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October 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

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See you there and thank you for reading!

Smoked Duck

October 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Exciting news! Between changing diapers and updating my twitter feed, I finally came around to smoking one of the ducks we killed last week, after being inspired by my friend Andy, who, together with his wife Becky, manages the marketing at my father’s-in-law farm.

Now Andy has some cred in this department – he is a former chef, and, aside from the fact that he can single-handedly prepare things I didn’t know existed in the volumes I didn’t know were possible, Andy also really knows his way around a smoker.

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Or a grill, for that matter.

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You can tell he’s taking what he’s doing seriously.

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And you can tell he’s enjoying it.

And here’s a revelation – Andy led me to believe that amazing smoked meats require no complicated brines – no pink salt, no spices, no sugar – nothing but salt and water. And you know what? It worked.

Now duck is a wonderful thing to smoke – they have this lovely, thick layer of fat under the skin, which makes for a built-in basting system to keep your bird tender and moist. It is also made entirely of dark meat, which to me is an instant plus, and smoked duck breast is just about as good as it gets.

Basic hot-smoking too is a simple technique to master, and as long as you smoke in small batches, you need nothing more than a grill you already own. My mother-in-law smokes on her gas grill, while I prefer charcoal, so this is what I am going to talk about. Of course, you can also invest into one of these units, but it’s certainly more smoking space than I, personally, need.

What I do is this:

1) Make your brine (courtesy of Andrew Sell): Stir 1 C of kosher salt into 1 gallon of cold water until the salt dissolves. Some will tell you to cook the brine first to assure proper dissolution, but I say it’s not worth the effort with only one ingredient. Just stir it for a while and you’ll be fine.

2) Place your duck in the brine and weigh it down with a plate to keep it submerged. Place in the fridge and forget about it and allow to brine from 8 hours to the time you remember it’s there. In my case, that meant 3 1/2 days, which was not a problem! This is a pretty powerful brine, and it kept the bird in top shape.

3) Preheat your hardwood charcoal (not soaked, straight from the bag) until it’s covered with a layer of white ash. I NEVER USE BRIQUETTES – NATURAL HARDWOOD CHARCOAL ONLY, which I start with a chimney starter. Rake all the coals to one half of the lower grill grate, leaving the other half bare. Place small chunks of green apple wood on top (I like to cut twigs from my apple trees into pieces). Green wood will produce smoke – good. Or you can use soaked charcoal, too.

4) Holding your top grill grate away from the fire with a hot pad, oil one half of it (which I like to do with a pastry brush), put the grate back on the grill, and place your bird on top, breast-side up, making sure it’s on the side opposite of the one with the coals. This is called indirect grilling, which, with the right kind of wood (wet), can double as smoking. Note that I don’t do much in the way of trussing other than tying the legs together.

5) Cover the grill and partially close the vent in the lid, leaving the bottom vents open. You don’t want to fully close all the holes because you want some air circulation for the fire to keep burning, and because I read that too much smoke can make food bitter.

6) Check on your grill every twenty minutes or so to monitor the amount of burning and smoke – if too little smoke is coming out from the vent and from under the lid, add some more smoking agent, such as soaked charcoal or apple wood pieces. If the fire is burning too low and is threatening to go out, rake the coals together and place some more dry charcoal on top. Here is a handy formula for you:

DRY WOOD = makes fire burn

GREEN/WET WOOD = produces smoke

Glossary:

Green wood – wood cut down straight from a tree and hence still containing all of its original moisture, which is what causes smoking during burning, and this is what you don’t want to heat your house with because it not only smokes but also produces little heat.

Dry wood – wood that has been cut down a while ago and was given the chance to dry out completely (usually within a matter of months). Dry wood burns hot and is excellent for heating, which is why, when smoking, I like to use some along with the wet to keep the fire going.

Move the bird if you think it is darkening unevenly or too quickly, but don’t turn it breast-side down. Feel free to fiddle with the top vents as you go to control the balance between burning and smoking.

For a pictorial step-by-step on smoking on a charcoal grill, click here.

7) Cook until the juices run clear when the thigh is pricked, or, more informally, when the bird tastes done but is still tender. By then, the skin will be turning amber. Georgia Pellegrini pointed out that a bit of rareness is actually good in this case, and she was right.  I actually cut into the thigh to test – just cut off a little chunk and ate it. Doesn’t hurt it, but I found myself putting it back on a couple of times before I decided it was really done. Or, if you wish to use a thermometer, you are shooting for about 160 degrees. This whole thing took me somewhere between three and four hours for a 3-lb duck.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the whole bird because it was dug into before I could get out my camera, but I will be posting a recipe for a delicious creamy pasta sauce made with the freshly-smoked duck breast.

The Great Potato Harvest of 2010

October 16, 2010 § 4 Comments

Every year we grow nearly all of our own potatoes:

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The three kinds we prefer are reds…

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…russets, and Yukon Golds.

Basically, this means that the only time we buy potatoes in a store is somewhere in the summer, just to tide us over until the next harvest. Our potatoes are certified organtic, and they taste very, very good. The end!

My Blue-Eyed Girl

October 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

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Little Penny

October 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

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Here is a picture of my new niece, Penny, who is now nearly four weeks old. I wish the light had been better for my weak camera to capture her properly (sorry, baby, you are an art project), but not even that takes away from the fact that she’s one beautiful baby girl.

“Praga” Cupcakes with Perestroika Buttercream

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

The so-called “Praga” (or “Prague”) cake – a high, festive chocolate layer cake with a buttercream made with cocoa and condensed milk – was among the brightest highlights of my Soviet childhood. Yet, it took me twenty years to make my own for the first time this fall. Now a layer cake is more effort than I care to exert these days, so when I make it, I bake it either in the form of a sheet cake or as cupcakes, with the latter option being my favorite. This particular buttercream is really what defines Praga cake as such.

Since I don’t have an original cake recipe to share, use this frosting with your own favorite chocolate cake. My go-to version is The Pioneer Woman‘s Best Chocolate Sheet Cake, which is as elementary to prepare as it is extraordinary.

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You start with condensed milk, the heart and soul of just about any buttercream in the Old Country. We’re going to make enough frosting for two dozen cupcakes or one large sheet cake, so we’ll be using 1 1/2 of these cans.

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We’ll also be needing some dutch-process cocoa.

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And – I bet you really didn’t see this one coming – BUTTER! A whole 3 sticks of it.

Start by whipping room-temperature butter until fluffy. I used a whisk, but a paddle attachment, in my opinion, actually works better – I just couldn’t find it at the time.

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Once that’s done, gradually beat in the milk. I went about half a can or so at a time, mixing after each addition. It will be pretty runny at this point, but have faith…

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…for we are going to gradually thicken it with 10 tablespoons of cocoa, which we will beat in, two tablespoons at a time, and continue to beat until everything is sort of fluffy. If your butter was very soft, like mine, chill your frosting a bit before spreading it over a cooled cake or cupcakes.

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Now no matter how your ideology makes you feel about sweetened condensed milk, this frosting is excruciatingly delicious, so let go of your prejudices and give it a try. Oh, and the organtic brands? Garbage. For the purest taste, go for the good-old Eagle Brand or ShurFine (Eagle Brand works a little better for this).

Perestroika Buttercream

  • 1 1/2 cans sweetened condensed milk
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 10 T dutch-process cocoa

Whip butter until fluffy. Add sweetened condensed milk in 1/2-can increments, mixing after each addition. Beat in the cocoa, 2 T at a time, and continue beating until the mixture is just fluffy. If your butter was very soft, chill the frosting slightly to make it more spreadable. Spread over cooled cake or cupcakes.

Note: If you are making a layer cake, know that rather than spreading the last layer with the same frosting, it is customary to coat the finished Praga with ganache or some ganache-like glaze. To this end, check out my milk chocolate version.

Three Colors: Foliage

October 11, 2010 § 4 Comments

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