Whole snapper with ginger and scallions.

I have a few favorite people in this world, who probably don’t know they hold such a place in my heart.  There’s Dee, at Highland Company Gourmet Market, who raises her own cattle, cattle that provide the best beef I’ve ever tasted.  There’s Carol, at La Maison du Cheese (yes, that’s “The House of Cheese” in French, err, French-American) who bakes like a dream, a really, really delicious dream, things like croissants with brie and roasted pear inside, and pecan sticky buns.

Snapper

There’s Emil and Joe at Maresca and Sons Fine Meats, who have the best pork belly and sausages.  And David and Patty at Podere di Melo farm, who have the chickens that I’m forever waxing sentimental over, the only chickens that I eat anymore, whose bones make for the best, happiest stock.  There’s crisp, sweet, unbelievably good apples up the road at Solebury Orchards, and even more a little further, at Manoff Market Gardens.

Snapper

There’s the gang at Bobolink Dairy, who are over 2 hours away from me, but whose cheese makes every mile of the drive worth it, and whose roasted garlic and duck fat bread is liable to make me weep the whole way home.  There’s Blue Moon Acres, the specialty organic lettuce farm that opens for only a few hours each week, and is known for providing some of the best NYC restaurants with their greens, the farm that I make it to practically every week despite the time constraints, and whose lettuce makes everyone I feed it to do a double take, because Really? Is lettuce supposed to taste this good?

Ginger

And there’s The Seafood of Buckingham Valley, or Buckingham Seafood, as everyone calls it.  It’s almost indecent, really, for us to be able to buy such great seafood, fresh as can be, out in the country where we’re already spoiled with pastured eggs and heirloom pork, and all the fresh apple cider we could ask for.  But, thankfully, this isn’t just a farm-area, this is a foodie-area, and we want it all, the best of everything, and (it never ceases to make me smile) there’s wonderful people willing to give it to us.

Snapper, covered

Everyone who lives here and likes fish talks about Buckingham Seafood, and how dedicated the family-run business is to their product.  They love fish, that’s for certain.  Sometimes, we’ll go there and Nick will tell us that they’ve been restraining themselves from eating all of the tuna that day, cut from a fatty piece of belly, and that we’d be crazy not to buy it while it’s still there.

Snapper, sauced

Their whole fish is always as fresh as can be, with clear, glossy eyes, and the smell of sea, not fish.  Jim and I make a lot of whole fish, it’s a weeknight go-to meal, and though it may seem daunting if you’ve never cooked whole fish before, it’s really easy, well, maybe not easier than sauteing a fillet, but cheaper than fillets, and worth learning.  The main thing, I think, is to make sure that the first few times you try your hand at whole fish, you’re cooking for people who you don’t feel uncomfortable telling them there might be a few bones to pick through.  Because while it’s easy to fillet a whole fish, it can make you a little bit anxious the first time, and unless you’re with friends, you’re liable to sit there picking out bones long enough that the fish turns cold. After a few times, though, you’ll get the hang of it, and know just where most of the bones lie, and how to fillet around them, or where to quickly pick them out of the fillet.

Snapper

Steamed with ginger and scallions was the first preparation that Jim and I ever used for whole fish, and it’s a simple winner.  With nothing more than pantry staples and a whole fish (snapper or black bass are good choices) you can put together a delicious meal in about 30 minutes.  We usually serve this with plain white rice on the side, sauced with some of the liquid that remains in the baking dish, but I’ll also braise some green beans with garlic and ginger if I’m feeling energetic enough at 8 o’clock on a weeknight, the time we usually get around to making dinner.

Whole Snapper with Ginger and Scallions

But before you go running off to find a local fish market, I want to thank you for your comments last post.  They cheered me up during rough nights, when I read through your condolences, and it was wonderful to hear how many of you would like an onion and peanut butter sandwich!

Whole Snapper with Ginger and Scallions

from Gourmet (oh, sadness) February 2006

1 (3-lb) whole red snapper or black bass, cleaned, leaving head and tail intact
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bunch scallions, white and pale green parts cut into very thin 2-inch strips and greens reserved separately
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into very thin matchsticks
3 tablespoons light soy sauce (preferably Pearl River Bridge brand)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. Put baking dish in roasting pan.

Rinse fish and pat dry, then rub inside and out with salt. Transfer to baking dish and sprinkle with scallion strips (white and pale green) and ginger.

Stir together soy sauce and sugar until sugar is dissolved, then pour over fish. Add enough boiling-hot water to roasting pan to reach halfway up side of baking dish. Oil a large sheet of heavy-duty foil, then tent foil (oiled side down) over fish and tightly seal around roasting pan. Carefully transfer roasting pan to oven and bake until fish is just cooked through, 30 to 35 minutes.

While fish bakes, cut enough scallion greens diagonally into very thin slices to measure 1/2 cup (reserve remainder for another use).

Just before serving, remove foil from fish and sprinkle with scallion greens. Heat oil over high heat until just smoking. Remove from heat and immediately pour oil over scallion greens and fish.

Cauliflower soup with crème fraîche.

After all that Stockton Soup Lady business last post, I think it’s high time for me to show off a few more of my soups.  This one, a cauliflower soup with leeks, crème fraîche, toasted pine nuts, and meyer lemon-infused olive oil, is a favorite.

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Cauliflower was one of the first soups, after roasted tomato, that I started making on a regular basis.  It’s the perfect soup base because it yields a very creamy soup and it can temper bold additions, like Stilton cheese, without the soup tasting too strong. I used lemon-infused olive oil as my intense flavor addition, and while that might not seem too bold, I hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with this seriously lemony olive oil (it’s too much for a tomato salad, and I don’t care for it in vinaigrette) until I dripped it over the cauliflower soup, already slightly tart from crème fraîche, and it found its home.

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This soup, with the lemon oil or whatever garnish is on hand, is a must this fall, especially if you’re like me and you need some extra comforting lately. Last Sunday night, my uncle lost his battle with lung cancer.  I had been able to spend some time with him on Friday afternoon, and by the time I left I knew that would be the last time we saw each other.  He didn’t go without a fight, though; he’d been fighting strong since his diagnosis months back

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He loved life, and couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it so early, at 52; he didn’t want to let go of the dreams for his future, or his new home country, Kenya, where he had lived the past five years before coming back to the States for treatment.  He didn’t want to let go of his wife and daughter in Kenya, both of whom he had far too little time with. He didn’t want to let go of his family and friends here in New Jersey, and New York City, and San Francisco, or his memories, or his jokes, or his snarky attitude.  He wanted all of it–all of life. Even when it hurt too much for him to stand anymore, he wanted life. I think that’s the most difficult part of this; it’s so hard to accept that he died, even when he wanted so badly not to.

Cauliflower soup

I would have loved to share this soup with my uncle; sadly he wasn’t up for much eating towards the end, which is sadder still knowing how much he enjoyed food.  Uncle John was the reason I loved to eat as a kid; his appetite was impossibly large and varied, and very, very cool.  He ate grasshoppers, and onion and peanut-butter sandwiches, but he also appreciated well-made classics.  He would have loved this soup.

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Cauliflower Soup with Crème fraîche

4-6 servings

4 small leeks, top dark green part removed
1 small onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
1 medium head cauliflower
2 cups homemade chicken stock
2 cups water

3 or more tablespoons crème fraîche to taste

handful of pine nuts, toasted (optional)

meyer lemon olive oil, such as o Meyer Lemon Oil (optional)

Cut leeks lengthwise in half. Split halves open and wash thoroughly under running water, discarding any outer leaves that are egregiously dirty, then slice. Chop onion. In a medium soup pot, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add in leeks and onion and cook until softened, about 5-8 minutes. Add in salt.

Remove leaves from the cauliflower head and cut in half then, using a sharp knife, cut out the stalk. With your hands, break up the cauliflower into florets. Add florets to soup pot with stock and water. If you don’t have homemade chicken stock, you can use all water. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until florets are tender and easily broken up.

Using caution, blend the soup in three or four batches.  Add back to pot and stir in creme crème fraîche.  Serve in bowl with toasted pine nuts and olive oil.

Ricotta gnocchi with corn and chanterelles.

This is not the time, amid all this heat, humidity, and rain, to ask you to stand in your kitchen with the stove-top going—two burners—and roll gnocchi.  And it isn’t the time, quite frankly, to ask you to eat gnocchi, ricotta gnocchi, covered in brown butter; heavy with cheese and fat.

But it is the season for corn. And chanterelles are popping up here in New Jersey. And there’s lots of fresh summer herbs.  This gnocchi is perfect, really, for after one of those summer days of swimming and exercise; those days when you get home in good spirits with some adrenaline left and you can get to work rolling gnocchi. Then by the time dinner hits the table, you’ll be ravenous.

I think I just planned your Saturday.

You won’t be disappointed.  Homemade gnocchi is just better than anything you can get frozen or—gasp!—from a box.  (Though, to be honest, I’ve heard that Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi is pretty good…)  It takes a little getting used to; you need to use the right amount of pressure while you roll each piece against the tines of a fork in order to make those pretty little grooves, and while that right amount of pressure can’t be taught by a recipe, it’s easily learned after you experience squashing your first few.

It’s a bit more labor intensive than rolling out pasta, but I think I mentioned, cheese is involved in this dough, so a little more labor is worth it.  And gnocchi is the perfect pasta fix for those without a pasta machine.

This gnocchi recipe is Suzanne Goin’s from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, a gorgeous cookbook, organized by season. I want to make every single one of her recipes, but this was the perfect way to jump into the book.  The gnocchi cook up luscious and tender, only to be made more so by the brown butter used to cook each component of the recipe.  First the chanterelles are fried in the butter with thyme until they are crisp and ruthlessly seductive.  You really must work not to eat them all before the dish is done.  Then sage is added to the butter, and the house all of a sudden smells better than ever.  Corn gets tossed in with some shallots; the hot butter shines over each kernel of corn before slipping around to hug the gnocchi, which is added to the pan last.  Let everything saute for a moment and then serve with lots of fresh parsley, some chives, a grating of parmigianno, and some crispy toasted breadcrumbs.

We ate this alongside spare ribs from the local farm, from pigs we met last winter, using James Beard’s recipe for baking spare ribs.  His technique let the natural pork flavor sing and we couldn’t decide which we liked better, the ribs or the gnocchi, until we decided that it was useless, they were both so good, working so well together, that picking sides would be like choosing between chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes.  But everything about the gnocchi, we did agree, even with all it’s lusciousness and butter, epitomized summer.  It’s irrestible.  Happy-making.

Now get rolling.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Chanterelles, Sweet Corn, and Sage Brown Butter

adapted (ever so slightly) from Sunday Supper at Lucques

The only adaption I made was to add less salt than the original recipe.  During the last step, Goin advised us to add another 1 teaspoon salt, but I found I didn’t need that.  I recommend tasting before adding.

1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 pound chanterelles, cleaned
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon sliced sage leaves
3 cups fresh corn kernels (from about 4 ears)
2/3 cup diced shallots
1 recipe ricotta gnocchi (follows)
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375F.

Toss breadcrumbs with 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Spread them on a baking sheet, and toast 8 to 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until golden brown.

If the mushrooms are big, tear them into bite-size pieces.

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes.  Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and heat another minute.  Swirl in 1 tablespoon butter, and when it foams, add the mushrooms, half the thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a health pinch of pepper.  Saute the mushrooms about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they’re tender and a little crispy.  Don’t be tempted to move them around in the pan too much in the beginning: let them sear a little before stirring.  Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a platter.

Return the pan to the stove, and heat on high for 1 minute.  Add the remaining 6 tablespoons butter to the pan, and cook a minute or two, until the butter starts to brown.  Add the sage, let it sizzle, and then add the corn, shallots, remaining thyme, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and some freshly ground pepper.  Saute quickly, tossing the corn in the hot butter for about 2 minutes, until the corn is just tender.  Add the gnocchi and toss well to coat with the corn and brown butter.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, add the mushrooms.  Toss to combine, and heat the mushrooms through.  Add the parsley.  Arrange the gnocchi on a large platter, and shower with the breadcrumbs.  Grate over some parmesan cheese if you like.

Ricotta Gnocchi

2 extra-large eggs (I used eggs from my friend’s chickens, which were smaller than extra-large, but didn’t notice a difference)
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 pound whole milk ricotta, drained if wet
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Beat the eggs together in a small bowl.

Place 2 cups flour, 1 3/4 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and the ricotta in a large mixing bowl.  With a dinner knife in each hand, cut the ricotta into the flour.  When the flour and ricotta are combined, make a well in the center and pour in the eggs.  Use a fork and, starting in the middle of the mixture, incorporate the eggs into the flour and ricotta.  Knead the dough with your hands briefly, just to bring together while being careful not to overwork it.  Shape the dough into a ball, and place it on a lightly floured cutting board.  Cut the ball into four pieces, and cover with a clean kitchen towel.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.

One by one, take each piece of dough out from underneath the towel, cut it in half, and roll it into a 3/4 inch thick rope on a lightly floured cutting board.  The amount of flour on the board is very important:  if you have too much the dough is difficult to roll, and if you don’t use enough, the dough will stick to the board.  Cut the ropes into 1-in-long pices, and sprinkle a little flour over them. Using your thumb, roll each piece of dough over the back of those tines of a fork, leaving an indentation from your thumb on one side and the marking from the fork on the other.

Plunge the gnocchi into the boiling water in batches.  Once they rise to the surface, cook them for 1 minute more.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a baking sheet or platter.  Drizzle the cooked gnocchi with the olive oil, and toss to coat them well.

Mascarpone Chicken

I hope you won’t think me immodest if I say I can roast a serious chicken. Because, ahem, I can.

The art of chicken roasting is a lifelong project and all, so maybe my chickens aren’t the best they can be (yet); and it could be that half of the knock-you-off-your-chairness of my roast chickens owes to their being Podere di Melo chickens, but I nonetheless think my roast chickens are cause for immodesty.  And unchecked gluttony too, since Jim and I are liable to polish off a whole bird whenever we roast one.

Usually, I keep it simple with roast chicken: some lemon, butter, salt and pepper—and into the oven.  I’m always in love with the outcome, and it’s hard to want for anything different.  Except, of course, if there’s cheese involved.

Mascarpone cheese in fact, and how could anyone resist that?  There’s herbs too, and even the tiniest bit of olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper.  And if you follow the recipe, I promise it will be a serious chicken, with skin so crisp it crackles, and cheese hiding underneath it, lush and herb-y.  There’s more cheese than can be stuffed under the chicken, so halfway through the roasting process, you spoon the uncooked cheese all around the chicken.  It makes a creamy, curd-like sauce.  If you’ve ever had milk-braised pork, you know what the sauce will taste like, and it’s okay if you need to leave right now to procure a chicken.

Don’t fret if you’ve never spatchcocked a chicken before (and don’t skip this step, spatchcocking allows for every inch of the skin to crisp up into a delicious golden brown).  All you need is a good pair of kitchen shears (or a good handle on your sharpest knife).  You cut out the backbone, and then place the chicken cavity-side down on the cutting board.  Press down with a heavy hand to break the breast-bone, so that the chicken lies flat.  Ta-da!  You’re done.  It can seem a little brutal the first time, backbone cutting and breast-bone breaking, but let’s not forget that we are eating the chicken already, so we might as well prepare the thing right. I imagine if I were to be roasted and feasted upon, I’d want to look like this:

Roast chickens can be a tough thing for families—one roast chicken never seems to feed enough people—but in this recipe, a little goes a long way.  Jim and I couldn’t finish our pieces, no matter how hard we tried (and normally we put away a whole one).  It was so luscious and filling, one chicken could certainly feed four.  But better yet, you could make it for one, and have a lot of leftovers.

Mascarpone and Herb Stuffed Chicken

serves 4

for the filling

3 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz mascarpone cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
small handful of oregano
small handful of parsley
small(er) handful of thyme

for the chicken

1 chicken, any size, though to feed 4 you’ll need about one of about 4-5 pounds
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Combine garlic, mascarpone, eggs, parmigianno, herbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.
Cut out backbones from chicken with kitchen shears. Pat chicken dry, then spread flat, cavity side down, on a cutting board. With a heavy hand, press down at the middle of the breasts until you hear the breast-bone break. Cut two slits in the chicken skin, in the creases between the thighs and the breasts.

Sprinkle each chicken with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. To loosen the skin, gently slide your finger between skin and flesh of the breast, starting at the top. Slide your finger between the skin and flesh of the legs by going through the slits you made (be careful not to tear skin). Using a small spoon, slide 2/3 cup ricotta mixture under skin, using a finger outside of skin to spread filling over meat of breast, thighs, and drumsticks. Tuck the wing tips under. Drizzle olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Place chicken in a well oiled roasting pan, skin side up.

Reserve remaining filling.

Bake chickens in middle of oven 30 minutes, then spoon remaining filling around chicken. Continue baking until chicken is just cooked through and instant read thermometer reads about 165F, about 20 minutes more. Let chickens stand 10 minutes, then cut each into quarters. Serve with cheese.

Simple tomato salad.

When I first started to throw dinner parties, just a few years ago now, I would work myself into such a tizzy over the damn things, overextending myself, liable to melt into a pool of nervous tears halfway through.  I needed to make enough food to feed an army, in the vain hope that everyone would be so enraptured by my talents that they’d eat until it was all gone.  I chose recipes that were vastly above my skill level, deciding on them before even hitting the market. There’d be hard-to-find ingredients hailing from Asia, or Morocco; cheeses I was supposed to use though I’d never tried them (and had no sense of their potency). And when something would go wrong—I couldn’t find the ingredient or hated the cheese—I would turn into a ball of nerves, believing there was nothing I could do, that I didn’t have any other recipes to turn to.

Thankfully, those times are past.  Lots of dinner parties, and problems, later, I’ve learned that you go to market without a set plan, with your head full of possibilities.  I still follow recipes, but loosely.  I keep a pantry full of basic ingredients—for a basic vinaigrette, a basic sauce—and I revert to the simplest food whenever a problem arises (or even, before.)  After a few years of chefs and cookbooks drilling simplicity into my head, I’ve finally come around.

The lovely thing is, simple food doesn’t have to taste simple.  Duh. But I think that fact eludes most fledgling cooks, entering a world of complicated techniques and endless cuisines.  It eluded me, that’s for sure.  I think I picked complicated recipes because I couldn’t bear the thought of screwing up simple, while making a mistakes in advanced cooking were easily shrugged off.  Simple can be scary.  But simple food is worth learning.

Especially in the summer, when you don’t want to spend too much time cooking (I certainly prefer swimming), and when you can take full advantage of the tomatoes you (or your magical elves) grow in the garden, and when even the measliest herb garden will do its part.  During the dog days of summer, simple isn’t just best, it’s the only option.  This simple tomato salad is a must too, or at least it was for me, because I got to spend a lazy summer day driving around the pretty countryside along the Delaware river, picking up tomatoes down the road, and a fancy goat cheese at the market; to come home and feel very accomplished while I picked French sorrel and herbs from my little potted garden.

I used a variety of tomatoes; some from down the road, some from the little gourmet shop where I got the cheese, and one from a fancy grocery store.  We did a blind tasting before making the salad and it was hard to judge these tomatoes, they were so different — though surprisingly, the fancy grocery store won by a small margin. (They did cost about 4 dollars per small tomato: don’t judge me people, I knew full-well it was ridiculous!).  I also used a variety of herbs: lemon thyme, a few leaves of peppermint, basil, parsley, a load of chives, and some very biting sorrel.  The goat cheese, a pepper crusted capricchio, was a perfect addition; it made the watery juice of the tomatoes taste creamy and it tempered the bite of sorrel.  Pick a goat cheese that  packs a load of creaminess and some sort or herb or spice crust is a nice.  And if you don’t have an herb garden, you can just use whatever herbs are on your shopping list, two of them at minimum, because without the variety of herbs, you risk your good, simple salad turning bored.  We ate this with a chicken slathered with marsacapone that practically knocked me off my chair, which I’ll write about next, promise.  It was one of my favorite meals I’ve made, summery and, duh, simple.

Simple Tomato Salad

serves 2-3

3-4 heirloom or garden tomatoes, tasted for quality
small bunch sorrel leaves (or watercress or arugula)
handful of mixed herbs, such as mint, basil, lemon thyme, and chives
soft goat cheese, preferably with a pepper crust
balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
good quality olive oil, for drizzling
fleur de sel, or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Slice tomatoes into thick slices and season with a bit of salt.  Leave in a colandar to drain for 15 minutes.  Toss them around so any excess water comes off, then arrange them on a platter.  Tuck the sorrel leaves under and around the tomatoes.  Tear or chop up the herbs and scatter over tomatoes.  Crumble the goat cheese over tomatoes.  Drizzle balsamic and olive oil over the tomatoes and season to taste with fleur de sel and fresh black pepper.

4-hour duck with potatoes and sage; the effortless, perfect meal.

I don’t know about you, but some days I need to cook something well.  I need it to come out exactly as planned, without much effort, and I need not to be harried, or hurried, but calm, confident, and cool as a cucumber.  I need duck, that’s thrown in the oven  and four hours later your fiance tells you it’s the best meal he’s ever had–period. Not my best meal, mind you, but the. Screw Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges Vongerichten, Eric Ripert.  This duck.  Jim’s best meal ever.

The effortless, perfect meal is something that I’m in search of.  I’ve got my broiled fish and green beans, and red-cooked pork belly with rice, and tava, but I’m always on the lookout for more, especially (desperately) now that people actually pay me to cook for them.  It was something I badly needed after a meal I made for clients that didn’t turn out as good as I had wanted.  Cooking in someone else’s home is stressful enough, but the stress increases ten-fold when I come to realize, halfway through the cooking, that it might not come out perfectly.  Even if it makes a nice dinner and my people are happy, I’m not; I hear dissatisfaction in the air, or maybe it’s just in my head, and I badly need to make something effortless and perfect, to build my repertoire and soothe my nerves, asap.

That’s how I felt the other night—plus I needed freshly rendered duck fat.  It’s far and away better than any duck fat you can buy.  And it makes potatoes crispier than any other fat can, and it smells delicious. And it’s not that bad for you, though the amount of potatoes cooked in duck fat that you’ll be eating once you have the stuff, well, that’s another story.

This duck and potatoes dish is as effortless and perfect meal can get.  All you need is a roasting pan with a V-rack and some time to kill.  Put the duck upside-down (breasts down) into the V-rack, and cook at 250F for three hours, while you go about your business.  After three hours, take out the duck, spoon or pour the fat into a mason jar (this is easiest as a two-person job), turn the oven up to 350F, find an oven-proof skillet or pan and add to it a pound or two quartered potatoes and some of that glorious fat, and put both the duck and the potatoes back in the oven for 45 minutes or so.

The result will probably be the best meal you’ve ever had.  Certainly the best duck.  And while I’m sure our duck was the best duck, being from my favorite farm and all, this recipe is fool-proof, I promise.  The flavor of the meat is intensified through the long cooking, a bit gamey, which I consider a good thing.  But the texture is where it’s at: the meat is soft and tender, reminiscent of pate, and the skin is crackly crisp, with a layer of unctuous fat beneath the surface.  When you add crisp potatoes with creamy insides, and maybe a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, there’s hardly words to describe this meal, though sublime comes close.

Four Hour Duck with Potatoes and Sage

serves 2-3

  • 1 whole duck (peking, muscovy, or other)
  • salt, pepper
  • 1-2 pounds red-skinned new potatoes (I use red-skinned because I think they look pretty against the reddish meat of the duck, but whatever’s available)
  • sage, optional

If possible, salt your duck the night before and leave it, uncovered, in the fridge overnight.

Turn on your oven to 250F. In a roasting pan set with a V-rack, set your salted duck in, breasts side down (upside down) and cook in the oven for about 3 hours.  Meanwhile, clean and quarter potatoes.

When the 3 hours are done, take out the duck and turn the oven up to 350F.  Using caution, pour out the duck fat that has drained into the bottom on the roasting pan, reserving in a jar.  Use a spoonful or two to baste the duck, and add a few spoonfuls into a heatproof skillet or smaller roasting pan.  Then add the potatoes to the skillet and mix up so that they get coated in fat.  Put potatoes into the oven and the duck back into the oven and cook for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, your duck will be done but your potatoes will still need time to crisp up, so remove the duck to a cutting board and let it rest.  Check on your potatoes every few minutes and let them cook until they are crisp and golden to your liking, about 20 minutes more.  Carve your duck and set the pieces in a serving dish (the duck should be tender enough that you can remove the legs by pulling on them).  Once the potatoes are done, add them over the duck pieces to warm everything up.  Fry a few sage leaves in the oil remaining in the bottom of the potato skillet, optional.  Serve.

Magical gardening elves and snap pea potato salad.

We have magical elves for neighbors, I’m sure of it.  Magical gardening elves.  Because every day, on my way out of town, I stop at their shed on the side of the road and find fresh snap peas, or potatoes, or whatever’s been picked the day before. And my neighbors are not just magical elves because they grow and offer this stuff (lots of people have front-yard farm stands around here), they are magical elves because their food tastes magical. Take a look at this pea, for example.

It’s plump, sweet, and fresh-tasting.  I couldn’t even take the picture without stealing a pea first.  My neighbors’ sugar snap peas are better than any I’ve tasted from farm markets, let alone supermarkets.  And once a few weeks go by, the elves will start to put out heirloom tomatoes meaty and bursting with sweetly acidic flavor.  These tomatoes were what made Jim and me wonder last year, when we just moved into town, if we could ever leave.

This potato salad, made with snap peas and potatoes from my magical neighbors, and fresh herbs from my own puny attempts at gardening (why try, when you have gardening elves?), is the kind of potato salad that you can fool people into thinking is healthy.  Very green, full of herbs and peas, it’s almost as if it doesn’t contain a healthy dollop of olive oil and a couple pats of butter. (Unless you are set on making a healthy potato salad, don’t leave out the butter; it melds all the flavors together and keeps it from becoming one of those ultra-vinegary potato salads—the type that make you long for some good mayonnaise.)

Use basil and chives if you can, because the basil plays up the sweetness in the peas, and chives work wonders for boiled potatoes.  You must pour the vinaigrette on before the potatoes cool and don’t be alarmed if it soaks into the potatoes before you can say mum, it’s supposed to happen that way.  Those potatoes will take on the sharp flavor of the wine vinegar, and be better for it.  It’s okay that it seems too dry, that’s why you add the butter. The end product — with the butter and everything mashed up a bit — is soft, creamy, and rich, with a background kick. Bring it to your next barbecue.  You can even tell everyone it’s healthy, I’ll keep the secret.

Snap Pea Potato Salad

The measurements here aren’t exact, I’m using volume because I didn’t weigh the peas and potatoes.  You can tinker with the measurements if you like.

1 quart snap peas, string removed
1 quart new potatoes, washed
2 shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1-2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
pat or two of butter
basil, to taste
chives, to taste
salt and pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add potatoes and a few pinches of salt.  Boil until potatoes are firm-tender, adding the snap peas into the water during the last minute or two.  Drain and transfer potatoes and peas to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette:  In a small bowl or measuring cup, add shallots, garlic, a pinch of salt, a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and mustard.  Add vinegar and whisk with a fork.  Add a drop of olive oil and whisk, adding a few more drops as you whisk.  If the vinaigrette is starting to emulsify, you can add the rest of the olive oil and whisk until the mixture is creamy, otherwise keep adding olive oil in drops until it emulsifies.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour vinaigrette over hot potatoes. Immediately stir to combine.  Stir in basil and chives and, once the vinaigrette has absorbed, stir in butter.  Season to taste with salt and pepper (it can take a lot of both.)


Food Inc., East Hampton, and pickles.

Jim and I drove out to East Hampton this weekend and had a lovely time despite the rain (and rain it did, especially on the drive out, when big chunks of rain fell, and I remembered that I needed to get new windshield wipers).  We did a lot of cooking, but only recipes I’ve posted before, so instead of a recipe today, I’ll just jabber on about some fun things to do in East Hampton, should you be out there this summer.  The East Hampton Farmers Market (in Nick and Toni’s parking lot) was top-notch; the Horman’s Best pickle guys and their “red flannel pickles” alone were worth the trip. (The pickle guys are also at other farmers markets this summer.)  These pickles, in a sweet brine with red peppers, would be worth mail-ordering if the pickle guys offered that, but I’ll certainly be trying to replicate them this summer. If anyone has tips on sweet brine for pickles, let me know (and if the pickles guys themselves would like to send me the recipe—or a pickled present—my email’s on the left.)

We also went to Napeague Beach in Amagansett; Jim and I have been going there since our first summer trip to the area, when we spent a week in his grandmother’s garage-cum-apartment and fell in love.  It was rainy and cold on Saturday, Jim got his feet wet, and I grabbed my polaroid and took some expired-film-shots.

Which is all you’ll get today, since I also got some great photography advice from my favorite photographer this weekend, and I’m waiting until I have a day off to do any photographing of my food, and that day off hasn’t happened yet.  But actually, I’ll give you a look at one of Ken’s (one that hangs on our living room wall), and then you can slip away from this post and go off to his website to oogle and ahh. (And if you happen to be in Amagansett this summer, you can check out the Pamela Williams Gallery, a gallery that often exhibits Ken’s work, and always is fun to visit.)

Night Pear by Ken Robbins

Finally, and you don’t need to be in East Hampton for this, we had a lovely engagement party at my—soon to be bona-fide— aunt and uncle’s house.  There was lamb tava, and gorgeous cheeses, and mojitos made with the mint growing outside, and talk of Food Inc., which is what you should be watching this weekend.  I know I’m preaching to the choir on a food blog, but I imagine a lot of people could eat better, more locally and ethically, then they do.  So let’s all watch this movie, and have the fear of God E. coli put in us.  Let’s all remember that if we eat out at a place that serves meat from industrially farmed animals, we are doing things inexplicably horrendous and unethical, things we would never, ever do to a living, breathing, thinking animal—but are doing through buying the meat and supporting the torture.  Now, I understand that not everyone lives next door to humanely raised cattle, hogs, and chickens—I’m very fortunate in that way.  But I believe it’s almost always possible (and certainly possible for anyone who has a computer, and the internet, and the leisure time to sit around reading food blogs) to eat ethically.  Take the money that you would spend on cheap meat and spend it on a smaller quantity of humanely raised meat.  Mail-order.  Search your area for farmers, where you may end up finding cheap, humanely raised meat, and where you’d definitely end up meeting people, making friends, feeling better about your choices, taking more care in your food, having it taste better and be more satisfying, needing to eat less, losing a few pounds, and fitting into that gorgeous black bathing suit this summer.  No kidding.

Cowboy steaks, fried potatoes and artichokes, onions and green beans.

I consider myself lucky.  I live within ten-minutes of this steak.

The Highland Company Gourmet Market in Kingwood Township, New Jersey, sits on lush green where Highland cows (and a rather menacing bull) hang out all day, chomping on the grass or watching the family soccer games across the fence.  These cowboy steaks, however, don’t come from those Highland cows (the punk-rock of cow breeds), but considering the care and love that Dee gives her own, I’m sure the local farms that she chooses to distribute from are just as good.  (I’m sure, also, because we asked.)

Steak aside, I also consider myself unlucky, or at least lazy, because since our neighbor Bob moved away, Jim and I have been without a grill.  So far this season, I’ve been able to satisfy my grilling urges through dinners at my parents’, where my dad charcoal grills spare ribs, or porterhouse steaks, or hot dogs with deliciously crisp charred edges, but when we saw the cowboy steaks at the market this weekend, we knew we’d have to find a house with a grill.  This wasn’t hard; Jim’s parents have a grill and were away for a few days and we gleefully took on the job of feeding the cats (and playing house.)

Besides a grill, there was also a pretty little herb patch at my disposal and the perfectly purple sage leaves did not go untouched, (thanks, Lydia!) destined to be a garnish on our fried potatoes and artichokes.

Because our date with a grill had become something of a grand affair, I picked up a few artichokes and some colorful potatoes—purple, red, and white; dolling up Tesa Kiros’ recipe of fried russet potato and artichoke bottoms.

If you’ve never pared down an artichoke before, make sure you have two knives: a serrated knife and a sharp chef or paring knife.  You need a serrated to cut off the top half of the artichoke and the chef knife to slice off all the leaves.  You also need a spoon for gouging out the choke.  And maybe a y-shaped peeler to peel the very bottom.  And surely this guide to help you along.

I fried the potatoes in corn oil (a lot of corn oil), putting them in the oil about 10 minutes before throwing in the artichokes.  The whole mess fried for about a half hour; long enough to make me get very worried that the potatoes would never brown, long enough so that they finally did brown, got crisp on the outside and mashed-up creamy inside, with a best freakin’ fried potato in the world taste.  The artichokes were a definite plus, elevating it from french fries to elegant, and the sage must be used, it’s non-negotiable; it added a serious pop of flavor whenever you came across it, and was paper-thin and crunchy like a chip.  I scattered fleur de sel over everything as soon as it came out of the oil.  The mineral-tasting salt was just the thing.

Jim marinated the steak in garlic, thyme, rosemary, and sage, then cooked the steak mostly on the grill, finishing in the oven.  In hindsight, he says he would have done the whole thing on the grill (something I thought from the beginning, but you can’t question a man with a plan) and that’s what you should do, too.

Oven, grill, whatever; the steak turned out fantastic (I don’t imagine it could turn out any other way.)  Rare in the middle with some char all around, garlicky and well-seasoned, we happily ate it up, saving some for a midnight snack, and lunch the next day, before handing off the bone to a very eager dog.

We also made some green beans and cippolini onions, which were fresh, buttery, and sweet.  A rather good steakhouse dinner date, if we do say so ourselves.  It’d go over fabulously for father’s day, without a doubt, if you can find a good cowboy steak (and if you live anywhere near Kingwood, New Jersey, it’s worth a drive.)  I’d be making it for my dad, but we’re away for the weekend attending another engagement party in our honor, this one out in East Hampton.  Luckily for me, the Highland Market is going to have these every weekend.

Cowboy Steak

serves 2

1 cowboy steak
salt
olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
handful or herbs (we use thyme, rosemary, and sage)
pepper

A day or two before you plan on eating the steak, salt it generously on all sides and return to the fridge.  The day of, take the steak out and transfer to a plate.  Combine some olive oil, the garlic cloves, and herbs.  Massage into steak and let sit for a few hours.  Grill according to how you like you steaks (we don’t own a grill, so don’t want to act like authorities.)

Fried Potatoes and Artichokes

serves 6

2 1/2 lbs potatoes, preferably mixed varieties (we used purple fingerling, red bliss, and new), cut in halves or quarters
6-8 medium artichokes, trimmed and cut into halves or quarters (you can peel and halve the stems, too)
small handful sage leaves
corn oil for deep frying
fleur de sel

Prepare your potatoes and artichokes.  Fill a large saucepan or pot halfway full with corn oil and turn heat on the stove top to medium high.  When the oil reaches frying temp (350F-375F), add your potatoes.  Let them settle for about five minutes then give them a good stirring with a wooden spoon.  Let fry for about 8 minutes, then add artichokes and give a good stir.  Continue to fry for another 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are golden brown and crunchy.  Add sage leaves and fry 1 minute more.  Remove everything to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve with lemon wedges.

Cippolini Onions and Green Beans

serves 4-6

1 1/2 lb green beans, trimmed
5-6 cippolini onions, halved and peeled
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon olive oil
fresh thyme
salt, pepper

Add 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil to a large saute pan over medium heat.  Carefully place the onions cut-side down.  Season with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves to taste.  Saute for about 5-10 minutes, until the onions are darkly caramelized.  Turn onions on their sides with tongs.  Add green beans and stir to combine.  Add about 1/4 cup water and cover.  Cook for 5-10 more minutes, or until the green beans are tender to your liking.  Serve hot or warm.

Our little carnivore.

I’d been holding back from posting about the newest member of our family but I snuck up on Muntz filtching chicken from our dinner plates the other night and oo! This is food-related! I can post this on my blog!


Jim found Muntz in the middle of the road a few weeks ago; his mother was crossing the road with him in her mouth but she dropped him when she saw oncoming traffic.  Jim saved him from the road, tried to find the mother, and knocked on a few doors before taking him to the vet and then home to meet me, Champ, and our other rescued cat, Lillian.  We had the silly notion that we’d find him a home or bring him to a rescue shelter but come on, look at that face; we knew we’d keep him by the second day.

Muntz was three weeks old when we saved him, and three weeks later he’s twice the size, five times as feisty, and already a real gourmet.  We feed him a very fancy, all natural cat food, but he’s still constantly hunting for our leftovers.  The chicken was marinated in Chinese five-spice and garlic before cooking under the broiler.  I don’t imagine much was left on those bones but you can’t blame a kitten for trying.