Thursday, December 15, 2011

Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes

We wanted to celebrate with a Christmas feast with some of the husband's family; however, I also wanted something relatively easy and mostly in one pot.  So, last week the French, via the Zuni Cafe, came to the rescue.

This recipe looks like it takes a while (and technically it does because you have to let it braise for a few hours), but the prep work is minimal and the clean up easy.  The hardest part about the whole recipe may have been slicing the onion.

I have never been much of a duck consumer; however, this blog has pushed me to make duck three times in the past two years, and each time, I have been delighted by the results. Judy Rodgers, chef and co-owner of the Zuni and writer of the cookbook from which this recipe originates, suggests that one should use Muscovy duck legs.  Admittedly, I have no idea whatsoever which ducks sacrificed their legs to the cause, for all I did was approach the butcher and ask for four legs.  Either he was flirting with me or he has a good memory (or a third, less narcissistic option, he mistook me for someone else), for he remembered my previous duck part purchases. (Hey, let's go with flirting with me, just because that feels like an added gift for the holidays.)

Judy Rodgers also suggests that this dish is particularly good with roasted polenta.  (Mmm, polenta.)  However, we made the buttermilk and garlic potatoes from this cookbook (a recipe for another time), which were divine.  Since we made this into a family feast, there was wine and cheese and crackers and apple crisp (recipe to come later).   However, the star of the show was this incredible braised duck.  The sheer act of reducing the wine from a bottle down to one cup created this intensified braising nectar of the gods.  The clove and the orange peel were subtle and smacked of the holidays.  The only drawback of this dish--I found it a little oily (you do cook the duck with the skin on, which you could remove), but I often find the food at the Zuni to be a little heavy handed with the oil.  The husband and the family suggested that I might be losing my mind because they found the duck to be transcendent.  And what more do you need than a little transcendence around the holidays?  You make the call.  My only real regret is that I didn't take many pictures.  The food was just too distracting.

Finally, I miss my family in Illinois this year.  My dad, my sister, the nieces and nephews, my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law.  I haven't been back to Illinois for Christmas in probably six or seven years--ever since the husband and I got caught in a blizzard on the way from the airport to my mom's house.  Perhaps next year, we shall brave the hinterlands of Knox County.  But in the mean time, let's embrace the French, their beautifully braised duck, and family in California.  Happy holidays.  

One Year Ago: Grilled Cepes

Duck Braised with Red Wine and Prunes
Adapted from  Zuni Cafe Cookbook

4 servings

4 duck legs (10-12 ounces each)
4 cups medium-bodied or hearty red wine, such as Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 cups Chicken Stock
2 medium yellow onions, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1 1/2 inch wedges
2 ounces garlic cloves (about 1/2 cup), unpeeled
1 bay leaf
2 wide strips of orange zest
1 whole clove
12 prunes, preferably with pits

1.  One to three days in advance, trim lumps of fat, ragged edges or meatless flats of skin from the duck legs.  Rinse the legs, lay between dry towels and press to absorb surface moisture.  Season all over with salt (a scant 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt per pound of duck).  Cover loosely and refrigerate.

2.  In two separate saucepans, reduce the wine and the chicken broth to one cup each.  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

3.  Press the duck between towels to wick off excess moisture.  Place a dry 10-12-inch skillet over medium heat.  When the pan is hot enough that the duck hisses on contact, add the legs, skin side down, and leave to set a golden crust, about 10 minutes.  The duck will begin to render fat within a a few minutes; reduce the heat if the fat starts to smoke.  Turn the legs over and brown for just a few minutes on the flesh side, then arrange skin side up in an ovenproof pan.  Pour off the rendered fat from the skillet.  If any golden bits remain in the skillet, add the reduced red wine to the pan and simmer briefly, stirring, to dissolve them.  Set aside.

4.  Place the onion wedges and prunes in between the duck legs.  Add garlic, bay leaf, orange zest, and clove.  Add enough of the reduced wine and stock, in about equal doses, to come to a depth of 1/2 inch; save any extra wine and stock for extending the sauce.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Cover tightly, place in the oven, and cook for about 1 hour.

5.  Turn the duck legs over.  Cover the pan tightly and return to the oven and cook for another hour.

6.  Turn the legs over again, turn the heat up to 375 degrees, and return to the pan to the oven uncovered.  When the legs feel tender and slightly browned, about another 20 minutes, remove the pan from the oven.  Turn off the oven and place a serving platter to warm in the oven for a minute to two.  Leave the duck legs to rest for another 5 minutes, then carefully lift from the sauce to the warm serving platter.

7.  Skim the fat from the braising liquid, and then taste the liquid.  If the sauce is too thin, set the pan over medium heart and reduce to the texture of maple syrup.  If the sauce is too rich, dilute with a little water.  If there is not enough sauce, add some of the extra wine and stock, then simmer to bring to a syrupy consistency.

8.  Serve each duck leg with 3 prunes and a few onion wedges and garlic cloves.  Spoon a few tablespoons of sauce over each leg.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Butternut Squash Cappellacci with Brown Butter and Nutmeg

We are incredibly lucky.

We are going to Rome with the husband's parents, who have rented an apartment off of Campo de' Fiori. We're over the moon, and we have not really been able to wrap our minds around the fact that at this time next week we will be fully jet-lagged in Rome.  There will be much ambling along cobble-stoned streets, much gaping at ruins, and much consuming of gelato.  People, we're headed to Italy.

When I was young, I wanted to go to Italy desperately.  It came after watching the overdone and saccharine 1962 movie The Light in the Piazza, one boring Saturday afternoon.  While this movie sparked a love affair with vespas, fountains, and piazzas for my ten-year-old self, I do not necessarily recommend it.  When it came time to choose my foreign language of study, I was heartbroken and surprised that Italian was not offered in my small town school district.  Undeterred, I grabbed a clip board and marched up to the Spanish and French teachers to interview them about which language was closer to my beloved Italian; somehow the French teacher was more convincing, and I enrolled in French I that fall.  I realize now that Spanish is probably closer to Italian.

Still determined to learn Italian, I have been practicing in the car on the way to and from work with a rather charismatic Italian CD.  I have learned such phrases as No, non vorrei bere qualcosa con lei. Sono sposata.  Assolutamente no.  Anche non vorrei mangiare con lei. Non adesso. Non più tardi.*  This string of refusals is said boldly in my car as I drive through the Caldecot tunnel.  Apparently, I am ready to face persistent Italian men who apparently would really like to buy me a drink or dinner.  Is it problematic that my Italian CD plays into stereotypes?  Or is the CD just preparing me for the inevitable? Or is it problematic that I look like a lunatic in my car, gesticulating to the dashboard, adamantly declaring that I will not eat with it?

*No,  I do not want to drink something with you.  I am married.  Absolutely not.  Also I do not want to eat something with you.  Not now.  Not later.

However, I have also learned other helpful phrases such as  No.  Non bevo oggi.**  This one I like.  I can imagine this said the morning after too rough of a weekend.  But this one is my favorite:  Non sono mai a bere di nuovo.***  Oh my.  I feel that my Italian learning CD has a very particular plan for me in Rome that may or may not include the husband and will certainly involve a good deal of regret.

**I am not drinking today.
***I am never drinking again.

In the mean time, the husband and I decided some Italian fare was in order.  While this recipe is from Ferrara rather than Rome, it certainly has been readying us for this Italian adventure.  I once wrote for a quick moment about Ferrara here about a year ago.  Allow another indulgence here.  The last time we were in Ferrara, we stayed with a mentor of the husband in a little apartment just off the square.  He directed us to the Castello Estense and proceeded to tell us the history of the tower, which I cannot verify its accuracy.  Apparently originally there was only one tower.  However, the citizens of Ferrara got a little ticked at the Este family due to some pesky taxation, and they literally tore apart one of the family members.  To protect themselves from further dismemberment, the Este family commissioned additional fortresses as part of the castle, which the husband and I wandered around.  With that to whet our appetites, the husband and I ate at a nearby outdoor cafe, where I had my first bite of cappellacci with butter and sage.  Hoo-wee.  People, I am telling you that you need to try this recipe, which comes pretty darned close to what I had for lunch that June day almost eight and a half years ago.

In this recipe, I used pumpkin and kabocha squash, because that's what my CSA sent me, rather than butternut squash.  However, you can use any sweet, fleshy winter squash (read:  pumpkin, butternut, acorn, kabocha, etc).  We did not make our own pasta (something I have discussed here) because we have access to great pre-made pasta sheets, and I am not going to make my own pasta (which often comes out like hockey pucks) when I can simply purchase some down the street.

Do bake or buy the amaretti cookies.  While a little tricky to find and time consuming to bake, they are the secret ingredient in the filling.

Finally.  I will  say this just once.  Brown. Butter. And. Sage.  The Ferraran gift to pasta.  Thank you, Ferrara.

One Year Ago: Parsnip Galette with Greens

Butternut Squash Cappellacci with Brown Butter and Nutmeg
Adapted from  Simply Tuscan

6 Servings

5 pounds butternut squash (I used Kabocha and pumpkin)
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups finely crumbled amaretti cookies
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
salt and pepper
1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh sheet pasta
8 tablespoons butter
15 leaves fresh sage
8 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Peel the squash, cut it in half, and remove the seeds.  Cut the squash into 2-inch chunks, place on a baking sheet, and cover with foil.  Bake for 1 hour or until the chunks are tender and dry.  Let the squash cool, transfer to a food processor, and puree until smooth.  Then squeeze out all of the excess water by placing the puree in the center of a clean kitchen towel, picking up the corners, and twisting them together over the sink.  Combine the drained squash with the 2 cups Parmesan cheese, amaretti cookies, lemon zest, egg yolks, breadcrumbs, nutmeg and salt and pepper. 

2.  To assemble, cut the pasta sheet unto 3-inch squares.  Make an egg wash by mixing the egg yolk with half an eggshell full of water.  Brush the pasta squares with the egg wash.  Place 2 teaspoons of the filling onto each square.  Fold the squares into triangles by bringing two opposite corners together.  Seal the triangles by pressing down on the edges with your fingers.  Put your index finger at the center of the folded edge of the triangle.  Fold the corners down around the index finger with your other hand, pinching them together between thumb and index finger. (See photos below.  It's actually really simple.)

3.  Cook the cappellacci in plenty of boiling salted water until they float.  Drain carefully by lifting the cappellacci out of the water with a slotted spoon or skimmer--do not pour them into a colander, or they will fall apart.

4.  To make the sauce, in a small pan over low heat, melt the butter.  Add the sage, and let it cook until the butter is golden brown, about 2 minutes, and the sage is crispy.

5.  Arrange the cappellacci on warm plates, sprinkle with the grated Parmesan, and drizzle the butter and sage over them.