How to eat a magazine

April 30th, 2009

When the mailman’s vespa pulled up to our library window this morning, I swung open the shutters with a hearty Bonjour! No time to chat about the weather – I spotted a  familiar packet,  immediately recognized as something “edible”.  On the spine, I read… Travel Issue: The World on a plate…. Bonanza!  Opening to “Last Touch”, the way I’ve always approached a fresh-out-of-the-packet issue of Gourmet magazine,  I began to nibble.  Tasting the last page first may seem an odd habit – but this creature of habit’s ways are well jelled.  So, savory and sweet dumplings were today’s page 134, first taste.  Flipping forward for just a procrastinatory glance, like putting the Previews of Coming Attrations on fast forward  – past Chinese dining in East L.A., I  paused in the centerfold recipes for a Tuscany al fresco feast to mark Basil-lime Granita with a post-it sticker.  This simple gesture has marked decades of Gourmet issues, bringing me back to sample later. A few more pages flashed past, but rich colors, gorgeous platters of hot and sweet Peruvian food brought me to a full stop. A feast for the eye, but rather shopper-challenging to find ingredients such as aji amarillo or naranjilla fruit in (still) provincial France.

Southern Turkey’s pepper fields, the subject of a fascinating visit to Yaylak for – new words for this pepper lover  – Urfa and Maras, inspire chewing on  a good article, and another post-it tag on the Turkish lamb stew recipe.  Then, closing in on a first glimpse of the cover, I was waylaid by the monthly book review, with a recipe for Finnish meatballs…and cloudberries.  Having just returned from cloudberry land, it struck a resonant chord of northern flavors.  Even an occasional ad in this issue piqued my interest, such as an ice cream maker’s campaign to help the bees, suggesting…”plant your own bee-friendly wildflower garden” – we’re on the same wave length, to be sure.  When I turned to wine advice, comforted to find Gerald Asher’s savvy and polished critiques still at hand, it almost felt like these decades of nipping on Gourmet’s informative wine columns was coming full circle. The Contents listing  alerted me to a page – how could I miss it – about night markets in the Dordogne, In the Night Kitchen. Uncanny, I admitted, perfect timing for using graisse de canard from last week’s confit to stir up Pommes de Terre Sarladais…something to really sink our teeth into.  Oh, and the frites on the cover tempt me  to open the May issue and come at it from another angle, à chacun son goût, à chacun ses habitudes.

What’s for dinner, Duck?

April 24th, 2009

Duck confit

“Plan ahead” in a Périgord household means having a few large jars of confit de canard on hand. Often made in the autumn or spring, the process is best avoided in hot summer months. The ever-present protein in a classic Cassoulet, the tender meat that gives Canard confit aux lentilles vertes a rich and spicy character, a confit de canard (preserved duck) or confit d’oie (preserved goose) is the French farm house fall-back for quick meals when the gang around the table is famished. Confire in French is to preserve, which is the major point in making confit – the meat is stored in duck or goose fat for a month or six, while the flavors mellow and texture becomes tender.  Tradition held that the choice pieces, leg and thigh as well as meaty breast of duck were reserved for confit.  If wings were plump, they too might be jointed and tucked into the confit crock; the neck skin was stuffed, preserved in jars and sliced for a special entrée. Fattened fowl, ducks and geese, lend themselves well to this age-old preserving method as they provide the fat that keeps them tender and flavorful.

Duck Confit

Because I have no flock of ducks to be thinned out or taken to market, I prepared for a recent confit session at the village butcher’s.  Mr. Petit asked his apprentice to show me how to trim the leg and breast from the carcass before salting the pieces. “I’ll save the carcass for you- pour la bonne soupe “, he offerred.  So I trotted back up the hill, my basket loaded with canard et carcasse, and set to work on step one:  salting. I spread the portions on a layer of baking paper, sprinkled sea salt, ground white pepper and fresh thyme leaves over all, and tucked a bay leaf in for good measure. The pieces were placed in pairs with fat side out, wrapped in the paper then slipped into a ziplock bag (some cooks prefer to lay them out on trays) and set  it all in the fridge for 24 to 36 hours.  The salt was then wiped off with a damp towel (not rinsed off, my local advisors exclaim!) and the legs put fat-side down in a soup kettle to heat and melt the fat which will preserve them. Turning the legs gently, letting more fat melt in contact with the hot pan, took about twenty minutes or more. The fat gradually covered almost all, so a little more was added to cover. It is an easy process, just taking some time to check as the covered confit simmers for 2 hours; a larger amount may take 3 hours.

Duck Confit

The kitchen smelled marvelous while I put a large pan of water on a back burner, bringing it to a boil to sterilize wide-mouth kilner jars. A few country tunes – J.J.Kale and Eric Clapton – kept me company, as I plunged clean tongs into the scalding water to lift jars, fill them with  the (considerably smaller after bubbling away for 2 hours) pieces of duck into jars and ladled hot duck fat through a strainer on the top of each jar.  Covering completely with the fat is essential. Making sure the lip of the jar was clean and dry, hot caps and rings were screwed tightly in place.  Then the jars rested to cool gradually under clean kitchen towels – and eventually I heard the “ping” of a vacuum seal. It just takes a little time in the spring to make sure there will be confit for autumn suppers, and as J.J. Kale’s tune assures me…. “It’s easy as pie”.

Next up: ..more uses for duck fat, a sweet apple and almond treat,  and Montravel wines for spring fêtes.

Flours for Easter

April 9th, 2009

Click on the chick above for more images

Whenever I return to Finland, whatever the season, something new is waiting to be discovered.  Okay, the staple treat, herring in any form is always fun to taste whether pickled, smoked or sautéed. But on a recent trip, I was whisked along the “King’s Highway” east of Helsinki to a manor-farm near Porvoo.  I was told a little about the farm’s organic products as we wound along the curving drive to Malmgaard, parked next to 19th century brick stables, and rang the bell at the farm shop.  Wheat, oats and rye grown at Malmgaard using organic/biologique methods are ground in small quantities here, so you know the flour is fresh.  In spite of the weight I knew would be mine to carry home in a suitcase, I was like a kid in a candy store, imagining savory oat-flour biscuits with fresh chèvre and sweet rye bread for an Easter Monday magret de canard salad lunch. Surprised to find spelt, the ancient Mediterranean grain known as épautre, another kilo sack was added to my load. Then I spotted the jams: oh, my….red and black berries of all sorts, Finnish flavors of summer – captured in a jar.  As we drove away, I dreamed of returning on a summer day for a walk around the farm, where the grounds are open – though the manor house/kartano is closed to the public. This summer they are planning to open a brewery in one of the brick outbuildings, and will sell their own brewmaster’s best. Malmgaard is but one of many large farms across southern Finland now opening shops or their gardens to visitors during long summer days. The Porvoo region is dotted with such farms, each a day’s excursion from this historic town on the “King’s Highway”.  And if you go, do stop at the Porvoo marketplace  for pulla and coffee.

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First clue: a whiff of cardamom

April 3rd, 2009


Recently, I dug into my bag of flavor memories, well entrenched during the five years of my life in Helsinki.  Anticipating a week in the Finnish capital, my mental list of where to stop for lunch and which bakeries and cafés would merit a re-visit was growing as we circled to land on a snowy night.  The strength of certain spices ruled my recall, with cinnamon and cardamom controlling the olfactory zone – dill would wait until some sliced salmon appeared on the table.  But it was the dense, sweet sharpness of cardamom that hovered in the air outside cafés, even before I opened the door.  The finely ground black, spicy specks of cardamom appeared in every pulla that I pulled apart.


When we stopped for coffee in the Saturday market at Porvoo, huddled against a canvas windbreak with our faces turned to the sun, I marveled at the perfect, sugar-studded pulla before biting into its buttery center. Pulla provided consolation for the not-so-sunny, rather slushy days that followed.  And in the quest for the best of these traditional Finnish buns, I was led to a tiny café, Hopia, at 9  Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu.  The baker must have taken a fresh tray from his oven the moment we stepped inside, for the aromas triggered that strong coffee ja pulla memory connection.  Wooden tables with shiny plank benches were crowded with Hopia regulars, lingering over their afternoon coffee and nibbling the dense cardamom buns. I chose little round pullas, larger ones with a “butter eye”, a few twists of cinnamon-rich Korvapuusti ears, and gingerly carried the bakery bag along the broad boulevard.  Big grin, simple pleasures.  The small sack of Hopia treasures was almost empty by the time we left Helsinki, but this morning, I dipped the last pulla into my morning coffee back at home:  Helsinki revisited in a single bite.