Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cassoulet Journal Entry #2: Shopping and Prep

In the spirit of the informal, family-style nature of serving and eating cassoulet I decided I didn't want to do a formal menu. I don't really like fussy dinners where each guest is served an exquisitely prepared plate with a single scallop with a dollop of creme fraiche seasoned with the tears of an Arctic gray wolf.  I would much rather go to a dinner where simple, delicious food is served in a communal style. With that in mind, I came up with this plan:

To start:

-Raw oysters. Because there is nothing I could cook that would be more delicious than a good, fresh oyster with a spritz of lemon.

-Duck Pate. I wanted to use the whole duck if possible, and pate would make good use of the innards.

-Rounded out with some nice cured meats, and olives and the like.


-Cassoulet. 'Nuff said.


-Cheese course. Unquestionably the best dessert.

So that's it. I figure the cassoulet and the pate would give me enough trouble so why bother cooking anything else. Maybe it's not the most thoughtfully composed menu ever, but I can't imagine a more delicious and satisfying one. Quite wine friendly too...


I bought my duck from the Hudson Valley Duck Farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. The woman working the stand on this incredibly frigid morning was really helpful and knowledgeable and helped me pick out this beauty:

While at the market, I also bought some ground pork and bacon for the pate at the Roaming Acres Farm stand.  Great place for pork.

For the sausage I went to a place called Salumeria Biellese which was recommended to me by one of the people at Chambers Street Wines.

Super old-school, family owned, amazing products. They had the perfect, traditional style saucisson a l'ail (pork, red wine, garlic sausage), which I guess in Italy is called Cotechino. Natural casing, hand-tied with string, the whole 9...


After butchering the duck the first thing I did was marinate the duck legs and one of the breasts overnight in salt, black pepper, garlic, thyme and crushed up bay leaf.  

The plan is to confit the legs and later pan-sear the breast. While that was marinating I took all the extra skin and trimmings and rendered the fat by slowly melting it in a pot on low-heat. After the fat has rendered out you are left with pure duck fat, and duck skin "cracklings." 

The cracklings are sort of like crispy duck skin pork rinds or something. Incredibly delicious.

While the duck was marinating, I prepared the meats for the pate.

The one on top is ground pork, and the one on the bottom is duck breast, duck liver, and bits of fatty duck skin, each with thyme, garlic, 2 bay leaves, cognac, salt and pepper, and the duck one also has some black truffle mixed in.  These are left to marinate and cure for two nights in the fridge, before they are mixed, put in a terrine, and cooked.

to be continued...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cassoulet Journal, Entry #1

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything, but the truth is I just haven't been cooking a lot, or drinking much wine, and I don't feel like the world needs to read any more articles about the Super Bowl halftime show. I have tried to write something on a number of occasions, but the substance or the inspiration or both just weren't there. I personally find it annoying when the blogs I read go weeks and weeks without posting so I apologize for this blogging dryspell. But I do have an excuse...

I have been in the throes of planning a big dinner party, and all of my culinary imagination, and all of my money have been funneled into the endeavor. I've never hosted a real dinner party and it's turned out to be quite an undertaking. I've been spending most of my free time researching recipes, planning a menu, buying wines and writing shopping lists. I've been neglecting my practicing and instead I've been reading articles online about different types of sausages. My girlfriend even told me I've been mumbling about ingredients in my sleep. All this sturm und drang to make one simple dish: Cassoulet.

Cassoulet is a southern French dish which is basically a white bean casserole with different meats, usually some combination of pork, duck, goose, or lamb. It doesn't sound like anything special but when made well it's truly magical.  It is one of my all-time favorite foods, and I can't imagine a better way to brighten the dreary, slushy, bleakness of February in New York City. It looks something like this...

For whatever reason (most likely masochism) I've decided I want to make my cassoulet as traditionally and "from scratch" as possible. Cassoulet is one of those foods that is usually described as a "peasant dish," a phrase that implies rustic simplicity and affordability, the southern French countryside's version of "franks 'n' beans." But I'm finding what is simple and affordable for the French peasant is not necessarily so for the Brooklyn home cook. I can't go to my corner bodega and pick up a whole goose, for instance. There's also the issue of deciding on a recipe. There are roughly 17 gazillion regional variations of cassoulet, and the proponents of each one insists that their's is the one true and proper version and that any deviation from their method is punishable by being bludgeoned to death with petanque balls. And finally there's the time issue. The dish is cooked extremely slowly and requires a great deal of prep (soaking and cooking the beans, marinating the meat overnight, making the confit, etc.). You could write a novel, grow a "Duck Dynasty" style beard, and play 18 games of monopoly in the time it takes to make your cassoulet.

I know cassoulet is meant to be simple and earthy, thrown together with whatever leftovers you have from the night before, left over smoldering coals in your fireplace while you tend to your various daily chores. I'm aware that I'm probably overcomplicating a dish that is meant to be anything but complicated, but I want to do this as traditionally and painstakingly as possible the first time so I can have a better idea of what corners can be cut when I cook the dish in the future. And while it may sound like I'm complaining, the truth is there are very few ways I'd rather spend a day than reading archaic French cookbooks, rendering duck fat, and going to far-flung parts of New York City to buy Toulouse sausage.

Anyway, I'll keep a journal on this blog of my experiences as I plan and shop and cook for this party. Hopefully it will be informative, as well as entertaining, cause, you know, that's what blogs are for, or so I'm told...

In other news, I found an awesome deal on craigslist, and I am now the proud owner of the world's ugliest "Le Creuset!"

I'm told this is the rare, discontinued (I wonder why) "Kiwi" color. I'm thinking about naming it "the Incredible Hulque." Or maybe "Tom Creuse." Thoughts?


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some Golden Era Prince Videos

A good friend of mine, who is also the drummer and bandleader of one the groups I play in, is a devout Prince head and managed to find a ton of great 80's and early 90's live Prince videos. Prince is famously vigilant about keeping his work from being streamed or pirated on the internet, so enjoy these videos quick before his team of inter-gallactic-transvestite-sex-lawyers comes to take me away.

"Purple Rain" 


"D.M.S.R." with Maceo Parker, Prince rocking the oversized Vince Carter Raptors jersey


"When Doves Cry"


"Let's Work"


"Hot Thing" pretty clearly lip-synched but the theatrics, and the dancing and the performance in general are pretty incredible




"Little Red Corvette" Solo acoustic version


"Let's Go Cracy," "Kiss" Medley 


"Kiss" another amazing version


"Controversy" my personal favorite, unbelievably nasty guitar playing


and for good measure...


Friday, January 10, 2014

a good read and some good juice

In this interview Buzz Osborne, guitarist and frontman of the Melvins, and, in my eyes, the undisputed king of not blowing it, gives us an unapologetic lesson on longevity in music. I found this to be a really inspiring read, and if nothing else, it'll turn you on to some cool music you may never have heard before, like The Cows. How have I never heard this band?


On the other end of the spectrum, I'd like to talk about a wine that isn't about longevity but is instead about instant gratification. Fleeting beauty. A place and a moment...

2013 Christian Ducroux Prologue

This wine is fucking awesome...

Beaujolais nouveau is a style of wine that is essentially barely fermented grape juice.  It's from the Beaujolais region in France and it is made from the Gamay grape using a wine-making technique called carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is process in which unpressed grapes are put into a large fermentation vat which is filled with carbon dioxide and sealed.  The carbon dioxide can either be pumped into the vat, or created naturally as the weight of the grapes in the top of the vat crush some of the grapes in the bottom starting a fermentation process that creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct. In this oxygen deprived environment, the grape juice begins another intracellular fermentation process inside the skins of the berries. The grapes are then pressed and the juice usually undergoes another more traditional yeast fermentation after that.  

This technique is used for a few reasons. The resulting wine is fresh, fruity, low in tannins, and very easy to drink. Another reason is that this style of wine can be made quickly, in some cases less than 6 weeks from the harvest. Every year there is a "Beaujolais Nouveau Day" celebration, right around Thanksgiving, when many of the big name wines are released. There are celebrations all over the world, and everyone enjoys their first taste of the new vintage. It looks something like this:

Critics of Beaujolais nouveau call it a marketing ploy, and dismiss the wine as being simple and not worthy of serious attention.  One critic famously likened drinking Beaujolais nouveau to eating cookie dough.  

I am not a Beaujolais nouveau-hater.  I think easy drinking, fun, fresh wines have their place.  Why should all wines have to be serious? Why shouldn't we eat cookie dough? But I understand the criticism. It is an overly commercialized aspect of the wine industry, and in addition, many of the wines are one-dimensional, candied and in some cases pretty gross.  

But Ducroux's "Prologue" is leaps and bounds ahead of any other nouveau wine I've ever had. It is unbelievably layered and complex. It has the bright red strawberry and raspberry fruit you would expect but also layers upon layers of fascinating earthy, mineral, herbal components. It felt like every time I put my nose in the glass I smelled something new. And on top of all that, it is fresh, juicy, and vibrant on the palate with great mouth watering acidity. This is by no means a big, in your face wine, but if you're willing to give it some attention it is deeply complex and satisfying. And at $13 this is about as good a bargain as you're likely to find anywhere.  

I imagine the reason for the outstanding quality of this wine is the winemaker's meticulous farming and his commitment to the nouveau style. He farms biodynamically, uses minimal sulfur, and plows by horse in order to promote soil health, all for extremely low yields. In an interview with Alice Feiring he expresses his belief that to make a wine of terroir, one should make a nouveau wine. I had never really considered this idea but it makes a lot of sense--it really is as close to the vine as a wine will ever be--but unlike many other nouveau efforts, this wine also tastes and smells like a wine of terroir, and with the layer of sediment on the bottom of the bottle you're reminded how close to the earth this wine really is.  

It is hard to imagine a better wine to accompany a simple, hearty winter meal.

I drank a bottle with a dinner of sausages in shallot and red wine sauce with fingerling potatoes and green salad, and it was perfect. In fact, right now I'm having a hard time wanting to drink anything else with any meal I cook. 

I bought a bottle at Chambers Street on a whim a few days ago, and after drinking it I immediately went back and bought 3 more. Go out now and buy a few bottles for yourself, otherwise I may buy all of them. 


Alice Feiring's great article about Christian Ducroux: 

The Chambers Street Wines write-up about this wine:

Friday, December 27, 2013

Haphazard Wine Pairings #2: Champagne Edition

After singing the praises of Champagne as a food wine a few posts back, I figured I should put my money where my mouth is and put it to the test.  And plus, you know, it's the holidays. If ever you're going to have a bottle of Champagne lying around it's this time of year.

For this "haphazard wine pairing" I thought I would tackle ramen.  The obvious pairing choice, and the one that I imagine will be hard to beat, is beer.  There really is nothing better than a piping hot bowl of ramen and with a good pilsener or lager.  Beer does a perfect job of complementing the deeply savory, earthy and complex flavors of ramen without overwhelming the delicate subtle harmony of it.  There's also the salt issue. I generally make the soy sauce based shoyu style broth, and with this salty broth, the thirst quenching quality of beer is hard to beat. But this isn't "a blog about beer and music," after all...

With all this in mind, I decided Champagne might be a good choice.  It has bubbles like beer, it can have yeasty flavors like beer, and it can have savory umami type flavors which might nicely complement the savoriness of the soup.  I'm definitely not the first person to come up with pairing Champagne with Japanese food, but I've never heard of anyone drinking it with Ramen, specifically.

Here's the wine I chose:

Jose Michel et Fils NV Champagne Brut Tradition

I had never had a predominantly Pinot Meunier based champagne, but I had read that Pinot Meunier imparts fruity flavors in a wine as well as some earthy components.  With that in mind, I figured it might be a particularly food-friendly choice.  Meunier based champagnes can also be great values which is important because even the most affordable Champagnes cost more than I can generally spend on a bottle of wine.  At $35 this wine is expensive but a steal for good Champagne.

I've been trying to perfect my ramen for a while now.  I don't stress too much about authenticity, and I've accepted that it will never taste like it does from a good ramen shop. Instead, I just try to make a noodle soup using the basic techniques and ingredients of ramen that is similarly delicious and complex.  It takes a lot of time, but it is not particularly difficult and very rewarding.

I start by making a Dashi:

I soak kombu (a type of seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried and shaved bonito)  in water for a few hours, then simmer the mixture for a few more hours, strain out the resulting broth and put it aside.

Meanwhile, I made the pork stock in a separate pot:

I simmered a piece of slab bacon in a pot of water with some green onions and crushed ginger at a very low temperature for a very long time (I think as a general rule, every element of making ramen making should take an absurd amount of time).  Remove the pork, ginger and onions and put aside.

To make the broth, I mixed these two stocks along with some lamb stock I had made and frozen after another meal a few weeks before, seasoned with soy sauce and a dash of mirin and sesame oil.

For the toppings I used spinach, snow peas, thin slices of the pork from the broth, radish sprouts and a soft boiled egg.  After making the broth the only cooking I did was frying slices of pork in a pan, parboiling the peas and spinach, and soft-boiling the egg.

When you're ready to assemble, get each of the broths piping hot and combine them in the bowl, add the cooked noodles and then arrange the toppings on top.  Here's the result:

The soup turned out well and the wine was great, but sadly the pairing left something to be desired.  There was nothing horrendous about it but the the wine failed to elevate the flavors of the meal and vice-versa. Instead they awkwardly spoke over each other, with the substantial acidity of the wine obliterating the complexity of the broth, and the rich flavors of the soup overshadowing the focused and surprisingly subtle and mineral flavors of the wine. The pairing worked best with the bites of pork, where the obvious, fatty bacon flavors found a counterpoint in the focused lean quality of the wine. But, on the whole, the pairing was nothing more than two delicious things next to each other on a table. And the saddest part of all this is that I'm not totally sure why it didn't work or what would have been a better option.  I suspect that this is why wine generally isn't paired with ramen.  But I'm not giving up quite yet, I think sherry might be the answer...

I finished the wine the next day and I don't think I've ever had an experience where a wine changed so dramatically one day after opening.  On the first day the wine was mineral-y, lean and austere without much in the way of fruit at all, and on the second it was ripe and fruity and full of vibrant strawberry and apricot aromas while retaining a savory mineral core.  I couldn't help but wonder if the ramen pairing would have worked better with the wine open a day beforehand, but, oh well.  Instead I decided to try it with a makeshift carbonara using the leftover pork.

I cooked the bacon slowly at a low temp melting as much of the fat as I could (I know it's heresy to use bacon instead of guanciale in a carbonara but I didn't have any guanciale lying around and, you know, I'm a rebel), added the cooked spaghetti along with some of the cooking water, added a ton of cracked pepper some parmesan cheese, and the egg.  I mixed it all together over extremely low heat, adding more of the pasta water and cheese until it reached the right level of creaminess.

I have to say the Champagne actually paired really well with this dish. Who knew? I think the main merit of this pairing is that the simplicity of flavor in the carbonara allowed the wine to take center stage, which was so open and expressive on day 2.  And the fruitiness and acidity of the wine provided a nice contrast to the fatty richness of the carbonara, all with this umami sort of thing going on with the yeasty elements of the wine and the parmesan and bacon.

To be honest I'm a little perplexed that the carbonara pairing worked so much better than the ramen. The two dishes are both noodle based, and actually have somewhat similar flavor profiles.  I wonder if it has to do with how differently the wine was showing on day 2, or if soups require different considerations, or if it's just that simpler foods make simpler pairings.

Anyway, for something different this holiday season, when the clock strikes midnight, make sure to have a nice plate of carbonara to accompany your champagne toast.

And if you're going to try and tackle some ramen make sure you have some entertainment.  I recommend "7 Days of Funk" the new collaboration between Dam Funk and Snoop Dogg who is now calling himself "Snoopzilla."

Dam Funk's singing is unquestionably mediocre but I've always found its mediocrity kind of charming. Let's just say his singing and songwriting always played second fiddle to his production. But with this effort Dam Funk does what he does so well on the production side, and lets "Snoopzilla" take care of what Dam Funk doesn't do so well. The result is funky.