These days I feel like I cook more dinner parties than ever before in my life. These dinners are also way more elaborate than the ones I used to give. As someone who never went to cooking school I find that the more I cook the more I want to know.
Take the dish above: Duck Confit Cassoulet. In my mind Duck Confit was something incredibly fancy and difficult to make. Something that you had in restaurants. Then a few weeks back I noticed the Hudson Valley Duck Farm stand at the Union Square Market. When I enquired about confit they had sold out, then told me they had fresh legs an I could make my own. I was surprised at home reasonably priced the duck legs were, I got four big legs for a little under $20. The bigger surprise was how easy it was to make the confit (in the end when I decided to make this for a dinner party I went back and got 4 more legs).
The woman at the stand told me she basically just cooks them on a low temperature for a long time, basically cooking them in their own, ample, fat. This seemed to easy to be true. Just before I left she warned me of all the recipes out there that called for extra duck fat and lots of weird spices. I smiled, said good-bye and ran home to my computer to do research. Indeed there was a lot of recipes calling for elaborate amounts of added fat or things like 5 spice powder and ginger. I’d never had duck confit that tasted of anything but duck. So when I came upon Melissa Clark’s recipe and it sounds pretty much like the recipe the woman at the farm stand told me, I knew I had found my recipe.
True to its name easy duck confit it was super easy and damn do those legs have a ton of fat on them! I can’t imagine adding any extra. I got enough rendered duck fat to make a huge batch of fries with for the next dinner party. As for the cassoulet, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I just made this up as I went along. After doing extensive reading on the subject I was particularly encouraged by something David Leibovitz said, which I will paraphrase here: Cassoulet is peasant food, it’s not about spending $30 on heirloom beans or finding some obscure sausage or lamb neck, it’s about cooking with what you have and what you have in season.
I had cranberry beans (2 pounds shelled) lots or ripe to bursting tomatoes, a ton of fresh thyme, garlic, onion, parsley and my secret ingredient: smoked paprika. I choose to make the beans vegetarian so the non meat eaters could enjoy the cassoulet as well. Smoked paprika gives the dish a depth of flavor you would normally get with bacon without …the bacon. My advice is add at least a head of garlic or more and stir in a cup of parsley before serving. One of my favorite recipes that I have made forever are corn cakes. Usually I make them in theta summer early fall and fill them with fresh corn from the market. However, no need to be a slave to the season, frozen corn or no corn works fine. Typically I serve them with either smoked salmon and cream cheese or crème fraîche and salmon roe or caviar if I am feeling fancy and flush.
The above picture is a new iteration of this favorite and oh so easy dish. Corn cakes with melted sharp white cheddar, tomatoes and basil. After I fry them I put thick slice of cheese on top and pop them into the oven. When the cheese has melted I top them with tomatoes a little salt and some basil (or any herb I have).In September we had a small birthday dinner for our friend Debby that featured corn cakes, cream cheese and smoked salmon. This was an easy meal to put together and was all ready when she arrived, so for once I can actually join the party right from the start. Normally the first hour I’m in the kitchen.
From top right in this picture are: homemade pickles (bread & butter and dill spears), Za’atar Focaccia, baba ghanoush, heirloom tomatoes and burrata, spicy heirloom carrot, arugula, goat cheese salad, the salmon cream cheese and corn cakes and cucumber cumin raita.
Even simple meals like the one above which was easy to make is still time-consuming. Maybe I am slowing down in my old age, or maybe it’s just that cooking from scratch just takes time. I see it as a kind of meditation. I’m never happier than when I am in the kitchen. And the reward are always worth the effort.