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Gardening is an act of faith. If I take care of my plants, water them and feed them compost, the perennials will come back year after year. But still it amazes me.
The peonies I planted the year my father died are in full bloom, showing off their splendid pink and white blossoms like a girl with a new dress. The sage and rosemary made it through another rough winter. They are fuller, sprouting new leaves and branches in a showy well-look-at-me style. The Oriental poppies are doing their scarlet show, with their inky, black-etching insides that scream of illicit things.
Every fall I plant garlic — several types. The scapes, those glorious swirls of “flower stalks” that top off the hard-neck garlic plants in late June and early July, are just beginning to show.
Garlic scapes create a glorious avocado-green twirl with a white bulb at the tip. I had learned it was important to snip them off the plant, or else they would steal energy from the bulbs growing underground. But for years I didn’t quite know what to do with them.
From pastas to salads, garlic scapes add flavor to summer favorites
The bulbs won’t be ready until much later in the season, but early summer is time for garlic scapes. I grabbed a basket this afternoon and pinched off a few dozen garlic scapes. The heady fragrance filled the air as I picked — like adolescent versions of mature garlic, but filled with nuance and garlicky possibilities.
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In past years, I’ve chopped the garlic scapes and added them to vinaigrettes and salads. Think of them like a very flavorful scallion. I’ve also stir-fried them whole with strips of marinated chicken, cashews and thin slices of fresh ginger. When I brushed them with olive oil and grilled them outside, I was blown away by their smoky garlic flavor. They make a great topping for grilled steak, chicken or fish, and I’ve sautéed them whole in olive oil and then fried a farm-fresh egg on top for breakfast.
But this year I wanted to try something new.
First I tried a salad. I started with early-summer greens — arugula, butter head and red leaf lettuce — and added a few hard-boiled eggs and placed anchovies, with their briny burst, criss crossed on top of the eggs. I sautéed crusty bread sliced into croute-size pieces in olive oil until golden brown. And then I added the garlic scapes, sautéed in olive oil just until they became tender. The scapes take on an almost buttery flavor in this sauté.
Next up I made a pesto. I started with garlic scapes and emerald-green Greek olive oil, but it needed something else. I opened the freezer and found a bag of shelled and salted California pistachios, which added more green color and lots of good crunch. A bit of grated Parmesan, and I had a brand new pesto.
Try this Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto on pasta. You can also spoon it on half a garden tomato and roast slowly for an hour at 200 F or serve it with grilled foods — seafood kebabs, chicken, steak or a pork chop. Or do what I have been doing for days: Eat it straight from the jar.
Garlic Scape and Pistachio Pesto
If you don’t grow your own garlic, look for garlic scapes at farmers markets or farm stands during early summer.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: About 1 cup
4 ounces garlic scapes, about 14 large scapes
1 cup olive oil, plus about 1½ tablespoons
½ cup shelled and salted pistachios
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (Go easy on the salt because the nuts are salted.)
½ packed cup grated Parmesan cheese
1. Place the scapes in the container of a food processor and pulse about 10 times, until finely chopped.
2. Add 1 cup of olive oil and the pistachios and pulse until thick and chunky.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Add the cheese and stir to mix well.
5. Place the pesto in a 2-cup glass jar and cover the top of the pesto with the additional 1½ tablespoons of oil to keep it from discoloring. Seal tightly and refrigerate.
Summer Greens with Sautéed Garlic Scapes, Anchovies, Hard-Boiled Eggs and Croutes
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: about 7 minutes, plus time to hard-boil the eggs
Total time: about 15 minutes
Yield: 3 or 4 servings as an entrée
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 garlic scapes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 slices crusty bread, like Ciabatta, cut into thin pieces
About 3 cups fresh greens (Try a mixture of arugula, butter head and other early-summer greens.)
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half
12 anchovy fillets
1. Heat 1½ tablespoons olive oil over moderate heat in a medium-sized skillet. Add the scapes, salt and pepper and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown and slightly softened. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Heat the remaining 1½ tablespoons oil in the same skillet over moderate heat. Add the bread and cook about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and toasted looking. Remove from heat.
3. Arrange greens on large serving plate. Place the croutes around the outside edges of the greens. Place scapes in the middle. Place eggs on top and criss cross the anchovies over the eggs. Serve with a vinaigrette on the side (see recipe below).
Garlic Scape-Anchovy Vinaigrette
Yield: ¾ cup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic scape, finely chopped
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon anchovy oil
1. Mix Dijon mustard with salt and pepper.
2. Add garlic scape, lemon juice, olive oil and anchovy oil. Mix until well blended.
Main photo: Garlic scapes. Credit: Kathy Gunst
This is the first spring in quite a while that our family hasn’t had a flock of laying hens. When we first moved to Maine more than three decades ago and started a garden, we thought about getting chickens. But we were city folk and didn’t know a thing about raising animals.
Several years later, when we got married at a big outdoor clambake in the field behind our farmhouse, someone gave us half a dozen baby chicks as a wedding present. Rather than being horrified (like my mother who screamed, “They gave you what? That wasn’t on your bridal registry!”), we were thrilled. We built a coop and an outdoor roaming area and became chicken owners. When they started laying eggs in the spring, we squealed with delight. When they were gobbled up by foxes after just six short months, we mourned.
Then we got new chicks the following spring, and this pattern of hope followed by loss went on for years. We rebuilt the coop and secured it underground and overhead, and always — always — a predator got in and attacked. So a year or so ago we gave up. Too much trauma.
I miss the ritual of feeding the chickens our table scraps and collecting the eggs every morning. I marveled over the color range — the pale blue and almost green eggs we collected. But mostly it was the flavor that made me swoon. A brilliant sunflower-yellow yolk and a flavor that made me think I was tasting an egg for the very first time.
Neighborhood source for eggs
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I took the dog for a walk this morning and soaked up the May sun. We passed a neighbor’s house, where she raises more than 100 chickens in her backyard. She collects the eggs every morning and places them in a refrigerated cooler and sells them for the ridiculously low price of $3 a dozen. I put three $1 bills in her little cash box, grabbed a dozen eggs (it’s all on the honor system) and brought them home.
I made egg salad for lunch and remembered our chickens. And I thought that maybe I was not meant to be an animal farmer but a supporter of local food instead.
Summer Egg Salad
This is picnic food. I love serving egg salad on thinly sliced whole-grain bread or on top of a mixture of garden greens. You can also serve the egg salad on one piece of lightly toasted bread (open-faced) and crisscross anchovy filets on top.
Makes enough for 2 big sandwiches or serves 2 to 3 in a salad
6 fresh eggs
2 scallions, very thinly sliced (white and green sections)
5 caper berries, thinly sliced, or ¼ cup capers, drained
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 to 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Place the eggs in a medium pot of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to low. Let simmer for 6 minutes.
2. Remove from the heat and let sit for 6 minutes.
3. Drain and rinse under cold running water until the eggs are cool to the touch.
4. Gently roll the eggs from side to side in the pot to lightly crack them. Fill the pot with cold water and let sit for a few minutes. The water will fill in the cracks and make it easier to peel. Drain and peel the eggs.
5. Cut the eggs in quarters and place in a bowl. Using a fork or a potato masher, chop the eggs into small pieces.
6. Add the scallions, caper berries and parsley and mix well.
7. Add the mustard, olive oil, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.
Main photo: Summer Egg Salad. Credit: Kathy Gunst
What is art? And where do the culinary arts fit into the spectrum of what is referred to as “art?”
These are questions I asked myself at a recent show of Ferran Adrià’s drawings, sculptures, photographs and videos, titled “Notes on Creativity,” on exhibit at The Drawing Center in Manhattan. Adrià, the world-renowned chef of the now-closed El Bulli in Spain and the master of molecular gastronomy, is mentor to many of the most forward-thinking chefs working today. He has also been the subject of several documentaries, including “El Bulli Cooking in Progress.”
From "Notes on Creativity":
"The type of person who carries a pencil around is the type of person who's open to change. Someone who walks around with a pen isn’t; he's the opposite. I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me." -- Ferran Adrià
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In a New York Times review of the art exhibit, Roberta Smith writes, “If his cooking is close to art, then Mr. Adrià is close enough to being an artist to merit the exuberant, engrossing overview of the graphic side of this work at The Drawing Center.”
Adrià’s food is inventive, outside the box and beautiful. Although I never had the chance to eat at El Bulli (it closed in 2011), I was curious to see his recent show. The press release from The Drawing Center describes it this way: “This is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the visualization and drawing practices of master chef Ferran Adrià. The exhibition emphasizes the role of drawing in Adrià’s quest to understand creativity. His complex body of work positions the medium as both a philosophical tool — used to organize and convey knowledge, meaning, and signification — as well as a physical object — used to synthesize over twenty years of innovation in the kitchen.”
Does Adrià’s translate to art?
I meandered through the three rooms containing Adrià’s work, including notebooks, drawings (some of which were created in conjunction with Marta Mendez Blaya) and photographs of chefs working at El Bulli. I couldn’t help thinking that the wall of colorful drawings looked a lot like the kindergarten classroom at my daughter’s old school. Oversized words were boldly colored and in childlike print: “Milk. Crème. Beware. Cheese. Yogurt,” read one drawing, like a warning to a lactose-intolerant child. Some drawings had a primal appeal, like the one with stick figures seated around a large oval table with the word “PARTY” printed at the bottom. My favorite drawings involved gardens and vegetables, primitive, colorful sketches of radishes, carrots and other root vegetables coming out of the ground. There is a sense of playfulness and harmony in these drawings that lets you know the sheer joy Adrià must feel when he’s in the presence of truly fresh, seasonal food.
As a cookbook author, food writer and recipe developer, I, too, have notebooks filled with drawings and diagrams of how I arrange or plate recipes I’m working on. Are they museum worthy? Certainly not. In the same way, my journals, for the most part, are not meant for anyone’s eyes but my own. So I have to ask: Is this art because Adrià is world-renowned? Is it art the way Picasso’s doodles are art?
At first, I wasn’t clear. I felt cynical even. But as I took my time and looked at the work without judgment, I began to understand that this is a show about process. It provides a glimpse into the mind of a mad (and I use this word with the utmost respect) scribbling of a genius chef who thinks about every aspect of what goes on a plate and into a diner’s mouth. His almost maniacal attention to detail, the rethinking of every possibility of flavor, is revealed in this show.
For instance, a large table contains an exhibit of 247 colorful, plasticine molds that look like fossils or papier-mâché rocks, designed to show the chefs who worked with Adrià exactly how a dish should be shaped and sized. “In cooking, dimension and proportion are very important, and the more sophisticated the style of the cuisine, the more decisive these can become … For a time the kitchen resorted to photographs,” Adrià writes. “But these did not completely solve the problem, because the proportions of each element continued to be difficult to determine.”
The working boards of Ferran Adrià
In another room, an entire wall displays oversized “working boards.” Adrià explains the idea behind these boards: “The process of creating a dish is meticulous but very simple; first jot down an idea, then develop it; if it works, develop it further.” One board, titled “How to Create a Dish,” is a crude pencil drawing of ravioli with various shapes and filling and plating ideas. Ideas are expressed on paper before they go to the kitchen, showing where food will be placed on a plate — oval shapes next to rectangles, triangles surrounded by tiny circles.
These working boards are fascinating for anyone who cooks and thinks about the colors, textures, shapes and flavors of food. And it is a great contrast to the modern world of looking at plates of food on Instagram and Facebook.
In the end, after gazing and considering Adrià drawings, working boards, journals and photographs, I left with more questions than answers. And then I realized: Isn’t that the real definition of art?
Top photo: A wall of Ferran Adrià’s drawings on display as part of the “Notes on Creativity” exhibit. Credit: Kathy Gunst
Exhibition schedule: “Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity,” curated by Brett Littmann, begins an international tour after wrapping up at The Drawing Center in February. Dates include: May 4 to July 31, 2014, at Ace Museum in Los Angeles; Sept. 26, 2014, to Jan. 18, 2015, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland; Sept. 17, 2015, to Jan. 3, 2016, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; March 20 to June 12, 2016, at Marres House for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
Let’s be honest: Hanukkah never could hold its weight against Christmas. How can any holiday compete with the biggest granddaddy of them all, the one that begins asserting its identity the day after Halloween and ends somewhere after the New Year? Although in my rural neighborhood, the decorations and lights don’t generally come down until Easter.
When my daughters were young, they wondered what it meant to be Jewish and why they were getting cheated out of Christmas. As their friends prepared for Dec. 25 and the mythology of Santa and all those presents, presents, presents, my girls looked at our little menorah, the fried latkes and the small gifts they got for eight nights in a row and tried not to cry or sound ungrateful.
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And now it’s 2013, and here it comes — Thanksgivukkah, the strangest convergence of holidays in quite some time. It’s been 125 years since Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah collided. There’s a rather long, drawn-out explanation of how these two holidays ended up coinciding. Here’s an abbreviated version: Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday of November, which this year is Nov. 28. Nov. 28 is also the earliest date on which the first day of Hanukkah can fall, according to the Jewish calendar.
Jewish American physicist Jonathan Mizrahi writes, “The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19-year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a seven-year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19×7 = 133 years. Looking back, this is approximately correct. …”
And though there is some debate as to when the next merging of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will occur, it’s fair to note that it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes. So let’s just say we need to make the most of this Thanksgivukkah. But how?
My wise friend Rabbi Lev Ba’esh has this to say: “When a celebration is likely to come but once in a generation, it gives us an opportunity to take what is usually a shot in the arm and make it a full-blown cure. How about this year we use the convergence of two holidays focused on freedoms both home and abroad, and make this year about just that. … Working harder to create real freedom here and abroad. And as with any celebration situated around a fabulous family meal, which both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving require, let’s use the great smells and tastes to wake us up to our task of ‘making free,’ giving real meaning to this year’s prayers for an abundant harvest.”
So, as with most good things, we need to look to the kitchen. Hanukkah traditions involve foods cooked in oil. So maybe this is the year to use oil to fry your turkey. Or, add horseradish to your cranberry sauce. Shred leftover turkey to make turkey-sweet potato latkes. Serve your latkes with cranberry sauce. Pumpkin doughnuts for dessert? Decorate the table with the chocolate turkey nestled right next to the menorah.
Or you can try a new dish. One of my favorite foods of Hanukkah is kugel, a dairy-rich egg-noodle dish loaded with cottage cheese, sour cream, spices and raisins. It occurred to me that this would make an excellent Thanksgiving side dish instead of mashed potatoes (year after year — must we?) or sweet potatoes. Or serve them all, side by side. Like the two holidays.
Noodle Kugel With Raisins, Apricots and Slivered Almonds
Like a savory-sweet noodle quiche, this rich, hearty dairy dish is traditionally served at Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays. Egg noodles are mixed with a combination of eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, cinnamon and dried fruit and then baked.
Serves 8 to 10
½ stick butter melted, plus more for greasing the pan
12-ounce bag extra-wide or wide egg noodles
16 ounces (1 pound) chunk-style or big-curd whole-milk cottage cheese
1 cup milk
16 ounces (1 pound) sour cream
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ cup raisins or golden raisins
½ cup dried apricots, cut into thin slices (optional)
⅔ cup slivered almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a large glass or ceramic ovenproof dish, about 13 inches long by 9 inches wide.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the egg noodles until just tender, about 12 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, in a large bowl whisk together the eggs, then whisk in the cottage cheese, milk, melted butter, sour cream, sugar and half the cinnamon until well mixed. Add the raisins, apricots and half the almonds and mix well.
5. Drain the noodles thoroughly. Place in the baking dish and pour the egg-dairy mixture on top. Gently stir to make sure all the noodles are well coated.
6. Sprinkle the top with the remaining almonds and cinnamon.
7. Bake on the middle shelf for 55 minutes or an hour. The kugel should be golden brown and firm. Let cool for 5 minutes before cutting into small squares.
Top photo: The ingredients for Noodle Kugel With Raisins, Apricots and Slivered Almonds. Credit: Kathy Gunst
It’s close to 6 in the morning, and the sky is muted and streaked with pink, white and blue stripes. I am on Kachemak Bay in a bright yellow kayak, and the water is as flat as a calm lake. A family of otters — a mother and two young cubs — swims alongside. Snowcapped mountains lie ahead in the distance. This is what dawn feels like in Alaska in the summer. The only problem: Alaska is so far north that the sun never sets this time of year, so kayaking or any other activity is done after a fitful sleep spent trying to keep out the light.
The idea of sunlight 24 hours a day sounds great. But, trust me, around midnight — or 3 a.m. or close to 6 a.m. — when your body is exhausted but your mind is saying, “Let’s go for another kayak ride,” it all begins to feel like a cruel joke.
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Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.
I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.
I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.
Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.
Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.
Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine
Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.
“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”
Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.
The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”
Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.
“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”
With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.
Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.
Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”
Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle
Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.
With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.
“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”
Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.
Quick Pickled Cauliflower
Makes 4 to 6 accompaniment servings, depending on the size of the cauliflower head
At Tutka Bay, Chef Kirsten Dixon serves these pickles on top of fresh-shucked raw local oysters and tops them with crème fraîche seasoned with juniper berries.
2 cups cider vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic
1 head of cauliflower, shaved into thin slices
1. Mix all ingredients except cauliflower in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Place cauliflower in a bowl and pour hot liquid on top. Allow mixture to steep for at least an hour. The mixture can then be used, refrigerated for up to a month or canned.
Top photo: Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst
In the old stone kitchen of a friend’s country house in southwestern France, I lay out the ingredients I’ve just bought at a local market. There are two duck legs; a large duck carcass; potatoes still covered with bits of earth; fat, white asparagus; wild girolle (chanterelle) mushrooms; walnuts; virgin walnut oil; and a crusty baguette.
These are local ingredients, and the way I’ve laid them out reminds me of a still-life. But it’s time to make dinner and there are several “problems.” I am in a strange kitchen, and I have never really understood how to properly cook duck.
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We are spending a few weeks in this tiny village to celebrate my husband’s birthday. It’s a big one. The kind of birthday that requires celebration.
We have been married for more than 30 years, but our time in this ancient village, in this 300-year-old house, makes me feel like we are young honeymooners. Read into that statement what you will. I feel fully alive, excited by everything around me.
For three hours earlier that day, we roamed the huge open-air Saturday morning market in the nearby town of Sarlat. Local farmers, cheesemakers, vintners and bakers set up booths under colorful umbrellas and tents. The market goes for blocks, rambling along the ancient streets offering food that makes me want to stay and cook for years.
There are enormous wheels of locally made cheeses, vats of green and black olives, and gorgeous breads, crusty from the oven. We see huge artichokes and tiny zucchini, green and white asparagus, endive, frissé and fresh fish, along with fat cherries, ripe apricots and briny oysters.
In France, duck is omnipresent
But mostly we notice the duck. Duck is to Perigord what lobster is to Maine. It is omnipresent and defines nearly every menu and market we visit.
We see duck in every form imaginable: in patés, foie gras, gizzard salads, confit, roasted, smoked, raw, chopped, whole. As my friend (in whose house we are staying) says: “These people never saw a duck they didn’t love.”
My husband pleads: “Cook me duck.” It’s his birthday. I can’t really say no.
This is the story of what happened.
I send him off so I can try to learn my way around this new kitchen. The knives are dull, the skillets are thin, and the oven is a small box set into the wall above the four-burner stove.
I look at the duck carcass and decide to make a stock. I set it into the one big soup pot, add some vegetables and leeks, along with a handful of the herbs I “stole” on a walk through a neighboring village yesterday. I take a good look at the duck legs and see that, like proper French duck, they have a thick layer of fat. They will need long, slow cooking.
I season the duck legs with salt and pepper (no pepper mill, which irks me) and a fine sprinkle of fresh rosemary from the bush just outside the house. I place them in a low oven and let them cook for about two hours.
Meanwhile, I cook down the stock. It has a huge flavor that fills the mouth, rich and gamey. I strain it and reduce it down further to intensify the flavor. And suddenly, the dish forms in my mind. While the duck legs cook in a gorgeous pool of duck fat, I sauté the mushrooms in spring garlic and fresh shallots. I add rosemary and tiny sprigs of flowering thyme. I add a splash of the local red wine I bought directly from the man who makes it at his organic vineyard. Then I ladle in some of the reduced duck stock and let it cook down to marry with the mushrooms and aromatics. By the time the duck legs are tender, the sauce is forming into something extraordinary. It needs one more element. Because this is France, I decide to add a dash of crème fraîche. Just enough to thicken the sauce and give it the creamy texture I am looking for.
Finishing the duck, potatoes and asparagus
The duck legs go under the broiler to crisp up the skin. I remove the duck fat from the roasting pan and place it in another skillet. I cut the potatoes into thick slabs and fry them in the duck fat, adding a touch of walnut oil. It’s my version of the local recipe called potatoes Sarladaise. They develop a golden crust and are tender and creamy inside. The white asparagus is steamed and left alone. I place the baguette on a wooden board along with local butter the color of egg yolks.
I plate the duck, top it with the mushroom-cream sauce and carefully place the asparagus and potatoes on the side. I don’t mean to be boastful, but it’s an impressive-looking plate. John calls it the “best duck ever,” and I know why I have stayed married to him all these years.
I cut into the duck. Perfectly moist and tender; the skin, crackly. The earthy sauce tastes like the country — filled with the flavor of meaty mushrooms. The potatoes are creamy with crisp skin and the subtle nuttiness of the walnut oil is a perfect match.
“How did you know how to cook this?” my husband asks. “Your duck never tastes like this at home.”
He is right. I have never cooked duck this well. And the sauce may be one of the finest I have ever put together. What happened? How did this extraordinary plate of food come together?
What made it work?
I could get all philosophical and say the ingredients spoke to me: the beauty of the duck, those gorgeously fresh potatoes, the wild mushrooms, the walnut oil, the crème fraîche. I could say that these local ingredients are among the best I’ve ever seen. In France, food is king, placed on a throne. I merely bowed to royalty.
The next night we feasted on roast pork topped with apricots and honey, cooked until they formed a kind of thick, chunky chutney. In the next few weeks I put together beautiful soups, salads, marinated fresh goat cheese and grilled lamb chops with slow-roasted tomatoes. My food was suddenly … French.
I believe what happened in that kitchen was a kind of osmosis — as if a culture and its culinary traditions became part of me by the simple act of collecting ingredients at the local market and cooking them with all the respect they are due. Whatever magic conspired in that old stone kitchen, we had two weeks of delicious eating.
Top photo: Shoppers at the market in Sarlat, France. Credit: Kathy Gunst