Flash in the Pan 

Recipes without roadmaps

I was a biochemistry major in college, before deciding that science was not the path for me. And while I made it through endless laboratory protocols by telling myself, “it’s just like following a recipe,” when I got out of the lab that comparison backfired. Suddenly, it was the exacting details of cookbook recipes that reminded me of the lab I had escaped, and I rejected recipes as square and unnecessary for my intuitive path.

A detailed recipe is like a road map to a particular dish. Follow the directions precisely and you should arrive at an exact outcome. I usually don’t require results that are exactly replicable, just as long as what I make tastes good. I’ve got a pretty good sense of culinary direction, and I like the fact that without a map to follow, I have to pay closer attention to the culinary landscape in order to find my way.

But the lack of a map can be problematic when I write this column, which often ends with a “recipe,” if you want to call it that. My “recipe” is usually little more than scribbled notes I jot down to record how I built a particular meal that worked out really well. If not a map, I try to at least leave a trail of crumbs for readers to follow—more like the directions you get when you pull over to the side of the road and ask a stranger how to get there. And my notes don’t say things like “use three medium-sized cloves of garlic,” or “cook for 37.576 minutes at 230 degrees.” Instead, you’ll get instructions like “add lots of garlic,” or “cook on low until it’s falling-apart tender.”

Still, I understand there are some dishes that you can’t simply grope toward in the dark. I’ve followed plenty of recipes in my time, and I almost always learn something when I do.

There’s a poem by Simon Ortiz, of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, which I look to as a kindred spirit to the recipes I like to write. The poem, which appears in Ortiz’s collection Woven Stone, is called “How to make a good chili stew—this one on July 16, a Saturday, Indian 1971.”

It’s organized like a formal recipe, beginning with a list of ingredients. But when you read it, you see this list is a combination of what he wanted to use and what he had on hand. For example: “Beef (in this case, beef which someone who works at a restaurant in Durango brought this morning, leftovers, trim fat off and give some to the dog because he’s a good guy. His name is Rex.)”

The directions likewise read less like a recipe and more like a poem: “And then put it on to barely boiling, cover and smell it once in a while with good thoughts in your mind, and don’t worry too much about it except, of course, keep water in it so it doesn’t burn, okay.”

I’ve made his chili, or something like it, several times—each time different, each time with what I had on hand, and each time it turned out delicious. What I’ve been making lately has diverged so much from the original that it hardly seems right to call it Simon Ortiz chili anymore, and that’s okay. That’s evolution. Last Monday, for example, I took one of the final hunks of last year’s deer out of the freezer. Since I was in a hurry, I put the frozen meat in a cast-iron pot with a heavy lid and about an inch of water with cooking oil. I cooked it on high to thaw the meat. When the water cooked off, I added a bit more. When the meat was thawed, I cut it into little pieces, put it back in the pot and let it cook until the water cooked off again, at which point it began to fry in the oil. I fried it on medium heat until it browned nicely, and then I added cumin, Herbs de Provence, salt, pepper and red wine. Whenever the red wine cooked off I added more.

When the meat was delectably browned I added carrots, onion, garlic, crushed dried chili peppers, cubed potatoes, turnip, rutabaga and frozen cauliflower. I added water to fill the pot and let it cook on medium heat until the potatoes began to fall apart.

As it cooked, I adjusted the seasonings, added some soy sauce, vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers, more red wine. I don’t have a dog named Rex, or any dog for that matter, but my housemate’s dog Keelie stepped up to the plate for scraps.

As the water cooked off I added more, because I like a lot of broth with my stew, which I recommend serving with a nice dollop of mayonnaise.

I’d found my way to dinner again, with the help of my experience, my nose, my book of poems, and the finest ingredients I could find.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Goodnight, and good duck

Q: Hey Chefboy,
Have you ever smoked a whole duck? What kind of brine would you soak it in? How long should one smoke a full bird? Is there any way to avoid an overly dry duck?
—Smokin’ Quack

A: Dear Quack,
Smoking meat is one of the culinary areas in which, contrary to what you may have read above, I like to use a recipe. The successful outcome of a smoking session depends on soaking the meat in a brine with the right level of salt.

For two wild ducks, mix 2 quarts of filtered water, 3/4 cup pickling salt, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1/4 cup white vinegar and 1 tablespoon pickling spice in a big ceramic or glass bowl. Add the birds and put a plate on top to submerge them. If the ducks are too big, double the recipe for the brine. Let the birds soak for eight hours or overnight in the fridge. Then remove them from the brine, pat dry, and then air-dry for half an hour.

Thanks to that salty brine, the ducks are already cured. All the smoking does is add flavor. So to cut down the prep time, just cold-smoke the ducks for three to four hours, and then finish them off in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour.

If the ducks have their skin on, roast them uncovered. If they’ve been skinned, cover them with a piece of cheesecloth that’s been soaked in butter. That way your bird won’t dry out.

If you’re hot-smoking, skip the oven part and just smoke your duck until it’s done.

A duck smoked like this is typically served cold. But I don’t think duck will ever taste better than when it’s fresh out of the oven or smoker, and eaten with fingers.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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