Duck Takes the Cake

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's always been a fixture on our winter menu, but I did debate briefly whether duck might seem a little too extravagant for such lean times. It's no more expensive than anything else we serve, but these wild economic swings are putting me and everyone else in weird moods some days. Perhaps a simple gruel might be more in order. I was wrong. I believe that I have gotten more complements on duck this year than on cheese pork. So, onward through the storm!

All of our winter favorites are back. One of the practical aspects of seasonal cooking is a sort of automatic unfolding of favorite dishes year after year at their appropriate time. This year the aforementioned Cheese Pork is accompanied by its own tee shirt. This is not a joke. You can order one while they last from the Crook's website. I'm told that this is a limited edition.

As always we lead up to Christmas with half a duck sauced with cranberries simmered in a basic aigre-doux . The legs are confit; the breasts are quick seared. After our holiday break, we'll return with a variation. The main course will be only the seared duck breast. Citrus, sometimes grapefruit sometimes kumquats, replaces the cranberries which become hard to find. The cured legs move on to appear in soup and wilted salad. I'm not trying to detract from cheese pork of course. As I said, this year it gets its own tee shirt.
Thanksgiving week I had, what has now become a yearly visit from Elizabeth Karmel. Her mother lives in Greensboro, and has a dynamite recipe for fruit cake that bound with persimmon puree. Every year Elizabeth comes home and they make a holiday sized batch for gifts. I've been providing the persimmons and as my reward I get a cake. This year they brought me half of the last of last years cakes. It had been sitting in apricot brandy for almost a year. It was so good I almost swallowed it whole. I like fruit cakes, but for contrast I'll describe this year's Christmas card from Tiffany Vickers , my friend in the test kitchen of Cooking Light. It has an Edward Gorey illustration of Victorian clad conspirators dumping fruit cakes down a hole in the ice on a frozen lake.

posted by Bill Smith at 7:26 AM 0 comments

Back Home and Busy

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Although I'm back from Japan, I feel certain that it will continue to show up here for a while yet as I have the time and distance to reflect. One such thought now. Japan is the only place I've ever been where everything is so clean that I had no fear what so ever about eating anything that was put before me. I would never do that in rural Mexico, and I have clear memories of dicey stomachs while visiting countries in the European Union. This was fortunate, since so many things served to us were completely mysterious. Once, in a nice tempura restaurant I asked our waitress about the contents of a small black porcelain bowl; one a many small dishes that made up our dinner. She spoke a little English but didn't have the vocabulary for this. After a series of failed pantomimes, she retreated to the kitchen for help. She soon returned to repeat two carefully memorised words, "shark gristle."

I returned to the kitchen to find that this year we will indeed have Jerusalem artichokes. Last year the drought did them in, but as I had suspected they were down but not out. Ample rain has caused them to return, although not in the quantity I would have wanted. For a while at least, we will be able to serve our steaks with Bourbon brown sauce and Jerusalem artichoke relish. (I love pickles with beef.)The recipe for this relish is my father's. He is in fact famous for it around New Bern. For years, part of his Christmas present from me would be a five gallon bucket of the freshly dug roots, delivered early so he could make his relish in time for Christmas. Unhappily, this year I had none to spare. I'm afraid that people don't grow them much anymore. They are quite invasive and can become a nuisance.

It was time again for the annual fundraiser at The Chapel Hill Museum . I always donate two chicken liver terrines for their wine gala. I urge locals to visit the museum. If you've lived here as long as I have you'll be delighted at what you find there. It is of course of interest to visitors and newcomers as well.
I'll also be teaching some classes again from time to time. The publication of my cookbook and the ensuing tour and minor celebrity made it so I didn't have time to do this for a year or so. Now things have finally settled down some and I will be able to again. I'll be teaching Shrimp and Grits at the Seymour Center here on the December 2nd and a couple of ways to roast a chicken at A Southern Season on the 16th. Finally, the recipe page is up and running. You can link to it from the homepage. The first recipe is the apple rum cake requested in October. Sorry it took so long.

posted by Bill Smith at 5:03 AM 0 comments

Three's The Charm

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I'm not an expert on fancy hotels. I don't know what is now routine, but one thing that seems to be constant is the mysterious clear spot in the bathroom mirror just over the sink. Everything is foggy except an oval just where your face should appear when you're shaving. I'm now in Osaka, which is different in it's turn from Tokyo and Kyoto. These mirrors are the same in each city. I don't understand this technology.

It's hard to believe that we are already at the end of our visit to Japan.Here in Osaka we found another lovely restaurant called Imai. It's a shop that specializes in udon and soba noodles, mostly in elaborate soups. Our guide had recommended it. It's a narrow, unobtrusive store front on Dotonbori Street, a sort of crazy food court near the port. You are squeezed into a tiny elevator and taken to tiny dining rooms on the second floor. My lunch arrived in a sizzling hot pottery bowl. The broth was still boiling when I lifted the top. A raw egg floated on top. It is well known that I don't much like eggs, but I always eat whatever is put in front of me. I whisked the egg into the broth with my chop sticks to create an egg drop soup effect. This was a delicious lunch. The broth had just the right amount of both salt and fat. In it were vegetables, mushrooms, pork skins and fish paste cakes. And of course wonderful udon noodles. Fabulous plain restaurant number three. That evening we discovered that Imai had opened a small branch in the basement of our hotel. This time my soup contained a seared, sliced duck breast. That made two duck breast dinners in a row.

Japan was not at all what I had expected. It looks very much like the United States, only spotless. The people dress like us as well, There doesn't appear to be anyone who is either poor or overweight. It is very easy to be a visitor there even if you don't speak a word of the language. People are polite and friendly. One last anecdote: Inexplicably, across from my hotel in Kyoto was an Irish pub. I couldn't resist checking it out. The bartender was an Irishman by way of Montreal. We chatted on and off as he worked. Another customer had bought him a shot and he turned to me and asked "can we toast the results of your election?" Then came a what-if-he's-a-Republican look on his face. I thanked him and raised my glass. "To Senator Obama" he said. Everyone at the bar, mostly Japanese, all strangers, turned our way, raised their glasses and loudly toasted "Obama!"

The recipe link is ready at last. It can be accessed from the homepage of the website. In a day or two, when I get settled again, I'll begin posting requested recipes.

posted by Bill Smith at 2:38 AM 2 comments

The One Uni Rule Is Abandoned

Friday, November 7, 2008

I am not a particularly moderate person, but I do have a few rules. Twenty years ago in Bordeaux, I discovered those little outdoor pastis stands where all you do is step down off of the sidewalk. You are given ice, water and a shot of Pernod or Ricard. You mix your own cocktail according to taste. One of these is a bracing tonic in the middle of an afternoon of shopping, but two become a little too boozy. There's a buzz, then you start thinking about a nap. So I always stop at one. Another instance of this is uni, the sea urchin roe served at sushi restaurants. One is delicious, two become overly rich. I always regret the second. It's too much and it dims the pleasure of the first. That was then, this is now. Here in Japan, as fellow diners recoil, I snag the uni from their sushi samplers.I've found it to be noticeably more fresh here than in the United States. The flavor of the sea urchin is more clean and briney. Restraint seems less in order.

I've been blown away two nights running by plain unpretentious small restaurants. Both were in the Gion, the old quarter of Kyoto. Last night a group of us sat at what was essentially a lunch counter with a grill in the middle at a tiny corner shop called Kappa Nawate. Besides grilled items, there was sushi and tempura. I had uni and unagi, of course, some grilled chicken,a little shrimp tempura, cold beer. It was deluxe. The whole time, staring down at me from the counter was this enormous crab. I was already full by the time I gave in. The legs were shelled half way and served as sashimi. I don't remember ever having eaten raw crab before. The meaty portion of the body was cut into chunks and grilled. Delicious but messy. You pretty much had to go at it with your fingers. The carapace was grilled a second, then flipped over to become a bowl to hold the melted coral and tomalley. I wouldn't have known to even eat this, except that it came with a spoon. It tasted like hot, very salty butter with the ocean in it. Sensational. When I was finished the owner snapped away a piece of the shell just behind the eyes revealing a small mesh that contained something bright red. He indicated that I should suck the juices from this which I did. Delicious, whatever it was.

posted by Bill Smith at 1:38 AM 1 comments

Japan: As Beautiful as it is Delicious

Sunday, November 2, 2008

It takes a while to adjust to such a dramatic time change. Throw in election day on Tuesday and the effects are quite surreal. Almost every food I encounter is unknown to me. Great piles of packaged foods look like sweets, but rarely are. I'm on a whirlwind tour of central Japan. This is a land of order and perfect plumbing. This is the first time I've travelled to a place where I didn't speak a word of the language, but Japan is remarkably easy. One hears that this is the world's second largest economy. This always puzzled me, because so many countries are larger, but after about ten minutes here, I understand. You are swamped by shopping opportunities here.

Great care is taken with food here. The presentation is beautiful. Because most of it is seafood, much of it raw, much attention is paid to freshness. Today I am in Kyoto. This city feels to me like the Japanese equivalent of Lyon in France, with Tokyo playing the part of Paris. I mean that it is a city with all the lovely things that the country has to offer, only out of the line of fire of a busy capital. Its facade is one of bustling, modern streets, but behind them are remarkable neighborhoods of narrow alleys filled with temples, artisans, small vendors and restaurants with no apparent names. Tonight, a group of us went to just such a place. It was small and down an alley and was run by a charming older man who spoke fairly good English, and had a good ear for jazz and a good eye for detail. The food was measured and elegant. There was sashimi, tempura, tereyaki and nabe.

Yesterday was in effect wasted because it was spent in large part in front of the television and the laptop. Happily, in the morning before the results of the election began to come in, some of us took off for the the massive city fish market. It is the largest such market in the world and it feels like it. The main building is acres large. Workers hurtle about on carts powered by large gas canisters. Every conceivable sea creature can be found there, both alive and dead. More on the dead later, when I'll talk more about meals.

posted by Bill Smith at 3:50 PM 0 comments

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