31 December 2015

Slow-cooking duck legs to make confit de canard

I made slow-cooked duck — canard confit or confit de canard — nearly three weeks ago. We'll be eating some of it tomorrow in what in France is called a cassoulet. That's a dish of slow-cooked white beans with meats like duck, pork sausages, salt-cured pork, or even lamb. Cassoulet is not especially a New Year's Day dish in France, but it's become our own particular January 1 tradition.

That's the slow-cooked duck above. Making confit is kind of like poaching a turkey, except that the poaching "liquid" is pure duck fat rather than water or broth. Both processes give you moist, succulent meat — especially the cooking in fat. Like the poached turkey, the slow-cooked duck then normally goes into the oven at the end for a good browning, to make the skin crispy.

Think of making duck confit as a little like frying chicken, but without that layer of flour on the bird to absorb a lot of cooking oil, and cooked at a lower temperature for a longer time.
When you take the duck out of the poaching fat, you put it on a rack to drip as it heats up and browns in the oven. Duck fat is delicious, by the way, and in France people think of it as being much better for your health than, for example, butter.
One thing that really enhances the flavor of the duck is the dry marinade or rub you use to cure it before you cook it. It's a mixture of onion, garlic, black pepper, coarse salt, and thyme, and the duck legs (you can also use wings) can sit in it for anywhere from 6 to 48 hours in the refrigerator before you cook them. This year I rinsed the marinade off the duck legs before I cooked them in fat — that's optional but safer if you think the confit might turn out too salty.
In France you can buy duck fat at the supermarket, either in jars or, this year, in these 500 gram tubs that were selling for two euros apiece. You can cook with the duck fat and then save it almost indefinitely in the refrigerator for re-use later. Fry potatoes in it. Season beans and greens and other vegetables with it.
I melted the duck fat in the slow cooker and then carefully lowered the duck legs into the fat when it was liquid. I cooked the legs on low temperature for 6 hours. The meat was starting to fall off the bone by that time.
All I added to the crock pot with the fat and duck pieces was a few black peppercorns and a few bay leaves.
Here are the duck pieces after I took them out of the cooker (see the first photo at the top of this blog post) and then put them in another container for storage. I poured the warm fat over them so that they were completely covered, straining the fat to remove the peppercorns and bay leaves.

The confit is better tasting if you let it "cure"  and mellow in the cold, re-congealed fat for a few weeks before eating it. Because it is submerged in the fat it doesn't spoil. Keep in in the refrigerator or in a cold cellar or pantry.

In the days before people had refrigerators and freezers, making confit was a way to preserve cooked meats over the winter.

30 December 2015

Going out like a lamb... here

I hear and read stories of all the bad weather in the middle section of the U.S. — Judy says parts of the Saint-Louis area are under water and friends in Illinois have flooding on their property east of Urbana. Evelyn has mentioned, and news reports here in France have shown pictures of, all the tornadoes and damage in Mississippi, Alabama, and east Texas. There have been blizzards in New Mexico, parts of Texas, and Oklahoma.

Photos from Monday morning's walk

In addition, parts of Scotland and northern England are flooded and are expecting more rain today. Meanwhile, 2015 is going out like a lamb here in France. Temperatures are still exceptionally mild around Saint-Aignan, and we've had mostly sunny days recently with only light rains from time to time. The forecast for today is for more of the same, with some gentle rain possible tonight. I washed a couple of comforter covers overnight and I'm thinking of hanging them on the line outside to let them dry.

Yesterday I loaded up the car with broken-down cardboard boxes — we've ordered a lot of little packages from Amazon France over the past six weeks — along with the usual empty bottles and cans, plus tons of publicity flyers that arrive in the mail. I headed for the recycle center, just 4 or 5 miles from the house, over on the other side of the river in Noyers. It doesn't open until 10, so I made sure not to get there too early. (One service we don't have here is curbside recycling.)

I found the gates locked and the place closed. I noticed a sign that lists the déchetterie's business hours. There I saw: Mardi matin — Fermé. Mardi après-midi — Fermé. Closed on Tuesdays. Well, that's new. For years, the déchetterie has been open every weekday, with the only exception being Thursday mornings. It took a while, but I'd gotten used to that schedule. Foiled again.

Today, Walt's driving down to the market in Saint-Aignan, which will be open today to give people a chance to do their New Year's Eve food shopping. There won't be a market on Saturday. We're getting oysters, as I've mentioned. Oysters and lettuce are the only things we need, really. I went to the market a week ago to pick up our turkey, and it wasn't crowded at all, so I imagine Walt will be out of the house for just a few minutes. We are only two miles from the market square.

Yesterday's turkey lunch was mushroom-barley soup made with turkey poaching broth, pearl barley, fresh mushrooms, and some onion, thyme, and oregano. Oh, and some chopped up turkey meat (a drumstick). At the last minute, I added some green beans for color. It was tasty and satisfying.

29 December 2015

The pot pie plus...

So we made the chicken pot pie yesterday, and it was pretty good. We had gravy left from Saturday, and we still had plenty of turkey — half the bird, or nearly. I put diced carrots, chopped onion, and frozen green peas along with some of the white and dark turkey meat cut into chunks.

Jacques Pépin's method for béchamel sauce was the basis for the gravy, except that I substituted turkey poaching broth with some crème fraîche added for the milk Pépin uses.

I think this is called just a "chicken pie" or "meat pie" in countries other than the U.S., where "pot" pies are a kitchen standard.

The gravy is 100 grams of butter (6 Tbsp.) melted in a saucepan and then 6 Tbsp. of flour added to cook in the butter. Pour half a liter of liquid into the butter-flour mixture all at once and stir energetically with a whisk as it come to the boil. The liquid can be milk or broth, or broth with cream added. That's what I did. Adjust the salt and pepper accordingly.

Walt had some of his good shortcrust (aka regular pie crust or pâte brisée) waiting in the freezer, so he took it out the day before to thaw in the fridge. Yesterday he rolled it out and laid it on top of the cooled pot pie filling. The pie baked in the oven at 350ºF (180ºC) for about half an hour, and then sat and cooled for 10 minutes before we spooned out our servings at the table for lunch. We had romaine lettuce with a Caesar-type dressing as our salad.

Yesterday morning I took a camera out on my walk with Callie. The temperature on our thermometer at the house was well above freezing, but out in the vineyard there was a light frost. That was the first time in a while. The sun was just coming up at 8:45 a.m. Today the early morning temperature is back up to nearly 50ºF (9.5ºC or so). I think it might be raining lightly.

The recent mild weather, with just the right amount of rain, has been very kind to my collard greens. Above is the biggest plant, and you can see how it is thriving. Predictions I just heard on Télématin promise us more normal winter temperatures starting the first week of the new year. I'll have to keep an eye on the collards and maybe pull the plants out if it looks like we're going to have a really hard freeze.

28 December 2015

Culinairement, on radote

Repeating ourselves... the French word is radotage. It means endlessly repeating the same things. Je radote, tu radotes, nous radotons... Words, usually, but it's food in this case. Repeating ourselves in the kitchen... Radotage culinaire.

Turkey, stuffing, squash, and sprouts... again?!?!

I guess we all do it at holiday time. How many times can you eat the same Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey? Well, an endless number, I guess, until the end of (your) time on Earth. Looking back at the blogs, I see that we made pretty much the same foods for our Christmas dinner in 2014 as in 2015. As an appetizer, we had foie gras and figs as our first course last year and again this year. With the turkey, we had — guess what — Brussels sprouts and winter squash. Usually, we try to vary the menus more than that.

Même les haricots blancs radotent cette année.

And it will happen again at the end of this week. For New Year's Eve, it'll be oysters. Just as it was last year. For New Year's Day, it'll be cassoulet with canard confit — slow-cooked duck, just as it was last year. My only variation this year will be to use French white beans — haricots lingots blancs — instead of black-eyed peas. It'll be good. But it will be déjà vu all over again.

I'm in a funny mood today. Maybe I've just been blogging too long. Or maybe I've just been cooking too long. We'll be making a turkey pot pie for lunch. That's original, isn't it? Well, isn't it?

To the left is one of my favorite cartoons ever. I've probably told you that before.

Thanks to Gary Larsen.

27 December 2015

Tree-cutting bandits, and a cake

This is the view from the north-facing window in our living room.
Yesterday morning we were in the living room, enjoying views out the windows. Skies were blue and there was no wind. It wasn't exactly what you would call warm outside, but it was much less cold than we expect at Christmas.

Walt noticed a big white van drive up the road. He went to a back window and saw it turn right behind our hedge and drive down the tractor path behind our back gate.

It stopped. Two men got out. They walked along our side fence, where we keep a strip of land three or four feet wide cut and mowed so that brambles and weeds won't grow into the fence and damage it. The two men were carrying small chainsaws.

We watched, wondering what was going on. The men got to the end of our fence and then pushed their way into the woods, moving away from us. Then they chose a tree and cut it down. It was probably one of the ones in the photo to the right, but not the one in the center. We saw the cut tree fall.

Then, a minute or two later, Walt said he saw the white van leave. Now what was that all about? One little tree? Maybe it was dead and they needed firewood. Later in the day, Walt went out and looked. He said the tree has been cut into logs, but the logs are just lying on the ground willy-nilly, not stacked. Somebody does own that strip of wooded land, so it's really none of our business. Just a mystery.

Above is the pineapple upside-down cake that Walt made for us for Christmas. Those are walnuts in the holes of the pineapple slices. The pineapple was sweet and caramelized. The cake itself was tender and rich, even though Walt reduced the amount of sugar and egg that he put in the batter. I wonder if such upside-down cakes were inspired by the French tarte Tatin — or vice-versa.

26 December 2015

Talkin’ turkey...

...and trimmings. I just want to show you a couple of photos of the turkey that I poached and then browned in a hot oven yesterday. It turned out good, but the breast meat was not as tender and moist as I remember past dindes et autres vollailles being in the past when poached this way. If you tried it, I hope it wasn't a disappointment.

Above shows what the turkey looked like when I took it out of the pot of poaching liquid. I have to say the broth it made, with some carrots, onions, bay leaves, etc., was delicious. I told Walt I could have been happy just having a bowl of that broth with some bread as my lunch.

And this second photo shows the turkey after I browned it in a hot oven. I basted it with melted butter before putting it in to brown, and I sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and some smoked paprika. As you can see, it might have poached just a little too long (about two hours in all) — the drumstick on this side was starting to fall apart, and so was one of the wings. No big deal though. By the way, here's a page in French written by French food and TV personality Jean-Pierre Coffe explaining how he poaches and roasts turkeys and capons.

To go with the turkey, I made a pan of bread stuffing, which was a baguette cut up into cubed, moistened with melted butter and turkey broth, plus a lot of other ingredients: chopped onions, celery, bell peppers, walnuts, cranberries, mushrooms, sage, and smoked sausage. It's a kind of bread pudding with some beaten eggs mixed in as a binder, and it goes well with poultry.

Walt cooked some Brussels sprouts briefly in a steamer, and then cut each one in half and sauteed the halves in melted butter. He dusted them with just a little bit of flour to give them a hint of a crust. He makes those every year during the holidays, using either butter or olive oil. They aren't cooked to death and they have a slightly sweet flavor and an appealing texture. Alors maintenant, attaquons les restes...

25 December 2015

The turkey is in the pot, and the sun is up

By about 6:45 this morning, I had the turkey in the pot and on the stove to poach. I hope your Christmas food is cooking too.

I'll take some more photos as the bird poaches and then goes into the oven to get a nice golden color. Happy holiday to all!

P.S. I just sat and admired the Christmas morning sunrise from our front windows. Here are a couple of photos. The first one is the view that first caught my attention.

Then it turned into this.

That's our neighbors' house. By the way, the turkey has finished poaching. I just turned off the fire under it to let it cool down some before I take it out of the poaching liquid and set it on a roasting pan.

24 December 2015

Kimchi fried rice with shrimp

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, this week I opened a jar of Korean-style fermented cabbage that I found lurking in the cold pantry downstairs for more than five years, since I made it. I half-way thought I would probably just end up throwing it out, but when I opened the jar the cabbage and carrot mixture looked and smelled really good. We had some for lunch yesterday and we are both feeling fine this morning.

I cooked the kimchi as part of a pan of fried rice. It was really simple. Sauté a diced onion and chopped garlic clove with a diced up smoked sausage that has been marinated in soy sauce and ginger. Coarsely chop up a generous cupful of the kimchi and sauté that in the same pan after taking the sausage mixture out. When the kimchi has dried out some, put the sausage/onion mixture back in the pan (photo above).

Then add about 3 cups of cooked rice that has spent a few hours drying out so that the grains will stay fairly separate. Finally, put in the peeled and deveined shrimp — between 15 and 20 of them. Toss the rice and shrimp with the kimchi mixture, adding dashes of soy sauce and hot pepper paste (mine had basil in it) as well as a little of the kimchi liquid. Cover the wok over low heat just long enough for the shrimp to steam through and turn pink. Serve with sesame oil.

Kimchi fried rice might make a good non-traditional dressing or stuffing to go with the Christmas turkey.

I had gone to the market in Saint-Aignan earlier in the morning to pick up our turkey. It weighs 3.7 kilos (8 lbs.) and it cost the equivalent of $40 U.S. (37 euros). So that's $5.00/lb. It's a local farm-raised bird. I'm going to poach it in vegetable broth today or tomorrow and then roast it in the oven long enough to brown it nicely right before we carve and eat it. I'll make a pan of bread "dressing" (stuffing) and cook it separately in a baking dish. The poaching liquid will be the base for a good gravy.

Merry Christmas Eve...

23 December 2015

Christmas cactus

The Christmas cactus plant in the two photos here was living in this house before we moved in 12½ years ago. We found it in the garage when we got here. I water it occasionally, and I've taken cuttings from it several times to start plants in new pots, but I've never repotted it. I do fertilize it every year.

I took these photos of the cactus de Noël day before yesterday (Dec. 21, 2015). As you see, plant has actually bloomed at Christmas this year. Some years the blossoms appear earlier, and some years they appear later. I wonder if the plant might be 20 years old now, or older. It has always thrived on neglect, because nobody really lived here year-round until we arrived in 2003.

Today is a special market day. There's a special market for Christmas today down in Saint-Aignan, replacing the usual Saturday event. I've ordered a turkey and I'll go pick it up in a few hours. Then I have to go to SuperU to pick up some other supplies for our Christmas dinner. The weather is staying warm for December. It's interesting that we just spent seven thousand euros for a new boiler and new valves on all our radiators, and we're having such mild weather that we've hardly needed it so far.

22 December 2015

Le Père Noël in Saint-Aignan

Yesterday I did something that I very rarely have to do any more — I got in the Peugeot and drove into Saint-Aignan to buy some bread. We don't have a bread delivery on Mondays, and since we were cooking Walt's special birthday dinner for our noontime meal, I thought we really did need a fresh baguette or two to have with our snails and steak au poivre.

The weather was clear and mild, so I took my camera with me into town, thinking that I might take pictures of some of Saint-Aignan's Christmas decorations. No such luck. I didn't find any interesting decorations that I wanted to photograph.

I had already found the photos here in my archives a day or two earlier. They're from 2005, and the decorations were just at the foot of the bridge over the Cher in Saint-Aignan, at the bottom of the main street leading up to the center of town. I have to go back down there tomorrow, so I'll look around a little more and see what I find.

P.S. and a funny one at that. I just opened a jar of kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage) that I made nearly 6 years ago and have had stored in our cold pantry (cellier) since then. It looks really good and smells good (if you like the smell of pickled cabbage!) I think I am going to eat it. If I die of food poisoning, you will know why.

Stay tuned. I'm not planning to eat kimchi today but maybe tomorrow. On verra...

21 December 2015

Foie gras for Christmas

Here's one way you can buy foie gras — the liver of a fattened duck — for the holidays in France: en bocal. The foie gras is sold in a vacuum-sealed jar that you need to keep in the refrigerator, even before you open it. The use-by date says the unopened jar is good until October 2017, but warns that you must consume the foie gras rapidly once you break the seal. It's perishable.

This foie gras is the whole liver (foie gras entier) of a duck raised and fattened in the Gers (pronounce the S) department in southwestern France, on the southern edge of the old province of Gascony (Gascogne). It will serve eight to ten people and it cost the equivalent of about $15 U.S. at the supermarket. The French eat more foie gras than any other people. It's good served cold, spread on slices of toasted pain de campagne with a garnish of fig preserves, for example, and a vin blanc moelleux or liquoreux like a Sauternes, Monbazillac, or Vouvray. In other words, a fine white "dessert" wine.

The capital of the Gers department in France is the town called Condom. It's a funny bilingual joke to note that the ingredients in the jarred foie gras are the liver of a Gers duck, salt, spice, and a preservative (nitrite de sodium, en l'occurence). Ha ha. I won't explain...

Seriously, foie gras de canard is really delicious. It's a seasonal treat for us. I really don't think that the fattened ducks whose livers go into the jars are necessarily treated any worse than other animals that are raised for human consumption — turkeys, chickens, pigs, cows and steers, fish, oysters, snails...

By the way, today is Walt's birthday. We won't be having foie gras but birthday steak au poivre, our annual tradition.

20 December 2015


This is a photo that I took 10 years ago. Maybe it's the car that Père Noël (France's Santa Clause) comes to town in. I took the photo on the market square in Saint-Aignan.

And another 2005 photo — a shop in Saint-Aignan that went out of business a few years ago. Last week we noticed that it has been re-opened with a slightly different name: Côté Choco’Thé.

In 2007 on this date, here's what our weather was like. I also see from looking at old pictures that we had snow on the ground on December 20, 2009. Not this year. We're still enjoying our warm spell.

It's almost time to go out with the dog. Bon dimanche.

19 December 2015

Louisiana gumbo with shrimp

Louisiana cooking is based on three main flavoring ingredients that they call "the holy trinity" or something like that: onions, celery, and green bell peppers. Along with a roux and some meat, that's the basis for what is called a gumbo. Why gumbo? I'm not sure, but in French — and French is one of the three or four languages that are or used to be spoken in Louisiana — gombo is the name for the vegetable we call okra. Gombo is an African term. Okra can serve as a thickener in stews and soups. Plus, it tastes good.

Yesterday I made a gumbo. It was Walt's idea. We had the vegetables except the okra, a couple of pieces of chicken, and a bag of frozen shrimp, so the ingredients were in the kitchen. We also have plenty of hot red pepper powder and flakes, along with some Louisiana hot sauce that I brought back from the States recently. The ingredients in the hot sauce are not numerous or complicated: hot red pepper, vinegar, and salt.

The first step in making a gumbo is to make the roux (especially if you don't have any okra). It's simple: put 4 or 6 fluid ounces of vegetable oil or melted butter in a big pot. Add an equal amount of flour and whisk it into the oil to make a smooth paste. Cook that paste until the flour turns brown. You can cook it in a medium oven for a long time or you can just cook it (in less time) on top of the stove. Keep an eye on it and don't let it get too dark. The color of peanut butter is what I aim for. A roux, which is also the basis for white sauces like béchamel in France, can be white, red, brown, or black in Louisiana.

While the roux is cooking, dice up the vegetables. Most gumbos have some tomato in them. I decided to use oven-dried tomatoes from this past summer's garden in mine, but if I'd had fresh tomatoes or even tomatoes out of a can, that would have been good too. Another essential ingredient is chopped garlic — say 5 or 6 good-sized cloves. (Not shown in the photo above are the bell peppers — I used frozen ones from Picard.)

Since I didn't have any smoked sausage, which is another Louisiana ingredient — they call it andouille down there, but it's a smoked pork sausage and doesn't resemble French andouille (made with pork intestines) at all — I decided I could use some lardons fumés to give the gumbo a slightly smoky taste. I sauteed the lardons (bacon) first, actually, and used the fat they released as part of the fat to make the roux (for more flavor). I also put a couple of chicken thighs into the pot to brown along with the bacon.

Another flavor ingredient in the gumbo, which is a stew, is broth. In this case, I peeled the 3½ dozen shrimp I had and boiled the shells (not the shrimp themselves!) in a light chicken broth with bay leaves, hot red pepper flakes, black peppercorns, and allspice berries. That cooked while the roux was turning brown.

The next step is to toss all the chopped up vegetables, including the dried tomatoes if that's what you're using, into the hot roux, along with the lardons, and stir all that together over high heat until the vegetables start to look cooked. At that point, add a couple of quarts (liters) of broth to the stock. In other words, strain the shrimp broth into the roux and vegetables (and then discard the shrimp shells, bay leaves, and spices). The roux will thicken the broth nicely. Add as much water as you want to get the desired thickness and consistency. Don't forget to add salt and even some herbs like oregano or thyme.

Voilà ! Let the vegetables cook in the stew for about half an hour. Add the browned chicken thighs (as many as you want, really) at that point, and let them cook in the stew for another 15 or 20 minutes. Then turn the heat down to low, or even completely off, and toss the shrimp (peeled and deveined) into the pot. Let the stew sit for another 10 minutes and the shrimp will be cooked just right. Serve the gumbo with steamed or boiled rice. Don't forget the hot sauce (Tabasco, Texas Pete, Piri-Piri, or whatever you've got).

P.S. I forgot to mention that since I didn't have any okra, I added some green beans to the gumbo — those big wide, flat Romano (Italian) green beans. I put them in the gumbo when I put the chicken in.