Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cookbook #31: The Thrill of the Grill

Adapted from Cookbook #31:  The Thrill of the Grill

Recipe: Bourbon Peaches

I have had these bourbon peaches sitting in a bourbon, vinegar, mint, and clove bath for about two weeks, and I have been anticipating this day for some time.  And here it is, filled with bourbon-y goodness.  Our chefs (Schlesinger and Willoughby, who were also our chefs two weeks ago) suggest serving these with venison (recipe on page 208).  They believe that the strength of the bourbon goes well with a gamy meat.  However, the husband and I served them to friends with a pork tenderloin that was all gussied up with salt, pepper, and olive oil and smoked in pecan chips.

Not that I have anything against venison.  Growing up I ate a lot of venison--or at least whenever my uncle "bagged" a deer.  I am not sure he ever used the term "bagged" but I suspect he did.  His garage had been converted into a woodworking shop, and every fall, he would bring in a deer or two, and the room would transform into an in-house abattoir.  My mother wouldn't let me watch my uncle clean the stiffened deer, but I knew what happened in there.  Soon after, my aunt would fill the freezer with venison steaks, and she and my uncle would invite the whole family (and seeing as my mother has seven brothers and sisters, the whole family was quite a big one) for spaghetti dinner.  The sugar-sweetened sauce (hey, we're midwestern) had that doubly-sweet tang of venison.  I remember my brother loved it, until he knew it was Bambi, and then he had some trouble swallowing. While I have no problem eating venison, I just couldn't justify another overpriced trip to the butchers this week (and we all know deer hunting season isn't until the fall... I am really showing my roots here), so we settled on pork, which we had in our own freezer.

Anyway, back to these backyard bourbon peaches... On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the husband and I swept the patio, laid out the tablecloths, and refrigerated the beer in anticipation of having two dear friends and their two boys over for an early dinner.  Our neighbors two or three houses behind us were having a party, too, and they brought in a band.  Garage band versions of White Stripes songs in the afternoon!  It wasn't bad at all.  And these peaches were pretty tasty.  However, perhaps it was the over anticipation of bourbon! mint! cloves! or the fact that I have had a lot of pickled peaches of late, but I didn't find them as transcendent as I had hoped.  Yes, they were a fine accompaniment (as well as fresh corn and a beet salad (with left over garlic confit! in the salad dressing)) to the tenderloin, so they were at least worth the soaking time.  So, I do recommend these little bombs of bourbon happiness, and I just need to think of more ways to use them.

I also (re)discovered my house is not five-year-old friendly.  Our friends' son wanted to know if we had any balls to play with in the backyard.  Sadly, we had none.  But we did have crayons; he amused himself by taking the wrapping off of twenty crayons.  Pretty spectacular.

Okay, people, this is not quite the end of the month of peaches.  So keep heading to the farmers markets for these morsels of tasty goodness.  Next week (or so), we will be having peach crisp or crumble or cobbler or something (perhaps I will learn the difference between the three and bring it back to you here).  Until then, we still need to finish eating the bourbon peaches, the peach chutney, and the pickled peaches.

Serves 6

1 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups water
1 cup cider vinegar
8 small peaches, quartered and pitted
10 cloves
1/2 cup bourbon
4 fresh mint sprigs

1.  Combine the sugar, water and vinegar in a saucepan, and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves.

2.  Add the peaches and cloves, simmer for 5 minutes, then remove remove the heat.

3.  Allow to cool to room temperature, then pour it into a quart jar.  Add the bourbon and mint, cover tightly, and refrigerate for at least 1 week.  Will keep up to 6 weeks covered airtight and refrigerated.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cookbook #30: Chez Panisse Fruit

Adapted from Cookbook #30:  Chez Panisse Fruit

Recipe:  Grilled Cured Duck Breast with Pickled Peaches

I think that duck is for some people what rabbit is to me:  frightening.  While I have admitted to not making a lot of duck out of avoidance of gamy and fatty tastes, the duck cooking has never filled me with dread.  Here's a lovely little SF Gate article on the avalanche of advice one might receive about duck.  Below you will find a little more advice from Alice Waters (who does say score the skin and definitely brine it).

Alice Waters has created two cookbooks that I stand by, and stand by firmly:  This one and Chez Panisse Vegetables Both cookbooks are arranged by produce, so when you get that CSA box filled with lemons or the farmers market seems overrun with kale, you can figure out something to do with all of it.  [The Vegetable chapter where we find page 210 is on mushrooms, so we have to wait for the rains again before I bust that baby out.]  Page 210 in Fruit is rooted in the peach chapter, which boasts Pickled Peaches, Grilled Cured Duck Breast with Pickled Peaches, Vin de Peche, Peach Melba, Peach Pie, Peach and Raspberry Gratin, Peach Shortcake, Almond Tartlets with Peaches, and Peach Leaf Parfait.  It's a plethora of peaches.

Peaches were first cultivated in China--in fact, there is mention of the peach as far back as the tenth century BCE--and its long history in China might be reason for the peach's association with luck, abundance and protection.  A symbol of fertility, peaches often cropped up in areas of erosion.  And I suppose it didn't hurt in its associations with fertility and femininity that the peach is a little fuzzy, is soft to the touch, has a cleft, and drips juices when ripe.  That just sounds dirty as I type it.
Then peaches traveled to Persia along the Silk Road, and then the Persians introduced peaches to the Romans, from whence peaches get their Latin name Prunus persica.  Peaches came to America with the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century and were readily adopted by American indigenous cultures.  Nowadays, commercial peaches are abundant  in California, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and New Jersey, and peaches are the second largest commercial crop in the US (second only to the all-American apple).

Okay, enough on the history of the peach.  Let's get cooking.  This recipe takes a couple days in the preparation.  You need to brine the duck for 2-3 days and you have to pickle the peaches for 1 day (or more).  So get your vinegar, your allspice berries, and your peppercorns ready.  We have some submerging of flesh and fruit to do.

The duck is phenomenal.  Seriously, next time I see duck on the menu anywhere, but specifically anywhere that has been influenced by the divine Ms. Waters, then I am ordering it.  I still don't have the skin down to brown, crisp perfection.  But my slightly white, still soft attempts produced some of the best tasting duck this side of the, well, let's say College Ave. line, and I am loving it.  And the brine on this duck?  The brine, to risk the rhyme here, is divine.  Gazowie!

The peaches were easy as sin, and they smelled so good on the stove as they simmered.  That combination of allspice, cloves, red wine, and cinnamon.  While I realize we're fully ensconced in summer, it smelled like winter.  When I was little, we used to go to Bishop Hill, utopia on the prairie (apparently), for Lucia Nights--a celebration of Santa Lucia.  Candles.  Music.  Hot Chocolate.  Craft shops.  And that smell of red wine, cloves, cinnamon.  So as I stood before my stove on a July afternoon, I was transported back 25 years to winter in Illinois.  Not a bad way to spend a summer day.

Finally, I have "Do I dare to eat a peach" meandering through my brain.  I love teaching "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock."  Isn't this a picture of the perfect peach, in that it has its imperfections?  But don't you just want to sink your choppers into it?  And yes, that Prufrock peach, as all peaches do, has a lot more meaning than just the fruit.  Sexuality.  Age.  Courage.  Sensuality.  Eat the peach, I say.  Always, eat the peach.

Grilled Duck Breast with Pickled Peaches 
Serves 6

2 whole large duck breasts
5 quarts cold water
1/2 cup salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
1 clove
3 allspice berries
2 small dried chili peppers
6 pickled peach halves (recipe below)

1. Prepare the duck breasts for the brine.  With the breasts skin side down, trim off the tenderloins and save them for another purpose.  Cut each whole breast in half down the center.  Trim off any excess skin protruding from the edges, turn the breasts over, and score the skin with a sharp knife, making 1/4-inch deep parallel cuts on the diagonal, 3 or 4 times in one direction and then 3 or 4 times at a 45-degree angle, to create a crosshatch.  This helps the fat to render and the skin to brown.

2.  To make the brine, put the cold water in a nonreactive container large enough to hold the duck breasts and brine.  Stir in the salt and sugar until dissolved.  Lightly crush the bay leaf, peppercorns, clove, allspice, and chili peppers and stir into the brine.  Immerse the duck breasts, keeping them weighted down and submerged underneath a plate.  Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 days.

3.  When you are ready to grill the breasts, take them out of the refrigerator and dry them well.  Prepare wood or charcoal fire and let the coals burn down to medium heat; the coals should not quite be flowing incandescent red.  (If the coals a re too hot, the breasts will burn, but if they are not hot enough, the breasts will not render out their fat and then golden brown).  Grill the breasts, skin side down, for 10 minutes, being careful that dripping fat does not flare up and burn the duck skin, ruining it.  When they are nearly done, move the breasts to a cooler part of the frill.  To alleviate the problem of flaming duck fat, tilt the grill at a slight angle so the fat runs down and drips away from the actual cooking area.  After 10 minutes, when the fat is rendered and the skin is nicely browned, turn the breasts over and cook for 3 or 4 minutes more.  The duck should be medium-rare.  To allow the juices to stabilize, let the duck breasts rest in a warm place for 10 minutes before slicing.

4.  Before serving, gently warm the peach slices in their pickling juice and arrange them alongside the sliced duck breast.

Pickled Peaches

Serves 6

3 peaches
2 cups water
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
4 cloves
2 allspice berries
1/2 stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf

1.  To peel the peaches, lower them a few at a time into boiling water for a minute or so, and immediately refresh them in a bath of ice water. When cool, use a paring knife to remove the skins, which should come off easily.

2.  Cut the peaches in half and remove the pits. If you have cling peaches (rather than free-stone), the flesh won't slip away from the pit to make nice halves, so you'll need to cut the fruit off the pit.

3.  To make the pickling solution, combine the water, vinegar, wine, honey, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, cinnamon and bay leaf in a heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

4.  Add the peach segments and cook just until tender, 3 to 5 minutes: test with a toothpick or sharp knife. (Make sure the peaches are cooked through or they will turn brown.) Carefully remove the peaches with a slotted spoon; they will be quite delicate.

5.  Let the pickling mixture cool slightly and then strain over the peaches. Cover and refrigerate overnight or for up to a week.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cookbook #29: License to Grill

Adapted from Cookbook #29:  License to Grill

Recipe: Grilled Duck Breast with Peach-Green Grape Chutney

Duck.  I don't eat a lot of duck.  In part because of the pricetag associated with this fair fowl, but also because I, like many, find it a little fatty and gamy.  So I went a searching for tips on how to reduce the gamy taste and I discovered this:  soak the duck breasts in a salted ice water for about a hour before using.  The brine should be about a quarter cup of salt per quart of water.  Ice water helps.  Rinse thoroughly and then pat dry.  Viola.  Less gamy duck.

Also duck can be tricky on a grill.  It likes to drip fat and cause flare ups, and even if you have the duck over to the side of your charcoals (see below instructions), you still need to keep an eye on the bird.  The husband and I grilled together (see earlier post on my novice status as a grillmaster), and at one point, he walked around to look at the plants in the garden.  Immediate flare up, and a rush to the grill to move the duck another inch or two.  But with a watchful eye, you can keep your duck from a charred ruin.  You can keep your duck in check.

One should not be surprised about the quality of the recipes in this cookbook, as John Willoughby was an editor at both Gourmet and Cook's Illustrated.  The man has chops. (John Willoughby is also the dashing romantic interest of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility; however, I suspect there is no connection).  And Chris Schlesinger is no slouch himself, as he teaches at both the New York and Napa campuses of the CIA (that's the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency, although I am sure Mr. Schlesinger would make a fine spy).  And we also own their Thrill of the Grill cookbook, so you have not seen the last of this dynamic duo.

This little recipe for backyard duck is really good.  If I were to tweak it, I would cut back a little (down to 3/4 cup, maybe) on the vinegar in the chutney.  The vinegar taste overpowered the peaches a little.  You can also cook the duck and then take the incredibly delicious, crispy, and browned skin off of it in order to make this a little less fat, but I am warning you--the skin is divine.  Otherwise, cook as directed and enjoy.  

For some reason, a good deal of my cookbooks feature (1) peaches on page 210 (so get ready for the peach invasion), (2) believe that I should pickle those peaches in some way (Alert:  I have been soaking peaches in bourbon for a little over a week!), and (3) believe in serving those peaches with duck.  Just putting it out there that you might want to be prowling your farmers market for peaches.

And on the final note:  I am happy to bring more duck into my life.  This was damn good.

Peach-Green Grape Chutney

6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, peeled and iced small
3 peaches, pitted and diced medium
1 cup seedless green grapes, halved
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
Pinch of ground mace
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste

1. In a medium saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until transparent,  to 7 minutes.

2.  Add the peaches and grapes and cook, stirring, until the peaches are a bit browned, about 4 minutes; be careful not to burn the onions here.

3.  Add all the remaining chutney ingredients, bring just to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

Grilled Duck Breasts with Chutney
4 servings

4 8- to 10-ounce boneless duck breasts
salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Peach-Green Grape Chutney

1.  Build a small medium fire in one side of your grill, using abut enough coals to fill a show box.  Season the duck breasts well with salt and pepper and place them on the grill, skin side down, off to the edge of the fire.  Cook for 6 minutes, being careful of flare-ups caused by fat dripping into the fire.  If flare-ups do occur, move the breasts so that they are not directly over the flames; you want them to cook slowly, allowing the fat to drip off at an even pace and giving the skin time to crisp.  Flip the breasts and cook for an additional 5 to 7 minutes.

2.  To check for doneness:  When the duck breasts are nicely browned and as firm as the heel of your hand they are medium-rare.

3.  Pull the duck breasts off the fire and allow to cool for about 4 minutes, then thinly slice them on the bias and serve with the Peach-Green Grape Chutney. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cookbook #28: The New Best Recipe

Adapted from Cookbook #28: The New Best Recipe

Recipe: Basic Pilaf-Style Rice

My trip to Illinois was all that I had hoped it would be--filled with good friends and family.  I celebrated love, gave a good toast, danced until sweaty, dragged my nephew around by his ankle (he's five), saw The Last Airbender (again, the young nephew), rode a carousel, was led through Jesse James' hideout, ate French food, held smiley babies, told jokes with my niece (What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back?  A stick.), and had a martini with my best friend.   I, however, also ate a lot of really unhealthy food.  Potato chips (seriously, you cannot find anything better than  Kitchen Cooked and it's a good thing I cannot find them in California), iceberg lettuce salads, and cheeseburgers.  Ouch.

Since coming home, it's been salmon, mixed lettuce salads, oatmeal, and melon.  Last night, I made Indian food.  Again, Ajanta came through for me with the main dish (a creamed spinach and mushroom explosion of goodness), and I paired it with your basic pilaf-style rice from page 210 of  The New Best Recipe cookbook.  We call this cookbook "The Geek Cookbook."  Designed for the scientist in you, this cookbook walks you through each and every step in minute detail with accompanying line drawings.  If you feel as if you have seen all of this before, you have:  in the magazine Cook's Illustrated.

Cook's Illustrated's editor-in-chief and founder Christopher Kimball began the magazine in 1980, and save a four year hiatus, it has been running strong ever since.  In fact, it has a subscription rate of 1.2 million, and before the husband and I became subscribers, we were among the thousands who pick it up while standing in line at their various grocery stores.  In both magazine and cookbook, every recipe begins with a discussion of what can and usually does go wrong with a basic dish when not expertly handled by meticulous, deductive, empirical testing:  too tough ham steaks, too heavy cornbread, hard and dry gingerbread cookies, gluey fettuccine alfredo.   Such a warning to the novice, unscientific cook is followed by the trial and error data collection until the cooks, secreted away in their Massachusetts test kitchen, get it right.  Then they pass their hard earned knowledge on to us.  And we all are the better cooks for it.

And this cookbook, let's face it, is all about science.  What pleases me about cooking is that it equally satisfies my science brain and my artist brain.  Not a true scientist, I am a little too scattered to be a great baker, for such things require precise measuring and perfect timing.  The artist in me prefers the stove top and a pan, for I can pretend that I am measuring or following a recipe, but in reality, I am just making it up as I go along.  And seriously, no two attempts at a dish are ever going to be the same. However, when I want to ensure I can do the basics just right, I come home to the editors of Cook's Illustrated.

Page 210 in this tome (it boasts 1028 pages!) rests firmly in the "Rices, Grains, and Beans" section.  Nothing flashy here, but sometimes the building blocks of good cooking are surprising in your return to them.  The two takehomes with rice making (which usually I just throw in my aging rice cooker and pray for the best) are these: number 1)  wash your rice before you begin--regardless of your kind of rice.  I have always washed my short-grain rices, a tip I picked up from an ex-boyfriend in the 90s (thank you!), but I have not been prone to rinsing my long-grain rices.  I was surprised at how much starch came off of the basmati.  Lesson learned.  Wash your rice.  And number 2) after you're done cooking the rice (when it has absorbed all the water or chicken stock or whatever), let it rest off the heat with a simple kitchen towel folded in half over the saucepan with the lid on it. Fluffier rice will follow.  Guaranteed.

Finally, the narrative at the beginning of this recipe explains the difference between pilaf-style and pilaf.  Pilaf-style refers to any long-grain rice that has been cooked in hot fat (oil or butter) before being simmered in liquid (water or stock).  The more substantial pilaf has the same cooking process (hot fat, hot liquid) as well as the additions of nuts, spices, dried fruits, meats.  After the Pilaf-Style Rice recipe, page 211 lists three pilaf variations (with Currants and Pine Nuts, Indian-Spiced with Dates and Parsley, and Vermicelli (think Rice-A-Roni)).  However, I wanted to go with your most basic recipe this time around, and in the end, this was truly a nice, light, buttery, toasted side-dish.  Hurray for science!

Serves 4, or so the recipe says.  I think it serves 6.

1-1/2 cups basmati or long-grain rice
2-1/2 cups water or chicken stock
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
Ground Pepper
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced

1.  Place the rice in a medium bowl and add enough water to cover the rice by 2 inches; using your hands, gently swish the grains to release excess starch.  Carefully pour off the water, leaving the rice in the bowl.  Repeat 4 to 5 times, until the water runs almost clear.

2.  Bring the 2-1/2 cups of water or stock to a boil, covered, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the salt and season with the pepper to taste; cover to keep hot.

3.  Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until the foam begins to subside; add the onions and saute until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes.  Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter; cook until the edges of the grains begin to turn translucent, about 3 minutes.

4.  Stir the hot, seasoned water or stock into the rice; return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, 16 to 18 minutes.  Off the heat, remove the lid, and place a clean kitchen towel folded in half over the saucepan; replace the lid.  Let stand for 10 minutes; fluff the rice with a fork and serve.