Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Liver and Onions

"Stanley slowly peeled an onion. He liked eating them one layer at a time." -- Holes, by Louis Sachar
"Is it possible to fall in love over a dish of onions?" -- The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

The Duck and Pork Terrine, buttoned up in bacon.
One of my favorite things about prep work is the way the projects lull me into a reverie about the past, about food in general, and the underpinnings of a life spent in the Industry. The grisly tasks especially, like prying pig cheeks apart from a frozen, 60 pound mass of them in the bottom of the back sink, or searing duck livers in a rondeaux sitting on a knee-level flame, one arm thrown up before my face to protect myself from spatters –the grisly tasks especially encourage a wandering mind.

The terrines are perfect examples. We make two different types: Duck and Chicken Liver, and Pork and Duck (that one has pistachios and is wrapped in bacon). The name “terrine” refers to the vessel in which the mixture is cooked – and because it is a French-style offering, the mixture could be just about anything: finches with raisins, goldfish and chanterelle, horsemeat and black walnuts. You name it. Grind it up, put it in what is, for all intents and purposes, an elongated meatloaf pan, cook it or not, and call it a Fancy Appetizer. Pairs wonderfully well with wines from the Côtes du Rhône.

Both terrines are time-consuming processes, but the liver terrine leaves me with bits of ground liver in my hair and smeared across my cheeks. Globs of it spatter my glasses as I pound it through a fine-mesh sieve. When I leave work after making the liver terrine, I am followed home by cats; the next day there is a feline cotillion on my front stoop, so many cats that I wonder if they are bearing an invitation for me to attend Dogwarts School of Seeing-Eyed Dog Trainers. (A girl can dream.) As messy as it is, however, this Fancy App is also fairly simple:

Liver Terrine
5 lbs duck livers
5 lbs chicken livers
Salt and Pepper
Olive Oil to cook

1 ½ c chopped shallots
2 Tbs minced garlic
1 c Madeira
1 c Brandy

2 lbs butter, cubed
1 c heavy cream whipped into soft peaks

You will also need:
A large saute' pan
A Robot Coupe, Cuisinart, or, God help you, a Food Mill
A 24” Terrine, sprayed and lined with Cling Wrap
Some Fortitude

(Please note the batch size of this recipe; home cooks should scale back.)

Heat the oil in the pan. Meanwhile, blot any blood from the livers (dry flesh sears better) and liberally sprinkle salt and pepper across the organs.

Carefully place the livers in a single layer across the bottom of the pan. This should be pretty fast and furious – you want a nice brown exterior, with a bit of rose left in the center of the liver. When you are satisfied with your sear, transfer the livers to a large mixing bowl.
Add some shallots and garlic and sauté gently for about two minutes. Deglaze with some of the booze. Let this reduce until the bubbles are the size of quarters. WATCH CAREFULLY.

Spatulate this mixture into the mixing bowl with the livers.
Repeat process until all your livers are seared, all the garlic and shallots have been sautéed, and all your booze has been reduced.
 Throw the butter on top of the meat, etc. in the mixing bowl.
As the butter softens, set up your Grinding/Pounding Area. I like to have the full mixing bowl on the left of the prep counter, the Robot Coupe (Robo Cop) in the middle, and an 8-qt. cambro cradling a chinoise on the right. I also make sure there is a place to set the liver-filled chinoise down as you transfer the finished mixture into yet a third container. You’ll work out a system – you just want to avoid introducing any grainy bits of the ground mixture into the container holding the finished mixture.

In stages, grind the liver mixture, transfer it into the sieve (chinoise), wrap your arms around the base of the cambro and smash the hell out of the mix with the base of a 6 oz ladle to push it through the fine metal mesh. Careful! This is when the liver dance really starts to get messy!

Repeat process until all the mix has been grounded and pounded.

Wash face and change apron.

Someone, you or a kitchen elf, should have already whipped the cream and lined a sprayed terrine with plastic.
Fold the cream into the smooth liver mixture. Taste to correct for salt. Some people add a drizzle of Truffle Oil at this stage. I do not.

Pour into the lined terrine and wrap the plastic over the top of the loaf. Label, date, refrigerate.

After it sets for at least 24 hours, serve in slices with a drizzle of fancy olive oil, some North Atlantic grey salt (kidding! Any large crystal salt is fine), a dollop of dijon and crustinis. A tuft of salted, oil-drizzled herbs, especially chervil and parsley, is nice with this. Makes approximately 110 portions.

See? Piece of cake.

During the course of the terrine's preparation, I snack on bits of seared livers and, without fail, the flavors of iron, earthy-nuttiness and Mailard caramel take me back to suppertime, circa 1978: Liver and Onions. Whether in the Poseys' house or down and across the way at the neighboring Kugel household, Liver and Onions was a dinner fixture, at least twice a month during the good times, and I have a very clear recollection of putting it down as my "Favorite Meal" during a Fourth Grade Survey.

This reminiscence is spurred forward by the almost unbearable onionyness of the back kitchen. As this is (ostensibly) a Cajun-Creole house, we go through about 50 gallons of Trinity – onions, green peppers, and celery – a week. Also, everything is cooked with garlic, and garnished with chives or scallions, or fried shallots. Or fried leeks. So the prep list is usually heavy on the alliums. It is interesting that lillies, the flowering cousins of onions and garlic -- are so heavily perfumed: Victorian ladies living in a tannery town.

On the really bad days, when the list dictates filling a 22 qt container with diced onions, and another one with sliced onions, along with 12 qts of green onions, and 20 pounds of shallot brunoise, the kitchen fills with fumes and we weep as though watching “War Horse.” We gasp and stagger and clutch at our faces. We are inconsolable.

The smell comes from sulfuric compounds that the onion pulls up from the soil – “sweet” onions are grown in less sulfury areas. These sulfuric compounds are held in storage areas and can only be released if a certain enzyme turns the key. This enzyme is released when the knife cuts through the onion’s skin and damages the enzyme’s storage vacuole– think of a jailor who, finding his office destroyed by an unseen, terrifying force, rushes from cage to cage, freeing the sulfuric monsters within…There’s something about this that reminds me of “The Chronicles of Riddick”…. Sure, we could have probably helped our cause by chilling the onions first, but we didn’t and now we are in the grip of a terrible alliumic sorrow. 

The sulfuric stink is so different from the pleasure derived from a whiff of onions cooking in butter, a smell I associate with comfort and warmth, hearth and home. (Listed as one of my "Favorite Smells" in the same Fourth Grade Survey, along with Thunderstorms, Lilacs, and the Pads of a Dog's Foot.) If you are running behind in your preparation for a dinner party, get the onions started in butter and your guests will walk into a home redolent of promise. To achieve really good caramelization, go low and slow for a while to “melt” the onions, then bump up the heat – a little – and don’t stir very often. 

Liver and onions is one of those dishes you don’t see on menus very often anymore. This could be because the liver is the body’s filter, and to be good it needs to come from an animal that wasn’t pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones during its short trip from birth to butcher. Also, I don’t like tasting the nasty metallic flavors of adrenalin and fear hormones that flood the creature’s system as it nears the end, flavors much more apparent in the liver than in the flesh. Abbatoir terroir. But, better livers can be found if one cares to try. In Seattle there are enough small butcheries, not to mention a certain prediliction toward better food, that finding a plump liver from a happy calf who died while laughing over a slice of blueberry pie is not outside the realm of the possible. Once in hand, I’d dry the organ, season it and set it aside. Then I’d start the onions in butter and get changed for company. As the calf’s liver is not the only liver to be tended to, I’d also make a martini.

When the onions are almost done and company had arrived (more martinis), I’d sear the liver over a pretty high heat, quickly on each side. Serve with caramelized onions, a simple salad, buttered bread, wine, and stories about shared history. My favorite flavors.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The New Year

“So that’s winter too!” he thought. “You can even like it!”     
 - Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

We could hear shots from where we stood on the ridge that ran through the mud flats. As the late afternoon dusk gathered in the damp yellow weeds and the wind drove another volley of raindrops through the tangled banks of wild roses,the bushes bare but for clusters of red and black hips that rattled and swayed, we could see the flock of ducks rise from the estuary on the shores of Skagit Bay. More shots.

The five of us convened on the path and weighed the pros and cons of continuing toward the rocky “haystacks” that rose from the Bay, or returning to the car and from thence to La Connor for a beverage and a snack. The rain drops spattered across my glasses refracted my already terrible low-light vision into a series of star-tipped bluish blurs. But I wasn’t necessarily ready to head in – the fresh air was delicious and I felt as though the sticky winter joints in my brain were loosening up a bit with the walk. And the shots were far off and not aimed toward our little group, probably, as we'd left our pet duck, Waddles, back at home. We continued along for another hundred yards and passed a low-lying field strewn with silvered logs, as though a giant hand had flung a handful of twigs from the water inland. To our right, we could just see the water of the Bay, to our left, the muddy fields of Skagit Valley stretched to the base of the Cascades.

The hunter approached along the isthmus, a mallard dangling from his left hand, his Labrador close by his side. The duck looked soft and terribly broken by the shot and long fall. Floppy. The dog was having trouble restraining herself from putting the duck’s head in her mouth. She was a young retriever.

In another era, one in which duck hunting was more for provisioning and less for semi-idle sportsmen, I’d like to think the dangling duck would have been roasted, served with rosehip compote, a stuffing of farro and roasted parsnips, and accompanied by a wine as clean and mineraly as a goblet filled with cold, wet stones.

Farro is an interesting grain. Also known as Emmer Wheat and sometimes mistaken for Spelt, Farro was cultivated by humans in the Near East, through North Africa and Europe until the heyday of the Roman Empire when durum and other bread-making wheats took the stage. McGee posits that Farro was probably the second grain to be cultivated, after Einkorn Wheat, the offspring of a chance mating between Goatgrass and Wild Wheat, which was the result of a blind date set up by Cattails. Farro is enjoying a renaissance right now, appearing on menus and in Farmers' Markets everywhere. The nuttiness of the grain is a great foil to roasted meats or fishes, and it takes to the addition of cranberries or tree nuts quite well.

I looked out at the muddy fields and continued musing while the others chatted with the hunter. He had been surprised to see us out there.

In a few months, the flat, wet fields will become vast squares of color as the tulips come up. As the weather warms even more, the Skagit Valley will yield tomatoes, peppers, greens, onions, potatoes – pretty much all the produce we’ll use in the restaurant this spring and summer could come from one of these farms. And then next fall, we’ll have squash and root vegetables, again, from the same farms. But right now, at the closing of the year, the fields are empty and bare but for puddles reflecting watery blue light.

The hunter walked back to the parking lot. We waited a moment to put a bit of distance between our little group and the man with the dog (and the gun) before heading back to our car. The sky darkened into the gloaming, the rain picked up. I was glad I'd worn wool.

As we walked, we talked about New Year’s Eve plans, what our Januarys will look like, what we wish for ourselves and our families for this next year. I thought about what I had planted in the past twelve months and what might, with some pruning and care, become a source of sustenance. The projects that need to be finished, and others that have yet to be begun.

I also thought about the work week: There isn't a busier corridor for a restaurant than the week connecting Christmas and New Year's -- a very Merry Isthmus! This is the week during which the differences between working in a kitchen and working in an office become more glaring. It's a flat-out run for much of the week, and the containers of prepped items vanish almost as quickly as I can make them. While there is no real danger -- except to my sanity, my hands, and my lower back -- the feeling that we are under attack never really goes away. (It's actually pretty fun.) But I am a fool to make plans for New Year's Eve, as wonderful as the evening sounds my Prep List will almost surely begin the peculiar, predictable stretch toward infinity as the night grinds along. Most likely I will be pulling 60 pounds of semi-frozen pig cheeks apart and dusting them with curing salts until 11:50. While my friends pour Champagne, I will crouch among the linen bags and dry goods, changing from my messy whites and sticky clogs into hose and a dress.

The walk drew to a close and we piled into the car and left the mud flats. The drive back to La Connor took us past farmhouses that were the very archetype of cozy: Warmly lit windows, a sense of community and preparedness for the long hunker ahead. I could almost smell the bread baking, the duck roasting. The farro over a slow simmer on a back burner, stirred occasionally with stock added as necessary.

As we drove into town, I realized that no matter how the actual New Year's night plays out, I am going into 2012 with a feeling of promise, as though the year ahead were a prepped field yet to be planted. I'm looking forward to the growth.