Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Seared and Glazed Duck Breasts

"Do you know what your plans are for the French Bistro class this Friday?" read the e-mail from Steve. I am used to students asking about parking, directions, and what to bring, but this is the first time someone asked what we are cooking. All my class descriptions list tentative dishes with a disclaimer that they might change with the season. Most people are ok with that, but not so this time. Steve had been dreaming about duck breasts for weeks now (could it have something to do with the picture next to the description for the French Bistro class? ;) He was hoping to put in a good word for this lovely little bird before I did my shopping and was relieved to hear that the duck breasts are my traditional pièce de résistance in French Bistro class rain or shine.

My students loved them and were surprised that great duck breasts were easier to cook than chicken breasts. Here is the basic principle behind this recipe:

1) Score the skin to allow fat to render -- this results in a crispy and delectable skin that is not too thick, fatty, and chewy

2) Render fat over low heat so that the breasts don't cook too fast and toughen

3) Test the temperature with a thermometer to be sure the duck is done to your liking. Keep in mind that duck meet looks much more "done" than beef at a particular temperature. For example, at 130F (at the time of serving), beef looks quite red, but duck looks pinkish brown. 130F is my ideal temperature for both of them (this means removing them from heat at 120F to allow for residual cooking). I consider this temperature to be medium-rare even though duck is not red inside. To make it *look* medium-rare, it has to be cooked to much lower temperature. I find that many restaurants make this mistake resulting in chewy skin and tough meat.

Seared and Glazed Duck Breasts

Note: this recipe was developed and tested with Long Island or Pekin duck. If you use a larger duck, such as Moulard, you'll need to adjust cooking times. Long Island duck will be more tender; Moulard duck will be more flavorful.

Serves 4

4 duck breasts
Salt and Pepper
2 Tbsp plum preserve, honey, or maple syrup
  1. Score the skin of the duck breasts in a criss-cross pattern using a single-sided razor blade or a very sharp knife. Trim the silver skin off the flesh. Dry duck thoroughly with paper towels.
  2. Season both sides of duck generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Set a large skillet over high heat. When hot, add the duck breasts skin side down without overlapping. Turn down the heat to medium-low. Cook without disturbing until most of the fat renders and the skin is about 1/6 inch thick, 5-7 minutes
  4. Tilt the pan and spoon out all the fat. Turn up the heat to medium-high and continue to cook duck breasts until the skin is crisp and golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Flip the breasts. Brush on the preserve, honey, or maple syrup onto the skin. Cook 3-5 minute or until internal temperature reaches 120F for medium-rare, 125F for medium. Remove from heat and let rest 5 minutes. Slice against the grain and serve immediately with the juices that accumulate on the cutting board during slicing.
P.S. The reason this picture looks familiar is because it also appeared in the post about collard greens. Remember how you guys asked me for the recipe for the mystery meat that is sitting next to the greens? Well, here is it :)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Topless Tarts

15 sticks of butter were lined up on the counter waiting to be used. "You probably didn't expect to become participants in a food blog event when you signed up for this class, did you?" I asked my students. Some looked perplexed, some excited. I haven't followed the food blog events after Sammy was born, but when the Topless Tarts event was posted by Cook Sister, I couldn't resist.

It just so happened that I had 8 people coming to my house to learn to make tarts this Saturday. It was my first time teaching this class and I spent all of Sammy's naps this week preparing my plan of attack. How exactly do you put 8 people though the process of making the dough, rolling it out, and baking 2 savory and 2 sweet tarts all in the matter of 3 and a half hours was a mystery to me at first. But thanks to careful planning it all worked out. We have successfully baked a tomato onion gruyère tart, a spinach mushroom quiche, a pear tart tatin, and 3 apple galettes (they don't technically qualify for this event as they were wearing a bit of dough on their sides, but it was so minimal, most of their sexy apple filling was in full view ;).

As you can imagine, I am simply toast right now from all the baking and cleaning and need to get to bed before it's time to wake up and feed Sammy. But I can stay up just long enough to copy and paste the recipes from my handouts. Here they are:

Illustrated guide to pie and tart dough

Tomato Onion Gruyère Tart

Pear Tart Tatin
-- use the link above for the dough, not the outdated link in the recipe itself

Apple Galette

Basic Quiche Recipe

For a 10 inch pre-baked tart shell

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
3/4 - 1 and 1/2 cups cooked vegetable of your choice (mushrooms, leeks, spinach, etc)
1/4 cup grated gruyere

Preheat the oven to 350F and set a rack in the upper third of the oven. Beet the eggs and cream in a mixing bowl just to combine (do not over-beat). Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and stir in the cooked vegetables. Set a pre-baked tart shell on a cookie sheet. Pour the egg mixture into it, sprinkle with cheese, and carefully transfer it to the upper third of the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until puffed and browned, but still a little quiver remains in the center. Cool for 20 minutes before serving.

Here we are with out sweet creations. Unfortunately, by the time I remembered to take the pictures, the savory tarts were already in our tummies. So technically, they are part of this picture :)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mackerel Escabèche

I am not a religious person, unless it comes to food. How else can one explain the connection between a play group for 3-6 month olds, a geeky gathering called "Tech Dinner", and escabèche? Let's face it, a fish dish this good could only be sent to me from the culinary goddess* who controls our dinner fate and makes sure we end up at the right place at the right time for optimal yumminess.

You might be wondering what exactly is "escabèche." Don't worry -- I am getting there. The chain of events that lead to it started when Sammy and I tried to get into a play group at Isis for 3-6 month olds. By the time it occurred to me to sign up, our default Isis location in Arlington had no availability and the only option was one last spot all the way across the river from us in Brookline. I don't really know why we Cambridgians have a psychological problem with crossing the Charles River. It's not that big as Sammy and I found out after snatching that last spot in Brookline Isis.

On our first trip to the playgroup, we made a wonderful discovery. The Wulf's Fish market is right on our way home! I've heard about Wulf's for years from many of my Boston-side-of-the-river students and readers, but that darn Charles River has always prevented me from going there. A few months ago, I even had the brother of the owner in one of my classes and promised him that I'll finally get my act together and go check out Wulf's. Richard, in case you are reading this, I am sorry it took me so long, but last week, Sammy and I stopped by Wulf's on our way home, and I just wanted to tell you what a great time we had with Alan and Richie. The fish all looked fabulous and since I couldn't make up my mind between the scallops, sardines, and mackerel, I bought all three.

Wulf's Fish Market is located at:
407 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA

In my excitement of discovering that there is still at least one great fish market on the Boston side of the river, I totally forgot that Jason had to go to a Tech Dinner the following night and wouldn't be home for dinner. For those curious, Tech Dinner is a monthly gathering of Boston area software geeks. There is a test to get into it: you have to know what ldconfig does. I think they have that in place to keep the wishy-washy usability engineering folks like me out, but that's beside the point. What all those tech diners probably didn't realize is that besides discussing the hot tech topics of the day last monday, they also inspired one of the coolest fish dishes I've come up with in a long time.

We worked our way through scallops and sardines, but 2 days after my trip to Wulf's, 2 whole mackerels were still sitting in my fridge. There was no way I could eat them all by myself while Jason was at Tech Dinner, so I decided to cook them and use them as leftovers the following day (once fish is cooked, its fridge life increases by 2-3 days). I have no shortage of ideas for how to use fish leftovers: burgers, cakes, pâtés, salads, etc. But I had a must-try-something-new itch, and that's how I thought of escabèche. It's a Spanish dish of cooked fish that is marinated in a spiced vinaigrette type dressing and served cold. To tell you the truth, I've only read about it and never actually tasted it, but the idea sounded intriguing. I didn't have time to find a recipe. Sammy was taking a nap and I had to act fast. I broiled mackerels until golden, filleted them, mixed up a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, thinly sliced preserved lemons and red onions, and arranged the fillets in this marinade to sit until the next day.

"See what Tech Dinner inspired me to do?" I told Jason the next day as we were sitting down to have dinner. "I learned a whole new cooking technique for fish!" Jason agreed that escabèche is another great benefit of Tech Dinner. The fish was fantastic -- luxuriously delicate flakes with piquant little accents of lemon and onions. I know it's not a very seasonal comment, but this would be just perfect for a summer picnic. Before I get you completely uninspired to try this, may I also suggest the Feast of Seven Fishes for Christmas as a good occasion to serve escabèche?

Mackerel Escabeche

Fish substitutions: whole branzino or dorado, or bluefish fillets

Serves 4 as appetizer or 2 as main course

For broiling mackerels:
2 whole mackerels (about 1 Lb each), ask your fishmonger to clean them as described here
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the marinade:
3/4 cup very thinly sliced red onion
The skin from 1/8 of preserved lemon, sliced paper thin (or zest of 1 lemon)
Juice of 1 lemon
3 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

  1. Line a broiler pan with foil and preheat the broiler.
  2. Season the mackerels inside and out with salt and pepper. Drizzle the skin on both sides with olive oil, place in the broiler pan, and broil for 4-5 minutes on each side. Cool until comfortable to handle. Fillet the fish. You might find this guide on cooking, testing the doneness, and filleting whole fish useful. I strongly suggest removing the row of small pin bones from all the fillets to save unsuspecting diners from this tricky task.
  3. In a shallow non-reactive container that can hold the fish fillets in one layer (like an 8x8 pyrex dish), combine red onion, preserved lemon (or lemon zest), lemon juice, and olive oil. Season very generously with salt and pepper and mix well. Taste the marinade to make sure it is salty enough. This fish dish should have the saltiness level of smoked fish, which is quite intense, and is best served in appetizer size portions. Place fish fillet into marinade flesh side down, cover the container and refrigerate for at least 1 day (or as long as 3).
  4. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before serving to bring to room temperature.
* of course, it might be a god too, but I'd like to think of her as a goddess :)

Friday, November 2, 2007

"Pumpkin" soup

I now understand why people get so excited about anything "pumpkin." Pumpkins are just terribly cute :) Look at this one -- don't you just want to eat her? But from the culinary perspective, I have much more admiration for butternut squash. I've been working on improving my butternut squash soup. The recent changes were inspired by my sister-in-law. When we were visiting her and my brother a few weeks ago, she made such a fabulous butternut squash soup, I was thinking about it for days. The original recipe is from the Williams and Sonoma cookbook. I tweaked it a little (you know me ;), and here is my version.

Butternut Squash Soup

Serves 4-6

For roasting the squash:
1 large butternut squash (3 Lb)
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil, plus more as needed
10 sage leaves
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled

For the soup:
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
2 yellow onions, diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp maple syrup (optional)
1 bay leaf (optional)
7 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream

Roasting the squash:
  1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds.
  2. Season the inside with salt and pepper and rub with 1 Tbsp olive oil. Place the garlic cloves into the cavity of the squash where seeds used to be.
  3. Place the squash cut side down on a baking sheet, scatter the sage leaves around, drizzle the leaves with a little olive oil, and roast for 30-40 minutes or until squash is tender but not mushy.
  4. When squash is cool enough to handle, peel it and cut it up into pieces about 1 inch big. Peel the garlic and reserve.

Making the soup:
  1. Melt the butter and oil in a large heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until onions are tender and starting to brown, about 15 minutes.
  2. Add the squash, roasted garlic, wine, maple syrup, bay leaf, and 6 cups water. Turn up heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 20 minutes. Stir in cream and cook another minute.
  3. Cool 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Puree in batches until smooth. Only fill your blender 2/3 of the way to avoid soup explosions. Pour soup back into the pot. If it's too thick to your liking, add some water. Taste and correct seasoning. The soup can be made up to 2 days in advance and reheated over medium-low heat.
  4. Serve in bowls topped with the crisp sage leaves and/or a swirl of maple cream (1 Tbsp maple syrup blended with 2 Tbsp heavy cream).