Chicken, Chiles, preserving, Q&A, Southeast Asian

Bumper crop.

A reader in Australia asks for suggestions to use a bumper crop of basil. An easy pistou recipe for freezing basil, plus a take on a Thai classic, on the Basil page.

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Chicken, Mushrooms, Potatoes, Random Thoughts

Autodidact.

Here’s a major peeve. The other day, I came across a piece on the internet (where else?) that explained the difference between a chef and a cook as follows:

“[T]echnically speaking, a chef is someone who necessarily obtains a professional degree and prepares food in a professional setting. A cook, on the other hand, may not be professionally trained and may or may not be working in a professional setting.”

It’s a good thing that the site includes a disclaimer that “The information is ‘AS IS, ‘WITH ALL FAULTS,'” because its definition of “chef” is a total load. Although the term “chef” has come to designate those who cook in a professional setting – whether or not they actually lead a kitchen brigade – formal culinary training culminating in a professional degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef. Thomas Keller never attended culinary school, nor did Ferran Adrià. Or Charlie Trotter, or Heston Blumenthal, or Pierre Gagnaire. Neither did most of the French chefs who trained in the apprentice system in France, like Jacques Pépin or André Soltner. Not that culinary school isn’t valuable – professional cooking involves a great deal of rigor and knowledge, and a formal educational setting makes for consistency and high standards. But it’s not true that culinary school is necessary to professional success. The alternative description for these chefs – as “self-taught” – isn’t any better, though. How do we learn to cook, if not in culinary school? We learn the same way – by eating other peoples’ food, by cooking alongside and trading knowledge with other cooks, by reading about food, by our own mistakes and successes in the kitchen. Bottom line: both formally trained and “self-taught” chefs learn to cook mostly by daily experience.

Last week, cleaning out a corner of our basement, I found a notebook containing my recipes from the early- to mid-1990s. If you’re learning to cook – professionally or for the home, formally or not – I strongly recommend keeping a journal of your recipes. If nothing else, it’s a great retrospective on your culinary life at a certain time. Looking through my own notes was pretty enjoyable, if in an embarrassing kind of way. My first efforts at cooking that didn’t involve a pack of ramen noodles or jarred spaghetti sauce were simultaneously grandiose and elementary, like wrapping chicken breasts and Gruyère in puff pastry. Sometimes they worked out, sometimes they didn’t. The chicken and cheese, uh, wellington was a crapshoot – sometimes the Pepperidge Farms puff pastry burst a seam and a mixture of melted cheese and the chicken juices gushed out onto the baking sheet. Other times, the puff pastry browned up, crisp and flaky, but the chicken within was pink and cool. When things turned out, it was like a pretty nice chicken hand pie. It wasn’t until I learned to pre-cook the chicken and cut a couple of slits in the pastry, though, that I could turn out that dish reliably.

Just before I went off to law school in 1990, two things happened: I got my hands on a copy of Pierre Franey’s New York Times Sixty Minute Gourmet, and discovered cooking wine. Like a certain type of amateur cook, I thought I could just read a cookbook as one would a novel, and then wing a dish based on what I’d read, “making it my own.” It’s arrogant and stupid, since there’s a reason Pierre Franey, and not yours truly, was tapped to write those recipes back in the day. Hint: he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. Once I set aside my ego and started cooking the recipes as specified, things improved dramatically. Anyway, here’s a dish from the early hubris-filled days, when I thought I could come up with awesome recipes out of thin air. I changed a few things to comport with proper cooking technique, but otherwise left it unchanged.

Chicken with mushrooms and potatoes

This dish had several inspirations. First, I was really into mushrooms. One summer during college, I visited China with my family. I was a picky eater, and China is no place to be picky. One afternoon, at a luncheon with Communist Party types, I realized that I was going to starve if I didn’t try something, and reached out for the braised bok choy and mushrooms in a light brown sauce. I wound up eating most of the communal plate, so there you go.

Second, I read the Pierre Franey cookbook practically every night and admired a couple of recipes – one a roast game hen with potatoes and mushrooms (bonne femme) and another a chicken fricassée. (By “admired” I mean “appreciated the idea of” – I hadn’t really cooked or eaten either dish at that point, but I thought the descriptions sounded great.) I didn’t like heavy cream, and I wasn’t sure where to get little hens, so I tried to employ a fricassée technique with bone-in chicken breast, but with a flour-thickened sauce instead of cream.

I made three changes to the original recipe. The original recipe called for cooking a skin-on chicken breast en blanquette – without browning – because Franey’s fricassée recipe really is a blanquette. The thing is, the blanquette doesn’t work for skin-on chicken, because the skin becomes rubbery after stewing. So either brown the chicken breast, or brown it well before proceeding.

Initially the dish also called for sprinkling the flour over the bubbling liquid after the chicken had cooked nearly through, to thicken the sauce just before serving. Sometimes that sort of worked and sometimes it really didn’t. Well, if you know anything about gelation of starch, you know why I was totally wrong – adding starch to a hot liquid causes it to clump together as it immediately forms a sticky gel. And another thing: the raw flour taste never really cooks out unless you toast the flour first, or fry it in oil as in a roux. That’s why, when making velouté sauce or gravy, we whisk flour into hot fat before adding any liquid. I changed that part of the recipe. These days I rarely make flour-thickened sauces other than béchamel, but that’s neither here nor there.

I also substituted regular dry white wine for the original cooking wine, which is an abomination. Anyway, welcome to Amateur Night circa 1990. Take a trip back in time, and enjoy!

two chicken breasts – bone in and skin on
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
one small onion, small dice
2 c chicken stock
1/2 c dry white wine
one large russet potato, scrubbed and diced 3/4″
half pound cremini mushrooms
vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Season the chicken on both sides. Place a sauté pan over high heat and, when hot, add enough oil to film the pan. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown well. Turn the chicken over, reduce the heat, and cook en blanquette – don’t let it color. Remove to a plate.

Add the butter to the pan. When the butter bubbles, add the onions and sweat. Add the flour to the pan and whisk, incorporating thoroughly. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook the mixture for about five minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Add the wine and whisk well to incorporate thoroughly. Bring to a simmer. Add the chicken stock slowly, whisking; bring back to a simmer and continue to cook for about 5 minutes.

Half-assed velouté

Return the chicken to the pan, skin side-up. Surround with the potatoes. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir into the sauce, and cover the pan again. Cook another 5-6 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the pan. Season the chicken and the potato-mushroom mixture with salt and pepper and serve with the chicken.

Amateur night circa 1990.

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Chicken, Frenchy Things, Offal

No guts, no glory.

One of the best aspects of buying whole chicken is the plastic-wrapped bundle of organs tucked inside the cavity. Raise your hand if you use the contents. No?

Perhaps recognizing that most people just throw out the liver, heart, and gizzards, many chicken processors – including one of my favorites, the sustainable-practices Ayrshire Farm – no longer include that little packet of organ-y goodness. And that’s a shame. I know it’s annoying when people whip out the old “When I was a kid” line, but when I was a kid, my favorite parts of the chicken were the heart and gizzards. My mom would set an entire chicken to simmer in spices and aromatics, or rub it in salt and pepper to roast in the oven; soon after the cooking started, she’d spear the heart and gizzards with a fork or chopstick and hand it across the counter to me. Years later, driving through Dollywood (I know) on the way to the Smokies, I stopped for gas at a filling station in Tennessee that also sold hot paper cones of fried gizzards. We can debate the wisdom of buying gas station food from a guy in a dirty sleeveless Bud t-shirt with a cigarette who filled the cone with a lit cigarette firmly clamped between his lips, but we can’t argue about the taste. Those gizzards were good.

I wrote recently about my foie gras and sweetbreads initiation in Paris a couple of decades ago. Undoubtedly, the path to foie was eased by many a chicken liver. My husband, who claims not to enjoy liver, makes numerous exceptions: for Braunschweiger, a hastily made chopped liver flavored with Cognac on toast, chicken liver pâté. Once, while an undergraduate at Oberlin, he and some friends, having taken responsibility for the weekend meal at their co-op, prepared chicken liver pâté for eighty people. Or what they thought was the right amount for eighty people, which with a certain perspective on how much pâté any one person might eat has turned out to be way more than eighty people ever were going to eat. In any case, they filled a three gallon plastic bucket with the remaining pâté, which Nat brought home to his apartment. According to the Baldwin Co-op Chicken Liver Pâté Mythos, the next day – Super Bowl Sunday – his housemates ate most of the pâté right out of the bucket while watching the game until a certain sense of gastric unease forced them to stop. Asked about it today, Nat will only deliver this message: “Tony Geron, no one forced you to eat all that pâté.”

No one’s going to force you to eat three gallons of pâté from a plastic bucket. But you might want to think twice before throwing out that little plastic packet next time you buy a whole chicken. Use it to make a quick chopped liver, to serve before the chicken. Or freeze it, covered in milk, adding livers and milk to the container with each chicken you butcher, and make a smooth, rich pâté.

Quick chopped liver

This is the perfect way to use one large chicken liver, fresh from the chicken. Don’t have Cognac? Don’t worry – Madeira, brandy, Calvados, port, and even bourbon can substitute.

1/2 small onion, peeled and diced as small as possible (1/8″ if you can)
2 tbsp butter, divided
2 sprigs thyme
one large chicken liver
1 tbsp Cognac
salt and pepper
chives, minced

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. When the butter foams, add the onions and thyme and reduce the heat slightly, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté the onions until they just begin to turn golden.

While the onion cooks, clean the liver – remove the veins and connective tissue – and chop as finely as you can. The liver is very soft so you should be able to chop with ease. It will appear to coalesce into a pool, rather than distinct small pieces.

Raise the heat slightly. Add the liver to the onions, season with salt, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the liver is tender and begins to brown. Add the Cognac and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Remove the thyme, stir in the remaining butter. Garnish with chives.

Serve on toast points.

Chicken liver pâté

This makes a decent amount of pâté – about 28 ounces or so, probably enough for at least 10 servings – but if you cover it with fat, pack it into small tightly sealed containers with gaskets, and don’t open it until you’re ready to eat, you can prolong its life to about 3 weeks. Great for parties!

The awesomeness of this pâté is its silken texture. You won’t find fibers or granular bits in this pâté because it’s been passed through a fine sieve. That step takes a little time and I won’t pretend it’s fun standing there pushing it through, but it’s worth it. You can dispense with the sieving, and it’ll taste good, but not as good.

If you accumulate livers in milk in the freezer, prepare this dish once you have about a pound (maybe 8 large) livers. Thaw them in the refrigerator and, when totally thawed, drain the milk. You can dispense with the milk-soaking step in the recipe, which reduces the blood content and bitterness of the livers.

1 lb chicken livers
2 c milk
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 sprigs thyme
bay leaf
salt
optional: curing salt (Tinted Curing Mix or pink salt)
vegetable oil
1/4 tsp quatre épices or a large pinch each of the following ground spices: cloves, ginger, and nutmeg plus 1/8 tsp white pepper
3 tbsp Cognac
5 oz (10 tbsp or 1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 c melted duck fat, or chicken fat, or butter

Clean the liver – remove the veins and connective tissue. Divide into equal-sized large pieces. Soak in milk, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours. Drain well and discard the milk.

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the onions, thyme, and bay and reduce the heat slightly, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté the onions until they just begin to turn golden.

Raise the heat slightly and add the quatre épices. Add the liver to the onions, season with about 3/4 tsp salt or 3/4 tsp salt plus 1/16 tsp curing salt (if using), and cook, stirring from time to time, until the liver is tender and begins to brown. Add the Cognac and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Remove the thyme and bay leaf.

Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and process until relatively smooth. Add the butter and continue to process. The mixture will be quite runny. It will firm up on chilling.

Pass through a tamis or fine sieve, using a rubber spatula or bowl scraper to push the mixture through. Taste for seasoning and transfer to lidded jars, preferably with gaskets, leaving 1/2″ or more space at the top.

Delicious chicken liver pâté

Melt the duck fat and pour a thin layer over the surface of the pâté in each jar. Chill until firm.

Serve with toast or grilled bread, accompanied by sweet onion confit or cornichons.

On toast with tart-sweet onion confit

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Chicken, Dessert, preserving, Random Thoughts

Butter Queen.

Invariably, at some time between kindergarten and second grade, every Wisconsin child learns to make butter. I don’t think this is universal in other states – a quick poll of my contemporaries on the east coast yielded mostly fond, pity-the-rube chuckles and in one case, a pat on the head – but in Wisconsin, it is an essential part of the dairy industry’s youth indoctrination program. I’m not sure when California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation’s number one milk producer, but I assure you that California has not assumed the America’s Dairyland title, and it never will. That indelible association belongs to my home state, which will release its kung-fu grip on the moniker when California stops being the land of hippies and market-flooding high-alcohol Cabernets. (Crazily, Idaho is the nation’s third largest milk producer, right behind Wisconsin. Everyone knows that Idaho is the potato state, not the dairy state, so to avoid upsetting long-held commodity/geography associations and causing the universe to collapse on itself, let’s just shake our heads in disbelief and move on.)

Before you get too excited about Little House on the Prairie-like visions of Wisconsin children taking turns plunging a broom handle up and down an old-fashioned wooden butter churn, let me tell you how we did it in 1974, because the process probably hasn’t changed since then in first grade classrooms around the state. The teacher pours a quart of heavy cream into a giant bowl and plugs in an electric hand mixer. The kids crowd around in a circle and murmur excitedly at first as billows of whipped cream form. This early enthusiasm fades to disappointment and a certain loss of focus as the cream ceases to resemble Cool Whip. “Is it butter yet?” a kid invariably will call out after some minutes, tense and worried that the thick smear of cream will never become butter and that he’s going to have to stand there forever, watching the teacher circle the bowl with the beaters, and maybe miss recess. It is true that this intermediate stage takes kind of a long time. To keep this kind of kid from ruining everyone’s fond butter memories with crying, teachers with risk-seeking personalities may let the kids take turns holding the mixer and bowl. Mine did, which increased the fun quotient considerably, although in today’s bike helmet-wearing culture I doubt anyone would chance it. All of a sudden, the cream, which until that point had seemed to become thicker and thicker like whipped butter, collapses into a pool of liquid. The butter-making experiment seems to have gone horribly wrong. Moments later, though, a thin, milky liquid sloshes around the bowl and the teacher turns off the mixer. The beaters emerge, covered in butter, and after a quick rinse in the sink in the back of the room, everyone, including the panicky kid, lines up for a slice of bread with fresh butter and a little sprinkling of salt. And that, my friends, is how we party in Wisconsin.

Butter-making: so easy even a kid can watch a machine do it.

Of course, you can buy butter. Salted and unsalted, cultured butter, goat’s butter, the butter made from the cream skimmed off the milk used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, I know), organic butter, conventional butter. Why am I suggesting that you make your own, with all the options available? Because you owe it to yourself to taste just-made butter from fresh cream, before it’s had a chance to sit in some supermarket inventory for weeks, or even in your refrigerator, going rancid and absorbing all the weird smells of leftovers and vegetables going bad.

I’m not suggesting you make all or even most of the butter you use – that’s crazy talk, especially if you mostly use butter for baking or cooking, and you probably shouldn’t use house-made butter for baking because it’s just not cost effective. But if you compare the cost of house-made butter using a really good fresh cream with the cost of an organic cultured butter to spread on bread or finish a sauce, I think you’ll find that the cost is about even up or lower. For example, pints of heavy cream from Trickling Springs Creamery – an organic dairy just over the Maryland border in south central Pennsylvania – cost about $4.59 at my local organic market, but $2 of that is the bottle deposit, so the cream is just $2.59/pint. I used two pints – a quart, in other words – to make cultured cream, which I turned into almost a pound of butter. Eight ounces of organic cultured butter runs about $6 or so; my eight ounces of butter rang in at well under $3 after the bottle deposit. So this isn’t such a bad deal, and you get buttermilk as well.

Try not to make more than you’ll use in a week. This is about enjoying the freshest product, after all, and why let your delicious butter go rancid? If you make too much, though, it keeps well in the freezer, tightly sealed. Your butter yield will depend on the fat content of the cream, so go for something rich.

A load of rich creamery butter
Ever wonder why certain boxes of supermarket butter say “Sweet Cream Butter” and others don’t? “Sweet Cream Butter” is made from fresh, unfermented cream. Contrary to popular belief, the “sweet” designation has nothing to do with whether the butter has been salted or not – it refers only to the use of fresh cream. Sweet cream butter, when fresh, has a super-clean, pure taste and shouldn’t smell or taste “buttery” when cold; it will smell buttery once it meets a hot pan.

Cultured butter, sometimes called “European-style butter” in the United States, is made from cream that has undergone lactic acid fermentation, the same process that gives us crème fraîche, sour cream, and yoghurt. Cultured butter, when fresh, does have a little of that “buttery” smell and taste even when cold. That’s because lactic acid fermentation produces diacetyl, the compound responsible for butter’s “buttery” quality. In larger quantities – such as in rancid butter, or in artificial butter – it can overwhelm. Diacetyl is one of the principal components of artificial butter flavor; if you’ve ever wondered why movie theater and microwave popcorns have that too-pungent buttery character, blame the diacetyl. Rancid butter – sweet or cultured – also develops butyric acid, a sour milk-cheesy-barnyardy smelling compound. Butyric acid is nasty. So keep your butter in the freezer if you’re not going to use it within a week or so.

One pint of cold heavy cream (50% or more butterfat)
Fine salt (sea salt is best)
3 tbsp cultured buttermilk or 2.5g dried yoghurt starter culture [optional]

To prepare cultured butter, bring the cream to 110F and add the buttermilk/yoghurt starter culture. Place in a jar or similar container and leave at room temperature for 8-10 hours (wrap well in kitchen towels). If the idea of doing this freaks you out, use a yoghurt maker. At this point, you will have crème fraîche. Refrigerate well before using. Feel free to skip this step entirely if you want to make sweet cream butter.

If you have a stand mixer with a whip, use it. And if you have one of those mixer bowl pouring shields (I don’t), use that as well. You’ll see why later. Otherwise, use a large bowl – as large as you can find –and a hand mixer, electric or otherwise.

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Pour the fresh cream or crème fraîche into the bowl. Begin beating (I like speed 6 on the KitchenAid; you don’t gain anything by going slower and I do think you run the risk of warming the cream if you go faster). The cream will form soft peaks, then stiff-ish peaks, and then become overbeaten. In this step, the fat particles form a network with air bubbles.

Continue beating. The cream will continue to thicken and form a mass resembling buttercream, or whipped butter, around the bowl. In this step, the fat droplets clump together and the air bubbles pop. You can scrape it down with a silicone spatula from time to time, but you don’t have to.

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Eventually – if you use speed 6 and don’t scrape the bowl it takes less than ten minutes from the start of the process – a thin, milky liquid will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl and the cream will become more clotted-looking. In this last step, almost all the fat has clumped together, and separated from the non-fat liquid. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep going. Soon after, the solids will collapse into the buttermilk. Don’t freak out – it’s just because the speed of the mixer temporarily has distributed the fat particles throughout the buttermilk. It hasn’t turned back into cream and you won’t have to start over.

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Within a minute or two, you should experience a great sloshing as the butter clumps together, sticking to itself in the bowl and around the whisk or beaters. This is where the pouring shield comes in handy, because the sloshing can make quite a mess. Turn off the mixer.

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Place the whisk or beaters in a clean bowl full of cold water and pour the buttermilk through a chinois or fine sieve into a jar. Save the buttermilk. Combine the butter solids with the rest of your butter in the bowl of cold water.

Remove the butter from the whisk and combine into a mass. Rinse well several times in ice water until your water runs clear. Knead the butter into a smooth, pliable lump, expelling as much liquid as possible. This is a good time to add sea salt, maybe ½ tsp, if you want salted butter. Rinse again.

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And there’s your butter. You should have about 8 ounces from a pint of 50% butterfat cream. Don’t throw out the buttermilk!

Buttermilk

The buttermilk that remains after butter-making is called “churn buttermilk.” It doesn’t really resemble the stuff you buy in quart containers in the store, which is just nonfat or low-fat milk that’s been cultured with bacteria to initiate lactic acid fermentation, and thickened with carrageenan (a naturally occurring hydrocolloid which forms gels in the presence of calcium and is a popular dairy thickener for this reason), and locust bean gum. Churn buttermilk is less tart than this so-called cultured buttermilk (even if a byproduct of butter made from cultured cream), and is thin, like milk, not thick. Most churn buttermilk is freeze-dried for commercial food processing and baking.

You can drink it, of course, or you can use it to make buttermilk biscuits. Or use it to make fried chicken, or buttermilk ice cream!

Buttermilk fried chicken
One whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half with a cleaver)
3-4 c buttermilk from above recipe
1 tbsp kosher salt (plus 1 tsp if using 4 c buttermilk)
1 tsp garlic powder
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

2 c flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper

Vegetable oil or lard

Combine the buttermilk, salt, garlic powder, thyme, and bay leaf. Mix well, ensuring the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken, cover the container, and refrigerate overnight.

Combine the flour, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne in a large bowl. Prepare a sheet pan with a rack. Place a heavy and 2 to 3 inch deep pan (such as a sauté pan or cast iron pan) over medium heat with about ¾” oil. Bring the oil to 365F/185C. Unless you intend to cook in batches, you may wish to cook in two pans.

Drain the chicken but do not pat dry. Dredge each piece in flour, coating completely (leave no wet spots) and shaking off excess. Lower the chicken pieces into the hot fat. Do not crowd the pan or pans. Fry until golden on one side; turn over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn over twice to crisp. The chicken must have an internal temperature of at least 165F/74C at the bone but you may prefer it somewhat more done. I like chicken around 170F/76C. Remove from the oil with a wire skimmer or tongs and drain on the racks (don’t use paper towels; they can trap steam and make your crust soggy). To keep warm, place the racks in a 250F/120C oven.

Serve with biscuits and pickles.

Buttermilk ice cream
Use buttermilk instead of milk in this light, refreshing ice cream, a natural with fresh berries. I prefer the Philadelphia-style ice creams – containing no egg – to the custard type, so like most of the ice creams I make, this one contains no egg. Without the heavy, rich egg yolk coating your tongue, everything else has a more intense taste.

2 c buttermilk from above recipe
2 c heavy cream, as rich as possible
1 ¼ c sugar (caster/superfine sugar is best)
Zest of one lemon, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp vodka

Combine buttermilk, cream, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to 170C, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Add the lemon zest.

Cool quickly in a bain marie full of ice and, when cool, stir in the lemon juice and vodka. Whisk well to incorporate. Freeze as appropriate for your ice cream maker and scoop into two pint containers. Transfer to the freezer and freeze hard for at least 4-6 hours.

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Chicken, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Vegetables

Your foreign correspondent.

Earlier this year, I read an article about a Dutch study purporting to show that the greatest psychological benefit of vacation occurred in the planning phase, and not during the vacation itself. I’ve thought about this study a lot because the conclusion the authors reached seems ridiculous, science or no. How is it possible that spending endless hours trolling Expedia for low fares could compete with, say, lying on a beach in Guadeloupe, Carib beer in hand? It seemed unlikely.

The obvious antidote to this kind of skepticism is a vacation. Is it possible to remain dubious about academic research while quaffing cold rosé under the southern French sun? To find out, I booked two tickets to Barcelona, hired a car, and made arrangements to stay at a 16th century stone house in Languedoc-Roussillon near Andùze where we stayed last June. My husband and I were going to find out whether leaving our jobs behind for a couple of weeks would boost our happiness. We’re both big fans of scientific research.

According to our friend Jonathan, who owns a share of the property in Languedoc, the house on the property probably dates from the 1500s when the production of silk began in the area. One wing of the house constituted the “magnanerie” (silk loft) where silk worms feasted on mulberry tree branches. The closest town of significance, Andùze, was the center of the silk industry in this region, and home to a number of mills. “Produced in Andùze, delivered in Nȋmes, the silk went back to Lyon via the Rhône,” Jonathan informs us. Although the property bears few obvious traces of this industrial past, it boasts plenty of natural charm. A tributary of the Salindrenque River winds through the property, twisting at points to provide refreshing swimming holes. Fig trees grow alongside the house, luring butterflies (and bees). Wild boars rustle through the woods from time to time. Just out the front door, a thickening canopy of grape vines, climbing roses, and other greenery shades a brick wood-fired oven and a picnic table. Walking about the property, the scent of wild mint rises, crushed by your feet. In front, there’s a makeshift pétanque circle. The nearest neighbor is a five minute drive away down a narrow gravel road.

A butterfly feasts on figs.

Al fresco.

But the main attraction of the place – as far as I’m concerned, anyway – is that old brick oven and the opportunity to cook in a completely different setting. There’s no electricity or hot water, which adds another level of complexity. Last year, before we went, Jonathan sent me this e-mail:

“Serious question for you. If Justin and I kill a wild boar, will you know how to dress it and cook it for us? That would be memorable, and provide food for days, don’t you think?”

Answer: yes. It would have been memorable … had the men been able to follow through on their end of the deal. The killing end of the deal, as I like to think of it. We could have roasted the loin and shoulder in the brick oven, and made terrine from the offal and cheeks. But with all the day trips to Nȋmes and Avignon, and all the games of pétanque lubricated with wine from the cave cooperatif down the road, nothing as exotic as wild boar ever turned up in the kitchen.

This time, before we left, Nat turned to me and said, “you know what would be great? If we could get that brick oven going.” I nodded my agreement. On our trips to Vermont, we established a tradition of visiting American Flatbread, whose wood-fired pizzas are better by far than almost anything outside of New Haven. Each Flatbread outpost has its virtues, although we have our favorites. The bartender in Burlington possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of craft brewing and will offer up generous tastings of anything if you express an interest. In Middlebury, close to the family vacation home, the waits are never as long as at the Waitsfield flagship, and it’s often possible to get a seat in front of the domed brick oven. Nat has alluded to plans to build just such an oven in our back yard. “You can buy a kit for about two to four thousand dollars,” he enthused.

So our trip to France became a quest, among other things, to learn to use the brick oven. Sitting beneath the Pont du Gard, I noted my interest in steak. “Actually,” Nat interjected, “you know what I’m really in the mood for? A whole roast chicken. What we don’t finish tonight we can eat cold for lunch tomorrow.” It would be memorable, and provide food for days, don’t you think? Holding on to this thought during the drive to Uzès, I was both excited to try out the oven and a little anxious. One thing about a completely un-electrified property – once it gets dark, it’s really dark. Would I be able to tell when the chicken had cooked? What if, at eleven o’clock, I pulled out a charred poultry-shaped shell masking a bloody, raw interior? Unlike the States – where you can find an all-night grocery within driving distance of most towns – rural France hews to meaningful shopping and dining schedules. At the market in Uzès, we picked up some terrine de foie aux cèpes and a thick slice of pâté de tête with green peppercorn along with the chicken, to hedge our bets.

View from the kitchen.

As the sun set, Nat stacked kindling sticks and logs inside the mouth of the oven, twisting bits of newspaper to stoke the fire, while I halved heritage plum tomatoes and “la ratte” potatoes, and rubbed butter on the famed poulet jaune de Landes, trussing it with butcher’s twine. By the time we slid two baking dishes into the oven – one with the chicken and potatoes, and another with the olive oil-dressed tomatoes – it was completely dark. We opened a bottle of local Syrah, sat down with a platter of terrine and cornichons to watch the fire, and leaned a forked branch against the oven wall.

The next 90 minutes were pretty interesting. To feed the fire, Nat gathered up a number of fallen tree branches and then started loading them into the oven. Most of the branches were far too long for the oven – having been cut for the fire pit or perhaps not at all – and I worried that one or the other of us would bump into a protruding branch, launching it from the oven and setting the old silk loft on fire. “There are saws in that armoire in the entryway,” I said, nervously regarding the orange flames.

“Really?” said Nat, raising an eyebrow. He left the table with a flashlight and returned with two flimsy saws, neither of which seemed likely to cut anything harder than butter. I regretted my suggestion almost immediately – one of the saws failed to grip the wood all that well but instead made a comical twanging sort of mouth-harp sound, and the other broke. Making matters worse, the forked branch we were using to latch onto the handle of the baking dish was disintegrating in the oven’s heat with each use, and after about 45 minutes, I found myself panicking when, trying to turn the chicken, I wound up pushing it so far into the oven I was pretty sure we’d be eating the headcheese for dinner and retrieving the charred carcass from the oven the next day. But cooking is the same whether you’re at home or in front of a brick oven in the south of France – when you run into trouble, you find a way to work it out. Trying to think cool thoughts – Vermont in winter, the unheated shower I took just that morning – I stepped closer to the fire and leaned in with the branch, pulling the chicken toward me.

Branches protruding scarily from brick oven.

Chicken, potatoes, tomato confit.

At home we often joke about our Eurotrashy dining habits. The fact is that we commute from Washington, DC to Baltimore every day, and rarely eat before 9:30pm, around the time some of our early-rising friends are nodding off during Real Housewives, remote in hand. I regarded our trip to France as a time to gain some normalcy – not because we’d be eating any earlier, you see, but because everyone eats later. This certainly was true in Spain, anyway, where we deflected well-meaning restaurant efforts to seat us at 9pm, the American hour, with the statement that we often eat around 10 at home. And true to form, we pulled the tomatoes, bubbling and caramelized, and the chicken, with its crisp, golden skin, from the oven just before 10pm.

“The moment of truth,” Nat said, pouring more Syrah into my glass. I probably looked worried. I am not known for my culinary failures – a strange incident involving some sablefish in 2001 stands out as the sole example in the past ten years – and the chicken looked like a roasted chicken is supposed to look. Then again, the sablefish looked right too. Would this be the Great Sablefish Incident of 2010? One of the thighs had come loose from when I flipped the bird over with the branch to roast the underside. Nat reached out and tore off the bit of dark meat dangling from the cavity, and popped it into his mouth. “Perfect.”

Meal cooked entirely in the dark with fire and a big stick.

Brick oven roast chicken and potatoes

Here’s the thing about cooking in a brick oven. It’s just like cooking in any other oven, except for two things. The heat isn’t even throughout – it’s unbearably hot right beside the fire, and gets cooler as you move away – so you need to take advantage of the zones. And another thing – at its hottest, it’s far hotter than any home oven.

Our chicken emerged looking pretty good, although it was a little ragged from our efforts to move it around the oven, and the fact that we cooked the meal entirely in the dark. For best results, use something other than a fallen tree branch to drag your pan around the oven.

One whole roasting chicken
1 1/2 lb yellow-flesh potatoes, like la ratte, Yellow Finn, or Yukon Gold,
1/8 lb or about 60g (4 tbsp) unsalted butter
one lemon, halved
one small onion, quartered
4 sprigs of thyme
salt
Giant pile of firewood and brick oven (optional)

If using the brick oven, begin about two hours before you intend to roast your chicken. Build a fire inside the mouth of the oven, immediately to the right, against the interior wall. Avoid resinous woods like pine; instead, select hardwoods. Have additional kindling, tinder, and logs on hand, as you will need to feed the fire.

If using a conventional oven, 450F/230C.

Season the chicken inside and out with salt and stuff the cavity with half a lemon, two onion quarters, and they thyme. Rub the chicken with 3 tbsp butter. Place in the center of an ovensafe roasting pan (if you can, place the chicken on a rack within the pan). If using the brick oven, your roasting pan of choice should be enameled cast iron, cast iron, or earthenware. Do not use any nonstick items if using a brick oven (including the rack) as the coating may not survive the heat.

Halve the potatoes lengthwise, arrange around the chicken, and dot with butter. Arrange around the chicken (if using a rack, place the potatoes directly in the pan and set the rack above them.

Once your oven of choice is hot, load the roasting pan into the oven. Begin by placing the pan near the heat source – within about 6 inches – so the skin begins to turn golden. Turn the pan 180 degrees to brown the other side. Once the chicken has begun to turn an even gold, push it back to a cooler section of the oven. I found that about 14-16 inches sufficed. If you are using a conventional oven, turn the heat down to 300F/150C.

Turn the chicken as necessary to ensure even cooking. After about 40 minutes, pull out the chicken and test for doneness – juices from the cavity should run clear and the thigh should move easily in its socket. If using a thermometer, at its thickest point the temperature should read not less than 165F/75C (and, to be appetizing, probably should read about 175F/80C). Let the chicken rest for about 15-20 minutes before carving. Season with salt and pepper.

Tomato confit

I hesitate to call this a confit, because the tomatoes are not actually poached in fat, at least not initially. Maybe oil-roasting is a better term. Once the tomatoes soften and begin giving up liquid, they collapse into the poaching oil. The tops will bubble and blacken a bit, and the tomatoes will become thick and sweet. Even a somewhat substandard tomato will gain great flavor using this cooking method.

6-8 plum tomatoes, like San Marzano, or Amish Paste (or the more commonly available Roma)
six thyme branches
salt and pepper
olive oil

If using a conventional oven, 450F/230C.

Halve the tomatoes lengthwise, place in a baking dish (follow the tips above if using a brick oven), and season with salt and pepper. Place the thyme branches on top and add several good glugs of olive oil on top and around the tomatoes.

If using a brick oven, load the pan into the oven about 8 inches from the heat source. Once the tomatoes begin to collapse and give up some of their juice, move the pan to a spot about 12 inches from the heat. If using a conventional oven, place the pan in the oven and roast until the tomatoes have collapsed, are bubbling, and have the occasional blackened spot on top.

Tomatoes, seasoned in the baking pan (at home)

Out of the oven (at home)

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