Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sweet and Sour Rabbit

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with Mark DesLauriers from Artepicure and his wife Daniela. Mark is starting to teach cooking classes after retiring from a long career in the restaurant business. I was looking for chef instructors for Helen's Kitchen to help me meet the growing demand. It looked like a very promising collaboration, and Mark invited me to his place to show me his kitchen and his cooking.

You know you've found the right chef instructor when you go to his house for lunch and stay until 4:30pm. When I looked at my cell phone, I jumped. Hmm, maybe I should start wearing a watch. I had to make it to daycare by 5pm to get Samantha. How didn't I notice that four hours passed? But somehow I didn't. I haven't had this much food fun in ages. We talked about knives, stoves, butchers, fishmongers, restaurants, sauce thickeners, smoking temperatures of oils, food magazines, and teaching philosophy.

What did Mark cook for us? The first course was a salad with watermelon radish, cucumber, croutons, sun-flower seeds, and tomato vinaigrette. That vinaigrette is seriously addictive. Last week, I made it both for us and for my Sauce class. What a simple but versatile concept: you peel and seed a tomato, add vinegar (I used red and balsamic), olive oil, and buzz with an immersion blender. Shallots and dijon mustard make welcome additions too. I served it with a salad like Mark did; then enriched the leftover vinaigrette with creme fraiche, added some tarragon, and served it on seared tuna.

The main dish Mark made for our lunch was Sweet and Sour Rabbit with pasta. This braise was a happy marriage of polar opposites: briny olives and capers, sweet raisins and honey, and a strong kick of vinegar. After spending a couple of hours mingling in a pot, all the flavors rounded out and fused into a beautiful sauce -- bright and comforting at the same time.

If this was a normal lunch, I'd be too full for dessert. But this was a deliciously slow meal I haven't had since living in France, so by the time Mark placed in front of us plates of chocolate and ricotta filled crepes topped with poached pears, I couldn't resist.

The meal was made with thought and skill. Nothing showy, but perfectly executed and delicious. It made me want to go home and cook these dishes and infinite variations on their theme.

I asked Mark if he'd like to teach for Helen's Kitchen. To my delight, he said he would.

Here is my interpretation of Mark's Sweet and Sour Rabbit.

Serves 6-8

Notes: If you have a large dutch oven, this rabbit braise can be a one pot dish. You brown the rabbit in batches, remove it, make a sauce, and return the rabbit back to your pot. Cover and cook in the oven. If a large dutch oven is not available, you can cook the rabbit in a large skillet, remove it, make a sauce in the same skillet, and then bake everything in a large roasting pan.

If you are not sure how to cut up a rabbit, go to Savenor's (if you are in the Boston area) and get rabbit legs, or ask them to cut up a whole rabbit for you.

I prefer to buy olives with pits and pit them myself by smashing them with the flat side of the chef's knife. They have a cleaner flavor this way.

2 rabbits, cut into 8 pieces (or 8 rabbit legs)
flour for coating the rabbit (2-3 cups)
olive oil for browning the rabbit (about 1 cup)
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, small dice
2 carrots, small dice
4 Tbsp small salted capers, rinsed
1/2 cup sultanas (or other seedless raisins), plumped in water for 5 minutes
3/4 Lb large green olives, pitted, roughly chopped
1/2 cup honey
1 cup red wine vinegar
6 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 325F. Dry the rabbit thoroughly on paper towels and coat with flour on all sides, shaking off access. Heat enough oil in a large frying pan to make 1/4 inch layer. When hot, add the rabbit in batches without crowding and brown on all sides. Remove all the rabbit from the skillet into a large roasting pan and season with salt and pepper on all sides.
  2. Add the onion, celery and carrot to the pan. Season with salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add capers, raisins, and olives, and cook stirring for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the honey and vinegar. When the honey has dissolved, add stock and bring to a simmer.
  5. Pour the onion mixture over the rabbit, cover tightly with foil and bake until the rabbit starts to fall off the bone, 1.5-2.5 hours. The dish is even better reheated the next day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

To cook or not to cook (roux vs. beurre manié)

The difference between roux and beurre manié has bothered me for years. Both consist of 1 part flour to 1 part butter. Both are used to thicken liquids. But roux is cooked in a pan for a few minutes over relatively low heat while whisking and beurre manié is mashed in a bowl with a fork until it forms a smooth paste (you need butter at room temperature for that).

Making roux is one of those culinary rites of passage, which I found strange because I thickened sauces happily for years with no roux. The first sauce I learned to thicken about 10 years ago was a cream sauce for poached fish from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It called for thickening with beurre manié, which was so incredibly easy, reliable, and delicious that I used that method whenever I needed a thickener. Eventually, I found out that beurre manié is supposed to be a lazy way of thickening. One should cook the flour and butter first to "cook out the flour taste." Even Julia herself said that in one of her shows.

There was a good discussion of beurre manié and roux on Michael Rhulman's blog, where no one seemed to agree on anything (these were mostly professional chefs, so I assumed they knew what they were talking about). Some people claimed that if roux is not made with clarified butter, it has less thickening power. Others claimed that sauces thickened with beurre manié would thin out after several minutes of simmering, particularly if you double dip when tasting since your saliva contains a starch digesting enzyme. Proteins, enzymes, catalysts, and other big "sciency" words were summoned to give more weight to the arguments that seems quite empty to me.

Cooks are funny people. They have this awe of "food science." If Alton Brown or Harold McGee said something with the word "protein" in it, it seals the deal. After all, science is always right. Well, that's not really science to me. That's just regurgitation of something someone said. Real science is all about setting up a proper experiment with good controls and that's what I decided to do to answer this thickening question once and for all.

I made 4 sauces:
  • bechamel with roux
  • bechamel with beurre manié
  • velouté with roux
  • velouté with beurre manié
The liquid in bechamel was whole milk. The liquid in velouté was chicken stock. Here are some parameters that I kept the same:
  • same pot
  • exactly the same amount of liquid, flour, butter (I didn't clarify it), and salt
  • same simmering duration (3 minutes after combining hot liquid with flour/butter)
Well, I tell you what folks. I don't know about proteins and enzymes, but there was no discernible difference. Beurre manié thickened sauces didn't have any unpleasant flour taste. They were just as smooth and just as thick as roux thickened sauces. Out of curiosity, I continued to simmer them while intentionally double, triple, and even quadruple dipping my spoon to test the hypothesis that continued simmering or saliva can thin out beurre manié thickened sauces. At some point I wondered if I should just spit into the pot (don't worry, I wasn't going to serve these sauces to anyone ;). Well, no thining out happened. If anything, the sauces got thicker due to more water evaporation.

This sealed the deal! Beurre manié wins. I am a one pot kind of girl and roux requires a whole other pot, so that you can cook your flour/butter. Beurre manié requires just another little bowl and a fork, which can easily go into the dishwasher.