Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dinner on the Fly: Duck Confit Carbonara with Braised Greens and Garlic Scapes

I fantasize about a butcher.  Not just the man but the place. No styrofoam, no plastic, just smooth brown paper that creases clean in the corners, folded on a steel countertop.  The man behind the counter would wear a white apron with red stains and an amiable greeting like your friendly neighborhood serial killer.  At some point we would know each other by name.

I realize that as a New Yorker I have no right to complain about not having access to anything.  It is true that I can get pretty much any exotic ingredient that is worthy of a trip outside my five mile radius (that travel time being equivalent to thirty miles outside the NYC area).  But we can eat just about anything from from grizzly bear to emu to any number of reptiles.  Does anyone ever wonder how we narrowed our choices down to just three; beef, chicken and pork?  In my utopian fantasy, there would be world peace and a neighborhood butcher that sold not just pork, beef and chicken but rabbit, duck, ostrich, bison and something I could try on a dare.  

We don't eat meat everyday anyway, so our specialty meats are really a treat.  Usually the result of a special outing. Duck, although not high on the list of exoticism, is a rare and coveted dinner at our house.   Especially for a week night.

Duck Confit

This is something you make ahead and use sparingly as it is very rich.  It is remarkably easy to for such a fancy sounding name. 
  • 2 duck legs
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • extra duck fat to cover the duck legs
  • tiny sprig of rosemary (optional) 
You need a oven proof dish that is just big enough to fit your duck legs.  Do not preheat our oven.  Place one garlic clove and rosemary sprig under each duck leg.  Cover almost entirely with extra duck fat.  About one cup to 2 legs.  Put your duck in the oven and turn it on to 250 degrees.  You want the duck in the oven while it is pre-heating.  This is super slow cooking on very low heat.  Leave for 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Duck Confit Carbonara with Braised Greens and Garlic Scapes
  • 2 tablespoons duck fat from the duck conft
  • 1 bunch of braising greens such as mustard greens, spinach, kale or chard, chopped
  • 5 garlic scapes
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup grated grana padana
  • 1 lb of spaghetti
  • Duck meat from confit for serving
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
Salt your water and boil your pasta. Beat your eggs and cheese together Melt your duck fat in a skillet or large sautee pan.  Add your greens and garlic scapes.  If they get a little dry as they are cooking add a little of the pasta water.  When pasta is done add it to your greens if the pan is big enough.  If it isn't you can do the reverse.  Add your egg mixture and toss for a few minutes.  The egg will cook and thicken with the heat of the pasta but not separate. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with duck meat on top.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding Eggs and Shelling Beans

I was eight and my brother was four when we were introduced to our grandparents.  It was the first summer of many we spent in the mountainous region of Southern Lazio, Italy where our father is from.  It was a long, stuffy journey for us but the air got progressively cleaner and thinner as we got closer to our destination.  By the last fifteen minutes of the journey, we were riding in a car circling higher and higher up mountains.  Birds were our traveling companions.  My father became more animated as what looked like a birthmark on the mountain grew to be recognized as a cluster of stone residences that was his town.  A far cry from Yonkers.

My father had told me that my grandparents kept chickens, picked fruit off of trees and harvested olives with the help of their neighbors from their own olive groves.  My fourth grade textbook education translated that to 'They live on a farm.'  Rural to the average American eight year old is a ranch style house and rolling acres of land around it, like in a picture book called "Where Does Our Milk Come From?". When we pulled up to the large wooden doors of a stone facade that seemed to be attached to every other stone facade in the town, I thought we could not possibly be in the right place.

"Why are we stopping here?  When do we get to Nonna and Nonno's house?"
My father laughed in a way that was both amused and excited, and exclaimed, "We are here!"

Here we were.  In the midst of a reunion, my brother and I are presented with pride to our grandparents.  There were big exclamations, gesticulations, tears, smiles and checks pinched purple.  My grandmother had a cloud of snow white hair, a fixed demure smile with chin tilted inward, and broad palms that cupped our faces in a basket embrace.  If the barrior of her dialect had not existed, one would still have to lean in close to hear the soft, high pitch bell of her voice.  My grandfather was short and stout with a chest that puffed out like a pigeon.  His shoulders were broad as was his upward, tilted smile.  In contrast, one would never have to lean in to hear him.

Fascinated and timid, I was determined to be on my best behavior.  Yet, I felt idle and mute in this new place were I struggled to understand and be understood.  I shadowed my new grandmother around her home.  I found her at the sink in the mornings. "Cosa vuoi mangiare? L'uova?" What would you like to eat? Eggs?  She asked me to retrieve them.  There were no eggs in the refridgerater.  My father is chuckling in the doorway.  "The eggs are outside in the yard."  Down the marble stairs and out the back door is a small yard with a chicken coup to the right.  I stepped inside to loud squawking and feathers flapping around my feet. I walked gingerly through my egg hunt.  I held up a smooth, brown globe.  Triumphant and beaming I ran back to the kitchen.

In the afternoon, we sat on folding chairs with a bucket of bean pods between us.  She taught me to split the pods with my thumb to reveal the beans inside.  They were glossy white speckled with purple patches like artisan beads. Her rounded hands worked nimbly leaving a pile of empty pods in her apron while my small fingers worked clumsily, barely making a dent in her afternoons work.

Without words but with shared activity I got to know my grandmother, her lifestyle and routine.  The routine that made her matriarch and care taker of all those who entered her home, friends, family and neighbors.  During that first summer away from the familiarities of suburban New York, I never asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an oreo cookie.

No recipe today.  Just a  photo that triggered a memory to remind me why I cooked today and will cook again tomorrow.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Classics: Baked Beans

Another summer barbecue, classic side dish.  This side is so easy that I can not believe I have ever eaten it out of a can.  ( I also can't believe I just admitted that to you.)  This past grilling endeavor on my husband's part was a great opportunity to for me to make baked beans as a side in place of the potato salad.  This is such a staple of American casual cuisine in my mind.  However, during a brief time I spent as a traveler with a work visa in England, I had it as an integral part of their traditional "English Breakfast." Cheerfully referred to as "beans on toast", this meant a can of Heinz baked beans, warmed and dumped over white, sliced bread toast.  I was a little disappointed when it was first served to me but then it fit my young traveler's budget and morning appetite.  It was equivalent to an "egg-on-a roll" that you can get at any New York bodega for $1.99.

A far cry from Heinz baked beans in a can, I am very happy with the way this recipe turned out.  It has that traditional sweetness along with a little added spice.

Baked Beans
  • One 16 oz bag of dry white kidney beans
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/4 pound of slab bacon (go to a butcher, please), diced in small cubes
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/4 of a cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons ground dry mustard
  • 1 bay leaf 
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • dash of chipotle powder (optional but it adds to the smokey flavor with just a touch of heat)
  • salt and pepper to taste
I start my beans in the slow cooker on high for about 30 to 45 minutes with enough water to cover them with an inch of water above the beans.  If you don't have a slow cooker you can put them in a large pot with the same amount of water to simmer.  In a large dutch oven or cast iron pot, cook your bacon and onion until your onion is translucent and your bacon is starting to brown.  Drain your beans and add them to the pot. Toss so that they are coated with bacon fat.  Add all other ingredients and toss.  Cover with water and bring to a boil.  Then simmer until the beans are tender, about 2 1/2 hours.

Just for inspiration, I have to show you our complete meal.

On the left is a spicy, no-mayo slaw with red cabbage and carrots, and below is Nick' slow cooked, barbecue brisket.

If Nick ever decides to share this recipe it could be a future blog post.