Duck Confit

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For, perhaps, the first time in this year of charcuterie, I did not know what to expect. I was sure I had confit at one point or another in my culinary life. I spent seven years (albeit all during my naive twenties) with an expense account, after all, have traveled internationally, have written about food. But for the first time I approached a recipe truly not being able to picture the end result. I had pork confit once – the chef claimed to have spent all afternoon making it and was very proud. But I found it unremarkable; just room temperature fatty shredded meat to spread, awkwardly, on toast.

But still, I read and re-read the recipes. I plotted my path to obtain the ingredients (this being my first charcuterie effort as a part-time resident of the city of New York). I did a little research.

Hmmm…. did you know that confit is simply a term that means immersing meat or produce in a substance for preservation or flavor. Fruit can be confit-ed by cooking in sugar or honey, vinegar and water, similar to a jam. I have unknowingly confit-ed roasted peppers and tomatoes in olive oil to preserve them for a bit longer than their brief shelf life in raw form. And now, I can say, I have confit-ed duck.

It was so easy. And tasty.

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I figured that the most time intensive part of this effort – which simply involved mostly passive cooking – would be finding the ingredients. I hoped to source my protein from the Union Square Farmer’s Market but figured that I might have to venture further afield for the fat. In the spirit of confit, I planned to buy whatever meat looked good – and was not extravagantly expensive. However, that I would be making duck confit was decided as soon as I walked into the square and met Matthew from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. I told him of my confit aspirations and asked his advice. It was easy he said, just cook the legs low and slow in the smallest pot in which they would fit in a single layer.

“I don’t need extra fat?” I asked.

“You’ll end up with more than enough when you are done cooking these legs,” he assured. He also added that I could salt and season them at least overnight – but if I wanted to let them sit in the fridge for up to a week, tightly wrapped in plastic, the flavor would only improve.

In the end I seasoned the two legs I purchased from Matthew with about a tablespoon each of salt and herbes de provence and wrapped them in plastic for three days.

On day three I washed and patted the legs dry, and then arranged them skin side down in a smallish oven-proof sauce pan. I baked them for about three hours at 200 degrees, and then took the top off and finished it off for another twenty minutes or so. The fat was beautiful, golden-tinged and clear while the meat was beginning to roast, but was still tender. The fat was not completely covering the meat, as I imagined it might by the recipe instructions. Was this still confit, I wondered?

I poured the fat into a half quart canning jar, and then, when the legs were cool enough to handle, I separated them and added them to the fat. They meat fell apart in my hands and I couldn’t resist taking a taste. It was fatty and unctuous, perfectly roasted and tender. The two legs, including the rendered fat, but after discarding the rest of the skin, perfectly filled one canning jar. I made sure the meat was covered in fat and then let it sit on the counter for the next two hours before dinner.

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For dinner, I picked up a strong semi-soft cheese that I thought would go well with the confit, and a loaf of fig bread from a local artisanal bakery. At home, I had perfectly ripe tomatoes from a previous farmer’s market excursion that needed to be eaten, and made a salad of them with basil from my front patio. My husband, Steve, opened a bottle of a bordeaux-style red wine. And we ate.

It was just meat in a mug of fat, as Steve pointed out, but it was delicate and flavorful. The confit held up well to strong cheese and wine, but on its own with just the fig bread, the meat’s sweetness shone. We ate not quite half of the jar, and I capped it and placed the rest in the refrigerator, despite my (relative) comfort that it was shelf-stable. I marveled at the simplicity of preserved meat in a jar, whose roots can be traced to the time of the Renaissance in rustic southern France. I may not have been able to picture confit before that afternoon, but I know to which standard I will hold all others.

 

Homemade Hot Dogs

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Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.

So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.

And then: the emulsion challenge.

The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.

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While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).

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We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.

I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.

Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.

 

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So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.

 

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Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.

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Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.

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Smoking in the City

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The biggest question I had was: how do I smoke 5 pounds of pork without my neighbors calling the fire department? The answer, I discovered, was much easier than anticipated. Smoking may be time consuming, but is not difficult. In fact, one of the hardest decisions I had to make what choosing what hunk of meat I planned on smoking for my inaugural attempt.

While I had a few pounds of Chestnut Farm country-style ribs in my freezer, something about smoking felt very “Go Big Or Go Home” so I went to my local butcher and checked out his offerings. On one hand, I wanted something big enough to withstand a few hours in the smoker, but I also wanted a cheaper cut of meat to hedge my bets in case my first smoking effort was a failure. The verdict: a 5 pound, bone in pork thigh, which came in under twenty dollars (and is locally sourced, humanely raised, antibiotic free, yada yada).

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The day before I planned to smoke, I made a dry rub with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, paprika and ground hot pepper. Sweet and spicy – just the way I like it. I covered the pork in the rub and wrapped it in plastic wrap overnight.

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The next day I turned my charcoal grill into a smoker. Which, simply put, meant that I put a smallish mound of coals on one side of the grill and lit them, letting them set for maybe ten minutes to heat up. Next I put my smoke box of water-soaked hickory chips on top of the coals. I checked the temp with a grill surface thermometer and placed the pork on the grill when I confirmed that the temp was between 200 – 300 degrees (which it was after the ten minutes or so of prep above). This is the magic smoking temperature range that I thought would be hard to maintain (spoiler: it wasn’t!). The grill top was lowered and I just let it sit there, checking maybe every half hour or so.

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For a three hour smoke, I added more coals each hour and I added more hickory chips after about an hour and a half, at which time I also flipped the pork. But in all, the temp stayed pretty constant around 250 degrees, and when it dipped to closer to 200, I added a few more coals.  The smoke wafted out of the half-closed top vent a bit, but nothing to call the firemen about. And yes, my entire block smelled like a smoke house. In the best possible way. After three hours I put the pork in a covered roasting pan in a 250 degree oven with an inch of liquid (I used half-water, half-cider) for another three hours and then, willingly, impatiently, DUG IN.

I’m sorry I was not able to take any pictures of the delicious dark brown crust, or the half-inch red ring around the edges of the meat that I’ve heard is the marker of a good smoke. Please forgive me for not photographing how I used forks to shred the tender pork or transcribing the exact ingredients and measurements of the whiskey barbeque sauce I served atop the meat. But, after smelling smoking pork for six hours, would you have the patience to document everything before digging in? I didn’t think so.

Corned Beef: After the Cabbage

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Four pounds of corned beef for two people is a lot of corned beef. Yet it is also not nearly enough. This corned beef was amazing and I had to keep myself from eating half of it in one sitting. After I corned it for four days (one day per pound), I rinsed it and then braised it in water plus about a cup of hard cider for two and a half hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions in the last thirty minutes. What came next, however, made all the difference: I slathered the fatty side of the brisket with a honey and mustard glaze and put in under the broiler for about four minutes (or until the honey started to caramelize).

The first night I served slabs in a bowl with broth and veggies. Classic corned beef and cabbage. It was good, but the broth was a bit salty and sour. Maybe too much so for a lot of eating on its own. I’m going to doctor it up for a better tasting soup in the next few days.

The following day I made reubens. These were amazing, especially with the creamy, sour, sweetness of all of the ingredients. The basic preparation includes Russian dressing (I made my own with mayo, ketchup, minced home-canned dill pickles) on both sides of the bread. I warmed the sandwich open-faced in the oven: slices of meat on one side, sauerkraut and swiss cheese on the other, and then assembled for a final toasting of the bread. Really, one of the best sandwiches in the world. I would have taken a picture, but I couldn’t wait that long to eat it.

My Personal History of Bacon

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Growing up bacon was something we ate on Christmas morning – the only thing I ever remember my dad’s father, or in my mind my “American” Grandpa, cooking. Maybe it was because of my mother’s constant health kick or perhaps because my dad seemed to want to leave the food of his childhood behind, but despite both of my parents being good cooks, I didn’t realize the pleasures of bacon until well into my twenties.

Perhaps this was because Dad was always on the lookout for something different, new – and bacon was a classic. He was brought up on typical middle-American fare: his mother’s preserves from the garden coupled with lunch meat, white bread, baked goods made from Crisco and soda pop. While my mother was alternately on a health kick or cooking elaborate Italian dishes from her family’s dinner table, my father waffled between sweets like Oreos or Pepsi (his late night snacks of choice that could often be found next to his side of the bed) and semi-gourmet dishes inspired by the latest species of seafood available at the local market or a meal he remembered from our yearly vacation to the Florida Keys. While my mother was learning to embrace her heritage through food once she started her family, my father was using his role as a modern husband (who shared the cooking duties) to expand our culinary palate, and, perhaps, prove his worldliness beyond that of his rural upbringing.

This only child has been equally inspired by the culinary leanings of both of my parents – once I moved out on my own for good at nineteen I finally called my mother to dictate my Nani’s recipes over the phone so I could cook sauce and bracciole and stuffed artichokes for my new boyfriend. I wanted to recreate Italian recipes as authentically as possible. However, from my dad I inherited my culinary sense of adventure – I would try the strangest thing on the menu if I was someplace new and was the first of my family to travel overseas. To facilitate both sources of my culinary inspiration, I asked for Pyrex baking dishes and a Cuisinart for Christmas when my peers were requesting walkmans and CDs and Bennetton sweaters. And, eventually, maybe I turned a little snooty. On visits home for holidays, I might pick at the Jello salad or boxed stuffing served at Grandma’s house. In my worldliness, I had come to eschew this typical American fare as inauthentic cooking – short cuts learned and repeated by too many housewives in the fifties and sixties and seventies uninspired by history from the old world. This was what I had seen my father rebelling against during my childhood after all – we rarely ate from a mix and my father would choose to make snapper and plantains over tuna noodle casserole any day – while my mother strived towards authentic Italian dishes like her Nana used to make.

Over the next decade, cooking became an increasingly important part of my life. I found myself starting a container garden and then moving on to a larger plot. I began canning and even called up my grandma – my Dad’s mother – for recipes and advice. My parents were now divorced, and my mother and I would cook together, Nani no longer with us, for my friends in the city or for the extended family when I was visiting my hometown. I still received spices and spatulas and fancy pans for Christmas. And when my dad and I would catch up on the phone once or twice a week, our conversation would invariably turn to cooking – a technique or recipe my dad was trying out or an ingredient I found at the local farmer’s market.

“Yeah, we always had them in the garden out back,” Dad might say about my discovery of watermelon radishes or golden beets.

I told my dad about the “farmhouse” cheese I made on the stovetop of my urban galley kitchen and he replied, “Your great grandma made that all the time on the dairy farm.”

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Had I forgotten or simply never known that my great grandparents, whom I met a few times as a child, had owned a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania? Of course my dad would have spent plenty of time helping them in the summers when they visited. My mother often shared stories of her Italian grandparents’ growing up and I wondered if my father’s heritage was a mystery because I hadn’t asked or because he didn’t offer details. Perhaps we had both been so focused on new ideas that we forgot to talk about the past.

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But back to the bacon – I was in the process of curing my own and was telling my dad about it on the phone that Sunday afternoon. I explained how easy it was – I had rubbed a two-pound pork belly (the largest I could find at our local winter farmer’s market) in a mix of curing salt and sugar and added some cayenne, ground pepper and maple syrup for flavor. It had now been curing in a plastic zip-locked bag in the fridge for a few days and plenty of liquid was already being leeched out. He should try doing this himself, I suggested.

“Oh we used to make bacon on the dairy farm,” my dad told me. “I remember that when it was time for great grandpa to slaughter a pig that great grandma would set up a big pot over an open flame to render down the fat to use for cooking. Then they would break down the animal and use every part – the belly for bacon, the chops for roasting….”

Did she bake the pork belly in low heat or smoke it, I had wanted to know. Living in a city apartment, mine would have to be baked. My dad didn’t remember, but assumed it had been smoked. “Great grandpa was always smoking and curing. To feed a big family he had to get creative with how he stored his meat.” Of course he did.  Because smoking and curing were invented and perfected from necessity – hunters and then farmers who had to figure out how to preserve the food they had when they had it to continue to feed their large families throughout cold winters or hot summers or famine.

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My bacon was done curing a few days later and I snuck an end piece after it spent some time in the oven. It was a bit salty, but I loved the combination of sweet and spicy from my additions to the cure. My dad was five hundred miles away, and would have to take my word on how my bacon turned out. So, in honor of both parents who helped to shape the cook that I am today, I decided to use two chopped thick-cut pieces of bacon and a cup of stovetop ricotta cheese to fill homemade raviolis to be served with a simple brown butter sauce and some grated parmesan and fried sage. The resulting meal was more Italian than not, but had the cured meat and homemade cheese from my “American” side. Inspired by my past as much as by the world around me.

 

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Duck Prosciutto

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My grandfather was a hunter. I recall playing with his duck call (a palm-sized wooden box with a paddle that you rubbed across the top to make a quacking sound) and remember hearing about the times (yes there was more than one) when he returned home from his day in the woods, reeking of skunk. Grandpa didn’t have a sense of smell – a congenital condition that kept him out of the armed service during World War II – and he didn’t seem to care who or what he startled while stalking his game.

My grandmother was a good sport about this all. She had to be. They had five kids and for the first decade or so of their marriage were barely making enough to keep clothes on their backs and food on the table. Grandma was a housewife – a stay-at-home-mom who never finished high school. But she grew most of the family’s food in the large garden out back – rows of cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons, raspberries, carrots and onions – that would be eaten fresh, canned or frozen. Grandma crocheted blankets and sweaters, darned socks and made dresses, cut the grass and shoveled the walk. And she would, without flinching, pluck and clean the birds grandpa brought home from his hunting trips. On at least one occasion I remember her clearning a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, and while the green beans and corn bread and pumpkin pies were cooking she sent her skunk-sprayed husband to sit in a bath of tomato juice and then prepared the freshly shot bird from feather to stuffing. That year we were all told to watch out for bird shot when we were chewing.

But despite seeing Grandpa’s hunting paraphernalia every fall, and being warned away from the locked cabinet where he kept his rifles, I don’t recall eating much of what he brought home aside from that infamous Thanksgiving turkey. By the time I came along hunting was more for fun than necessity, after all, and a few duck or pheasant wouldn’t go too far in a family whose dining room table was being set with nearly two dozen places.

Grandpa has been gone now for nearly a decade, his final breaths taken in the garden that provided sustenance for his family for so many years. I never gave much thought to the shelves of jars in their basement, the back corner root cellar, or whatever else Grandma and Grandpa’s old farmhouse held in its nooks and crannies. But these past few weeks, when I was looking for the perfect spot – not too warm nor cool, with moderate humidity – where I might hang my curing duck breasts, I thought of my grandparents and their sprawling rural homestead.

Making duck prosciutto was surprisingly easy. I buried two one-pound moulard duck breasts in kosher salt for 24 hours and then dusted them with black pepper. Then I hung them, wrapped in cheesecloth, from a rafter in my basement for a week, or until they felt firm and their flesh had turned a deep red.

I cut them down from the night before a snow storm was expected, impressed with my own resourcefulness and the ease of preserving something as… fragile… as raw meat. There were certain scientific processes that I didn’t fully understand that were happening to prevent the meat from rotting or molding that made them edible and perhaps even more delicious than roasting or sauté-ing. Considering the shelves of preserved vegetables in my grandparents’ basement, I wondered if they ever cured their own meat after Grandpa had a particularly good day of hunting. That night I sampled a small slice, leaving some of the thick fat in favor of the rich meat; just a taste to help me dream of what extravagant meal I might create the next morning, an almost certain snow day.

A few hours later I woke to blowing snow and no power. I could see a pine tree had snapped in half a few houses down the hill from my house and took the power lines with it. Utility trucks struggled through the accumulating snow while the thermostat dipped to 55 degrees. The power must have been off since dawn. By candlelight my husband and I lit a burner of our gas stove to heat up day old coffee. My plans for the prosciutto – in an omelet, with a bit of melted fontina and sprinkled with sal de provence – were foiled. Instead I took the duck fat from the night before and rendered it in a cast iron skillet. Once it was crackling I fried up two eggs. I placed them on top of toast, also heated on the stove top, with a slice of the prosciutto in between. A breakfast sandwich that grandpa himself might have made out at hunting camp – as delicious and satisfying on a cold and dark winter morning in the city as it might have been looking out the window of his hunting cabin – a shack really – as the late fall sunrise started to burn the frost off the leaves of the trees. Had Grandpa, brought up by a Holland-born lumberman’s son in central Pennsylvania, even heard of the word prosciutto? Probably not. But knowing that we might have tasted the same simple meal, even decades and a world apart, made me feel closer to him than I had in a long time.