Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ode to the Half Moon or What to do with dinner party leftovers

Well the roast chicken from last night's dinner party was just a wonderful mishmash of recipe devotion and devil-may-care improvisation. By devotion I mean the way in which after revisiting a recipe from a book so many times that you know the exact page by its wrinkled appearance as it sits in the book when it is shut. You revisit the steps so many times that if you stray from a letter here and there, you know your efforts are still in the spirit of the word. These great books are the sacred texts of our practice. Ours is an ancient art and meditation.
After spending an evening cooking, drinking, recounting and laughing, I was amazed the next morning to find that I had had the presence of mind (and helpful friends) to put away all the leftovers. The first items to be portioned out were care packages for both of my guests. They had braved a blizzard to come and eat a meal with me, and in return I was able to keep our dinner party going for at least another meal or two. This is an important part in the ritual of our practice. Sharing dishes with each other, stories that we haven't told, a bed when the snow blows too cold, and the promise of another good meal down the road.
Of course, to me, sharing also happens in the preparation of the meal. Opening each other's wine and teaching each other's recipes is such a vital part of cooking. And if your life (or at least what you believe in) is cooking, then you must, I am sure, be aware of this basic principle. to truly consider oneself a cook, one must love to share one's bounty, and impart knowledge, understanding it as part of that wealth.
A couple of things to note from this tremendous and beautifully collaborative meal:
Though my challah is not as high or uniformly shiny as the bakery version, I think mine is lovely and rustic. It tastes just as sweet, if not a bit sweeter for the honey (don't use sugar if your recipe suggests it. Honey all the way. The local-er, the yummier!). Bread is about the manifestation of something coming from your physical labour. It is truly the most personal thing you can make to eat. Not only do you have to manually work to bring it to life, you have to get to know your dough and your surroundings to gauge where to add and take away. These multiple varying elements could be the flour, water, temperature, humidity, altitude, and let's not forget the peculiarities of your oven. The art and spirit of baking bread is disappearing. It takes a while to get good at it. But once you do it will be a lifelong skill you can preserve.
Also, I would like to pay tribute to some wonderful books that inspired what became a feast of legend, if only to a very small number.
Modern French Classics, again featured prominently as the main source with their Oven-Baked Chicken with Garlic (Poulet aux 40 Gousses d'Ail). That's right, you read correctly, 40 cloves of garlic! Even if you don't eat it, and there is certainly no reason why you shouldn't, the garlic has now been roasted in the loving company of a very juicy bird. Save it and use it in pasta sauce, lasagne, hamburgers, or even spread on crostini as an appetizer.
I also learned some very interesting things about roasting a chicken from Pim Techmuanvivit. I was reading her book, The Foodie Handbook (The Almost Definitive Guide to Gastronomy), and she describes learning how to roast a chicken as the very first lesson. One tip she ascribes to a Mr. Harold McGee, is to stuff the inside of the bird to keep the inside from overheating and thus drying out. In particular, it is breast meat that we worry about drying out. So just to make sure this doesn't happen, when you take it out of the roasting pan, flip it upside down to rest to that as all the juices run back into the meat, the breast will collect extra moisture and flavour.
I did end up serving those avocado chocolate muffins. They would have been cupcakes if I had time to whip up some interesting icing. Again, they were found at:

Now, more to the point of this story... what do you do when your guests go home and you are left with some many delicious leftovers crowding your refrigerator?
Well to start you should put on a big pot of water to boil and salt it. Take those carrots and celery that you know you always have in your vegetable drawer for just such opportunities, and clean and slice them both in half-moons, being sure to keep them separated as you set them aside. The carrots will have to be sliced vertically the length of them, first. I bought beautiful purple shallots at the market last week so I did the same to them to make more half moons.
Sauté the shallots in a hot pan with some olive oil, about 1 Tbsp, then add the celery and sauté for a couple of minutes until they begin to give off a tasty aroma. Then add the carrots, stirring as you go.
When the water is boiled, make sure the contents of your chicken have been taken out and then place it carefully into the pot of boiling water. Make sure it if fully submersed in the liquid and return the pot to a boil.
When the vegetables start to become soft, bump up the heat and pour in about a 1/4 C of Port. If you don't have this, cooking sherry, brandy, or sweet red wine will also do just fine. Stir this all together and simmer briefly before tossing it into the pot. Roughly slice some of the set aside roast garlic from the chicken and add to the now vigorously bubbling broth. Add a Bay leaf and a pinch of red saffron, if you have some. I also added a few leaves of rosemary from the plant on my counter. My dad is very proud of this plant. It has stayed alive through a transplant from the yard to the kitchen counter and continues to thrive even with the few hours of warm light from the window.
Let the soup bubble gently on the stove with the lid off to let the flavours boil down and concentrate. You may need to turn the chicken in the pot so that it does not dry out. Don't forget to salt the soup as you go and add some freshly ground black pepper to help the other flavours emerge.
The sun may have been set for hours by now. As it went down over my city, I watched it set the frosty trees of the river valley ablaze. It is it that exact colour that I've recreated in this broth of half-moon wonders. This is what is so wondrous about this practice, this cooking, this witchcraft, the spells you cast and the potions you concoct very truly alter the imbibers, spreading its magic through others.

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