Saturday, November 27, 2010

Giving Thanks for Duck Confit

Some years Thanksgiving involves a big ol' celebration with loads of people, but this has been such a busy autumn for us, with too much out-of-towning, that Himself and I decided on a quiet meal at home alone this time. Since I'm not a traditionalist when it comes to Thanksgiving, I refuse to succumb to the pressure most everyone else feels to have turkey. Himself is just fine with this stance, so instead we celebrated with one of our favorite dishes, duck confit and fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat. That not only satisfied the desire for something rich and tasty for Thanksgiving, but it also provided the month's self-assigned blog entry on a type of game or exotic meat.

Duck confit and duck fat--where miracles begin!

Rather than roast a whole duck, we opted to break into a cache of duck legs cooked and stored in their own fat, the traditional Gascon way of preserving meat. As with last month's pheasant, we didn't have to contend with buckshot, because we did our hunting in a local French import warehouse that opens its doors to the civilian population a few times a year, usually the weekend before a holiday or special occasion. There we loaded up on confit, cheeses, olives, olive oil and a few other treats. It's great getting to pick up a package of six duck legs for what we'd typically pay to order a modest portion in a restaurant. While the package of confit contained a good deal of fat, we grabbed a jar of duck fat, too, which should keep us in rich, tasty meals long after we've polished off the last of the duck legs.

 Three duck legs on a bed of roasted potatoes: one for Himself, one for me & one to fight over!

Since the duck is cooked during the confit process, it was essentially ready to eat right out of the package--but so much better when we applied some serious heat to it in a ripping hot pan with the melted fat. This not only warmed the meat but gave it a nice, crispy skin to crunch into.

With all that fat and dark meat, we decided on a pair of accompanying dishes that would be healthy companions to the oh-my-gawd richness of the duck and potatoes. So we double-cooked some kale, first boiling it first and then giving it a light sauté with red onion and garlic, and sassing it up with red wine vinegar and some red pepper flakes.

And we tossed slices of oranges and roasted beets with slivers of onion and shallot, olive oil and red wine vinegar to make an amazing salad that just kept getting better and better--and more and more neon!--every time we pulled the leftovers out of the fridge. It was practically dessert, and that was a good thing, because we didn't actually plan a dessert for this meal.

I wish I could regale you with stories of a grand Thanksgiving dessert to cap the meal, but we were so full that we just didn't want one. Pumpkin pie? Frankly, it's never been a favorite around here. Pecan pie? Love it, but it just wasn't in the cards this time. So we went for a few drops each of The Good Stuff, which is both a lovely treat and a fine digestif: extra vecchio balsamico from our last trip to Italy. It's truly amazing how satisfying that can be, how the tang cleanses the mouth and the earthy sweetness satisfies the urge for a dessert finish to the meal.

So I'm thankful:
♦ for the bounty of the farmers' market that provided the seasonal beets, kale and potatoes.
♦ that we didn't feel we had to tie ourselves to tradition and cook someone else's version of the perfect Thanksgiving feast. The tradition we DID embrace this time was the Gascon tradition of preserving duck so that it can be quickly and easily prepared and enjoyed--and I'm thankful for that, too.
♦ for the luxury of the balsamico, which was a treat indeed; and
♦ for Himself, who understands and appreciates my enthusiasm for bucking traditions and doing things differently. This has enabled us to enjoy past Thanksgivings shared with friends as we celebrated the holiday with menus as varied as last year's Croatian feast and the previous year's spread of comfort foods from our home turf of Tennessee.

Later in the evening, too close to bedtime to eat another meal but far away from breakfast not to eat a little something, we settled on a simple dessert to cap off the day, vanilla ice cream with a drizzling of the balsamico. Then with nothing more on our minds at bedtime than mulling over the possibilities for how we wanted to prepare those remaining three duck legs, we purred ourselves to sleep. A nice cassoulet perhaps?...

Monday, November 15, 2010

C'mon and EAT MY BLOG!

It's time to treat your sweet tooth while doing a good deed for the hungry of the Los Angeles area. Eat My Blog is holding its third bakesale, where more than 50 baking food bloggers will be ready to tempt you with more than 2,000 baked goodies.

These aren't your run-of-the mill bakesale offerings, but the creations of people who are serious about their sweets. Goodies this time will include smoked salt toffee, chocolate whoopie pies, coconut cranberry chews, bacon brownies with bourbon caramel sauce, curry macarons, bacon caramel popcorn and marshmallows in at least three flavors, candy cane, bubblegum and eggnog (I'm making those last two myself). So what if you're on a diet? These treats will make spectacular holiday gifts!

This time we'll even have homemade catnip cookies and doggie biscuits for the four-legged friends in your life. All items will be priced between $1 to $4. Visit us in front of Tender Greens at 8759 Melrose Boulevard in West Hollywood, Saturday, December 4 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Bring a friend. In fact, bring as many friends as you can fit in your car.

Our previous two bakesales raised more than $8,000 for the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. Mark your calendar, bring your wallet and let's do it all again!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Olive Harvest: I'm Mediterranean For a Day

The California Institute of Technology, a.k.a. Caltech, has a lovely canopy of mature olive trees shading a central corridor of its tony, ivied campus. But only in the last few years have they made an effort to collect the olives that create a monounsaturated mess every autumn. Nowadays the school, which is better known for its affiliation with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratories than for olive production, holds an annual harvest that is open both to students and staff and to the outside as well. Since I'd never picked olives before, I figured it was high time I gave it a try.

 These are mission olives, which Franciscan monks from Spain planted at the missions they established up and down the Pacific coastline in the late 1700s.

The first thing I learned is that, despite their diminutive size, olives hurt like the dickens when they pop off the tree and hit you on the head, cheekbone or some other prominent part of your body!

Teams of volunteers tackled each tree, with one person climbing the ladder to comb the olives off the branches with what essentially looked like a leaf rake, while the others remained below to collect the fallen fruit. Check out these amazing ladders, with a single support post and rungs that taper from an extra wide stance to quite narrow at the top. (By the way, note the cannon in the background--it appears to be aimed squarely in the direction of Pasadena Community College, just a couple of blocks away. Coincidence...?)

 Most of the olives raked from the trees landed on the burlap tarps, but quite a few bounced off our heads and either landed in the grass or skipped across the pavement. A number of volunteers brought their small children with them, little sprouts who chased the errant olives and flung them happily into the tarps and waiting buckets. It was a real Tom Sawyer kind of day--we had so much fun we kind of forgot we were working. Of course, I'm sure we'd view it quite differently if this was our job in and day out.

 At noon we recessed to enjoy a lavish buffet of olive-based Mediterranean fare, including moussaka, hummus, tabbouleh, tapenade, gyros and kalamata bread. There were also large pans of assorted olives (I was wishing I'd brought a zipper bag with me!), an array of olive oils to sample and escargot cooked up on the spot and served to us on rounds of baguette. I should have photographed the layers as I piled them onto my plate. I wanted a taste of everything, and I got it! For the most part it was incredibly healthy stuff, and it was all quite good.
 Lunchtime brought a little messy recreation as students with hands coated in olive oil engaged in a tug-o-war in the center of the sun-dappled grove. A woman bearing a large tin of olive oil gave each student's hands a liberal glug-glug-glug before the tugging commenced. The winning team (pictured) chanted "meat truck! meat truck! meat truck!" in between battles. Nothing against my vegetable-loving brethren, but I'm not surprised by who won. My guess is the victors got to pick which food truck was going to be visiting campus. The carnivores carried the day.

The event featured an olive-pressing demonstration, a job that seems pretty low-tech, considering that it was taking place on a campus where students train to work in space exploration, among other extraordinary engineering pursuits. This is a more modern version of the ancient screw press, not as quaint as the giant stone wheels you still find doing the job throughout the Mediterranean. It takes about 11 pounds of olives to yield a liter of oil, so rather than pressing all the olives this way, our harvest will be shipped to Santa Barbara for oil production. As for learning the technique of brining olives, our brining expert was sick that day, so this lesson will have to wait for next year's harvest.

Two down--a gazillion to go!
 It was instructive learning through hands-on experience what autumn brings for those who live amongst the olive groves that cover the Mediterranean. Olive harvesting combines long hours of what is essentially tedious labor with a great social opportunity. When you pitch in with a group to do this job, you find that you have a lot of time to talk as you work. And you come to understand how a collective effort like this can be so central to the life of a community.

Caltech's students may be preparing themselves for the most high-tech jobs on this planet and possibly a few others, but I appreciate their cheerful embrace of one of the oldest and humblest chores on Earth.

To hear the story behind how Caltech students spearheaded this effort a few years ago, check it out on NPR. If you're interested in keeping up with the project--and participating next year--visit Caltech's olive harvest website for more information.