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My memories of school assemblies from my early years are a blur of secularised holiday celebrations and faux cool jingles designed to keep us from doing drugs. Not very influential with one glaring exception. I remember being blown away by the story of Terry Fox a twenty-one year-old Canadian who set out to raise a million dollars for cancer research by running across the country. Terry had been diagnosed with bone cancer in his knee, undergone chemotherapy and had his right leg amputated. Images of Terry running, with his artificial leg, along remote and lonely stretches of the Trans Canada Highway are I think a fairly universal early memory for Canadians of my generation.
I have spent much of this summer building a wood-fired oven with my family at the cottage and since this year is the thirtieth anniversary of the Marathon of Hope it seemed appropriate to mark this occasion by cooking a meal in the oven. The September Foodbuzz 24X24 is special because it is dedicated to raising funds for ovarian cancer research and I was happy to have my proposal to write about a meal honouring the Marathon of Hope accepted. Throughout its course the Marathon of Hope was about connecting with the small communities and individuals across Canada and I hope that by cooking a meal (with the help of family and friends) which represents the culinary traditions of these people and places I can honour this memory in my own way.
I can’t complain too loudly about how cliched the description has become because I have written it more times than I want to count but this summer has been a remarkably hot and sunny one. Unfortunately, August’s weather rarely influences September’s and for the day of the big meal we had stronger winds than anyone could remember for Labour Day weekend. When building the oven we were careful to face it away from prevailing winds but I still had some difficulty getting the oven lit on Saturday. In a world of electric ovens with digital controls it’s difficult to imagine the havoc caused by 30 km/h winds when cooking in an outside brick oven but now I understand.
On April 12, 1980 Terry started his journey across the country at the Atlantic coast near St. John’s, Newfoundland. His course took him through all four of Canada’s maritime provinces and these early stages were filled with the challenges of running a marathon every day in what can often be wintry weather in April. He was supported by his brother and his best friend and was I’m sure buoyed by the isolated recognition and public support he received along this part of the route. (more…)
My ham came from this locally-raised pig at Sanagan's
During the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons those giant waist-level refrigerated bins at grocery stores fill with hams of all shapes and sizes. Over the past several years the selection has improved, in my opinion at least, away from those re-constituted, mechanically-formed miniature satellites towards a lot more options that have a bone and look like they may once have belonged to an animal. But finding a fresh (uncured, unsmoked) leg of pork is still a tall order here in Toronto.
Being a good citizen of the 21st century I turned to Twitter and asked the first three purveyors I could find: Sanagan’s Meat Locker, Olliffe Butcher Shop, and Fiesta Farms. On top of the amazing mental picture of a butcher in a heavy-duty, blood-spattered apron replying to my questions (with his vacuum packed iPhone, of course) I also received prompt answers from all three. Fiesta is considering carrying fresh pork legs in the future but don’t now, and luckily the other two had what I needed. Wanting to support the new guy on the block (of Baldwin, a street I lived on in the not-so-distant past) I made my way down to Sanagan’s.
The characteristic that impresses me most about this butcher shop is how efficiently they use a small space. There’s meat everywhere and definitely no sauce and spice rub aisle in which the timid customer could hide. To underline this point the large, free-standing butcher block to the right of the door displayed an entire pig, split into three primal sections (head and forequarter, rib and loin, and hind legs). As you can tell from the picture at the top of the post this pig looked much more like Babe than like the 250-pound behemoths we might usually think of as slaughter size. (more…)
Duck confit, brie, and bosc pear pizza
Duck confit is a preparation where duck meat (usually from the legs and thighs of the duck) is cooked in its own fat and then preserved in that same fat. The fat forms a barrier that keeps air and moisture out and along with refrigeration prevents spoilage. The tomato conserva that I made back in September was a sort of confit for vegetarians.
The biggest obstacle keeping me from trying most duck confit recipes is that they tend to call for a massive quantity of duck fat. The process produces a lot of extra duck fat so this becomes less of a problem for future endeavours but the first time around buying a litre (or more) of duck would be pretty ridiculously expensive.
Even more to the point there seems to be a believable contention that cooking in fat, like this at least, doesn’t add flavour. Nathan Myrhvold former chief technology officer at Microsoft and now food super-scientist contends that theoretically there is no way that large fat molecules could penetrate into duck meat and also that blind taste testers couldn’t tell the difference between the traditional method and duck meat that had been steamed and then rubbed with duck fat. The article is also worth a read for Myrhvold’s suggestions of using a dog brush to prepare duck breast for cooking.
The finished product--spiced version on the left, plain on the right
In this second part of my series of blog posts about duck I am going to go over my duck prosciutto-making project. This is a somewhat exact process that involves hanging uncooked poultry for more than a week so bear with me if veer towards the technical.
The starting point
This preparation really is about process. The first step (after the duck breasts are removed from the body as discussed in my earlier post) is to fill a non-metal container with a bed of kosher or coarse salt. Lay the breasts on the salt, arranged so that they aren’t touching and cover with more salt. The container–covered with plastic wrap goes into the fridge for twenty-four hours of curing. (more…)
Leftover duck stock from the confit, the duck confit, and two jars of duck fat
The composition of our Christmas menu is a running debate in my family. To me turkey seems like just a repeat of Thanksgiving and cooking the big bird is no longer really a challenge. I would like to try cooking goose or duck but have been over-ruled on the grounds that these fowl are apparently too greasy. While I work on changing opinions for next year I am making some smaller projects for this year.
Duck breast prosciutto is widely recommended as a first dry-curing charcuterie project. Even more than chickens, duck breasts are sold at a premium compared to whole birds–if they can be found at all. Instead I picked up a couple of whole, frozen ducks and the breasts are on their way to becoming ersatz prosciutto but that is going to be a separate post. I’m using the recipe from Earth to Table to preserve the leg meat and excess fat as duck confit but that is also going to be a separate post. Today I’m going to turn the order around a bit and write about the leftovers and ancillary benefits first. (more…)