Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Friday, July 13, 2007

kitten in the kitchen

Today I began preparing my fortieth birthday dinner by starting a fresh batch of duck confit.

My birthday is the week before Thanksgiving. This is the beauty of confit: like me, it only improves with age. (Well, we know the confit will, anyway!)

I went to Enzo's butcher shop for the duck fat and decided, in my attempt to be local and pc and low carbon footprint-y, to buy the duck legs there as well. Berkeley Bowl carries Pekin duck legs of unknown origin; that is, they are behind the butcher counter in a tub reading "Berkeley Bowl Duck Leg." Enzo's carries duck legs from Grimaud, which is in Stockton. Not around the corner, but not across the country, either.

I bought Muscovy duck legs, which my cookbooks tell me are bigger and leaner. Not so these Grimauds, which are no larger than the Pekins and only marginally less fat. I trimmed the legs as usual and tossed them into a sauté pan with a little water to render. They are now salting down with thyme, pepper, garlic, and shallots. The actual cooking will happen tomorrow, the eating six months hence, when I will recall the final days of my thirties and the warm July day when I planned my meal.

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Three weeks ago H-man and I found ourselves with four heads of farm cabbage. I like cabbage well enough, but Hockeyman is indifferent, and I could not possibly get through four heads without them spoiling. So we made sauerkraut (something he will eat) using Jessica Prentice's recipe from Full Moon Feast.

Jessica is an acquaintance of mine and a terrifcally talented chef. So this is a full-on plug to buy her book.

The idea is you shred the cabbage, then pound it until the liquid runs out. You then put the cabbage, liquid, caraway seeds, and enough salted water to cover in a jar or crock. Weight the cabbage with something--I used a glass of water sitting in the mason jar of cabbage--and drape a cloth over all. Allow this to sit at room temperature for three days to a week, ensuring the water level is always above the cabbage.

After a couple days you'll smell a good sour smell when you check your jar. We left ours out a week, then sealed and refrigerated it. Jessica uses whey when she makes kraut--she drains yogurt--which gives a nice tart taste. I had no yogurt, so our kraut is mellower, but still good. Even better, in its fermented state it will last long enough for us to finish it.

Have I mentioned sauerkraut is good for you? Of course cabbage is healthy. But so is the natural fermentation process that transpires during sauerkraut-making, as it allows the development of digestive enzymes and lactic acid, things most of us lack in our modern diets. And for people like me, who suffer from digestive disorders, foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi can help keep our guts happier. And if you think I'm just being my usual food weirdo self, take a look at all those "probiotic" supplements in your neighborhood GNC. Myself, I'd rather eat sauerkraut.

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Today's final kitchen act was making butter.

Oh, I know. You were with me through confit and pork rillettes and duck au pistou. But butter? Perfectly fine butter may be purchased damn near anywhere. Hell, I bet you can find butter in some gas stations.

The inspiration came from this NYT article, which has since become part of Times Select, meaning if you want the butter recipe you gotta pay money. Hmph! Undeterred, I found Michael Chu's Cooking For Engineers. Very cool. Check it out.

My Mom gave me her Kitchen-Aid stand mixer a while back. Thanks, Mom! So I poured a pint of Straus Organic Whipping Cream into the bowl, screwed in on the whisk attachment, and let rip.

Watching cream progress from softly foamy to thick to I-want-to-eat-this-over-gelato-to butter is hypnotic. It also takes longer than you might think; a good twenty minutes from start to finish.

As I watched the mixer do all the hard work, I remembered Laura Ingalls Wilder's description of her mother making butter. Caroline Ingalls used a churn and dash, which she had to scald. The dash so heavy she needed breaks while churning. Depending on what the cow ate, the butter could be pale. Mrs. Ingalls liked her butter yellow. So she scraped a carrot across a milk pan punched with holes, put the shredded carrot into a muslin bag, and squeezed the juices into the butter. Nowadays we need not color our butter: we have annatto seeds, which are used to add a yellow cast to foods. We also have juicers, food processors, and Kitchen Aid mixers.

So why bother making all this stuff?

Many of us modern first worlders make virtually nothing with our hands anymore. We spend our days seated before machines. We give ourselves repetitive motion injuries typing, then come home and watch television, futzing with a remote control. I think much of the resurgent interest in things like artisanal food preparation, gardening, knitting, and quilting stems from a longing to create something tangible. Something useful. There's a sense of accomplishment in confit absent in adding yet another document to the office server. For the next six months that confit will be in my fridge: I'll see it when I go to make a meal or grab a beer. It'll be there if, heaven forbid, something awful happens and we cannot get to the market for fresh food. (You need not wait to eat confit, and it holds without refrigeration in all but the hottest weather.) The Excel doc, on the other hand, stands an excellent chance of gathering virtual dust.

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