Sunday, January 2, 2011
It was the veal stock that started it: that and my hangover from the night before. In a bleary 6am haze the morning before Christmas, my finger got confused with the carrot I was trying to slice. Luckily veal and human blood taste pretty similar when they’ve been simmering together for a few hours.
Los Angeles brings out the chef in me, which is surprising, because most people here see little point in cooking. The choice of restaurants makes it a foodie paradise: from the heavenly In-N-Out burgers to the incredible range of steaks, sushi, Italian and Mexican. I guess that’s why many of our friends’ magnificent designer kitchens house brand new, unused utensils. Why bother to cook when you can sample the entire world’s cuisine just down the road?
Izzy's diet has now been enhanced with chocolate milk, green and pink yoghurt, pancakes with Oreos and an overwhelming range of what she calls "coo-keys".
However, for Christmas lunch I had to make an effort. And because Gelsons, America’s equivalent of Waitrose, sells veal bones, I had the chance to prepare something I can rarely serve back home: a proper jus to go with the roast duck a l'orange, made with fresh duck stock combined with that most important weapon in the cook's arsenal - rich, dark, almost glutenous veal stock.
I’ve never understood why in Northumberland, which otherwise has a fine selection of homegrown ingredients, it’s almost impossible to get hold of veal. Butchers look at me with disbelief when I request it, yet I defy anyone to make a rich reduction, exploding with meaty flavour, without home-made stock derived from roasting then simmering fresh veal knuckles for hours so that the marrowfat oozes out and the kitchen fills with meaty vapour. Don’t believe Marco Pierre White in those Knorr ads: his veal stock, which appears in most of his classic recipes, takes a whole 12 hours to make and the aroma is more penetrating than the rarest perfume.
Knorr chicken stock cubes (or "bouillon", as they call them over here) taste of what they are: salt mostly, then a nutritious addition of palm oil, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed corn protein, hydrogenated beef fat and soybean oil, a sprinkling of sugar and, hidden way down the ingredients list, a little cooked chicken "meat". That’s why I got up at dawn to start the vegetable chopping: but I hadn’t reckoned on the sharpness of the pristine knives in the kitchen drawer.
The queue for the emergency clinic stretched out the door. Holding my middle finger in the air, in case the wound should reopen and drip blood on the carpet, I felt like an imposter.
“Look”, I protested to Jo, “it says Urgent Care on the door. I just have a cut finger: let’s buy some more Band Aid and go home.”
“No way”, she said, “I’m fed up with mopping up blood all over the house.”
The emergency room was a bit like a British NHS Walk-In Centre – except there’s a hefty bill before you walk out again. I surveyed my fellow patients. One woman clutched a tissue tightly in her palm: that must be another cut hand, I thought to myself, secretly hoping my own cut was deeper. The man next to me was using a tissue to wipe a tear from his eyes: he must be in some pain, I surmised, though I couldn’t detect the source. Then a man in his sixties shuffled in, wearing open toed sandals.
“Write your previous ailments here,” instructed the receptionist, handing him a form. “Not enough room on the page,” he moaned, then coughed through a catalogue of illnesses that would fill a medical journal. I looked at my bandaged finger and felt a complete wuss. It wasn’t even bleeding anymore, so I gave it a little squeeze to restore the flow. I didn’t want the doctor to accuse me of time-wasting, even if his wasted time was paid for.
In fact, he seemed genuinely pleased to see me, called my cut a "laceration" and prescribed four stitches and a tetanus jab.
“I’m glad you’ve come”, he said, “You’re my first urgent case this morning.” What about the full waiting room?
“All colds and flu”, he said, “there’s nothing I can do for any of them, but, as they all have insurance, they can’t stay away. They think they’re dying, but we give them paracetamol and send them home. Now, about those stitches?”
With that he popped his needle directly into my open wound. I shot out of the chair.
“Sorry, that anaesthetic has taken a while to reach the tip”, he said. “Your fingers are as big as…”
“Carrots?” I suggested, through the pain.
[For those interested in real food, or who have more time than sense, here's my recipe for Christmas Duck for 8 people. Allow 2 days to make, and make sure you have loads of pans, including two stock pots, and adequate medical insurance]
Roast 5lbs veal bones in a little oil for an hour or so. In a separate roasting pan roast two chopped duck carcasses. They should brown but not burn. Pop them into two separate stockpots and cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer, skimming regularly with a skimmer. If you don't have one, go and buy one. Scum and stock don't go together.
Chop a pile of carrots (careful - they look like orange fingers), celery and onion. Soften them with oil in a pan (again, don't burn them, but make sure they are properly soft), then stir a big glug of tomato paste. Cook for a couple of minutes, then divide and pour into the simmering stockpots. Keep skimming.
In a fourth pan, put a huge pile of sliced button mushrooms and colour them with some oil. Then pour in a quarter of a bottle of Madeira and reduce fast till the mushrooms have reduced down to a delicious sticky pulp. Pour into the veal stockpot (not the duck one). Add 2 bayleaves and a sprig of fresh thyme to each pot.
At this point you need to make sure both stockpots are at a simmer, not boiling. Boiling makes the stock cloudy. Leave for at least 9 hours, preferably 12. Use this time to go to the emergency room if necessary.
Neighbours will now begin to start coming round inviting themselves for lunch. The smell will have stretched at least two blocks. You're one day away from duck heaven.
Strain both stocks into separate pans. Reduce both by half. Cool and store overnight in a fridge. They'll keep for a few days if you want.
On Christmas morning warm the stocks up (they'll have congealed nicely in the fridge) and prepare the ducks. One duck serves only two people, so I used four for our Christmas lunch - we had some vegetarians too, so I compounded the mess by pan frying some Atlantic salmon steaks and popping them on a bed of sweet roasted peppers: they looked very festive with fresh homemade mayonnaise on top.
Salt and pepper the ducks inside and out and stuff them with orange and lemon wedges: tie them up with string. Put them in a low oven - around 250 degrees Fahrenheit for just 25 minutes. Then take them out and let them settle breast side down till you're ready to roast - about 2 hours before you want to eat (ducks take about one hour and a quarter at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, then they need to settle down for about 45 minutes - though you can keep them warm for a couple of hours if necessary - use the duck fat from the bottom of the pan to roast your potatoes).
As the ducks roast, you can finish your sauces:
Combine half the veal stock with all the duck stock and reduce down together. Take the remaining veal stock and measure it. Then, in another pan, pour in some red wine, preferably Shiraz, with some sliced shallot - you need one quarter of the volume of the remaining veal stock. Reduce the wine till it goes a bit syrupy - it will smell sweet - then strain, and pour into the veal stock. Reduce it down very slowly till it turns into a wonderful black faux-demi-glace jus. That's sauce number one finished - it goes round the edge of the plate and makes your guests cry with joy and admiration, and beautifully complements the orange sauce which you haven't finished yet.
Carry on reducing the duck/veal stock combination till there's about 450ml left - that's what you need for 8 people. Meanwhile, in yet another pan, make some orange zest confit: you make a syrup (sugar and water boiled together), then add strips of orange zest. Cook gently with the lid on till it all goes sticky, then cool and strain. This stuff keeps for ages in the fridge, but you'll be throwing it into the duck sauce at the last moment.
When the ducks are cooked, take them out of the roasting pan, pour all the oil into another pan for the roast potatoes (par-boil them for just a couple of minutes first, then fluff them up in a saucepan covered with a colander, add salt and pepper, and make sure they're coated with the duck fat, cook at 425 degrees till brown and caramelized all over), and finish the sauce.
Pour a large glass of Grand Marnier into the hot pan, and stir up all the sticky black duck stuff. Put the pan on the stove and boil up the Grand Marnier for a few seconds to remove the alcohol. Strain into the duck stock. You won't believe the flavour, but you haven't quite finished yet. The sauce will be glutenous meaty (that's the veal stock) and gamey (duck) and already taste like oranges, even though you only add orange juice, lemon juice and the confited orange zest at the last moment.
Pour over the carved duck and wait for wild applause.
I served mine with sprouts (as it was Christmas, but caramelized with butter and a few capers thrown in for interest), roast potatoes and mustard mash (Colmans, cream and butter!), crispy roast parsnips to remind me of my vegetable garden, and the best wine my brother-in-law could afford. Friends brought yummy homemade pies for dessert and the whole meal was rounded off with a sound sleep during the American Football.