Whereas most types of food are at their best when fresh, or consumed as close as possible to their time of preparation, there are still a few dishes here and there that improve with age. These dishes are usually ones that were discovered as a result of preservation methods used in antiquity. In the absence of modern refrigeration, the primitive methods designed to lengthen the shelf life of perishable products frequently yielded spoiled food, to which the human palate was sometimes compelled to adapt. But occasionally something good came out of this, and unique flavors were born that only benefited from the passage of time.
Oxygen and humidity are the great nemeses of an extended shelf life. Hence, eliminating liquids and preventing contact with the air are the preserver's objective. Slow cooking causes the humidity to evaporate, for example, while a thick and isolated layer of fat delays oxidation. After preliminary curing in salt, which creates an unfriendly environment for bacteria, food that generally goes bad within a few days can keep for months.
The most famous of the dishes created by such a method is confit - cuts of meat (usually duck or goose, but also pork, chicken, beef, fish and seafood ) or vegetables, which were cured in salt and spices, and then cooked slowly in fat (meats in goose fat, duck fat or lard; fish in butter; vegetables in olive oil) and then buried for safekeeping under a thick layer of fat, for leaner days to come. Too bad that what works so beautifully with food does not have a similar effect on people.Duck confit
Curing in salt and then slow cooking in fat was once the way to preserve meat. Today this is a way to enjoy the usually forbidden taste of once-upon-a-time. Duck or goose legs (i.e., the thigh and drumstick together ) and fat are available at good butcher shops and at some delis. You can also prepare this recipe with chicken or turkey leg-thigh pieces, although the result will be completely different. Serves six.
6 duck or goose legs
4-5 tbsp. coarse salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. thyme leaves
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 kg. goose fat
In a small bowl, combine the salt, sugar, pepper, thyme and bay leaves. Rub the mixture on the pieces of meat until they are coated completely. Place the meat in a dish that holds them snugly. Cover with cling-wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the pieces over midway through.
Remove the meat; wipe off the salt and spices with paper towels. It is important to use good towels that will not leave any residual bits of paper on the meat. Arrange the pieces of meat close together in a heat-resistant baking dish.
Melt the fat in a pot over low heat. Pour the fat over the meat, covering the pieces thoroughly.
Cover the oven dish with its lid, or use aluminum foil and crimp tightly around the edges.
Cook in an oven that has been preheated to 130 degrees Celsius until the meat is very tender (about 4 hours).
Leave the meat to cool in the fat and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. (It is important to refrigerate in a container that can be tightly closed, with the fat covering the meat completely. )
In olden times this method was used to preserve goose for months. In storage the confit ripens and its flavor intensifies and matures, but unless you get rid of the liquids that resulted during the cooking process and put the meat in sterilized containers, it is preferable not to store it for very long. In our last home experiment, confit made according to this recipe easily lasted for a month in the fridge.
When you want to serve, remove the meat from the fat and heat for 15 minutes in a hot oven, or else sear in a frying pan, skin-side down, until crispy. The leftover fat can be used for roasting or frying other dishes, such as potatoes.Crispy duck confit with black lentil salad
The slightly sour black lentils blend well with the rich and crispy confit. Roasted potatoes or sweet potatoes complete the dish. Serves four.
4 duck confit leg-thigh pieces (see above )
For the black lentil salad:
2 cups black lentils
1/3 cup olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
bunch of parsley and nana mint leaves, chopped
Rinse the lentils in water (there's no need to soak ), place them in a pot, and cover with water about 3-4 centimeters above the lentils. Bring to a boil; cook for 10 minutes, uncovered. Cover the pot and continue cooking over very low heat until the lentils are cooked but not falling apart (cooking time depends on the type and freshness of the lentils. The lentils pictured here were cooked for about 25 minutes ).
While the lentils are cooking, heat the olive oil and saute the red onion in another pot over low heat, until the onion softens (about 3 minutes). Remove from the heat and let cool for a bit. Beat in the vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Take the pieces of meat out of the fat (see recipe above). Scrape off most of the fat with a spoon (and store leftover fat in the fridge for roasting or frying other dishes ). Place the pieces of meat in a heavy and hot frying pan, skin-side down, and sear until the skin is crispy. While frying, scoop up the hot fat that pools in the pan and baste the part of the meat facing upward.
Add the diced herbs to the lentils, mix and distribute onto plates. Lay the meat pieces on top of the lentils and eat immediately. (In the photo, the dish is served with oven-roasted sweet potatoes. )Duck confit with gnocchi and mushrooms
This is a really fun dish for winter. Serves four.
4 duck confit thigh-leg pieces (see above )
leaves of 3 sage branches
500 gr. Portobello mushrooms, cubed
500 gr. gnocchi, cooked al dente
Remove the pieces of meat from the fat (see recipe above). Scrape off most of the fat with a spoon (and store the leftover fat in the fridge for other purposes ). Place the pieces of meat in a heavy, hot skillet, skin-side down, and sear until the skin is crispy. While frying, scoop up the hot fat that pools in the pan and baste the part of the meat that is facing up. When the skin is brown and crispy, remove the confit from the skillet and keep in a warm place.
Return the skillet to the fire, add the sage leaves and saute for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and saute until they begin to brown (3-4 minutes). If necessary, add a bit more fat from the confit.
Add the gnocchi to the skillet and saute gently until golden (about 5 minutes). Season with plenty of black pepper. Transfer the gnocchi and mushrooms onto plates and arrange the pieces of meat on top. Serve immediately.Farewell
This is my final column here. For more than six years I tried to keep myself and you interested - and you responded and spoiled me: You took me into your homes, showed me the kitchen, cut the recipes out and stuck them on your fridge, bought the book and breathed new life into the recipes I published, far from my plate.
Many of you sent me e-mails, shared experiences, made suggestions, divulged family recipes and lavished praise. I was fortunate to have had only a handful of readers complain about a recipe that failed to meet their expectations.
A food column that includes recipes places great responsibility on the writer, and requires exceeding caution. Each and every recipe printed here was tested under real "field" conditions in a home kitchen. Every dish underwent a critical tasting to determine whether the recipe was worthy of being passed on to you, and an effort was made to explain things clearly, warn against foreseeable mishaps, and ensure that your efforts would also come out well. I hope I succeeded in doing this most of the time, and apologize for any slipups.
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