The Smell of Burning Whiskey

Friday, January 18, 2008

I rely on smell when cooking, more than you might imagine. Sometimes aroma can tell you when something is exactly right. I don't know how many times something has been saved because of this. It usually happens seconds before it will smell exactly wrong. This week I was making our duck and onion soup. First you cook down about ten pounds of onions in a heavy dutch oven until they are reduced to about a quart. This takes hours and requires the onions to first release all their liquid into the pot, then this liquid is slowly boiled away. The onions will be brown and almost sugary at this point. I then pour on a cup of Bourbon or brandy. Sometimes this will ignite, sometimes not. I risk my eyelashes every time I do this, because I can't resist sticking my face into the resulting steam to inhale the delicious fragrance of whiskey burning off of browned onions. (This same thing happens near the beginning of boeuf bourguignon.) Gallons of duck stock are then fed into the soup pot, bit by bit all afternoon. We add shredded duck confit near the end of the cooking. It is served with grated Hickory Grove cheese, and some garlic toast.

We make the confit ourselves. Although time consuming, it is actually quite easy. Fresh duck legs are rubbed with a mixture of salt, raw garlic, something hot and a lot of the spices one generally associates with Christmas cookies. The salt is never the same. One batch will contain the jar of ground allspice that I bought by mistake, Another time I'll throw in all those annoying little nubs of nutmeg in the bottom of the jar, plus all the sharp shreds of bay leaves that you are afraid will choke someone, yet won't throw out. Sometimes fresh ginger, always cloves. On this last batch, I cheated near the end by stretching it with ground cinnamon, because it kept me from having to get out the food processor again. These duck legs turned out an appealing orange-brown color. The duck is kept in the salt for at least a week, then cooked slowly in a bath of lard and duck fat until a broom straw will pass through the thickest part of the leg without breaking. This verges on the folkloric, I know.

One more new arrival in this week of cold weather, lard and cast iron. I love pineapple upside down cake. It is one of the first things that I remember cooking. It was on a Boy Scout camping trip. We baked it in the coals of a campfire, in an iron Dutch oven and we used Bisquick. It came out perfectly and I remember being perfectly amazed. I cook mine in a skillet these days, and start it on top of the stove and finish it in the oven. I am still amazed, especially if I don't burn my arm when I flip it out onto its plate. Next week all of this will begin to give way to make room for our Mardi Gras menu. It comes early this year (February 5th). I look forward to this every winter. I love Louisiana and it's food, and I'm still mad about Katrina. I'll probably let fly about that again soon. My rant has become a yearly event. In the meantime, be thinking about milk punch sorbet, gumbo z'herbes and something rolled in Cajun salt.

posted by Bill Smith at 2:59 PM


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