Sunday, December 26, 2010

Did you hear the one about sunflowers and Christmas?

The beauty of the Dordogne
My last couple of posts have been rather heavy duty, so I am going to try and turn it down a notch.  I am working on a post about television which I had hoped to publish now, but I haven't gotten my message clear on that one, so it'll have to wait.

We don't celebrate Christmas of course, but we Jews love to eat well.  And I really do love to cook.  I have explained a little about my love of cooking in a previous post, to read it click here.  I must say though that a lot of my old standby's, particularly holiday food are very close relatives to the food my mom and grandmother used to cook or variations of them (so my brisket is moist, as compared to my grandmother's).  I am not that adventurous of a cook.  I won't just try to make anything, especially if I haven't gotten the technique down.  I know a lot of women who don't like to cook, that is the fashion nowadays.  Cooking is too passe, it is what our mothers and grandmothers did when they didn't have the choices to be anything they want.  Since they were repressed and cooked every night then, cooking must be so easy, right?  It couldn't possibly be challenging since our mothers and grandmothers did it, right?  Wrong.  Women often tell me that they have a hard time with cooking.  They feel they should be able to do it and they "followed the recipe" but mystery of mysteries, it just didn't come out.   In my view this is often because they choose complex recipes where they do not know the techniques and then don't do them correctly, like they don't realize how important that something is cooked to an exact temperature or what will happen if their egg whites are only foamy rather than stiff.  With cooking, particularly for inexperienced cooks the trick is to keep it simple, follow the directions but most importantly, don´t choose anything that is too complicated.  Cheese souffle is not a good thing to make for novice cooks, I´ve never even made one.

Like I said, my cooking repertoire has grown a lot in the last decade or so, but I am still what I call a salt and pepper cook.  I don´t  use a lot of fancy ingredients, in particular I never use herbs if I am not absolutely sure I love their flavor, and to be honest there are a lot of herbs that I really don´t like.  I see a lot of people make that mistake.  They will make a recipe that calls for a boat load of fresh coriander, and then they make it, and it has a funny taste, duh, that´s the coriander.  In general I am weary of the Jamie Oliver type recipes which call for lots of fresh herbs, although I do love his books and think he is rather an amusing character.

So, for Christian holidays which I do not celebrate, but want to eat well at I usually go with old standby´s like brisket, roast beef, lamb, turkey, etc.  This year though when thinking about it, for some reason my head was in the Dordogne.  We spent our summer holiday in Dordogne and we ate so much duck, that I was afraid my feet would become webbed.  We ate fois gras and pate every day and more times than I can remember we ate magret du canard, sliced duck breast.  By the end of the two weeks I said to Leo that even though I had thoroughly enjoyed our culinary adventure, I was glad it was over.

I have never really been a duck person.  I´ve not disliked it, I enjoy a good Peking Duck from time to time and there have been other times I have eaten duck and enjoyed it, but not enough to want to make it.  The real reason though is that my mom never made duck.  I remember once, when eating Peking Duck in a restaurant with her, and her remarking how delicious it was, I asked her why she never made duck at home.  My mom said that duck is hard, you had to get it exactly right, 30 seconds too short and it is greasy, 30 seconds too long it was dry and she didn´t like those odds.  So, for that reason duck was something that was ordered in restaurants but not made in my own kitchen.

Still, when thinking about what to cook this holiday weekend, visions of sunflowers, lazy sunny days spent with foie gras, terrine and those delicate and delicious slices of medium rare duck danced in my head.  Leo, Maya and I had such a wonderful time on that vacation.  We normally go to the US for summer vacation and while we always have a great time there, it is a very busy holiday.  We run around and try to cram in a year´s worth of time with people that we see for a few hours.  I make Leo and Maya eat loads of Chinese food, since I hate the Chinese food over here, and when we are not doing that, we are eating Mexican and everything else I miss under the sun.  We shop our butts off, as the thought of a year without Target turns me into Retail-Dana.  So by the time we get home from this whirlwind, we are totally exhausted and more tired than we were before we went on vacation.

This year was different.  We opted for a European vacation without the running and jetlag.  Maya was going to start a new school right afterward so we wanted something where Maya could get a real break and totally relax before.  We settled on renting a cottage with a swimming pool in the Dordogne region of France.  And it was heaven.  Day after day with nowhere to be, no schedule to keep, no endless acquiring of stuff, just going where the mood strikes you, playing in the pool, reading books, playing Scrabble surrounded by flowers from every color of the rainbow, blue skies with white fluffy clouds, and at night a sky lit up with stars.  And eating duck of course.

So when I started thinking this week of what I wanted to cook, I had this vision, not very clear at first, but after a while it started to take shape.  I saw little pink magret du canard fanned out on plates. Those small little delicate, medium rare slices melting in my mouth.   And in the background I saw sunflowers as far as the eye could see.  One of the best things about the French countryside in summer is that you literally have miles upon miles of sunflower fields in their full regalia in all directions.  And when the French are tired of that, they plant corn as far as the eye can see.  It is so blissful to drive along small country roads, with sunflowers in all directions and next to them small stone houses, barns and buildings with their small gardens, geraniums which just eek of the simple beauty inherent in life.  You look at those and feel like you are in the middle of your own Fellini film.  Ahhhhh, there is a reason why van Gogh and other artists painted France, and it ain't the charm of the French, but the beauty of the place.

Anyway I was picturing the duck we ate this past summer at this fantastic little place we discovered on one of our adventures.  The weather had been kind of crappy, it had rained in the morning and although the rain had stopped it was still kind of overcast.  I had been looking at a brochure of a château (and anyone who has been to France can tell you, they are full of castles and it's pretty easy to get tired of going from castle to castle, I just enjoy taking photos of the outside of them and for the most part skip the touring of most of them now, as if you have seen 62, you've seen them all.  Still there was one château which was about half an hour's drive away from us and it was perched on the mountain overlooking the whole Dordogne valley, it was supposed to have amazing gardens and just some of the best views in the area.  Although the day was not totally clear, we knew it would be good at least to get out, give Maya a chance to run around and burn off some energy, and we could kill an hour or two in the meantime.  I also suggested that maybe we could start this little adventure off by going to lunch someplace.  Leo immediately set out to check out the online restaurant guide in the area and I set about trying to get him to embrace the idea of just seeing where we end up.  We had already seen that there were lots of little inns and restaurants and I just wanted to stop at a little place and just have it be a total find.  Whenever I want that, usually it never happens and we end up at the French equivalent of a Stuckey's, but I decided to leave caution to the wind, set out on the arduous task of convincing Leo to have no plan and just go-where-the-wind-takes-us sort of thing (um, not his specialty).  I figured worse comes to worse, we will stop on the way back at a grocery, pick up some baguette, cheese and pate and chow down in the car.  So, off we went in the direction of the château.  About a mile before the  we saw three different restaurants and I just picked one.  And for a change it was exactly my fantasy.  A very small hotel with a small dining room overlooking a field of the most beautiful sunflowers ever.  It even had a swing set so Maya was completely enchanted and entertained and we had a totally scrumptious lunch of Fois Gras, goat cheese salad and perfect magret du canard. Leo and I drank a half bottle of wine and were completely happy and had a fantastic afternoon.

And in thinking about what I wanted to make for dinner on Christmas day, in the cold and once beautiful snow which turned into gray slush and ice, I knew what I had to do.  Friday morning, I ran over to the Game Butcher and bought 4 boneless duck breasts, I came home and started searching for a recipe.  I knew I wanted a sauce that was fruit based but not really sweet, just a hint of sweetness.  Finally after looking at, Martha and Food, I settled on a  recipe which uses a sauce of port, and cherries but which many reviews said was not sweet, but just had a hint of fruit.  Bingo!  Since one recipe did not grab me immediately I settled on 3 different recipes and picked and chose what I liked about each one.  One used Demi glace rather than beef bouillon for the sauce.  I am a huge fan of demi glace.  I don´t make my own beef bouillon because honestly I don´t use enough of it to justify the effort of simmering down beef bones with vegetables and I don´t have enough room in my freezers to store it.  Once in a while I do make my own chicken stock but mostly I cheat on stocks and sauces.  I buy chicken, beef and veal base at a wholesaler that sells the stuff to restaurants and I just doctor it a little by simmering my bouillon for two hours with a carrot, piece of celery and an onion to give it that richer flavor than regular bouillon.  The last time I was there though I noticed that they had demi glace base as well.  Ahhh, all that is good and holy, you have answered my prayers!  I love demi glace.  All it is a much thicker stock which is often made from both veal and beef bones and unlike beef boullon which has an immediately salty flavor, demi glace is thick but delicate.  It turned out great!  And was super easy.  This is definitely going on my list of dishes for company, you can literally get it on the table in under a half hour, SO EASY.

Outside it was below zero, cold and icy, but inside, it felt like sunflowers!  I wish you all a wonderful, happy, healthy 2011.

Magret du Canard

4 boneless duck breasts (with skin)
3 chopped shallots
1/2 cup of demi glace or beef bouillon
1/2 cup of Tawny Port (I would also use sherry)
1 jar of cherries in syrup

Now I am not one that likes sweet stuff mixed with my food, but this is not really sweet, it just a very hint of sweetness at the end which combines very nicely with the meat.

  • Preheat oven to 400 F (200 C)
  • Chop your shallots and put aside.
  • Drain your cherries but keep the cherry juice separately
  • Score your duck breasts by placing diagonal marks with a knife on the skin (don't cut through to the meat)
  • Heat a frying pan on medium high heat and place duck breasts, 2 at a time,  skin side down and sear for approximately 8 minutes, you want the skin to get brown and crispy. It's important not to crowd the duck in the pan.  
  • Turn the duck with a spatula (not a fork) and sear on the other side for 2-3 minutes
  • Place duck in a roasting pan and roast in oven for about 15 minutes for medium rare
  • In the meantime, pour out all but 1-2 tablespoons of the fat from the duck in your frying pan.  Turn heat down to medium, add your shallots and saute for about 1 minute.
  • Add your port and with a wooden spoon, scrape up the bits of meat and sticky bits from the duck.
  • Add your cherry juice and bouillon and bring it to a simmer, turn heat down to low and add your cherries, simmer sauce for 2-3 minutes.  
  • Take your duck out of the oven
  • Slice the duck breast in small slices, add some of the sauce over top and serve the rest on the side.  

Here are some photos:


my scored duck breasts

after searing on the skin side (to be honest, I flipped it back and gave it about 2 more minutes)

sauteeing my shallots

The sauce, I think next time I won't use the cherries, only the juice

Slicing the roasted duck


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