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In the later twentieth-century culinary world, Patience Gray was the epitome of the eccentric Englishwoman. Her adventurous and impoverished years of living in remote parts of the Mediterranean region are memorably captured in her cookbook Honey From a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia – which I acquired only recently.

It’s a fascinating book, though to me really more for reading than for cooking from. It’s filled with history, admonitions, anecdotes and folklore about seemingly every vegetable, every herb, every land and sea creature Ms. Gray ever encountered in her many primitive dwelling places.

The first dish I’ve tried from the book is called Guinea Fowl My Way. Now, I like guinea hens: they’re leaner than chickens, with darker, denser flesh, richly flavored and just a bit gamy. But this recipe had an additional attraction for me because of this remark in her headnote: “I propose the following anarchic method; carry it out before protesting.” I couldn’t resist the challenge!

So, off to the butcher shop for a bird. I had to order it, and the one I received was over three pounds, half again as big as the recipe called for.
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The anarchic character of the recipe showed at the start: The first thing I had to do was make a grog. This involved boiling up lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, black pepper, and water, then stirring in a hefty dose of grappa. Gray goes on: “if you are anticipating a cold – I am writing this in winter – drink some of it hot. Leave what remains to infuse.” I did.
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Next was to brown the guinea hen in olive oil in a frying pan with garlic cloves. Since I’d be making the dish just for two, I cut my bird in half and froze one half for another time.
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The shape of the half hen made it reluctant to brown very well, but I did what I could, then transferred it to a casserole in which it fit snugly. Since it had no body cavity to hold a required rosemary sprig, pine nuts, and more garlic, I just added them to the pot. Then I deglazed the frying pan with red wine and poured that over the bird.
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Finally, before covering the pot and letting it cook gently until the hen was done, I was to “heat and add what is left of the grog.” There was a lot left, but after one more sip, in it all went. (I’m happy to say those sips warded off any cold I might have been anticipating.)

My half bird took about an hour to cook, longer than the recipe said for a whole bird, probably because mine was older and with firmer flesh. A few bastings with the pan juices kept it moist, and it came out looking quite nice, if you allow for a guinea hen’s rather splotchy-looking skin.
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We were very interested in those wine- and grog-redolent pan juices, so I made a batch of fresh egg noodles to serve along with the bird. (The other vegetable on the plate is sauteed eggplant.)
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It all made a good meal, though not noticeably anarchic. The guinea hen was very flavorful, the light gravy excellent on both the meat and the noodles. Its alcohol had all cooked away, of course. I don’t know that I’d go the whole grog route again if I make the dish another time, but a slow braise like this is clearly a good way to handle guinea hen.

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When it comes to making desserts, I’m usually a minimalist. Oldies but goodies are fine for me, and the easier, the better. So when the occasional urge to make something chocolaty comes over me I’m more likely to turn to a simple mousse than a multilayered torte or lushly frosted cake. Chocolate mousse seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it’s still a fine, light chocolate dessert – which, these days, is almost an oxymoron.

For the prospective mousse maker, there are lots of recipes to choose among. Every general French or American cookbook has one, often more than one. They’re all over the Internet too. Some are fairly elaborate, with many ingredients, cooking steps, and flavorings; others promise to be simple and easy. I’m sure they’d all be good, but I’ve never found a recipe that’s as minimal as the one I usually make. It has only two ingredients: semisweet chocolate and eggs.

I think I invented this, one day when I wanted a mousse but didn’t have any cream on hand – heavy cream being an almost ubiquitous ingredient in mousse recipes. For each portion I use an ounce of chocolate and one egg. Here are the components for four servings, with the eggs separated.
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I start by melting the chocolate in a double boiler. Most other recipes I’ve seen add cream or butter or water to the chocolate at this point. On its own it melts slowly and stays very thick, but that’s not a problem. I’m also not obsessive about the type of chocolate. I use what’s in the pantry, and if it’s plain Baker’s chocolate, that’ll do. (And if all I have is unsweetened, I just add a tablespoon of sugar per ounce of chocolate.)
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While the chocolate is melting I beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer until they’re thick and pale. Well, sort of thick – I don’t make a big deal of that step, either. Some recipes cook the egg yolks with cream and sugar, rather than mixing cream with the melting chocolate. Again, not I.
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I beat the melted chocolate into the yolks a little at a time, so they don’t get so much heat as to scramble them.
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I beat the egg whites to peaks in my big Kitchen-Aid mixer and fold them into the chocolate mixture. This time I overbeat the whites a bit, stiffening them so much that they needed a lot of folding and lost some of their volume as a result. But that’s not a problem, either: the mousse is still good that way. I’m not sure you can hurt a chocolate mousse.
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When my mixture was all combined I realized the custard cups I had set out were too small. The filled cups would have to be chilled in the refrigerator for at least several hours, some for a day or two. (Tom and I try not to eat more than one portion apiece on the first day.) So they had to be in containers large enough that foil or film coverings wouldn’t touch the mousse itself. I switched to larger cups, just for the refrigeration.
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At serving time, I transferred each portion to a smaller, more attractive dish.
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This is a very ordinary looking dessert, but it’s chocolate, and it tastes just fine. It could be dressed up – say, decorating it with rosettes of whipped cream, or a scatter of raspberries, or a few candied violets. But since the whole point of my mousse making is to have an easy family dessert, all I usually serve it with is a spoon.

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A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

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On the occasional evening when Tom isn’t dining at home, I like to make a nice little dinner just for myself. I almost always choose chicken as my main dish, since he doesn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do. One such opportunity came up just recently.

The recipes I chose for my meal, though interesting to read, gave me some concerns. Oh well, I thought; trying a new dish always involves some risk. In La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange I’d found a recipe for Poulet à la Casserole and also one for Endives à la Façon Flamande that I thought would go well with chicken. Acquiring the components was easy, because the only ingredients were the bird, two Belgian endives, and butter. The butter I already had.

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Madame is very particular about the size of her poultry, calling for two-pound young chickens in all her casserole-cooked recipes. We rarely see chickens that small here, but I found a fresh Cornish hen of the right weight.

The cooking method is ridiculously simple, but I wondered if it would work. It said to melt butter in a casserole dish. Once the dish was warm, put in the chicken, cover immediately, and let it cook untouched, on moderate heat, until the chicken was tender; about an hour. Then uncover the dish and “color” the bird in its butter.

Here’s the hen just going onto the stove.

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Two things worried me here. The butter was not supposed to brown at all during the cooking. I couldn’t imagine how it wouldn’t, in all that time on direct heat. And with no turning of the bird, why wouldn’t it become seriously stuck to the bottom of the casserole? But I did as directed, nervously looking in every 15 minutes, lightly nudging the bird, and turning the heat down or up a little, in my uncertainty.

Here’s the hen when I decided it was done, after an hour and a quarter.

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Indeed, the butter hadn’t burned, only turned more golden. But in the last several minutes, the hen had given out a lot of liquid (hardly visible in the photo), which I had to boil off before I could do any final browning. And when I tried to turn it over to start browning, it had – as I’d feared – stuck. Pitiful.
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Furthermore, and totally unexpectedly, the dratted thing would not brown. I tried long enough to be afraid it would just fall apart in the pan if I kept turning it, so out it came, almost as pale as it went in.

Next I was to “lift off the light crust” from the bottom of the casserole with a little water, stirring to make a simple pan gravy. Mine wasn’t exactly a light crust – it was mostly a mess of bits of chicken skin, but I did it.
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Meanwhile, I had been making the Flemish endive dish. For that I had to cut up the endives, wash and dry them thoroughly, pack them into a heavily buttered ovenproof pan, put a round of heavily buttered parchment paper on top, add a tight cover, and cook them in “a gentle oven” for two whole hours. No liquid at all.
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I started the dish at 325° but soon turned it lower, because I could already smell the endives cooking, and that didn’t seem right. At the end of two hours, they were supposed to have gathered together into a compact mass that, turned over onto a plate, would be a lightly golden cake. Mine wasn’t. The pieces were still totally loose, some brown and crisp, others pale and soft.
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Obviously, neither of these dishes could be considered a successful execution of a recipe from a classic, authoritative cookbook. But they were what I had to eat for my dinner, so I sat down dubiously to the ugliest chicken I had ever prepared and one of the least prepossessing vegetables.
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And yet . . . and yet . . . there’s a happy ending to this story.

My ugly little hen was absolutely delicious. As promised by the recipe, in its long cooking the butter had diffused through its flesh, enhancing its natural flavor. The light bitterness of my faux-sauteed endives was a good foil for the rich, buttery chicken; and the simple little pan gravy beautifully moistened both bird and vegetable. A light sprinkling of salt was all they needed.

So: two dishes far from pretty, but both very tasty. Could’ve been worse. I doubt I’ll ever make either of these recipes again, especially not for anyone other than myself, but I’m pleased that they provided me with a good dinner after all.

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I’ve done posts on making Christmas cookies ever since I started writing this blog. Most have been about various favorite recipes that I’ve made for many years. Since I try to write about dishes that will interest my readers, I know I shouldn’t feature the same cookies every year, no matter how beloved they are. (In that respect, writing about food is different from making it.) So this year’s cookie post is about two kinds I’ve never made before, along with a to-me-irresistible celebration of two of the kinds without which it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house.

Candied Orange Peel Cookies

These are based on a recipe called Cherry Cookies that I found in the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I just substituted candied orange peel for the recipe’s candied cherries. The original was a pre-war English recipe by Florence White, who in 1928 founded the English Folk Cookery Association “to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.”

The age of the recipe is evident from the absence of any kitchen machines in its instructions – which I tried to follow as written. So I rubbed the butter into the flour by hand, then stirred in sugar and the minced candied peel. Next, I was to “bind the mixture with beaten egg to form a cohesive dough” using a knife. Odd as that sounded, I tried it, but a knife is really not the tool for that job. Surely there were spoons in those days! I reverted to completing the dough by hand.

The rolling, cutting, and baking were the standard procedures, and the cookies came out quite well. Firm and crunchy, with a little chewiness and pleasant flavor from the orange peel, they have a certain charm as an old-fashioned holiday treat. They’ll also be very nice, I think, alongside a not-too-sweet dessert wine.
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Spice Sablés

I found this recipe for a sort of modern variation on spice cookies in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. It’s attributed to the pastry chef of the ultra-fashionable, now long-closed Barefoot Contessa food shop in ultra-fashionable East Hampton. Despite the glamorous pedigree, it’s a good, sturdy cookie.

To sablés’ basic shortbread mix of butter, sugar, and flour, the recipe adds ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and Grand Marnier. These, and the use of brown sugar rather than white, struck me as intriguing flavors for a cookie.

I almost got in trouble over my long-kept brown sugar, which had solidified in the annoying way it does, and had to be pulverized. Unlike fresh brown sugar, it had no moisture, and I didn’t take that into account in mixing my dough. Accordingly, it was very dry and refused to hold together, even after overnight refrigeration. The next day I realized the cause of the problem and was able to correct the texture by kneading some water into the dough. That held it together for rolling out and cutting in Christmas tree shapes.

The cookies are very good. The texture isn’t as “sandy” as sablés typically are, but just a little rough in the way shortbread is. The flavor is unusual, subtle, and interesting. Though very plain looking, they’re rich and satisfying, and will make a nice addition to my Christmas repertory..
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Peanut Butter Cookies

Is there anything more quintessentially American than peanut butter cookies at Christmas time? I’ve made them every year-end holiday season for as long as I can remember, and my mother made them all through my childhood. This batch came out exceptionally well, a little crisper and more tender than some in past years. I feel awfully sorry for people with peanut allergies, who can’t enjoy these little delights.
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Ruggelach

Cream cheese in the dough for these tiny rolls makes for a smooth, soft pastry, which happily encloses fruit and nut fillings. I make them as my mother did, way back in my childhood. This year I did half the batch with walnuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, the other half with the two nuts and strawberry jam. They’re festive flavors, and both kinds came out very well. It may be a bit of a struggle to keep Beloved Spouse from eating them all before Christmas gets here.

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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Duck Confit

There’s absolutely no need for me to make my own confit of duck. I can order it on the Web or, to avoid shipping charges, check various local specialty stores and almost always find it. Still, though making confit takes a long time, it’s quite easy, and I like to do it occasionally. So, when the urge struck recently, I acquired a pair of large fresh duck legs and turned to the confit recipe in Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef.
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For the first stage of the preparation, I sprinkled salt in the bottom of a plastic container and nestled the legs into it, after pulling off and saving all their loose fat. On top of the legs I sprinkled smashed garlic, sliced shallot, and sprigs of fresh thyme.
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I covered the container and let it sit in the refrigerator for two days. On the third day I first rendered out the pieces of duck fat, adding an older supply of fat that I’d had in the refrigerator from a previously roasted duck.
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Then I took my duck legs out of the refrigerator, brushed off the salt and seasonings, transferred them to a deep, heavy pot, and poured on the melted fat. There was plenty to cover the meat.
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The pot went into a 225° oven, where it simmered very gently for three hours. By then the legs had rendered a good deal more fat, had shrunk considerably, and were looking fairly scuzzy from the way the meat had pulled away from the bones. But they always do look that way, so I wasn’t distressed.
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Once cooled, the legs and their fat went back into the plastic container and into the refrigerator, where they remained contentedly for a month. This week, we were ready to eat them. I depart from Colicchio’s recipe in the matter of the final cooking. My way is to lift the legs out of the semi-solidified fat, leaving on enough of a coating to cushion them when it melts, and heat them through in a sauté pan.
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For appearance’s sake, I really should have finished them under the broiler to brown and crisp the skin. But I was feeling lazy, so we ate them just as they were, accompanied by a potato gallette and sautéed apple slices..
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The duck was delicious – moist, tender, richly flavorful. Even the soft skin was good – saltier than the meat but wickedly addictive. As for the apples, is there any fruit in the world that duck doesn’t love? My confit duck legs took to the apples like a . . . well, you know the saying. The crisp, firm potato cake made a good textural contrast to both the bird and the fruit. A fine meal for a cool, autumnal evening.

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