Thursday, September 27, 2012

My favorite duck recipe: confit de canard

When I wrote about Brasserie Julien, the Paris restaurant that features in my new novel, The Fallen One, I promised our recipe for confit de canard which I enjoyed there that day. Today’s post fulfills that promise.

Just out of the oven and ready to be “canned” for storage.
I know, probably because of the fancy French name and the perception that French cooking is complicated, that most folks wouldn’t tackle making duck confit, but it really is not difficult at all, and the rewards are a dish of really exceptional flavor.

The making of confit is seen as a speciality of Gascony and was simply a way to preserve meat in the age before refrigeration. The idea is simple: salt cure a piece of meat (generally duck, goose or pork) with herbs and spices for flavoring, then poaching it slowly in its own fat until it’s tender and practically falling off the bone. After that, the confit is completely submerged in the fat in a sealed jar. In a cool, dark place, it will keep for several months. We feel a few month’s aging in the back of the fridge improves the flavor.

Anyway, that doesn’t sound difficult, does it? Actually, the only difficult thing (or rather expensive if you’re just buying it) is getting enough duck fat assembled to cook the dish. In a pinch, we’ve just used lard and it has worked out well enough. Generally, we just save up all the fat from roasting a few ducks and we’re good to go.

The standard way of serving the dish is to remove it from the fat, then heat in a frying pan until the meat is warmed and the skin nice and crispy. There are two standard accompaniments. One is potatoes fried up in the duck fat and the other is red cabbage slowly cooked with apples and red wine. My suggestion is to do both! At Brasserie Julien, the confit was served with écrasé de pommes (see my post two before this one). But crisp potatoes that have been fried in duck fat is utterly decadent and utterly fantastic. You simply must try it at least once.

Confit de Canard
Serves 4

4 duck legs
½ cup kosher or pickling salt
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
freshly ground black pepper
4 bay leaves (fresh if possible)
1 qt rendered duck fat

1. Mix together salt, garlic, thyme and a good grinding of pepper. Rub this mixture into each duck leg on all sides.

2. Lay the duck legs in a glass dish, skin side down and place a bay leaf on each leg. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 24 hours. Some recipes say 36 hours. We feel this makes the confit too salty.

3. Remove the legs from the container, thoroughly rinse off salt mixture and pat legs completely dry.

4. Preheat oven to 220° and melt duck fat on the stove over low heat.

5. Place legs in a pan large enough to fit them in one layer, but small enough to not have much excess space. Cover the legs with the melted duck fat.

6. Place in oven and bake for at least two hours. Traditionally, you can tell the confit is ready when you stick the meat deeply with a toothpick and it slides out easily. Depending on the duck, this may take over three hours.

7. You can eat this right away or store it in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. The flavor will improve over this time. We usually leave it for at least a month. If you are going to “age” the confit, put the legs in a container where the legs will be completely covered by the fat by at least ½". We use quart mason jars which will hold 2-3 legs, depending on size. Seal tightly once cool and put it in the fridge.

8. To serve, take the confit from the fridge and melt the fat by placing the container(s) in boiling water (make sure you loosen the lids). Remove the duck legs from the fat carefully so they don’t fall apart.

9. In the bottom of a cast iron or other ovenproof frying pan, heat the legs, skin side down for around 15 minutes in a 350° oven. Then turn on the broiler and brown the legs, skin side up until they’re a nice mahogany color. Careful! It can burn quickly.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Possibly the most French of dishes

I’ve been running my own unscientific poll the past few days to find out what’s the first dish that pops into someone’s mind when I mention the phrase “French food”. So far I’ve asked 21 people – and not all of them gourmands, either. Twelve have answered quiche, which doesn’t really surprise me.

So that’s what today’s posting is all about, specifically quiche, the famous French custard and cheese pie.

As is usual with country foods that have been around a long time, getting to the roots of this dish is a long and winding road. It originally had no cheese, the base was a bread dough and there are doubts that it actually originated in the disputed région on France’s border with Germany. Whatever is the case, this dish had become indisputably popular around the world. As it’s spread and different chefs have got in on the action, a myriad of things have been added (spinach, tomatoes, different cheeses, mushrooms, etc), but for a traditional quiche lorraine (the most famous variation), it seems the recipe should include eggs, cream, bacon, and cheese. According to purists, if you use Gruyère cheese it becomes a quiche au gruyère. If you add onions or leeks, it then becomes quiche alsacienne.

Confused yet? Welcome to the world of French cuisine.

As a luncheon dish, I think it’s unsurpassed. Accompaniments can be simple: a tossed green salad and a glass of dry white wine work for me. In France, quiche is often served cold. It’s thicker than you’d expect and the crust seems more like a secondary thought. It’s delicious, but not quite what I (and a lot of other North Americans) enjoy best: hot or at least warm and with a healthy top edge to the crust.

Since my recipe today includes leeks, I guess I’m leaning to quiche alsacienne, because I think they add a lot to the overall flavor. I won’t turn up my nose to this dish without leeks or onions, but if I had to pick, the dish would include onions. I like to use the milder Emmental cheese, which isn’t even French, so I don’t what the heck you’d call my recipe

On to the kitchen!

I must let you know that I make a really good short-crust. It’s flaky and tender and tastes wonderful. My shortcoming is that the top edge often collapses a bit during baking, so don’t expect my photo to look like it just came out of the kitchen of a 50-star restaurant in the heart of France. I’ll hold off on that recipe for another blog post, so the recipe below just says “one short-crust recipe”. Supply what you like: store bought or homemade.

Rick’s sort of Quiche Lorraine/Alsacienne/Suisse/Whatever (it still tastes fantastic!)
Serves 4-6

3 smoked bacon slices (we use our own home-smoked bacon which is heavenly)
½ cup leeks, the white & light green parts sliced thinly
1 cup grated Emmental cheese
3 eggs
1½ cups cream
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
freshly-ground white pepper
1 shortcrust recipe

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Roll out a pie crust into a deep 9" pie pan.

2. You’ll need to blind bake the pie crust to keep it from becoming soggy when the custard is added and cooked. Do this by pricking it all over with a fork, then baking it for about 4 minutes or until the surface is opaque.

3. Cut bacon into ¼" pieces and sauté these in a frying pan over medium low heat so the fat renders out completely. When nearly crisp, remove and drain on paper towels. Reserve the drippings.

4. Cook the leeks until tender in 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings.

5. Cover the bottom of the partially-cooked shell with bacon, leeks and cheese. (Can be made ahead to this point.)

6. Beat together eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and pepper then pour gently into the pie crust. Mix lightly with a fork to spread things out again.

7. Bake for 15 minutes at 450°, then reduce heat to 350° and bake another 15-20 minutes or until a knife stuck into the quiche comes out clean.

8. Let the quiche cool for 10-15 minutes to set more firmly. Serve warm with a tossed salad and a good dry white wine.

Hint: Only reheat quiche in the oven. Microwaving will ruin the crust!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Eating out in Paris

During our 2008 research sojourn in The City of Light, we did keep costs down by cooking as much as we could in our limited kitchen. To be truthful, a lot of it involved buying and then heating prepared foods. From the street market at the bottom of the hill, we bought a rotisserie coquelet (small chicken) with potatoes carrots and onions cooked in the juices (lovely), rabbit in mustard/creme sauce (even more lovely), and our favorite “hotel room cold meal”: sausage, paté and other charcuterie, handmade cheeses, sliced raw vegetables and all washed down with a red from the south of France, all hot-grape flavors and only 2.50 euros.

We only ate out a few times, and this was mostly when we couldn’t be carrying food with us. We had a rather unmemorable dinner in a small local restaurant and another when we visited Beauvais, a provincial town north and west of Paris that figures in the plot of the novel I was researching.

The main dining room at Brasserie Julien. Sumptuous, is it not?
But we did have one very memorable meal, a lunch actually, in a Parisian landmark from La Belle Epoque, Brasserie Julien. It’s located near the theatre district on a street that begins with a large triumphal arch. I mean this thing is huge and looks as if someone pushed a few buildings to the side and plopped the thing right down on the street. To be honest the area is a little dodgy but the restaurant itself is a real charmer. Each table has its own coat stand, topped by a large light, there are mirrors all over and art nouveau glasswork and paintings.

When we were there midweek, the place wasn’t all that busy and our waiter and the maitre’d were attentive and excellent…but this is beginning to sound more like a restaurant review than I’d like it to.

I don’t remember what Vicki ate (fish, if memory serves), but I ordered duck leg confit, something I’d never had. To quote Soupy Sales, my brains fell out with the first bite: full on duck flavor seasoned discretely with thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and I believe a bit of juniper berry. It had been fried to crisp the skin and was placed on pommes écrasé (potatoes mashed with a fork and mixed with olive oil). Oh yeah, there were some green beans, too. Our wine was the house red from bordeaux and quite excellent. Our dessert was a sampler plate of that day’s offerings.

Our dessert plate. Small portions and all exquisite.
Okay, we’re in Paris. It’s expensive to eat in Paris, right? Not here and not on that day. It probably would have cost us about 120 euros at dinnertime, but we got out of there for less than half that and I would have gladly paid more.

I’m running a bit out of time here. The launch for The Fallen One is this evening and I still have a lot of things to get ready. When I return, it will be laden with the recipe we got from another French source for making duck confit at home. It’s easy, but a bit time-consuming. However, the results are well worth any effort. In a word, it will make a spectacular dinner for anyone you care to impress.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When an abundance of summer vegetables overtakes you, take the French way out!

As part of our series on French food this month to celebrate the launch of my “French” mystery novel, The Fallen One, I’m going to look at one of our favorite recipes to make at this time of the year. When you’re tripping over ripe vegetables in your garden, what do you do?

If you’re French, you probably consider making Ratatouille, a fantastic vegetable stew! “Peasant food” it may be considered by those snooty Parisian restaurants, but it is honest, tastes wonderful and not difficult to prepare.

Having just gotten through our annual tomato sauce party yesterday with 6 really good friends (over 100 liters produced), I’m of course thinking of tomatoes. These are one of the key ingredients in ratatouille. Other commonly grown garden vegetables go into it as well: onions, zucchini, eggplant and peppers.

Have these out back and wondering what to do with all of them? Today’s posting can help.

One of my early blog postings here was about a favorite recipe: Grilled Mussels. This recipe comes from a fantastic cookbook, Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney. A favorite of mine to just browse through – it really is a lovely volume – we noticed early on that it had an interesting recipe for Ratatouille.

Having made this dish for years in a sort of haphazard way, just throwing things in that happened to be around –  with haphazard results – we were intrigued when we found Lulu’s take on it. First of all, her recipe looked pretty rigorous, but it also had an interesting approach: each of the vegetables were to be cooked separately, then combined for a final simmering.

It is a bit more work, certainly, cooking the dish in this manner, but the results are spectacular. Each ingredient stands out more, the textures are marvelous, and the flavours, especially after some mellowing in the fridge and reheating, get better and better. After our first try, we quickly declared this our Official Recipe.

If you make it, I’m confident you’ll feel the same way!

Lulu’s Ratatouille
Serves 6-8

2/3 cup olive oil (the good stuff only!)
1 lb large sweet onions, split in two, then finely sliced
1¼ tsp salt
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 lb zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into ¾" sections
1 lb firm, young or baby eggplant, cut into ¾" cubes
1 lb tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
3 large sweet peppers (1 each of red, green and yellow), grilled, and cut lengthwise into 
narrow strips, juices reserved*
2 bay leaves
3 fresh thyme sprigs, tied together
salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste
2 Tbs olive oil

1. In a wide, heavy 8-10 quart pot, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, covered, over very low heat, for at least 30 minutes, or until they are melting and simmering in their own juices, but uncolored. Remove the lid, raise the heat, and cook, stirring regularly, until they are uniformly light golden brown. Add ½ teaspoon of the salt, garlic and the prepped zucchini and continue to stir regularly.

2. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, sauté the eggplant in 4 tablespoons of the oil with ½ teaspoon of the salt until the pieces are softened. Add them to the pot with the onions and zucchini.

3. Add more oil to the frying pan if it is nearly dry. Over high heat, add the tomatoes and ¼ teaspoon of salt, and sauté, shaking the pan and stirring constantly until the liquid has evaporated. Remove them from the heat before they start to disintegrate, and add to the pot with the other vegetables.

4. Add the peppers and their juices to the pot, plus the bay leaves and thyme. Simmer over low heat, uncovered, for about 2 hours, stirring from time to time, until all excess liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are coated in a syrupy sauce. Adjust the seasoning.

5. Serve warm or at room temperature. This dish benefits from 1 of 2 days of refrigeration in order to allow the flavors to ripen. Bring to room temperature and stir in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil at the last minute.

*Special note: If you’ve never grilled peppers before, it’s really simple. You can do it in the kitchen (okay) or outside on your barbecue (better) or over a wood fire (best). Here’s how to do it.

If you’re doing it in the kitchen, your broiler is probably easiest. On the barbie, put the peppers right on the fire (charcoal or propane). On a wood fire, let it get to the point where you have good embers and throw the peppers on. Using tongs (long ones are best outside because it will be really hot), turn the peppers until they’re totally charred on all sides.

Next, put them into a pot with a tight lid and leave them for 10 to 15 minutes. This will loosen the skins. To remove the charred skin – and working over a bowl to catch the juices – pull and rub and it will come off. For any stubborn bits, use a sharp knife to pull it away. Still over the bowl, cut out the core and the seeds and any ribs inside the peppers, and you’re done. Strain those juices you’ve caught (they add a marvellous, smokey flavor) and carry on with the recipe.

Here’s a link to the winery Lulu and her family own: Domaine Tempier. It’s well worth a visit.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Heading away from tomatoes and Italy for a while

I’m sure everyone reading this blog will be pleased to hear that we’re taking a break from our focus of the past two months – with another focus: France and French cooking. This is also a bit of BSP (Blatant Self-Promotion for those not in the book writin’ game) since this month sees the release of my eighth crime fiction novel, The Fallen One.

You see, a large part of the novel is set in and around Paris. Being the type of person I am, Vicki and I had to go there and scope out the locations that I use in the book on a 9-day trip in autumn 2008. As Vicki expected (having been there a few times before) I fell in love with The City of Light.

In order to save money, but also just as much to really experience the city, we rented an apartment in the 13th Arrondissement near Butte aux Cailles. Our one-room apartment turned out to be just perfect for us, so perfect in fact that I eventually used it for the climactic scene of the novel.

In an amazing example of convergence, it just so happened that the large road down the hill from us, Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui near Place d’Italie, hosts a big street market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It appears magically on the sidewalk before dawn and disappears by 3:00 in the afternoon. The result of finding this lovely resource on our doorstep was that we had the perfect place to buy nearly everything we would eat during our stay.

There were stalls of fruits and vegetables picked the day before. One of my favorite places was a cheese monger, or should I say a group of artisanal cheese-makers, who pooled their resources to present their wares with a different person in attendance each market day. We bought the best roquefort I have ever eaten, not too salty and sold at the absolute peak of perfection. Just down the row was a fish monger selling catches that were made the night before, fish so fresh, all you could smell was the sea. I expected them to start moving.

And I shouldn’t neglect to tell you about the prepared foods. A Spaniard was cooking and selling paellas right out of the largest paelleras I have ever seen. The smell was intoxicating. Another stall had rabbit in mustard sauce. My favorite sold rotisserie poultry of all kinds: ducks, small turkeys, capons, coquelets, game hens, all cooked on large electric rotisseries. The best part was that, at the bottom, collecting all those fantastic drippings, were chunks of potatoes, carrots, sliced onions and peppers. Everything was cooked to perfection, ready be brought home hot and enjoyed immediately.

To say the least, even though we didn’t have a real kitchen, just a coffee maker and a combination toaster oven/microwave, we managed to make some fantastic meals with the booty from our forays to the market down the hill. The piéce de résistance was a Dover sole we bought from our new “favorite fish monger”. His brother had caught the sole he was displaying the night before. You can’t get fish this fresh anywhere but within a few miles of the sea. We had him clean it, bought some fingerling potatoes, baby spinach, a knob of sweet creamery butter, rosemary, parsley, almonds, and a head of garlic.

Back at the apartment, I cooked everything in shifts, first the potatoes, roasted gently with rosemary leaves and stems (for extra flavor), then the spinach, wilted with a bit of butter and minced garlic (try doing that with a pocket knife!), finally the almonds were toasted with some more butter. Everything was kept warm on a plate that we put on the top of our little oven. Finally I was ready to broil the fish — gently and just enough. You don’t want to ruin something this precious by even a minute too much cooking! The real trick was actually undercooking it to the point where I could put everything back in for a final heating-through without the fish going past the point of no return.

The cooking gods (probably Julia Child and Escoffier) were smiling down on us that night because we sat down to a meal of “sort of sauteed” Dover sole, perfectly cooked (by dumb luck more than anything) with buttered toasted almonds, roasted new potatoes and wilted spinach, all washed down with an exquisite bottle of Pouilly Fuisse we’d bought for under 4 euros. It was probably the best meal I’ve ever turned out, perfect in every detail. Cooking it was a horror show to be sure, but the memory of of doing it makes us chuckle now.

Only in Paris…

Stay tuned for more memories of Paris, and some of our favorite French recipes (and we have some good ones!) in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Tomato Lover

I’d like to welcome our first guest blogger here at AMFAS. It’s my good friend and fellow crime writer, Vicki Delany. Her popular Constable Molly Smith series (including In the Shadow of the Glacier and Among the Departed) have been optioned for TV by Brightlight Pictures. She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, as well as a light-hearted historical series, (Gold Digger, Gold Mountain), set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Vicki’s newest book is More than Sorrow, a standalone novel published by Poisoned Pen Press. In a starred review, Library Journal called the book, “a splendid Gothic thriller.”

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki is settling down to the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.

Be sure to visit Vicki at, and twitter: @vickidelany. She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (

The Delany Fields
I am not a farmer. Here’s an example of my attempt to grow tomatoes.

Fortunately, I don’t have to be able to grow them.

Since moving to Prince Edward County four years ago I’ve become a staunch locavore. There are some foods now that I will only eat fresh and in season. Tomatoes are the best example. I’ll stuff myself with tomatoes of every type from August to October, make soup and pasta sauce for the freezer. The rest of the year, I’ll only buy the ones in the supermarket, and then reluctantly, if I’m going to cook with them. They’re grown for looks, and durability, not for good eating, and why spoil your taste buds on something that isn’t up to scratch?

Asparagus I’ll eat all of May, when I can buy them from the farm down the road, the rest of the year I can do without. Same for berries – mainly blueberries and raspberries. Particularly when those berries freeze so well when fresh, it’s not necessary to buy the imported ones in the middle of winter. I have a great recipe for blueberry muffins that I make stacks of in the late summer and freeze. When they come out of the freezer in mid-winter, the berries taste as good as when they were picked.

Every Labour Day weekend, Vicki`s Veggies Farm (absolutely no relation to me!) puts on two days of tomato extravaganza. The farms grow something like 350 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and for the tomato tasting, they`ll lay about 120 of them out on trestle tables on the lawn. Until a few years ago I didn`t know tomatoes came in such variety of colours, sizes and tastes.

Vicki’s Veggies’s unbelievable spread of heirloom tomatoes.
Because I’m a writer as well as a tomato eater, soon after moving to the County, I decided I’d like to write a book set here. I don’t think I considered anyplace other than on a small-scale organic vegetable farm. Vicki showed me around her farm and talked to me about running the business and growing tomatoes. That book, MORE THAN SORROW, is a contemporary thriller with a backstory of the Loyalist settlers on the farm. It’s being released this week by Poisoned Pen Press, so I took a table at the Tomato Extravaganza to get the word out about the new book. I sold a pile of books. In fact, I sold out.

Here are some links for locavores and those just wanting good food, raised or grown sustainably.

Vicki’s Veggies:

JC Nyman Farms: Where I buy my eggs, chicken, and pork. They also make maple syrup from trees I can see from my house.

Hagerman’s Farms for produce of all kinds. A family farm for over 100 years:

Portland Bridge Pickling Society: Doug and Carolann had the table next to me, and I kept sneaking over for tastes of their spreads and pickles, all made from County grown produce.

Here’s a recipe for pasta with cherry tomatoes that I make several times a week when the tomatoes are at their best:

Vicki Delany’s Cherry Tomato Linguine
Mix up the quantities depending on taste and number of people being served.

1 green onion
1 clove garlic
Copious amount of fresh cherry tomatoes. If they are large, slice in half.
Handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
¼ to ½ log of goat’s cheese.
½ cup white wine (already open for sipping while cooking, I am sure)
1-2 cups of arugula, roughly chopped.

1. The sauce cooks very quickly so have the linguini started before beginning.
2. Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Add sliced green onion and chopped garlic. Cook on medium until soft and golden in colour. Add tomatoes and cook for three or four minutes, stirring. Tomatoes will go soft and wrinkly.
3. Add basil and arugula and cook, stirring until arugula begins to shrink.
4. Add goat’s cheese and stir until melted.
5. Add enough wine to loosen the sauce (about ½ a cup). If you don’t have, or don’t want to use wine, use pasta cooking liquid.
6. Salt and pepper to taste
7. Toss sauce with pasta.
8. Eat.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A quick tomato update

My tomato chopping workstation.
Two things for this short post…

This weekend we did up another bushel (14.5 liters) of chopped tomatoes, this time all San Marzanos. Since only Vicki and I were working, it made for a rather long day. Now we have our year’s stock of chopped and we’re happy campers. It was Labor Day weekend, so we labored.

Today, we wanted to do a quick run at sauce, so another bushel of SMs was picked up at Zito’s. I still have trouble believing in our luck to have a source of these rather hard-to-find beauties only two blocks from our house. Lucky us!

We got out our electric tomato grinder (expensive, but a very worthwhile purchase last year), did a quick check of it (lubrication needed) and it didn’t take long to get set up since we left a number of things out from yesterday. With Vicki and me washing, lopping off the tops and cutting out any bad spots, and Karel boiling the tomatoes to loosen the skins, and running the grinder, it took us just a tad over an hour to go through the whole thing: 20.25 liters – not bad!

Getting the sauce up to a boil and into jars took us another hour. Clean-up was a half-hour. A much shorter day and a good thing since I have to play with The Advocats tonight.

I don’t think we could have asked for two better days on which to work in the Blechta Test Kitchens Outdoor area. Both days were warm, but we had nice breezes and there’s something about doing this sort of work in the great outdoors, hence my personal pleasure in putting up food for the long winter months.

Next week is the large tomato gathering, an annual affair, with several friends and probably about 6-8 more bushels of tomatoes to turn into sauce.

Second thing I want to tell you is that Wednesday will see A Man for All Seasonings first guest blogger, my good friend and fellow crime novelist, Vicki Delany who will be reporting on an amazing event very close to where she lives in Prince Edward County in Eastern Ontario. Ever think you’d get to see 350 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes in one place? You will on Wednesday. We’ve got the coverage and we’ve got the photos!

Be sure to drop by.