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Well, we started with big plans. Boxing Day, i.e. beginning of World Juniors 2010, where Canada crushed Latvia 16-0. We were at another hockey game when we planned the dinner: Jim and George’s FOG game (unfortunately not a crushing victory). We knew we wanted duck, oysters and champagne.
Eva: Della bought 4 ducks and a ton of other ingredients. I went to The Lobster Man on Christmas Eve and picked up 2 dozen Kusshi, 2 dozen Chef Creek and 1 dozen Royal Miyagi. I also picked up a container of shucked oysters.
Della: We definitely started with big plans, but as is often the case at this time of year, time just seems to compress until hours feel like minutes and you are left wondering when Christmas happened. I had “planned” to butcher the ducks and have the confit done on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning at the latest. Instead, I butchered Boxing Day morning and the confit had only a couple of hours to stand in the salt mixture before hitting the oven. We arrived at a happy surprise when we tasted the confit and found that our shortcut confit tasted great and had the texture we had hoped for. The moral of the story – planning be damned, just go with it.
Eva: We had to make a pit stop at T&T because I ran out of time and energy to make mu-shu pancakes. Then, at Della’s request, we stopped to pick up some caviar as well. When we arrived at George and Della’s (late, thank goodness they PVR’d the game!), Della had already dismembered the duck, was confiting some of the legs, had prepared a braise for the other legs, and had duck broth going in the stockpot.
Della: With the duck legs already underway the only question remaining was what to do with the breasts. With a pantry full of ingredients we knew we could execute pretty much any flavour profile we wanted. But it’s like mulling over a great menu: with so many choices how do you decide? We agreed that our culinary imaginations required priming with a glass of wine.
Eva: Wine in hand, we did a survey of the kitchen and decided on the following menu:
- Crispy duck confit with green onion pancakes
- Oysters on the half shell, with fresh horseradish and Eva’s Green Chili Sauce (recipe below)
- Pan-fried oysters with chipotle mayo
- Duck breast with 5-spice blackberry glaze and wild rice pancakes
- Duck breast with green peppercorn sauce and duck fat potatoes
- Red wine braised duck with braised red cabbage
- Risotto, made with duck broth and porcini mushrooms
Della: It may sound like a daunting menu, but it’s really all about the sauces, all of which were quick to prepare. The confit and the braise were already cooked and only need to be plated. Even the red cabbage was a make-ahead: left-overs from Christmas Day that were a fortuitous paring with the braised legs. The most time consuming course was the oysters-on-the-half-shell, and that was a job that we gladly out-sourced to Jim.
Eva: Della, always one step ahead, had some smoked salmon. We served it with potato latkes, crème fraiche and the caviar (don’t worry, we’re getting to the Champagne!).
Della: Eva says one step ahead, but I won’t admit to planning anything. I just knew that I wanted smoked salmon when I saw it in the cooler. I think that’s why nutritionists tell you not to shop while you’re hungry. That’s probably why I also bought chorizo and pears. Oh well, another happy accident that proved to be very yummy.
Eva: We had lots of time to prepare the next course, because our friends Maxine and Carl didn’t arrive until after 7:00. Have we mentioned Carl and Max? They have this amazing store: Fresh is Best, in Kitsilano. The name speaks for itself. Stop by and sample their fresh salsa and guacamole, and their perfect tortilla chips (no preservatives, so delicious!) The address is 2972 W Broadway, Vancouver.
Della: And when Eva says “lots of time” she means enough to have a glass of wine. Well deserved after eating all those latkes.
Eva: Jim and George took the dog for a walk (cigars and drinks in hand). We asked them to pick up some 5-spice. Hmmm. Not to be found in all of downtown Vancouver, including Nesters and Choices! We googled it and made it ourselves. We roasted 3 star anise, the Szechuan peppercorns and the fennel seeds, then ground it up with 3 tsp cinnamon (cassia, schmassia – it’s the same thing) and the cloves. I will never buy 5-spice again! It was perfect!
Della: I know it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our home-ground 5-spice was really good. It just never occurred to me to make my own before. I always have 5-spice in the cupboard and when we decided on the blackberry glaze it was on the assumption that I had some. I’m sure the missing spice jar will turn up this week when I repackage everything into stackable spice tins. Happily, it was another tasty mistake proving yet again that good food is all about using what you have to its greatest advantage.
Eva: Carl and Max arrived. Della put a nice, crispy finish on the duck confit. We shredded it and served it on green onion pancakes, with hoisin and fresh green onions. We served green-onion dumplings on the side, drizzled with a dark, sweet Chinese vinegar. Definitely a hit.
Della: The confit was brilliant – rich and succulent. Not bad for shortcutting the whole process from a couple of days to a few hours. Confit is one of those ridiculously easy preparations that can’t help but impress. There are only 6 ingredients and while the standing time is lengthy, the working time is really short. Best of all, you can use confit in about a bazillion ways and it stores in the fridge for a couple weeks and in the freezer for months. You’ll need about three hours when it comes time to cook the duck, but your patience will be rewarded.
- 6 duck legs with thighs (or 4 legs and 4 wings)
- 4 tablespoons sea salt (or kosher salt)
- 6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
- About 4 cups duck fat
1. Sprinkle 1/2 the salt, garlic, shallots and thyme in the bottom of a glass or plastic container large enough to hold the duck pieces in a single layer. Arrange the duck, skin-side up over the salt mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining salt, garlic, shallots, and thyme over the top. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 days.
2. Preheat the oven to 225°F. Melt the duck fat in a small saucepan.
3. Brush (don’t rinse) the salt off the duck. Arrange the duck pieces along with garlic, shallots and thyme in a single layer in a high-sided baking dish or ovenproof saucepan. Pour the melted fat over the duck. The duck should be covered by fat. Place the confit in the oven. It should cook at a very slow simmer, with just an occasional bubble. Cook the duck for 2-3 hours until the duck is tender and can be easily pulled from the bone. Cool and store the duck in the fat.
Note: The confit will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. The duck fat can be strained, cooled and reused. Store in the freezer.
Eva: We got a little break after the confit. I made up some Green Chili sauce, and Jim shucked 60 oysters while George “helped” and by “helped” I mean watched from a safe distance with a glass of wine in hand.
Green Chili Sauce
- 2 jalapeno peppers
- 1 bunch cilantro (just rip off the bottom of the stems; no need to pluck the leaves)
- 1 clove garlic
- juice of 2 limes
- salt & pepper
Eva: I love fresh horseradish, don’t you?
Della: Yet another thing worth a little extra effort, and I mean just a little effort. A peeler and a fine grater and you have a delightfully pungent garnish. The fresh horseradish added the perfect punch to the oysters. And, the Green Chili Sauce? Well it was spectacular! Well done Eva.
Eva: Oh, and this is when we started in on the champagne!
I can’t overstate the HUGE soft spot that Eva and I have for bubbly wine. Neither of us believe champagne is just for celebrations. Sometimes Tuesday night television is enough of a reason to pop open a bottle. There is something very festive about watching bubbles climb through the amber nectar, but isn’t that something you deserve to feel every day? I should also point out that while it may be National Champagne Day, both of us consider Champagne a “genus”, not a “species” of wine. The French might have a lock on the name, but not on the process. Whether you call it champagne, cava, prosecco, espumante or sparkling wine there are dozens of absolutely wonderful examples, at many price points ready to inject a little festivity into your Tuesday night.
We started with what I consider to be one of the best value sparkling wines available, a Spanish Cava called Segura Viudas – Brut Reserva. It’s dry but not acidic, the fruit is full but not overly bold and it has that lovely yeasty aroma unique to champagnes. And, at $14 I don’t hesitate to crack open a bottle to go with Chinese take-out in front of the hockey game.
Next, we moved on to another Spanish Cava, the Marques de Gelida – Brut Exclusive. Slightly more acid but still well balanced, with delicate undertones of citrus, the perfect accompaniment to oysters. Alas, the oysters were already gone and we could only wonder at what might have been. A great value at $24.
Eva: While sipping (okay, guzzling) champagne, we made a blackberry-5-spice glaze (I seem to recall it included blackberries, garlic, honey, 5-spice, a little onion, and some rice vinegar). Della seared up the duck breasts perfectly, and we served them with the glaze over wild-rice pancakes (are you getting a pancake theme?). For the pancakes, we just mixed together some wild rice, flour, egg, green onion, salt and pepper, then pan-fried.
Eva: After that, it starts to get a little fuzzy. We decided we were really only up for 1 more dish, and I think by the time we plated and served it, it was 2 a.m. Our final dish was French inspired: duck legs braised in red wine, perfumed with orange, juniper and star anise and served with duck fat potatoes. Yes, the original plan was to serve the braised duck with red cabbage but when it came down to it, we really wanted the potatoes. Della re-heated the duck and thickened the sauce while I fried the potatoes, first in some chorizo fat (accidently), then in the duck fat with shallots. The duck was tender and luscious, the gravy rich and decadent, the potatoes crisp and golden. It was the perfect finale!
Eva: Cooking a fabulous meal with friends is one of my favourite things to do. Della and I got along like a well-oiled machine in the kitchen. It was fun to make the menu together, to build on each others’ ideas, and take it to a whole new level. I ended the night with more than one “I love you, man.”
“Just for the taste of it!”
Due to a slight mishap, we’re not able to bring you Pepper Pot Day as planned, so I’m filling in with an overdue post: My Ode to Diet Coke. This post was actually supposed to go up on November 19, when I was sunning myself in Mexico and completely forgot about it.
Admitting it is the first stage: I am addicted to Diet Coke. Can’t be Diet Pepsi, can’t be a no-name (the horror!) or knock-off brand. If I’m asked at a restaurant: “is Diet Pepsi ok?” I will say “no” and order something else.
Random fact: according to Wikipedia, Diet Coke made its U.S. debut on Independence Day in 1982. No mention of when it first appeared in Canada, but I’m willing to bet soon after. I was definitely drinking it in junior high, after a brief firtation with Tab (a beautiful drink, for beautiful people).
It’s not like I don’t know it’s bad for me. I do. The sweetening agent in Diet Coke is aspartame. At the very least, it just can’t be good to be consuming that many chemicals. At the worst, it could, according to some (see also the attached “email chain” to this article), and debunked by others, kill me.
Regardless of the truth (is it out there, Mulder?), it’s not just the caffeine. I can have a coffee and still want a Diet Coke 10 minutes later. The convenience store located in my office building sells Diet Coke in 791mL bottles (that’s almost a litre) and I sometimes have 2 bottles a day. Apparently my addiction is fairly common. Google “Diet Coke Addiction” and you get 170,000 hits, most of them personal testimonials to their own Diet Coke addiction.
It’s 10:00 p.m. and I have an argument due by 9:00 a.m. the next morning. I’m cranky as hell, and most of my brain cells seem to have been used up already. I could have a coffee, but my mouth tastes like crap from the 3 coffees I’ve had already. Plus, I like my coffee with a whole bunch of milk, and I’ve used my calorie quotient for a week with 3 lattes and a whole pile of take-out crap so I can stay in my office and write.
It’s 9 a.m. and I have a killer hangover. The thought of hot coffee with milk is enough to send me over the edge. What I want is cool refreshment.
The answer to both is the same. I need a DC.
That’s all I have to say.
Eva: Okay, so for Christmas dinner I’ll make the stuffing, bring out some cheese and appies, and we’ve got a bunch of chocolates here that people have given us, so we’ll bring those too. We have some leftovers of Mom’s chocolates too. Do you want me to bring those?
Andrea: What’s wrong with you? How can you just have chocolates sitting around and not eat them?
There it is, folks: one of the essential differences between my sister and me. She’s all over sweets and candy. As we’ve discussed before, I’d much rather have the savoury treats. My brother was living with Andrea for a while. Andrea and her husband were trying hard to eat healthy. Just for kicks, my brother would bring home a big container of macaroon cookies and then laugh while Andrea and Brad ate them all. They just can’t help themselves when there’s junk in the house.
I don’t know how chocolate and Christmas came to be connected. I did try to research it, but apparently no one on the internet has yet done a dissertation on it. There is, however, an interesting website about the history of chocolate here, in case you’re curious.
According to Taras Grescoe in The Devil’s Picnic,
Chocolate, from the start, has shown all of the hallmarks of a drug of abuse. Like opium, cannabis, ergot, alcohol, and tobacco, its birth was swaddled in ritual. First cultivated by the Olmecs, precursors to the Maya in Central America, at least six hundred years before Christ, the cacao tree became toe sacred plant of the Aztecs. Like the other major drugs, it was the subject of attempted prohibitions: Charles II’s ban on coffee also singled out chocolate as another fomenter of loose political talk in Restoration England. In 1616, a committee of Doctors of the Church condemned cacao as “the damnable agent of necromancers and sorcerers”…
I think the only thing damnable was that whole cultures were enslaved to satisfy Europeans’ newly acquired taste for chocolate, after the Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish. And interestingly, one of the reasons chocolate was never outright banned in Spain is because Spanish monks and nuns were such ardent consumers, sometimes devoting themselves entirely to its production (in the name of the Lord, of course).
Which all goes to show that chocolate is one of those things, isn’t it? In a statistic I’ve just made up on the spot, about 60% of women would rather have chocolate than sex. Okay, here’s a real statistic (as real as you can get from the internet, that is): 52% of women polled in the UK prefer chocolate to sex. Apparently because it “never disappoints”. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to the chocolate > sex theme.
Huh. Why choose, when you can have the combo?
Speaking of Christmas chocolates, I’ll see if I can get Mom to cough up her recipe for you. If I can, I’ll post it later today.