, of course, but with butter instead, and a second delicious side of wilted kale with butter, oil and garlic.

Lastly, Meg made the orange gastrique which accompanied the duck. A gastrique is (according to Wiki): "a thick sauce produced by a reduction of vinegar or wine, sugar, and usually fruit. It is often served over meat or seafood to add a fruit flavor to the dish. It is made in its simplest form by caramelizing sugar and then adding vinegar." Which is precisely what Meg did.



She started out the pan with just sugar, which we watched miraculously caramelize before our eyes, without burning at all. It formed these beautiful sugar dunes. The sugar was cooked until 'uniformly amber,' and then half a cup of (good) red wine vinegar was added, reduced, and finally the orange zest which Meg had julienned and simmered to remove the bitterness. It formed a delicious gastrique, which we poured over the sliced duck breast. It was delicious, and the kale and turnip mash (also something I've never tried) were fantastic too.



Caveat: if you are not a big sweets eater, or dislike mixing sweet and savoury, you'd be better off dolloping the gastrique on the side, and applying it to the duck sparingly. The gastrique can be quite sweet, even with the vinegar. Personally I think sweet sauces on duck are indispensable (orange! sour cherries!), but they're not for everyone. Similarly, I know Martha Stewart puts some people off, but do give this book a chance: it's brilliant, incredibly well thought out in terms of pacing and learning, and gorgeously designed (of course). Funnily enough, it was given to my by my brother Ben, who, on a business trip here in Vancouver, managed to stop by just in time to sample the fruits of his generosity. Lucky him – and lucky us!

Duck Breast with Orange Gastrique
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cooking School

(To serve two)

1 large duck breast (about 1 pound)
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 orange, zest of one half sliced into julienne, both halves juiced
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup best quality red wine vinegar


Score crosswise (diagonally) through the skin and most of the fat, but avoid the flesh. Season both sides with salt and pepper and place skin-side down in pan on medium-low heat until pool of fat forms. Turn breast over and cook other side for one minute. Pour fat out into heatproof bowl (you can reserve for cooking the most delicious roast potatoes ever).

Continue cooking duck until skin is nicely browned and crisp, 10-12 minutes, spooning off excess fat. Turn duck once more and cook 8-10 minutes until medium rare. Transfer to wire rack to cool, 5-8 minutes.

For the gastrique, bring a small pot of water to a boil, and orange zest and simmer for two minutes, then drain. Heat sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat without stirring. Continue cooking until 'uniformly amber,' about 5 minutes more, swirling the pan slightly when the sugar has started to melt so it can caramelize evenly. Add the vinegar and combine with a wooden spoon, then continue simmering for 5 minutes more, until reduced. Pour in orange juice, add zest, and simmer until reduced to a thick syrup, about 5 minutes longer.

Slice duck crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices, and drizzle with sauce before serving.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wednesdays can be Julia days after all

I have to take back what I said before about Wednesdays and Julia days being mutually exclusive. A few weeks ago, it was my turn to choose what to cook for WeDine, and I was at a loss. Before I started aimlessly flipping cookbook pages, I remembered that we have that little neglected "coming soon" list here on our blog – a perfect time to knock something off.

Steak au Poivre seemed more doable than perogies or beef wellington, especially now that I have the perfect reference for it – Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I think this steak must be one of the simplest recipes in the book. I carried the book and a little jar of my cooking Brandy with me to work, we stopped on the way to Alisha's to pick up the very few ingredients needed for the steak and the potatoes and salad we planned to have with it, and without much effort produced a truly perfect meal.

Well, the one kind of effort it did take was following Julia's words carefully. Alisha made fun of me for switching kitchen personalities when Julia's involved, and I will admit I'm a bit obsessed with trying to emulate her methods precisely. Usually I'm much more about creativity than technique in the kitchen. But I realize that when working with a few basic ingredients, it all comes down to technique, and now that I've seen what wonders Julia's methods can produce, I don't want my results to be less than they could be. It's absolutely worth the effort for sauteed potatoes that sublime. Effort and the willingness to exceed healthy levels of butter consumption.

Our steaks came out perfectly, medium-rare, juicy, with tons of pepercorn flavour even though we'd only let them stand with the rub for the minimum half an hour. This was one of the first times I'd made a steak that couldn't have been better in any way. We all agreed that we'd have to make this again for our favourite people who didn't happen to be there that night. This recipe is classic in the very best way. Mmm, brandy sauce.

I've included the recipe below, along with another one of my favourites from the book – Légumes à la Grecque. I've made this simple recipe for vegetables simmered in an aromatic broth over and over again since I got the book. Paired with crostini and soft goat cheese they make an elegant, flavourful appetizer (we served them before Christmas dinner this year) and I've made them as a side for several meals, whenever I'm craving their juicy, herby, lemony taste. I always use red and green peppers and fennel bulbs in the recipe, but
Julia includes variations for many other vegetable choices – celery, mushrooms, eggplant, etc. – and really you could use any veggies you like, adjusting the cooking time accordingly. Let me know if you try it with something else and love it – maybe I could be convinced to break my pepper-fennel habit.

So the moral is, don't be afraid to turn to Julia on a weekday. She may be the perfect companion for a Saturday spent in the kitchen with lots of wine and resolve, but she can also come through when you want the definitive version of that perfect simple meal. Speaking of which, I made her whole roast chicken a while ago and it was out of this world. And all the recipe included was chicken and butter. Butter basted on every eight minutes throughout the whole cooking time. That's the secret to heavenly chicken my friends.

Steak au Poive (Pepper Steak with Brandy Sauce)
Adapted from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Serves 4–6 people

2 tbsp mixed peppercorns (any mix of pink, white, green, black)

Crush the peppercorns roughly with a mortar and pestle.

2–2 1/2 lbs steak, about 1 inch thick

Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crushed peppercorns into both sides of the meat with your fingers and the palms of your hands. Cover with waxed paper. Let stand for atleast half an hour; two or three hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.

1 1/2 tbsp butter + 1 1/2 tbsp oil

Put the butter and oil in a heavy skillet just large enough to hold the steaks in one layer. Place over medium high heat unitl you see the butter foam begin to subside (this indicates the fat is hot enough to sear the meat). Saute the steak on one side for 3 to 4 minutes, and regulate the heat so the fat is always very hot but is not burning. Turn the steak and saute the other side for 3 to 4 minutes. The steak is done medium rare (à point) the moment you observe a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak. Another test is to press the steak with your finger; it is medium rare when it just begins to take on a suggestion of resistance and spring in contrast to its soft raw state. If you have any doubts at all, cut a small incision in the steak.

Remove the steaks to a hot platter, season with salt, and keep warm for a moment while competing the sauce (we covered them in foil).

1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp minced shallots or green onions
1/2 cup beef stock
1/3 cup cognac
3 to 4 tbsp softened butter

Pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the first tablespon of butter and shallots or green onions and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two more to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the remaining butter a half-tablesppon at a time. Pour the sauce over the steak and serve.
Légumes à la Grecque
Court Bouillon [Aromatic Broth]
For 1 pound (about 4 cups) vegetables 2 cups water
6 tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp minced shallots or green onions

The following, tied in cheesecloth:
6 sprigs parsley including roots if available
1 small celery stalk with leaves or 1/8 tsp celery seeds
1 sprig fresh fennel or 1/8 tsp fennel seeds
1 spring fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
12 peppercorns
6 coriander seeds

Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add sliced vegetables and simmer until tender. Then remove with a slotted spoon and serve.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

My New Favourite Thing


I had the privilege of spending this Easter long weekend here in Vancouver with my mom. And as is traditionally done, we ate and drank and cooked and baked for much of the visit. We had a few nice dinners out, but decided to stay in on Friday evening to munch on platefuls of Italian antipasto, which is my new favourite thing to make for guests!

According to Wikipedia, antipasto, or antipasti, means “before the meal” and is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal. Traditional antipasto includes cured meats, olives, roasted garlic, pepperoncini, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts, various cheeses (such as provolone or mozzarella) and peperone (marinated small green bell peppers, not to be confused with pepperoni). The antipasto is usually topped off with olive oil.

I prefer to have antipasto as a meal in itself, sort of a late-ish dinner served along with red wine. It's just so simple and tasty and feels super gourmet. Here's my method:

Alisha’s Antipasto



2 red peppers, cut in quarters with seeds and ribs removed
2 yellow peppers, cut in quarters with seeds and ribs removed
1 red onion, chopped into large chunks
1 cup cherry tomatoes, whole
8-10 whole garlic cloves, skin on
1 large eggplant, sliced lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices
1 large zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices
1 bunch thin asparagus spears, ends snapped off


Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Arrange all the vegetables in one layer in roasting pans. (Make sure to put the asparagus spears in a separate pan from the other veg.) Drizzle everything with olive oil, and season with coarse salt and pepper. For the asparagus, also add a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar and roll the spears around in the coating.

Add the peppers, onion, tomatoes, garlic, eggplant, and zucchini to the oven to roast.

Remove the eggplant, and zucchini after about 25-30 minutes. (Leave everything else in the oven.) At this point, also add the asparagus spears.

Cook for about 15 minutes and then remove all the vegetables from the oven. (The peppers, onion, tomatoes, and garlic should have been in the oven for about 45 minutes in total.)

Allow the vegetables to cool while you prepare the rest of the food.

Slice up some baguette, and arrange in a large bowl with assorted crackers and breadsticks. Then, place a variety of cheeses on a plate. I stick to sheep and goat cheeses due to my food restrictions, but you can use any cheese of your choice. Finally, arrange some cured meats and olives on a large platter. I often use genoa salami, prosciutto, smoked salmon, garlic shrimp, as well as spicy mixed olives. Once you have the meats and olives arranged, add the cooled vegetables to your platter.

Serve with red wine and enjoy!

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