Weights And Measures

One of the things I find irritating about most cook books is the insistence upon using subjective measures rather than weight. For instance, I made onion soup over the weekend. Nothing special about that, but I used the Balthazar Cookbook, so I should get credit for choosing well. Anyway, the recipe called for four medium onions. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a chart with pictures of onions and their size category, although I am sure that it exists somewhere. The soup turned out very well (the chicken stock recipe in the book is excellent), and I am sure that I used approximately the correct amount of onion. But how difficult would it be to slap the onions onto a scale? I have an electronic scale in my kitchen that I use frequently. When I make hamburgers for the kids I will weigh the meat so that the burgers are of equal size. And because I know how much meat I started with, I can tailor the size so that I am not left with a tiny bit of ground beef. Yes, I know, that is a bit too close to OCD for most people, but the point is valid.

And just in case you thought that your measuring cups are wonderful scientific tools, many seemingly similar ingredients are of very different densities. Kosher salt is about half the density of table salt. And there are significant differences between brands of granulated sugar, so the bakers out there may want to start weighing their sugar for greater consistency. Or not.

I don’t want to sound like a ranting maniac (even though that is exactly what I sound like), but cooking, for many people, is intimidating enough without having to worry about whether the onions in the bag are medium or small.

It Worked! (I’m Still Not A Chef Though)

And it was fun too! The end result was a nicely crisped chicken, with absolutely spectacular roasted potatoes and carrots (yeah, I caved and added something healthy).  I cleverly used duck fat instead of oil, because I have a pint of the stuff from my Thanksgiving multiple-duck-roasting. Duck fat has a fairly high smoke point, and it adds a bit of flavor. And I think that the cast iron really helped the process; it is so big and heavy that the temperature barely dropped when I put the chicken into the pan.

I dumped some carrots, lemon, celery and onion into the cavity of a 4-pound chicken and then tied the legs together. I couldn’t be bothered with stitching the cavity closed, so I just tucked the skin under the legs and hoped that the stuffing wouldn’t fall out. And don’t forget my creeping pomposity. I used that weird Hawaiian pink sea salt, both in the cavity and on the exterior. I also sprinkled some fresh thyme around, mostly as an afterthought. I used small Yukon Gold potatoes that I had peeled and soaked in cold water for a few hours. I was hoping that the water would leech out some of the starch and help crisp the potatoes, and it seemed to work. The potatoes were too big left whole, so I quartered them, which worked out to be the perfect size. I also peeled and split some carrots and cut them into two-inch pieces. I soaked them in cold water as well, but also added some brown sugar and a bit of salt. Why? I have no idea. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The pan was just smoking when I put the chicken in, and the sound of the skin hitting the hot duck fat was lovely.  I made sure that the chicken was nice and dry before I dropped it in; I hate getting splattered with hot fat. It browned fairly quickly, maybe two or three minutes on each side. If I make this dish again (and I think I will) I will brown the chicken for a bit longer. As I browned the chicken I heated up a non-stick pan with a pat of butter and some canola oil. When it was hot I tossed in the potatoes and carrots. I wanted to season them (a bit of salt, pepper and thyme) and coat them with fat before I put them into the cast iron pan, mostly to minimize the mess; they filled the pan and it would have been difficult to toss them in the fat. When the chicken was nicely browned, I picked it out of the pan, tossed the potatoes and carrots in, slapped the chicken back into the pan on top of the other stuff, and put it into a 450°F oven for about an hour. I flipped the chicken after 50 minutes, mostly to crisp up the bottom. The potatoes and carrots didn’t stick at all; they just got nice and brown and crispy. The chicken was juicy, but the legs were a tad overdone. Nothing terrible, but the skin had begun to pull away from the ends.

This was enjoyable and amusing to cook, both because I had no idea what I was doing, and the technique was interesting. The best part was the potatoes and carrots. When I try this again I’ll have to spend more than three seconds contemplating the seasoning, but the chicken was worth the trouble.

P.S. I forgot that I deglazed the pan with the stuffing and some red wine (and butter, of course). I then scrunched it through a chinois and made a beautiful sauce. It even tasted good, but it didn’t really go well with the dish. Maybe white wine and lemon would have worked better.

Roast Chicken (With A Twist)

Not of lemon, but of technique. Recently, I watched our chef friend cook a chicken, and I thought that I could steal and then modify his method. Not really, because he roasted it whole, then carved it into pieces and continued roasting, and he knew when each piece was done without the benefit of a thermometer. I have fewer skills, and even less talent, so I will be less confident of the process and the end result.

I want to try browning a whole chicken in my large, cast iron skillet then roast it at some outrageous temperature until it is crispy. I’ll manage the risk of a fat fire by layering the pan with potatoes, which should soak up the fat and taste pretty good by the end. Of course, I will need to truss the chicken, which means that my wife will get at least one mouthful of string (bondage is not one of my skills), but that is a price I am willing to pay, if the end result is crispy and juicy. Actually, I have no idea whether this is a standard technique that I just never saw or read about. But that is half the fun of cooking — trying new stuff and being, hopefully, pleasantly surprised at the outcome. I can’t imagine that it will be awful; it just might not be worth the trouble. But if I am wrong, and it is awful, I still have some of that great ragu I made the other day.

See the results here.

One Thousand And One Nights — Of Ragù

For his birthday dinner, a sixteen-year-old, who shall remain nameless, requested spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, Caesar salad, and my justifiably famous molten chocolate cake. Of course, I was insulted and hurt that he didn’t want my roast duck, or pasta with shrimp and arugula, or any of dozens of dishes that actually are interesting. He did choose an excellent dessert, so he will be allowed to survive another year. He got what he requested, but I wasn’t going to eat meatloaf balls and red sauce. I was going to make Pasta alla Bolognese, served over whatever flat pasta I could find (my cooking skills do not include making fresh pasta). What could be easier? I had forgotten how long it takes to make this dish and how much attention it requires. But I was hell-bent on eating something better, and besides, I already had bragged to my wife that she would love this dish.

Pace, Marcella Hazan, but your recipe for ragù (the meat sauce for the dish) is a pain-in-the-ass. It is also very, very good on a cold, snowy night, with a glass of full-bodied red wine. So I am happy with my ragù recipe. But the little food nerd sitting on my shoulder whispered in my ear, “What about the recipe calling for veal? Or pork? Or Pancetta? Or Prosciutto? Or mushrooms? or…” There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of recipes for this simple meat sauce. And they all look good. The basic idea is simple, and the various recipes play around with the ingredients to accommodate the tastes of the cook. They just take a long time. Try one of these recipes. You will be happy with the results. A word of advice: Make a double batch. It freezes well, and the extra time investment is minimal.

An Unexpected Twist

I cooked in someone else’s kitchen last night. Nothing earth shattering in that news, but it was more difficult than I expected. No, the concept of the silverware drawer being to the right of the stove rather than the left wasn’t the strange part. It was the electric cook top and an excellent electric oven. The cook top was tough to adjust to the appropriate temperature, so I had to keep checking the paella rice to see whether it was cooked. And the surface was tempered glass, so I had to lift the pan to see where the heating element was, and how red it was getting. I just couldn’t figure that one out. The oven was a different story. It was correctly calibrated and consistent, so the recipe for molten chocolate cakes, which I thought was flawed, was actually correct. It really does take only 15 minutes to bake! At least if you are using an accurate oven.

So now I have oven envy, and cook top pride.

Goat Cheese Cures All Ills

Remember that duck I brined? Well, we ate the last of it in a quesadilla. But the idea of salsa with duck disturbed me, so I chopped the duck meat, sautéed it in olive oil for a few minutes, then browned it between two fresh tortillas. The trick was the liberal application of goat cheese. Wow! It really worked. The goat cheese was a bit pungent, so it  balanced out the richness of the duck (I’m not crazy. I left some of the fat). This is an idea that I plan to explore at great length for the next several years. Oh, it went well with an oaky Chardonnay. Who knew?

Duck Brining Update

I wish I could report, breathlessly, that I have found a magnificent way to prepare duck. Unfortunately, I was completely underwhelmed by the brined duck. I think brining should be reserved for leaner meats such as pork and chicken, where the brine adds moisture. Duck is fatty enough that no additional moisture is needed. The cooking process simply converts the ample solid fat into a lovely, constant cascade of fat basting. I had hoped that the brining liquid, with the addition of some herbs, would add complexity to the duck. But it just made it nicely salted. And that isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t worth the additional work of brining. Perhaps a long brining in a weaker solution would work better, but the equivalent with a chicken made a clear difference, so now I am suspicious of the whole concept.

Why I Am Not A Chef

We have a good friend who is a classically trained chef, and a professionally successful one too! That is the rare part. Anyone can go to cooking school, but most cooking school graduates do not move on to become top chefs at serious restaurants in New York City. For my wife’s birthday, he gave her a home-cooked meal. Specifically, a “bird dinner,” because my wife loves a good roast chicken. Now, Jim is no longer cooking professionally, so he couldn’t cheat and bring a bag full of amazing ingredients from his restaurant’s kitchen. In fact, the only ingredient that he used that I have never had in my kitchen was truffle oil. Everything else was standard stuff. And the tools? Nothing out of the ordinary, although he did suggest that I get a chinoise. And my kitchen is nothing special. No six-burner stove, no salamandar, no turbo-nuclear-convection oven with the kung-fu grip. So, the playing field was level. Anyone who has any interest in cooking has access to everything he used. Even the menu was, at first glance, completely ordinary, in the sense that there were no bizarre combinations, no arcane and tedious techniques; just good old-fashioned cooking.

But there was a difference between what Jim did in my kitchen and what I try to do. And it wasn’t a subtle or small difference. And that difference isn’t in technique, because no matter how well the greatest technician minces garlic and chops basil and roasts chicken, I can still duplicate his efforts if I have a recipe. I’ll just make more of a mess and take three times as long!  And most competent home cooks can do the same. No, the real difference is that hard-to-measure thing called talent. Jim walked through the market and picked particular foods, not because he was reading from a carefully prepared list of ingredients, but because stuff just looked good, or seemed intriguing. And he put them all together without any grand plan. It just came together without any apparent effort. And that’s not all. Those run-of-the-mill ingredients combined to make wonderful, interesting and exciting dishes. Tuna, leeks and asparagus are not my go-to foods for a great appetizer. Marinated (or brined, or cured . . . I just don’t know what to call it, other than fantastic) tuna on a bed of poached asparagus and minced leeks doesn’t leap to the forefront of my mind. But it sure made me and my wife happy. I won’t even elaborate on the roast chicken. Suffice it to say that the chestnuts went perfectly with the potatoes and sausage! And the pan reduction with lemon? Wow! This kind of stuff just doesn’t occur to me, which is why . . . I Am Not A Chef.

Oh, and the reason Jim isn’t doing this professionally?  He decided that designing and building spectacularly beautiful furniture would be fun. Obviously, his talent isn’t confined to the kitchen.

Brining A Duck?

As is my wont, I will be roasting ducks for Thanksgiving. The turkey is being dealt with by my sister and her life partner, and she has caught brining fever, no doubt from me. But brining a turkey simply makes it palatable. I have no interest in food whose claim to fame is that it doesn’t make me nauseous. The problem is that I am roasting three ducks, and maybe a little variety would be interesting. But brining? Who knows? It may be vile, or fine, or (and I am hoping for this result) the most magnificent bird ever roasted in the history of roasted birds, just like the kiss in Princess Bride. The typical ratio of salt and sugar to liquid is 16:1 in most recipes for turkey and chicken, although, not surprisingly, I have not found an interesting (most seem to be for barbecuing) brined duck recipe. This is half the concentration that I use on pork, which may or may not make sense. I’ll tell you next Friday.

P.S. Cooks Illustrated says that duck does not benefit from brining. The gauntlet has been thrown down!

And here is the result!

Duck Redux

So, the big duck roast was last night, and it went swimmingly. When I wrote about the superiority of duck compared with turkey, I also mentioned that I was unsure which cooking technique I would use. I went the low-temperature, then high-temperature route, not out of any strong feelings about its advantages, but because I timed the meal badly, and this method helped me salvage it. I roasted the duck for about one hour at 275°F, then let it rest for about 45 minutes. I returned it to the oven for another 30 minutes or so, but at a rocking 450°F! The low-temperature roast rendered a surprising amount of fat, and the high-temperature roast crisped the skin and rendered even more fat. The meat was perfectly cooked, incredibly moist, and didn’t have that unpleasant layer of fat that sometimes remains when I don’t roast the duck correctly.

Unfortunately, my sister and her life partner brought a great baguette (and an excellent Sonoma Pinot Noir, but that is for another post) with which I soaked up most of the fat and crispy bits from the bottom of the roasting pan. Perhaps that is why this morning I felt like drinking drain cleaner.