Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Edge, Confit & The Hour Of Self Loathing...


The Edge. I do adore the Edge. My husband knows it, my friends know it. It's no secret that I take pleasure in pushing the envelope and, well, living on The Edge. This time, though, I nearly fell over The Edge and had my ass handed to me. By pastry and poultry, no less.

First, a confession. Often, people attend a Sunday Night Dinner, and they 'ooh' and 'aah' at what we've served, and ask how we pull off dinner for twenty and make it look so easy. I usually smile and mumble something dismissive and self-deprecating and quickly move on to facilitate the rest of dinner, with the secret knowledge that it ultimately really isn’t that hard. It is almost always time consuming to make a huge feast, but not particularly difficult. That is, if everything is done correctly... Which it almost never is.
Here's the confession: I often intentionally make the Sunday Night Dinners challenging, because that way there's a possibility of failure, and that chance makes succeeding all the more satisfying.

Is that wrong?
My close friends have called me insane. I like to think of it as displaced competitive spirit. My husband, who is supposed to understand me, occasionally agrees with them. Usually while he's doing something menial with a mountain of produce. I prefer to think that they all lack imagination, and something about the seemingly insurmountable challenge of a Sunday Night Dinner menu for twenty is thrilling to overcome. Because it's fun to WIN-- even if I am only conquering pig parts or vegetables.
Whether it's insanity or creativity, The Edge usually manifests itself in the form of a menu that sounds either fun to prepare or intriguing in some other way. Some people want to scale Everest. During the preparation of the fun, intriguing menu, however, I experience what we have come to call “The Hour of Self-Loathing."
Sometimes it only lasts a half hour.
As guests begin to arrive, I'll be sweating over some critical aspect of dinner, with all four burners and the oven going, ingredients piled high in my small kitchen waiting to be added, partial dishes waiting to be finished and deployed, my mind swimming with the reality that I'm nowhere near finished and people are HERE. But in the last 2 years or so, as my confidence has grown, these dinners have become a bit more of a tame lion and The Hour of Self-Loathing has shortened itself to the Half Hour, or else doesn't happen at all. There's still an occasional “Oh Fuck" moment, like recently when I stepped away from the lentils to give directions and they instantly turned to mush. Other than that, things have been going pretty smoothly. That is, until this weekend, when I decided to see how close The Edge really was...


This week, out of boredom, and in defiance of convention, I (gasp) made a schedule. A fucking schedule.

The Fucking Schedule

We started Thursday night by curing the salmon (a 10 minute prep, but a critical one) and salting the duck legs for confit, which involves coating the legs in salt, crushed garlic, shallots and thyme, covering them and leaving them to cure for 2 days.

That part all went fine. Friday came, and the schedule said we had to make the Pork and Duck Liver Paté and cook the Duck Confit overnight.

Instead we had dinner with a friend and I got drunk. Which was not anywhere on the schedule.

Saturday morning:

I woke up and began by making pastry cream so it could chill for 4 hours. So far, so good. While I was sleeping, Karl had stayed up late baking Pâte á Choux, so we were almost halfway to croquembouche.)

I brushed off the duck legs, rearranged them in the pans, submerged them in the duck fat and put the whole business in the oven on 225 degrees for the next few hours.

I then ran out to shop for produce and lollygag a bit, exchange New Years’ wishes with the butchers & the produce guys, and take a side trip to the Trade Scare… By the time I actually got home and settled into cooking it had to be 2:30 or 3pm. OK, not optimal, but still doable. Checked the duck legs — fuckity fuck, still not done.

Scary but still fine.

Meanwhile, Karl is working on the fig balsamic reduction for the salad,

I set about chopping fennel to roast as soon as the oven is free, wash the greens for salad, etc.


Earlier at the green market I saw the Blood Oranges and decided we needed a salad of those and Arugula as well.. cutting the oranges took more time than I thought it would, naturally. SO we shanghaied a kitchen helper...

Christopher preparing the bloody goodness...

Meanwhile, duck legs are finally done — 5 hours later. Excellent. Out of the duck fat and into the oven to crisp up and on to the paté...

The paté went off without a hitch; the pork shoulder had been ground by the butcher,

I pureed the livers, shallots, spices and a little duck fat, for good measure,

mixed it all together with my hands, put it into the bread pans with bay leaves and thyme sprigs.

Made a water bath with boiling water, put the little parchment covered paté loaves in, and into the oven it all went at 375 degrees for about 2 hours...

Now onto the Croquembouche:

Karl had filled all of the little Pate Á Choux and all we needed was hot caramel (melt sugar with a little water and watch the magic.)

I began to assemble the Croquembouche, by dipping each little creampuff into the caramel and then sticking it to the others in a tower formation.

Cold water was kept on hand in the event of burns (I only ended up with 2). This is the point where I mention that hot caramel is NAPALM. Like truly fucking hot-- and it keeps burning. Dangereux, as the French say. Unfortunately, I had to make 2 more batches of caramel which took more of what I didn’t have — time. But, making a croquembouche is a little like skiing downhill; once you start it is almost impossible to stop.

The next thing I knew, guests began arriving, and I hadn’t yet even touched either the pheasants or the bulgar and lentils. And here is where it started to unravel: All these lovely, kind, excited people arriving at my home with happy and anticipatory little faces and filled with New Year’s cheer, and there I was, silently seething, freaking out, the Hour Of Self-Loathing in full swing now, half-smile frozen on my face like a pre-fireaxe Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the voices in my head shrieking, and demanding to know what sort of shitty ass cook was I that I hadn’t even STARTED THE PHEASANTS?”

I made Karl toss everybody out of the kitchen, watching their happy little faces crumble a little... The good thing is, Fear usually follows Loathing and it soon took over my adrenal gland and booted me back to focused action.

While the ever-burgeoning crowd was being distracted by our delicious paté, (which we put out with homemade pickled onions, cornichons and Dijon mustard...)

...and the Home-Cured Gravlax, with capers and a cream sauce, I got back down to it.

I'm just saying.

...the nice mixture of sour cream and strained yogurt.

With the kitchen empty, and Karl handling the front of house duties, I was free to finish the poultry.

I stuffed the breasts with fatback,

made up a quick sauce with cognac, orange juice, white wine, lime juice and a dash of Worchestershire sauce, and poured it into a pan.

Rubbed the pheasants down with duck fat, salt and pepper, and roasted them for 45 minutes. At the 25 minute mark, I added dates and dried apricots to the pan, and turned the birds breast side up to finish.

Lentils were cooked with allspice, nutmeg, bay leaves and bulghur. A little bland, initially, but rocked once they sopped up the date-apricot poultry sauce.

After the birds rested for 15 minutes or so Karl cut it all up with kitchen shears and served it on a large platter with the reduced apricot date sauce and some shredded duck legs confit on the side...

Holy Jeebus.


We put the birds out with:

The Blood Orange Arugula Salad,

Try to imagine these on a nice bed of arugula... On account Karl dint get the picture...

Grilled Fennel With Black Olives,

bitter dandy greens with red wine vinaigrette,

Chicory Lettuce With Reduced Port & Fig Balsamic Dressing,

Roasted Fennel and Bulghur With Lentils,

And nice carrots in maple syrup...

Oh, and the croquembouche? A huge hit. So glad we made it. So fun to watch people break off the creampuffs and then lose their shit when they bit down... Completely worth it.

Fucking Delicious.

After a night of marathon cooking, drinking myself silly, meeting new friends, seeing old friends, and putting the kitchen beating behind me, I went to bed.

Then on Sunday, we got up, watched
The McLaughlin Group, and DID THE WHOLE THING ALL OVER AGAIN including ANOTHER croquembouche.

As I said... The Edge, my friends… The Edge.

4 pounds of salmon, 6 pheasants, 30 duck legs, 10 pounds of duck fat, a 1.6 pound pig liver, 1.5 pounds of duck liver, 5 lb of ground pork shoulder...

...And a total of One Hundred And Ten cream-filled pastry puffs.

Poor Karl. Did anyone tell him before he married me?