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Ducks, Thanksgiving, and the joys of recipe writing

Menu planning is one of my favorite parts about cooking. I’ve never really understood how the home cook gets a sense of satisfaction if they’re just following a bunch of recipes. If it’s a success, how can you take credit? When you cook an original recipe and it works, the feeling is much, much more satisfying. And if it fails, it’s a great learning experience. This (very long) explanation is how this year’s Thanksgiving menu came together.

I wanted to make a duck. I haven’t had duck in awhile and have already had turkey twice this year. A duck would be festive; Peking duck would be a fun challenge. Other than that I just had a few other notes based on tradition:

When I visited my preferred butcher on Tuesday I ran into a problem: no ducks. No worries! The local supermarket would have a duck and even if it was frozen I could make due. But then I started thinking about tradition. Does Thanksgiving have to be a roast bird with stuffing, veggies, etc? It’s a holiday to celebrate what you’re thankful for so I started thinking about my favorite meals of the year. While in LA this summer I went to one restaurant twice, El Compadre, because their carnitas was the best I’d ever had. Flavored with orange—it tasted like triple sec actually—it was rich and crispy. It was perfect. Why not try to reproduce the meal that I am most thankful for at home?

After writing out a recipe to approximate what I had at El Compadre I started brainstorming around a carnitas Thanksgiving. When tradition flies away, anything becomes fair game. No foul, no problem.

I’m back to my original list. The kabocha stays. When roasted it’s one of the best, simplest foods you can make this time of year. It’d take a lot to knock it out of the running for any meal.

Next up: oyster stuffing. Stuffing is heavy. Delicious, but heavy. How to lighten? I’m reminded of Momofuku Ssäm and the Bo ssäm they serve there: a whole roast pork shoulder with a dozen oysters. With carnitas on the menu why not skip the dressing and just have the oysters? Easy. And, actually, traditional in the most strict sense.

Next up: green bean casserole. One of my favorites due mostly to the fried onions. I love those things. Sweet potatoes were on the list too which makes me think of sweet potato gnocchi with sage and sausage. Add in some crisp sautéed green beans and top with fried onions and nostalgia is achieved while elevating a boring casserole dish.

Carnitas, oysters, gnocchi; I’m already all over the place geographically speaking so why not push it? I have a head of red cabbage in my fridge, I wonder if braised cabbage can find a place at the table. It’s at this point, I have to admit, that I turn to the internet. I’ve never made braised cabbage. Start from a point of knowledge, not just guessing.

Looking at the list I am happy with the mix of traditional and non traditional ingredients with some interesting twists. But it doesn’t quite feel right yet; it’s not complete. As I consider all the Thanksgiving dinners over the years I remember what I like the least. It’s the lack of any fresh, light dishes. The table is a sea of beige: gravy, stuffing, and casseroles. Not this year! What’s green and fresh? Parsley salad.

Nothing has been cooked yet. It might come together into a great meal. It might be a disparate mess. I won’t know till it’s all on the table. Either way, I’m thankful for all the traditional meals I’ve cooked over the years. They served as the inspiration to try something new.

Thanksgiving Dinner, 2013

Carnitas
Oysters
Braised cabbage
Sweet potato gnocchi with green beans, sausage, sage, fried onions
Roasted spiced kabocha squash
Parsley, onion, tomato salad with preserved lemon and anchovy vinaigrette

I’ll post photos and methods this weekend.

Octopus Tacos

There’s a lot of differing opinions on the best way to cook octopus. I’m hoping to try every tip I find online but so far the two times I’ve made octopus a long simmer worked well enough.

These tacos were born out of the Star System of recipe creation: I was in The Lobster Place and bought some octopus then had to figure out a recipe in which it could star. I’d had an octopus taco at Toro Blanco a few weeks ago and while that preparation wasn’t memorable, the idea was.

In the time it took me to take the M back to Wiliamsburg (since the L wasn’t running) I thought up the supporting players. Avocado to mirror the texture of the octopus, carrot for crunch and sweetness, scallion for sharpness, and salsa for kick. The result was balanced in flavor, texture, and spice/richness.


Ingredients

2 medium octopus, beaks removed
4-5 corn tortillas
1 medium carrot
2 scallions
1 avocado
Kewpie mayo or Mexican Crema
Salsa Xochitl Asada Verde
Maldon flake or sea salt

Method

Place the octopus in a medium pot and fill with water to cover. Skip the vinegar, wine corks, and salt. Just water. Bring to a bare boil then cover and reduce heat to low to maintain a low simmer for about an hour. After 40 minutes start testing for tenderness every 10 minutes. When a pairing knife easily pierces the skin in the thickest part of the octopus—where the tentacles meet the head—it’s ready.

While the octopus cooks, thinly slice the white and pale green parts of the scallions and add to a small bowl. Grate the carrot or, if you’re a masochist, slice into small matchstick. Think the size of carrot you get in bagged salads. Basically, big enough to maintain some crunch. Cut the avocado in half. Take the half with no pit and slice in the skin from top to bottom to create long slices. Either spoon out the sliced avocado or cut in half lengthwise down the middle and peel the skin off (I think this is easier than the spoon.)

When it’s ready, remove the octopus and reserve some of the cooking water in a bowl. Cut off the head and split into quarters. Flip the tentacles so the suckers are facing up and cut in half. Using the tentacles as a guide, cut each half into four pieces. Place pieces in the bowl with the reserved cooking water to hydrate the meat and keep it warm while you assemble the tacos.

When the octopus is ready, toast the tortillas on a bare gas flame or under the broiler for a few seconds on each side to warm up and make them pliable. If a few black spots appear, that’s just added flavor.

To assemble start with a spread of Kewpie mayo or Crema. Then add a healthy bed of carrots, a few scallion slices, a couple pieces of avocado, then the octopus. Spoon on a couple spoonfuls of salsa and sprinkle with maldon or sea salt.


This recipe would be great with slivered radish, jicama, or any other crunchy thing you’re into. Crispy bacon would be a welcome addition as well. Chopped cilantro would be bomb. Crema is traditional but I’m a huge fan of Kewpie mayo. You can use any salsa but the Xochitl is my favorite for flavor and texture. In other words, go your own way with the details here.

Kewpie Mayo is your best friend

Have you had Kewpie Mayo? You probably have, even if you didn’t realize it. If you’re a fan of sushi you’ve probably had Japanese “spicy mayo” or Dynamite Sauce which is just Kewpie + Sriracha (and maybe garlic).

Kewpie is serious business. Put simply, it’s regular mayonnaise with more sugar and MSG. As the Kikkoman marketing campaign has taught all of us, Umami is the fifth flavor. It’s the ineffable “meatiness” that foods like steak, mushrooms, red wine, seaweed, and tomatoes have in high quantities. It manifests as a fullness of flavor, a satisfying something that makes all food taste better.

It stands to reason then that using Kewpie in place of regular mayonnaise will boost your food to the next level. I might not slather Kewpie on a sandwich or use it for tuna salad but it’s a great silent supporter in tartares, tacos, salad dressings, and any other creamy food preparation.

Pick up a bottle. It’s the one with the baby on it. It’s one of those dead-simple things to keep in your pantry that will easily elevate your home cooking.

Don’t believe me? Listen to Grub Street.

Note: Title is my own.

I’m a huge supporter of salt and chocolate. When I make hot chocolate I always add a healthy pinch of salt. Same goes for pudding. Salted chocolates are my favorite by-the-piece kind (salted caramel to be specific) and I’ve been known to add my own salt to pieces in which it’s lacking.

I highly recommend you give it a try. Stir in a pinch to your pudding, chocolate milk, or hot chocolate. Next time you have a whitman’s sampler, press one into a little kosher salt and see the difference.

This tip is not without warnings. Two, to be precise.

First, this works best with high-quality dark chocolate. Your Hersey bar won’t benefit too much from a sprinkle of salt.

Second, good salt tastes better. You know all those crazy expensive salts they sell at Whole Foods that seem over-priced? Well they are. That doesn’t mean you should shake some Morton’s into your swiss-miss. Go with a sea or kosher salt and you’ll see a big difference. If you have fancy salts, go nuts, this kind of ‘raw’ consumption is where delicately flavored salts will shine.

Color has a major effect on how we perceive flavor. I wish this article went a little bit more in-depth into how traditional cooking has created a base of expectation concerning color. For instance, things that are black (or very dark) can imply burnt, carbony taste (like grill marks on meat) or deep flavors (brown bread, molasses cookies). Are these two somehow related? Is our perception of a grilled burger influenced by our experience with pumpernickel bread? How do these expectations affect us when presented with a new dark food, such as squid-ink pasta?

And for the record, I loved Crystal Pepsi. Snapple used to have a clear “Tru Cola” flavor too that I was a fan of.

How to Properly Heat a Pan

My short-order cook job in college kept me on a flat-top grill. I found that you could tell the grill was ready when water would bead up and run around on the surface. I also noticed that when we closed at the end of the night—when we jacked the heat all the way up to clean the grill—water would “explode” and scatter like marbles.

I saw this post on Houseboat Eats via Kottke that offers a scientific explanation for this process, known as the Leidenfrost Effect. Why should you care about water balls? Because it is a sure-fire way to know when your pan is pre-heated and a great way to prevent sticking.

At the Leidenfrost point, [around 320° F] when water touches the hot plate, the bottom part of the water vaporizes immediately on contact. The resulting gas actually suspends the rest of the water droplet just above it, preventing any further direct contact between the liquid water and the hot plate and dramatically slowing down further heat transfer between them. This also results in the drop being able to skid around the pan on the layer of gas just under it.

There’s a great video demonstrating the technique and what it should look like. It’s pretty wild to see the single ball of water float around on the pan.

I’m always a fan of a fool-proof kitchen test that doesn’t require thermometers or special tools. Try this out and see if you get a better sear, nicer fond, and less sticking.