Spreading out

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101” booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

Thanksgiving Week 2011

The duck story has come to a successful conclusion.  Both Keli and Pierre emerged from the kitchen in fine form.

Eleanor started the final cooking marathon at noon on Sunday, with Emma standing by to chop vegetables.  This early phase was a little dull for me, but this is the best time of year for cycling in Tucson so I pumped up the tires and ran a couple of errands to the nearby grocery stores.  Eleanor was quite unhappy with her store-brand kosher salt and I was able to pick up a better kind while out with the bike, along with a package of pie crusts.  (People gave me curious looks as I was stuffing groceries into my bike bag.  I don’t know why.  When we lived in Massachusetts many years ago I used to run errands with my bike all the time.  I should try to do it more often here in Tucson, since the city is more bike friendly that any place I’ve ever lived.)

Most of Eleanor’s day was spent making the side dishes, of which there turned out to be 13 in total, plus incidentals like Matignon and stuffing in Pierre.  Even for her that’s a fairly ridiculous amount of food for three people, and that may be why she separated our feast into two menus:

The Keli Menu

Steamed & rotisseried duckling
Roasted butternut squash with pears, maple sugar, and gorgonzola cheese
Boiled red & blue potatoes with thyme, rosemary, and sage
Mixed grains with wild mushrooms, figs, currants, and persimmon
Crimini mushrooms stuffed with veal, apple, and onion
Crisp salad of romaine with pomegranate dressing
Cranberry cherry pie

The Pierre Menu

Classic roasted duckling
Roasted petite golden potatoes with pearl onions and white truffle oil
Roasted carrots, onions, and apples with bacon
Cipollini onions and chestnuts marinated in cider syrup
Pork & apple stuffing al la frittata
Haricot vert with cranberries and buttered walnuts
Pumpkin soup
Fresh blackberries with syrup de Cassis

In the midst of all of this our neighbor Mike showed up, drawn perhaps by the smell of cooking.   We kept him for over an hour, sampling the dishes as they come out of the kitchen.  He left around 8:30 with a little of Eleanor’s syrup de Cassis to make his own blackberry dessert.

We sampled the goodies too, so that by 9 p.m. when all was finally done (except Pierre), none of us were particularly hungry.  But we ate anyway … and ate … and ate … so that by 10 p.m. we were all like Winnie the Pooh, nearly large enough to get stuck in Rabbit’s doorway.  And then Pierre came out of the oven, so we had to try him.  And then there was pie.

I took far too many photos to show here. If you want to see more of the food, check out my Flickr album.

Here’s the duck synopsis:  Keli the American duck was prepared by steaming and then browning in a rotisserie.  She came out absolutely succulent, still with a fair amount of fat under the skin but not much more than you’d expect from a rotisserie chicken.  There was not a hint of dryness, and the meat was delicious.  Since she was not stuffed or layered, Keli represented a fairly straightforward duck, but if we were to prepare duck again I think we’d probably use this technique.

Pierre the French duck was seared in a pan, then stuffed, laid atop a base of vegetables, coated with the Matignon (fine diced vegetables), and layered with bacon.  You can see him ready for the oven at left.  Pierre came out even juicier than Keli with large quantities of fat under the skin and in the meat.  This made him tasty but also rather rich, even though we separated the fat on our plates.

The bottom layer of vegetables was almost decadently delicious, and the Matignon was … well, let’s just say that if all vegetables tasted like smoked bacon we’d probably eat a lot more of them.  The green apples stuffed inside tasted of spice and je nais sais quoi.  Fabulous, but eating any part of Pierre and his side dishes gave me the sensation of arteries clogging as I chewed.

Last night’s meal was superb but it was late and we were all a little tired, so we are going to re-boot tonight with the entire spread again.  In preparation, I had no breakfast and only a little cottage cheese and fruit for lunch.  Frankly, I wasn’t really even hungry.  By dinner we should all be ready for a more relaxed version of the feast.  I have declared this “Thanksgiving Week” in our household, to eat at leisure what we used to gorge on in a single day.  It will certainly take that long to consume everything that is currently packing our two refrigerators.

We may never do a big duck experiment again, but I’m glad we did because it has already made Thanksgiving Week 2011 one of the most memorable ever.  Of course, for the rest of America, Thanksgiving is still a few days off.  I hope you have a great holiday, and I hope that our experience has given you some ideas, inspiration, or at least an appetite.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go for a long bike ride.


Cooking up a storm

A benefit of having an Airstream the driveway is the use of a second refrigerator. The extra 10 cubic feet of our Dometic NDR1026 gas refrigerator always come in handy when Eleanor is stocking up on ingredients for a big feast.   (By the way, the refrigerator has operated normally ever since we removed and reinstalled it in September at Paul Mayeux’s shop.  The theory for its prior poor operation is that it had a small internal obstruction or bubble that was dislodged in the process.)

The flip side of having a second refrigerator is that someone has to go back and forth between the house and the Airstream to deliver and retrieve things from that refrigerator.  This is where my talents are usually invested, along with tasks such as dumping the compost, taking out recycling and trash and documenting the cooking process with my camera. If only my college journalism professors could see me now…

In the morning I went out to get Keli the American Duck for her steam bath.  Unfortunately, 24 hours in the refrigerator was not enough to fully defrost her.  The refrigerator was running exactly 32.0 degrees inside, probably because temperatures have been cool in Tucson lately and because we put two solidly-frozen ducks in it.  We reduced the refrigerator’s cooling level, but it was essentially too late.  Keli couldn’t be steamed until she was fully defrosted.

We left the duck out on the counter for a while, and then Eleanor had a brainstorm.  We’d just done a load of dishes and the dischwascher was still very warm from the drying cycle. Eleanor popped Keli on the lower rack for an hour, closed the door, and managed to get some of the defrosting process completed that way.  But it wasn’t until after dinner that Keli was frost-free enough to come out of her plastic bag and get prepped for the pot.

In the meantime we had a technical problem to solve.   We didn’t have a steamer large enough for a 5.1 pound duck.  The pot needed to be big enough for the duck while sitting on a rack so that an inch or so of water could be brought to a boil beneath.  After trying several odd contraptions we finally found a combination that would work, using two aluminum foil pie tins to support a pair of round cooling racks, upon which Keli perched.

The steaming process went well.  Once the water was to a boil, Keli began sweating like a nervous Aeroflot passenger.  Christopher Kimball and his team of cooking gurus were right: Keli the duck lost a lot of fat in a short period of time.  I collected the grease/water combination when she was done, separated the water, and ended up with more than a quart of grease.

The city of Tucson has a program to keep grease out of the public sewage system.  They’ll be collecting the grease on the day after Thanksgiving, where it gets turned into biodiesel fuel for cars.  If I still had the Mercedes 300D, I would like to think that a bit of Keli-grease would come back to power my car a few miles.

This is not the end of Keli’s cooking process. Her next step, today, will be to visit the “tanning booth” (rotisserie) to brown the skin, with a bit more seasoning.

While Keli worked on her fat-reduction program, Eleanor also worked on the stuffing and the first of the side dishes.  As I had feared, Eleanor has gone far off the reservation and so now the side dish list consists of:

boiled potatoes with fresh herbs
roasted potatoes
mixed grains & wild rice with persimmon & figs
pork & apple stuffing
haricot vert with cranberries & walnuts
butternut squash with pear & gorgonzola cheese
cipollini onions and chestnuts
roasted carrots and pearl onions
Romaine with pomegranate

Yeah, we’ll need some help with eating all of this … Carol & Tom, Mike & Becky, Rob & Theresa, Terry & Greg, Judy & Rick, David & Lee & Hannah: feel free to give a call today to schedule dinner with us this week.  Please.

And when the actual Thanksgiving Day rolls around Eleanor plans to make pumpkin soup, too.  I would try to stop her but (a) it’s all so good; (b) this is what she likes to do.  You can’t stop a good chef any more than you can stop a monsoon. Eleanor cooking is like a force of nature.  It’s just going to happen, so I’m going to continue playing errand/garbage boy and await the spectacle that is coming later today.  Pierre is waiting too, for his moment in the oven with his rich French friends (bacon, butter, and more butter), so it is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Keli, Pierre, and friends

Our menu consists of two ducks.   Ha ha ha.

I laugh because my wife is a combination of French chef, Italian lover, and Irish temperament.  This means she cooks heartily, is passionate about all things, and will certainly take it personally if I get anything wrong in this blog.  It also means that “two ducks” does not make a meal, and there must be plenty of side dishes.  In her philosophy, there should be no chance of running out of part of the meal.

So normally Eleanor cooks for a small army regardless of how many people we have coming for dinner.  This year, in response to my pleas for a reasonable amount of leftovers, she has promised to keep the portions small.  So, without comment, I will now list the ingredients she has accumulated over the past few days, all of which will be in our “small” Thanksgiving dinner:

ducks (2)
mixed gourmet petite potatoes
haricot vert (green beans)
various rice and grains including wild, white, red, barley, pink lentils, Israeli cous-cous
onions: cipolini, pearl, spanish
canned pumpkin
various mushrooms: white, crimini, and dried (porcini, shitaki, morel)
pears (3),  pomegranate, green apples, persimmons, carrots, celery, leeks, ginger, lemons, blood oranges
garlic, capers, fresh ginger
herbs: chive, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, rosemary
dried fruit: figs, cranberries, tart cherries, Thompson & Golden raisins
raw nuts:  walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, chestnuts
fresh cranberries, sour cherries
ground veal, ground pork
apple smoked bacon (4 strips)
maple syrup, maple sugar, and dark brown sugar
orange juice, pomegranate juice
white wine, red wine, Madeira (medium dry), Cognac, brandy
stocks: chicken, beef, vegetable
white truffle oil
butternut squash
unsalted butter, evaporated milk and cream (light & heavy)
apple cider
French bread
cider vinegar
various spices including Kosher salt, black & white peppercorns

All of this was impossible to gather at any single store, so Eleanor spent much of the day at Safeway, Albertson’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, in addition to raiding the pantries of both the Airstream and the house.  Her food gathering instincts have been let loose, and that’s an impressive thing, much like releasing the Kraken. I don’t want to know what all of this is costing.  Today at Whole Foods I had to restrain her from buying a $25 jar that contained exactly three truffles.  We’ll “make do” with a bottle of white truffle oil instead.

This morning we retrieved the ducks from the Airstream’s freezer (where we have been storing all of the “overflow” ingredients).  Defrosting them will take at least a day.  Before they went into the house refrigerator, we personalized them, as you can see above.  Duck #1 will be the American duck (code-named “Keli”) following the Cook’s Illustrated technique of steaming before roasting to reduce the fat.  Duck #2 will be the French duck (code-named “Pierre”), prepared using a modified version of the classic poëlé technique described by Escoffier, et al.  The steaming process will happen on Saturday, a full day before the actual roasting.

With 48 hours to mealtime, we are already accumulating a list of people who are interested in sharing the leftovers.  Fellow Airstreamer Rob, who lives only a couple of miles away, dropped by and eyed the list of ingredients hungrily.  But remember, this could turn into a complete debacle.  Sometimes experiments go wrong — just ask Dr. Frankenstein or any Marvel comic book villain.  Fortunately, if the ducklings turn into dumplings we won’t starve, thanks to the friends of Keli & Pierre: those extensive side dishes.  I’ll have more to write about those as they begin to take shape this weekend.

The RV industry made us do it

As I mentioned yesterday, the duck project was simply the result of wanting to having something a little different for our Thanksgiving meal.  The timing is the RV industry’s fault.  Really.

See, every year the RV Industry Association holds a trade show and convention in Louisville KY, which I need to attend for business reasons.  I can only assume that the organizers chose the date and location specifically to save money, because the convention is held immediately after Thanksgiving.  The convention center is probably rock-bottom cheap at that time (who wants to have a trade show then?)  Not only are airliners crowded and airfares ridiculous, not only is the weather dismal beyond belief in Louisville that time of year, but most critically this timing means that all the participants have to interrupt a time-honored post-Thanksgiving ritual — namely, making sandwiches with cold turkey breast, mayonnaise, lettuce and bread — in order to drive or fly to Louisville so that they can attend the show starting on Monday.

Either the convention dates were picked by someone who needed an excuse to get away from their in-laws, or they’re getting a smoking deal on the Kentucky Exposition Center.  Probably both, now that I think of it.  Of course the cost is simply shifted to those of us who must attend, because we pay higher fares on the airlines in order to fly on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, not to mention inflated rates at the local hotels.

I think this will be the sixth or seventh time I’ve attended this show.  Each year I find myself dejectedly heading for the airport on Sunday when I should by all rights and dyed-in-the-wool American tradition be lounging around the living room with a remote control in one hand and a plate of leftovers in the other.  We can’t really dent all the Thanksgiving leftovers before I have to go, and it seems wrong to leave when there’s still a huge pile of yummy chow in the refrigerator.  To make things worse this year, E & E are flying to Vermont for a visit in early December, which would leave the entire burden of leftover turkey consumption on me.  I like to eat but that’s too much.  So part of the motivation to make something other than turkey was to have fewer leftovers, and we’re doing it this weekend so we have plenty of time to eat what we have before I have to go.

And now you know how, last Sunday, we found ourselves driving around Tucson in a rare Fall drizzle, looking for ducks.  The frozen kind.  (Vegetarians may wish to stop reading here, as the rest of this blog becomes graphically carnivorous.)

We found the duck at Dickman’s Meat, at 5.1 pounder.  That was the easy part.  Then came the research. Eleanor first handed over her worn old copy of The Escoffier Cookbook and challenged me to choose between one of 29 obscure French preparations for duck, including “Hot Pate of Duckling,” “Nantais Duckling With Sauerkraut,” “Moliere Duckling,” “Rouennais Duckling Wings With Truffles,” and of course the crowd favorite, “Stuffed Balls of Duckling.”  I picked out a few recipes from which Eleanor began to select compatible elements to create her own recipe.

Based on the influence of departed French chefs (Auguste, Julia, et al) and her culinary training, Eleanor originally planned to poëlé the duck.  This means she would start with a Matignon, which is a fine mince of carrots, onions, and celery hearts, with a bit of lean ham, a sprig of thyme and half a crushed bay leaf. This would be put all over the duck in a thick coating.  The enveloped duck would subsequently be richly layered with strips of bacon and buttered paper, and then — in the spirit of old French cooking — basted with the drippings, melted butter, and Madeira wine while roasting in the oven.

The “roasting rack” for the duck would be a large dice of celery, carrots, onion, and fingerling potatoes, to be eaten as a side dish.  Eleanor had also conceived a stuffing that would be a mix of veal, pork, and diced apples.

But something didn’t seem right.  We both knew (from a painful 1990’s-era duck cooking debacle) that the amount of fat in a duck is critical to the outcome.  Also, most of the Escoffier recipes called for undercooking the duck if it was whole, and that made Eleanor dig deeper for a reason why.  She consulted all of her best culinary references and kept running into hints that roast duck was tricky because the amount of fat in them varies so widely.  Wild ducks are lean and tend to dry out, while market ducks are ridiculously fatty.  We finally found a good analysis of the problem in “The New Best Recipe,” published by Cook’s Illustrated, which is sort of the Consumer Reports of food.

The article explained that since Escoffier was published (first edition in 1942), the ducks we can buy at the market have changed.  They’re fattier and — to make things even trickier — they tend to be disproportionately fat in the legs and wings, which makes roasting the bird as a whole quite difficult.  The solution according to Cook’s Illustrated is to steam the bird before roasting, which greatly reduces the amount of fat, and separate the legs so that subcutaneous fat can be more easily rendered from them.

We also discovered that the duck could be expected to reduce in weight by approximately 50% during cooking (due to the rendering of fat), which means our 5.1 pound duck (technically, a duckling) might yield as little as two or three servings.  I don’t want massive leftovers, but I’d like at least some.  Off I went to Dickman’s for a second 5.1 pound duck.  This experiment was already getting expensive.

The good news about having two ducks was that we can experiment a little.  The current plan is to prepare one duck using the poëlé technique, but instead of adding butter for basting, she’ll use only the drippings.  It also will not be stuffed.  The vegetable “roasting rack” will remain the same, except without the potatoes, as they would absorb oil and get greasy.

Duck No. 2 will follow the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation, first steamed to reduce the fat, then slow-cooked on a rotisserie.  Eleanor is thinking of putting the Matignon beneath the skin, but that’s still a work in progress.  The next step will be later today: a grocery run for ingredients.  The plan is to start cooking in earnest on Saturday.

And all this because the RVIA convention is held at the wrong time of year …