Duckapalooza: Part 1

I love duck. To me a duck is a bit like a pig with wings; the meat is incredibly versatile, delicious beyond belief, and every single morsel is usable. In Anthony Bourdain's most recent book, Medium Raw, he talks about how chefs love to play the "Last Meal Game". My last meal would be crisply-fried duck confit with a side of pommes sarladaises (duck fat-fried potatoes tossed with chopped garlic and fresh parsley).

It's very simple to make duck confit with duck leg and thigh portions and purchased duck fat but it's so much cheaper to buy whole ducks and cut them up yourself. The bonus is a freezer-full of the bonus ducky delights that you get from the extra parts: smoked duck breasts, duck liver pate, barbecued wings and necks, gallons of stock, duck fat for cooking, and crackling for munching.

Once or twice a year I buy four ducks and go into a two-day duck-cooking frenzy. This year my friends David and Steve offered to help out. We bought six ducks and set aside a weekend in January for our duck fest.

If you've never cut up a duck before it can seem like a daunting task but there are videos on the Internet giving simple step-by-step instructions. The most difficult part of this process is having the confidence to make the first cut. You can't really screw up - a few wonky cuts won't prevent your duck from being the best thing you've ever eaten.

The first thing you do after you have butchered the ducks is remove any excess fat and skin from inside the carcass and along the back. Cut the skin into small pieces, place them in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with a half a cup of water and place over low heat. It will take an hour or two to render the fat and turn the skin, now called cracklings, a deep golden brown. Watch it carefully near the end as it can burn easily.

Strain the fat into a clean container and place the duck cracklings onto paper towel to drain. Salt them while they are still warm. Eat the cracklings as a snack or sprinkle them on salads in place of croutons.

The next order of business is to start the duck stock. Place the carcasses and wing tips in a large stockpot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and carefully remove all the scum from the surface and discard. Add chopped onions, carrots, and celery (I use the proportion of 2-1-1), a bay leaf, a pinch of dried thyme, 10 black peppercorns and a teaspoon of salt (this helps to pull the flavours from the vegetables - do not add more at this point). Simmer uncovered for 4-5 hours. Strain and discard the bones and vegetables (or do what I do: fish out the carcasses, place them on a plate to cool, grab a shaker of salt and suck the meat from the bones). Pour the stock into a metal bowl, place it in the sink and fill the sink with cold water. Stir the stock occasionally and when it cools to room temperature place it in the fridge to cool completely. The next day remove any fat from the surface and pour the stock into freezer containers. The flavour is fairly neutral so it can be used for both poultry and meat dishes.

Once the stock is happily bubbling away, I season the necks and wings with a dry rub from Bruce Aidell's Tuscan rib recipe. I cook them for 2 - 3 hours on my Big Green Egg barbecue but it works almost as well to tenderize them first in the oven in a covered pot with a small amount of water and then finish them on a regular barbecue.

At this point you have a choice; you can turn the legs, thighs, and breasts into confit or the breasts can be transformed into duck ham. I'll cover the methods and recipes for both of these in Part 2 of the post.

The final dish of the day was the duck liver pate. For years my favourite recipe was one I found in The Joy of Cooking that contained apples and plenty of butter, but I recently discovered an even better version from Jacques Pepin that uses all duck fat. The method is simplicity itself: saute the livers with shallots and garlic in some duck fat, blend until smooth in the food processor with more duck fat, and season with cognac, herbes de provence and plenty of salt and pepper. Not exactly foie gras but not "chopped liver" either.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Duck Confit and Ham

Guest Blogger: A Traditional Swiss Oil Mill

We have a old walnut tree in our yard here on the island. It's riddled with woodpecker holes and no longer produces much, but each year I get a small harvest of tiny but flavourful nuts. Last year, though, I finally got fed up with trying to shell the walnuts after I had picked them in the fall. It would take me hours to pry the shells off a few small handfuls and when I used them in baking I'd often crunch down on an errant piece of shell. Now I pick the nuts while they are green, before the shell has formed, and I make pickled walnuts, an English specialty.

A couple of days before Christmas, while I was chatting on Skype with a friend who lives in Switzerland, she told me about a visit she had recently made to one of the last remaining traditional oil mills there. I was fascinated by her story (and had a hard time imagining shelling enough walnuts to make 32 kilos of nutmeats!) and asked her to write it up and send it along with some pictures to post on this blog. I hope you find her account as delightful as I did. Here's Chris:

"I didn't expect, when I moved to the western shores of Lake Neuchatel, in Switzerland, that I'd find small hand-written signs advertising "Fresh Walnut Oil for Sale" on many fences and doors. Then I discovered that walnut trees grow quite well around here; in my area people actually bid on the crop of any given tree (which in this case are owned by the municipality) and are then able to gather the crop of nuts and take them to be pressed at a local oil mill which has been functioning for several centuries.

And therein lies a tale, as they say! I admit that I was intrigued, so when I got an invitation from a colleague to come with her when she took her family's walnut crop to the mill, I instantly changed all my plans for that afternoon and accepted with pleasure.

The Severy Oil Mill is the last in Switzerland functioning year-round, in the old-fashioned way. Tucked away in a fold of valley near the small town of Severy (in the north of Canton Vaud, against the Jura foothills), it was built in the 13th century and has been owned by the Bovey family since 1845, making this generation the sixth to perpetuate the skill of the artisan oil maker. In the old days, each village usually possessed its own grain mill, a carpenter's shop, a fruit press and an oil press, as well as a community bake house. At one time the mill was run using an enormous waterwheel, but has now been transformed to work using electricity and gas.

So off we went to the oil mill, with two large cloth bags of hulled walnuts, the production of the family tree (32 kilos of hulled nuts), and a large empty milk jug to bring the oil home. I was told that this year was a good year for walnuts, unlike last year when there were almost none. Once again "in the old days", not so very far off really, families who had several walnut trees (which can produce at least 100 kilos of nuts apiece!) would spend evenings together hulling the nuts, talking, telling stories, singing...apparently one or two people would break the hulls with hammers on a stone base and the others would retrieve the pieces of walnuts, being careful to remove as many pieces of nut-shell as possible. Of course you always find a few, later, anyway! My friend's mother says that hulling walnuts is a nice way to spend the dark evenings, and can be done at any time after the nuts have dried a bit after the harvest, so nut shelling actually continues well into February, depending on the time available to do it. Each family can, if it wants, have its own nuts pressed in one batch, and from what I hear that's what most do; it's a 3-hour process or so depending on the quantity of nuts you deliver.

We came upon the mill because we knew where it was; if you didn't you might go around in circles for some time till you found it! My first impression on entering was the pervasive and rather lovely smell of lightly toasted nuts, the huge bags of shelled nuts waiting to be weighed in, and the rhythmic background noise of the wheels and pulleys constantly clicking. After our walnuts were weighed, they immediately went into the big wooden hopper to be ground into pellets, which looked rather like dog food and quite unappetizing.

They come out of the hopper into a lovely old wooden container which is so soaked with nut oil that it positively glows. I touched it later, thinking it would leave an oily film on my fingers, but no, it was as smooth as velvet, a really beautiful old piece still in constant use.

Then the nut pellets are poured into a toasting pot which is set into an old stone stove. A ladle of water is added to prevent them from scorching while they toast, then the lid is closed and a paddle swishes them around for a few minutes. The stove is about 175 years old, I was told, and was wood fired until 1997, when it was converted to gas. You can imagine the work to keep it constantly fired, from the wood chopping to feeding it regularly. It's a beautiful old thing too, releasing a constant gentle heat.

When the nuts have been toasted, they are scooped into a cheesecloth-lined round wooden form (also very old), wrapped up well, and put under the press. I enquired about how much weight they were pressed with, and the young man who was handling "our" nuts said, with a completely straight face, "60,000 tonnes!"...and as far as I can tell he was serious!

The lovely golden oil started to flow almost immediately, and when each form was pressed (which took 15 - 20 minutes) it was removed from the crushing weight, unwrapped, and the cake of residue (called nillon) set aside either to be returned to its owners or to be ground or broken into chunks for sale at the small adjacent shop.

Not so very long ago, schoolchildren would be given chunks of the nillon as a snack for school, which I'm told was sucked or nibbled on and I'm sure it was a very filling and cheap snack at a time when treats were few and far between. Now, people can purchase the nillon and use it to make a local specialty called "Ground Walnut Tart" which is rich and filling and served in tiny slices. When it's baking, you can smell the wonderful scent of walnut oil all over the house.

When we left, with our large milk container two-thirds full of freshly pressed fragrant oil, we felt like our clothing and hair were also permeated with the lightly toasted walnut smell. The men who work at the mill say they enjoy it when they press a different kind of oil, just to have a different smell!

The oil will now be left to settle for about two weeks, then filtered, bottled and kept in a cool storage area, generally the cellar. With over 20 litres produced from the 32 kilos of hulled walnuts I think my friend and her family will have enough for some time to come.

The Severy Mill produces at least eleven beautiful cold-pressed oils, including walnut, hazelnut, canola, sunflower seed, almond, peanut, sesame, pistachio, pine nut, grape seed, pumpkin seed, olive and truffled olive, as well as a number of flavoured vinegars, mustards, sauces for barbecues, and other delicious products, all produced, bottled and sold at the mill or by mail order. All of the oils retain their Omega-3s and wonderful scents, and are mostly used as condiments because they don't react well to being heated (except for the canola, peanut and sunflower seed varieties). It only takes a very small amount of oil to flavour a vinaigrette or other sauce, so it's possibly more economical than you may think. My experience with it is that a small bottle can be kept in the fridge and lasts quite well; I never purchase more than a half litre at a time. Of course it's a luxury to be able to use locally produced oil, and it fits in well with my Slow Food, locavore mentality. I also enjoy giving small bottles as gifts and hope that this mill will continue its service to the community and to local food lovers for many years to come.

The Severy Mill functions 14-16 hours a day from October until around late May, then the rhythm is slightly less intense and group visits are possible. Open from Monday to Friday, 7:00 - 12:00, 13:00 - 18:00, Saturdays 8:00 - 12:00, 13:00 16:00."

Chris is sending me a bag of nillon to play with (I wonder what the customs officer will think of it?) and I'm looking forward to experimenting with it in my baking. I hope that Chris continues to keep us up to date on her locavore adventures.

A Micaceous Clay Pot and Some Damn Good Beans

When it comes to souvenirs my many years of travel have taught me that a useful cooking or serving implement beats an article of clothing by a mile. The dozens of kimonos I purchased at flea markets in Japan still sit in a chest in the basement and when I squeeze myself into the gorgeous Thai silk suit I bought in Bangkok, the look is more slightly-chubby-Thai-Airways-flight-attendant than Mata Hari. On the other hand, the oak barrel I dragged home from Montepulciano continues to make wonderful vinegar from the dregs of our wine glasses and the set of dishes I bought in Kappabashi in Tokyo make their appearance nearly nightly on our dinner table.

Last September we took a trip to Santa Fe and I became obsessed with buying a micaceous clay pot. I had read an article about them in New Mexico magazine and was intrigued by the accounts of their unusual heat conductivity and the "sweet" flavour they were said to impart to food, particularly beans. It wasn't my first encounter with micaceous clay; we had bought a small Lacota mask at Taos Pueblo on our honeymoon but hadn't realized that this metal-flecked clay was traditionally used to produce beautiful and highly functional cooking vessels.

The clay, from Northern New Mexico, is a blend of mica and red clay and has been used by the indigenous peoples of New Mexico for hundreds of years. The pots are built using the coil method and were traditionally fired in a large open fire. Modern potters have since discovered that firing the pots first in a kiln and finishing them in a wood fire leads to a more durable product. The black patterns that are a characteristic of these pots are called "fire clouds" and are formed when the burning wood touches the vessel during the firing process.

Finding an affordable pot, however, proved to be a challenge. Micaceous clay objects are not cheap and well-crafted pots usually start at around $100 per quart. I finally found a three-quart pot while browsing around the galleries and artist studios in Madrid, New Mexico, for about $150.

When I got the pot home I could hardly wait to try it. I gently washed it before use and was horrified to find that the clay inside seemed to be rubbing off, forming a pool of muddy water in the bottom. I remembered that someone had told me that you could season (and thus seal the pores) of a ceramic Japanese hot pot or nabe by cooking rice in it before use. I tried this clever trick and it worked perfectly.

The first recipe I chose to try was "Clay Pot Frijoles" from New Mexico magazine. I used small white beans instead of the pinto or bolita beans that the recipe called for and since epazote is not one of the herbs I grow in my garden I simply eliminated it. I did have a big bag of Chimayo chile that I bought from a couple of farmers outside of the Santuario di Chimayo about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. I also had some homemade maple cured bacon in the freezer that added just the right touch of smokiness to the beans.

I mixed all the ingredients together and brought everything to a boil on top of the stove and then left the beans to cook for a few hours in the wood-fired oven after the coals had been removed and the temperature had dropped to about 3oo degrees Farenheit.

The resulting beans were terrific. Smoky, brick red and slightly fiery, they just seemed to get better and better as you ate them. It's hard to say whether or not they actually tasted "sweeter" than beans cooked in a metal or glazed pot but they certainly had an indescribable and not at all unpleasant earthiness about them.

I use the pot almost weekly in the winter, in either the outdoor wood-fired oven or in the top half of our Tukikivi masonry heater. It's developing a beautiful patina on the outside the clay seems to be absorbing all the luscious flavours of the food cooked within.

Bittersweet September

I have mixed feelings about September. It is a bittersweet month; another summer has passed too quickly, the days are shorter, and the cool nights are a portent of the rains and gloom to come. At the same time, the crisp September air brings with it a wondrous sense of renewal and hopefulness, too. It reminds me of when I was returning to school in the fall as a child - my notebooks were pristine and unmarked, pencils were sharpened, I had a new outfit and new shoes, and anything seemed possible.

My father passed away at the beginning of July and I didn't get back to the island until the end of the month. We had had an unusually cool spring and early summer and it seemed as though the good weather had been waiting for me to return home. The long, lazy days gave me plenty of time to reflect on my father's full and happy life and get used to the idea of never hearing his voice again (as if someone can really get used to that). Visiting friends and family provided a helpful distraction and the garden and kitchen kept me from allowing my thoughts to drift toward the melancholic.

There were plenty of cheerful kids around,too. We fired up the oven for pizza and I taught a French friend's daughter how to make pate a choux.

I didn't do much preserving this year but some gorgeous yellow plums from a neighbour's tree went into a dozen or so jars of plum and vanilla jam.

I'm feeling energized and optimistic and looking forward to returning to blogging after a break of almost a year. La vita e veramente bella!

"There's-been-a-run-on-pumpkin!" Sweet Potato Pie

One of the minor irritations of living on an island is shopping for specific items. With only a couple of small grocery stores you never really know what's going to be available so it's pretty pointless to go shopping with a list. In the summer I see city people wandering through the market looking increasingly desperate as they realize that they won't be able to find the smoked paprika and bomba rice they need for their paella.

A few weeks ago I decided to make a pumpkin pie to take to a pot luck for Thanksgiving. The friend who was hosting is wheat and lactose intolerant so I thought it would be a fun to try to come up with something that didn't taste like a compromise. I didn't really have the time to cut up and cook the pumpkin from scratch so I stopped into our market to buy a can of organic pumpkin. It should have come as no surprise that the pumpkin spot on the shelf was completely bare. After a fruitless search of the back room the kind person who worked there suggested that I try sweet potato as a substitute. I also picked up some pecans and oatmeal for the crust and a can of coconut milk to stand in for the dairy. Here is the happy result of my experimentation:

Sweet Potato, Maple, and Coconut Pie with a Pecan Crust

For the Crust:

3/4 cup oatmeal (quick oats are fine)
3/4 pecans
6 tablespoons brown sugar
3 - 4 tablespoons neutral-flavoured vegetable oil

In the bowl of a food processor process the oatmeal and pecans until finely ground. Add the brown sugar and combine. Add just enough oil to make the mixture clump together when you squeeze it with your fingers. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan.

The filling:

2 large or 3 small sweet potatoes (often labeled yams in Canada)
1 cup coconut milk (shake the can or process in blender or food processor)
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly ground)
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamon (preferably freshly ground)

Heat the oven to 425 F. Roast the sweet potatoes for 40 minutes to an hour or until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Allow to cool slightly and peel. Place them in the bowl of a food processor and puree until completely smooth. Measure out 2 cups (save the rest to use in soup). Scrape the pumpkin into a mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients.

Whisk until smooth and pour into the prepared nut crust. You may have some filling left over - pour it into oiled custard cups and bake alongside the pie for post pie-baking snack (they'll take 20 - 30 minutes).

Reduce the oven temperature to 375 and bake the pie for 45 minutes to one hour or until it is slightly puffed around the sides but still jiggles a little in the centre. Allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Decorate the top with candied or toasted pecans. (I tossed the pecans in a bit of sugar, cinnamon, and oil and baked them at 300 until they were toasted).

I really like this pie. The maple flavour was subtle, the coconut not too overpowering, and the balance of spices was just about right. The crust held together much better than I thought it would. It's a keeper!

Simple Pleasures

There's nothing like a year-long mystery illness to make you appreciate the simple things in life. These days I find myself feeling grateful for everything - cooking a meal, hanging the laundry, baking a loaf of bread, or pulling a few weeds in the garden all seem like small miracles.

Before I got sick I think I was becoming jaded about food. We're spoiled for choice here on the West Coast. In Vancouver there are so many world-class restaurants, representing virtually every kind of cuisine - and much of it is reasonably priced. New restaurants open up almost every week - from opulent temples of molecular gastronomy to local hash houses (and a few of the other kind of hash house, too). It's almost monotonous in its variety. Having a seriously restricted diet forces you to retrain your palate and really taste food again. You can't rely on butter, cream or culinary pyrotechnics to cover up inferior ingredients.

The chicken stew I cooked last week is a good case in point. The ingredients were simple: free-range chicken, onions, garlic, celery, carrots, rutabaga, potatoes and a few herbs - and that's it! No wine, stock or tomatoes, just a cup or so of water to form the sauce.

All the components tasted entirely of themselves and it was one of the best things I'd eaten in a long while. It didn't hurt that all of the ingredients except the celery were local.

A few days later I was inspired by a blog post by David Lebowitz to make eggplant caviar. I picked up some gorgeous eggplants from my friend Dana and smoked them on the Big Green Egg.

A handful of other ingredients including some roasted Gabriola garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley were pureed together in the food processor.

I finished it with a sprinkling of Piment d'Espelette (a mistake I'm afraid - I know I'll be struck down by lightning for saying this, but the Piment d'Espelette, for all it's cachet, tasted a bit like the red pepper flakes in a Knorr dried soup package). I served the caviar d'aubergine with some market vegetables and toasted baguette slices. The fanciest baba ganoush couldn't hold a candle to it.

Saturday Market

There are days when I feel like pinching myself - I'm so lucky to live in a place like this. I went to the market on Saturday with my camera and was thrilled to see so many people there. It was Wine Festival day and many people had arrived at the venue early to do some shopping before the serious drinking began.

The balance between produce,

prepared food,

and crafts, was just about perfect. One of the more famous markets in the Gulf Islands has recently become craft-heavy and somewhat precious. The last time I was there it was difficult to find food amongst all the chachkas, and the little produce that was available was expensive. Locals were a bit thin on the ground, too. Our market has become a real magnet for islanders and it's a good place to catch up on gossip and have a cup of coffee with friends. Tourists are always made to feel welcome, too. It's really come a long way in the last five years.