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Archive for the ‘Main dishes’ Category

When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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When you’ve got a good recipe, it can be tempting to try to turn it into another good recipe, just by varying the ingredients. Some of those times, you may wish you’d left well enough alone. Other times you may get a dish that keeps the best of the original and embellishes it with something new. I managed to do that recently.

For an upcoming dinner, I was thinking of a large piece of moist-cooked meat. La Tavola Italiana, my first cookbook, has a very pleasant recipe for braciolone – a rolled stuffed flank steak braised in a small brown sauce – that I hadn’t revisited in years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of braciolone recipes, owing to the many possible variations on both meat and filling. My filling was a modest one: just small amounts of prosciutto, parsley, grated pecorino, raisins, and pignoli, with bread crumbs and raw egg to bind.

This time, I envisioned my dish as a pork roll braised in tomato sauce. I had a nice 1½ pound piece of butterflied pork shoulder to use for it, which isn’t large as braciolone cuts usually are, but I’d be feeding only three people that evening, and it would be enough. I pounded the meat as thin as it would go.
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Pulling things out of the refrigerator for the stuffing, I was suddenly gobsmacked. I had no raisins or pignoli! How was that possible? I always have raisins and pignoli.

But no, I’d used them up and neglected to replace them. Their sweetness and crunch are important to the dish, and it was too late to dash out to a store. What to do? Well, desperate times require desperate measures: I smeared the surface of the pork with a thin layer of Indian mango chutney.

In case there might be need to mitigate that “uncanonical” flavor, I added some minced mushrooms and onion, softened in olive oil – which I had been considering using anyway – to smaller quantities of the remaining stuffing ingredients. Then I got ready to roll.
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I have to say I’m terrible at rolling and tying meat. If I clumsily try to wind a single piece of string around the cylinder, it never stays closed, so I have to strangle it with individual ties. Nor can I ever manage to fold in the ends of the roll so the stuffing can’t leak out during the cooking. Here I had to sew the ends closed with a darning needle and heavy thread. My braciolone wound up looking like the victim of a bad auto crash.
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Well, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was it the worst-looking roll I’d ever achieved. I tenderly carried it to a casserole and browned it in olive oil. Predictably, some of the stuffing immediately started to escape.
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Once the meat was browned I removed it to a plate, deglazed the pan with white wine, added eight peeled and chopped plum tomatoes and let them soften a bit, then returned the meat.
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My braciole cooked covered, being turned and basted occasionally, until it was perfectly tender – about an hour and a quarter. Long before then it had been perfuming the kitchen with gorgeous aromas. The sauce was pleasantly nubbly from the escaping bits of stuffing that had merged with the tomatoes and meat juices. The meat was pretty messy to slice for serving . . .
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. . . but it was excellent. All the flavors harmonized beautifully. There was a just-detectable hint of the sweet chutney spices, which complemented the natural sweetness of the pork. Really, pork and tomatoes love each other: The pork enriched the sauce and intensified the flavor of the now-melted tomatoes, and the tomatoes drew out even more succulence from that tender, juicy cut of pork. That’s why I always make at least a little more of this dish than we need for dinner: It’s even better the next day.

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The NY Times food section has got my dander up again. Headlines on an October 4th article promise a “method for keeping eggplant Parmesan crisp and delicious,” thus “solving the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan.” Now, there’s a solution looking for a problem! Crispness is a totally wrong characteristic for this dish.

Author Julia Moskin found a problem, though. She tells us that, up to now, she had never made an eggplant Parmesan that she didn’t regret. Many recipes, mostly American, that she’d tried made it come out tough, slimy, mushy, or sludgy. However, she concedes that good Italian versions of eggplant Parmesan exist – so why didn’t she make them rather than abandon an entire range of great traditional recipes for the sins of some bad ones?!

It’s because she wants her eggplant to be crisp, like a crusty breaded veal cutlet. So she set about to solve the puzzle of “in the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate.”
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Well, in the real or any other world, I have no objection to a dish of breaded and fried eggplant with marinara sauce and mozzarella alongside. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call it eggplant Parmesan!

As for making the real thing, there are perfectly easy ways to prevent problems like mushiness or sludge. Don’t coat the eggplant slices with both a thick batter and breadcrumbs, don’t over-fry them, don’t drown them in sauce, and don’t bake the dish for too long a time. But also, don’t expect the eggplant to retain any crispness: That’s like asking for a crisp, crunchy ratatouille.

Having vented this, my latest culinary annoyance with the Times (others are here and here), I decided to soothe my spirits by making a genuine parmigiana di melanzane. I’ve already written here about one favorite version; this time I chose one that’s a little different, from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

In many ways the two recipes sound as if they’d be very similar. Mostly the same components: eggplant, tomato sauce, onion, basil, grated parmigiano, mozzarella. Mostly the same procedures: making a simple sauce of plum tomatoes, salting or soaking thinly sliced eggplant, lightly frying it in olive oil, layering it in a baking dish with the other ingredients, and baking it.

But the two versions produce dishes with quite different effects, starting with the way the tomato sauce is made. My earlier one, more typically, softens a little onion in olive oil, stirs in pureed tomatoes and basil, and sautés until the sauce thickens. This one uses no oil – just softens halved tomatoes in a pot with onion and basil (no water), puts them through a food mill, and simmers until thick. Then the sauce is mixed with beaten raw egg.

Also, the two recipes use different proportions of the ingredients. For the same quantity of eggplant, this one (on the right) uses only half as much sauce (not counting the egg), and half as much of each cheese. That produces a dryer dish, as these two photos of the layering processes show.
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Baking time is different, too. The earlier version bakes at 350° for only 20 minutes, uncovered. The newer one goes into a 350° oven, covered, for 30 minutes, then is uncovered and baked 10 more minutes at 400°.
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Eggplant parmigiana always needs to cool somewhat before being eaten, to let the flavors blend. This one sat for a full half hour, and in fact it tasted even better as the portions cooled further on our plates. As you can see, on the right, below, it’s still much “eggplantier” than the earlier version, but the vegetable is beautifully permeated with all the other flavors.
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The portion on the right is also considerably dryer and more concentrated than the other one. The cheeses aren’t as prominent, serving more as an accent and slight binder here. The egg itself is unnoticeable, having merely done its job of smoothing and thickening everything else.

Both these versions of eggplant parmigiana are totally delicious. Neither one needs anything to make it great again; they’re great just as they are.

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Left to myself, I’d cook chicken at least once a week, I’m so fond of it. My companion across the daily dinner table, however, doesn’t even remotely share that enthusiasm. He indulges me often enough, but I don’t push it too far. So when, recently, he was going to be away from home for several days, my poultry passion flared up and I began looking at chicken recipes.

For some years I’d had an item in my big recipe binder called Peruvian Roasted Chicken, which I’d never tried. I can’t remember where it came from, but its technique and spicing are very different from anything I’ve done with a chicken before. This was clearly its moment. No problem about cooking a whole bird for one person: I can happily eat chicken for several days in a row.

At the heart of the recipe is a pungent marinade made by mixing together

2½ Tbs garlic powder
1⅓ Tbs ground cumin
4 Tbs white vinegar

2½ Tbs paprika
2½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs white wine
3 Tbs soy or canola oil
3/4 tsp salt

I had to make a few adjustments there. I won’t keep garlic powder in the house, so I pressed three cloves of fresh garlic. I had only whole cumin seeds, so I crushed some in a mortar. The only paprika I had on hand was Spanish smoked pimentón, so I used that. And the oil I used was olive. All that made quite a heady brew.

Next I was supposed to pull all loose fat off the chicken and wash it in a quart of cold water mixed with the juice of a lemon. That seemed unnecessarily fussy for my fresh, clean chicken. I rinsed it in plain water and rubbed a cut lemon over it. Then, with a sharp-tined fork, I had to stab deep holes all over the bird, “including under wings” (why so specific there? I don’t know), and rub the marinade into it, inside and outside.

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The bird and all its marinade was to be sealed in a plastic bag and put in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably 24. Since I wanted to eat chicken that evening, I left the bag on the kitchen counter for 4 hours, figuring that would equal at least twice the effective time under refrigeration.
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When the bird emerged from its bag I had to truss it for the rotisserie. That was a slippery and messy procedure, at the end of which my hands felt well marinated too. But onto the spit it eventually went.
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According to the recipe, the spit-roasting should take 45 to 55 minutes. I know that, on my rotisserie, chickens take quite a bit longer than that, and indeed this one did: about an hour and a half, being basted every 15 minutes with the reserved marinade.
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Expecting a powerful punch from the seasonings, I was surprised by how mild the roasted bird turned out to be. The skin was fairly spicy, but the flesh – though moist, tender, and tasty – was only lightly aromatic, mostly from the cumin. Afterward, I checked a few other Peruvian chicken recipes on the web and, while there’s a lot of variation on the marinade ingredients, all the descriptions suggested that “peruvification” yields a bird with a strong, distinctive flavor profile. Not mine.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed my chicken thoroughly (for two dinners and two lunches). But I fear it’s not a dish that would make a convert of Beloved Spouse.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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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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