Atop a salad of frisée with house-cured pancetta, toasted brioche and a thick drizzle of pecorino aioli sits a crisply breaded poached egg, so lovely you pause to take it in before tapping it with your fork to spill the yolk. Then there’s the charcuterie:
The Meals That Made Them
An occasional series by Ruth Tobias and Louisa Kasdon about American chefs and the meals that changed their lives.
Although Michael Scelfo, executive chef of the wildly popular Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., has built a cult following on edgy specials such as smoked lamb’s tongue terrine and cockscomb-green garlic pizza, everyday French fare is his bread and butter. And though you can’t literally taste it, you can sense how each deceptively simple bite is infused with the old-fashioned romance of the bistro experience. Whether the couple who got engaged just the other day over a meal in Scelfo’s dining room know it or not, they were evoking a pivotal moment in his own life:
“I was on my honeymoon, 12 years ago. It was my first trip to Paris. Ellen and I were lost and didn’t speak the language, so we just kept walking and finally stopped at this little place on the Left Bank — Au Moulin à Vent Chez Henri.
“We were the only tourists there. It was raw. Everyone was smoking. The paint was peeling off the walls, the wood was rough, the light fixtures had seen better days. There were old paintings of monks playing lawn games. Do monks frolic? [Laughs.] The tables were on top of each other. But it was perfect.
“The food was classic bistro. I had the boeuf bourguignon; my wife had the filet. Plating was simple, but there were cool little touches like a soft poached egg rolled in parsley. … What I remember are the clean, honest flavors; there was a haunting depth to the entrees. Great saucework, so rich. We were there for three hours, lingering.
“I’ve had even better meals before and since — but this was about the experience, the atmosphere. And it was unforgettable. It didn’t have to be a $500 meal from a world-famous chef.
Our first night in Paris, being together — that’s what it was all about. I still have the page in my food journal where I wrote down my notes from the meal. My wife keeps it in her dresser drawer.
“Now, I try to keep my own food simple and soulful. I can put foam on a plate, or some crazy melange of ingredients, and be like, ‘Wow, look what I did!’ But that’s not me. I want my people to fall in love over my food.”
In honor of the “simplicity, depth and richness” of that memorable meal, Michael Scelfo offers this recipe:
Duck Confit With Ginger and Anise
- Sprinkle duck legs all over with a generous amount of salt. Roughly chop anise and peppercorns and distribute evenly over the legs. Thinly slice garlic and ginger and press slices onto each piece. Break bay leaves in half and press half a leaf onto each piece. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 48 hours.
- Rinse duck legs under cold water, wiping off all seasonings. Pat dry. Heat oven to 300 F.
- Place legs in a pot and cover with olive oil. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then place uncovered in oven on a roasting pan for 2 to 3 hours (or until the legs are completely tender). Reserve fat.
- Cool to room temperature, then submerge legs in reserved fat with thyme, cover, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.(Can be stored for up to a month.)
- Heat oven again to 450 F. Remove the legs from the fat. Place them in a pan or on a baking sheet and roast until the meat is warmed through and the skin is crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. (If you want a really quick way to ensure crisp skin, simply deep-fry the legs for a minute or two!)
Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer and former restaurant owner. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.
Top photo: Michael Scelfo. Credit: Connie Miller