Flash in the Pan 

Myriad options with mirepoix

“Hey, I like going to a Renaissance festival and carrying around a turkey bone and calling people ‘wench’ as much as the next guy,” said Chef Jason Willenbrock, by way of apologizing for the fact that he’s otherwise not much of a turkey fan. “Other than that, the only thing I do with turkey is collect my friends’ bones after Thanksgiving and make stock.”

Jason, who owns Missoula’s Posh Chocolat with his wife Ana, is best known for his sweet and savory chocolate truffles. But anyone who’s stopped for lunch at their downtown shop will conclude that Jason’s reputation should not be limited to just dessert. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and former employee at Moulin de Mougin, a highly esteemed restaurant in France, among other prestigious kitchens, I frequently seek Jason’s advice on all things culinary.

I recently picked his brain on mirepoix, a French mixture of vegetables used in all sorts of cooking—especially, it seems, cooking that produces the kind of warming comfort food we crave these days.

“Classic French mirepoix is typically two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery,” Jason explains. “But it can be made of other aromatics, too, like leeks, fennel, thyme, parsley, parsnip or celeriac. And there’s all kinds of regional variations. Cajun mirepoix, which they call “The Trinity,” is onion, celery and bell pepper instead of carrot. Asian mirepoix is ginger, garlic and scallion.”

What all of these variations have in common is that they are used as a flavor base, adding an earthy, aromatic foundation to whatever the final dish-tination may be.

Stock is also usually based on mirepoix, often in conjunction with bones, which add a gelatinous quality, thanks to the bones’ collagen content.

“Feet are the best,” says Jason. While he doesn’t, as far as I know, have a foot fetish, he’s simply referring to the fact that in feet, the many bones and the connective tissue between them have more collagen than any other body parts.

“Feet just give such a great mouth-feel to the final product,” Jason says.

Stock as an ingredient should not be confused with soup, a finished dish. Jason doesn’t even salt his stock, preferring to save the seasoning until the final product is nearing completion.

“If you’re making risotto,” he says, for example, “salt in the stock can prevent the grains from absorbing water. You end up stirring and stirring until it’s mush.”

To make his stock, Jason starts by oven-roasting his bones (usually turkey, chicken or beef bones), rubbed lightly in olive oil, at 400 degrees for half an hour in a shallow baking dish, stirring occasionally.

“You don’t have to roast the bones,” he says, “but it adds color and intensity of flavor.”

Then he adds the bones to a big soup pot with a coarsely chopped mirepoix—either of traditional proportions or whatever he has around. It’s a variation he calls “kitchen sink mirepoix.” He adds chopped tomatoes to make it darker in color, as well as for the acidic bite, and spices like bay leaves, black pepper and thyme. The stock cooks slowly at barely a simmer—aka, the “lazy boil”—for 8–10 hours. Then he strains the bones and veggies and freezes the stock.

You can also make veggie stock by oven-roasting your mirepoix with a little olive or sunflower oil, until it’s browned but not burned, and otherwise following the same instructions as with bone stock. It won’t have the caliginous mouth-feel or meaty flavor, but will still have those aromatic earth tones.

I have a chicken soup recipe I call “Cheaters Chicken Soup” that also incorporates mirepoix. I just buy a roasted chicken and put it in a pot with chopped mirepoix, salt and pepper, and maybe some fresh dill or roasted green chiles. When the chicken softens enough, I pull the bones and skin out (saving the bones to make stock), and voilà! So easy it must be cheating.

Another classic, comfort-food use of mirepoix is in a braise. Braising is a technique best applied to tough cuts of meat, which usually have more flavor than the tender cuts. And they’re cheaper. And they have more collagen. Braising belongs to the “low and slow” category of cooking, similar to what goes on in a crock pot, but much more desirable, in my opinion.

Most braising recipes call for browning the meat in oil or fat, making sure that all sides are nicely browned but not burnt. But I follow the lead of the late great James Beard, who prefers to brown the meat under the broiler, which is easier, produces a better brown and draws out the fat rather than adding it.

Place the browned meat upon a bed of mirepoix in a baking dish, and add enough water (and/or stock, wine, sherry, etc.) to half-cover the contents. Cook slowly with a tight lid, which allows the steam to drip off the top and self-braise, and flip the meat occasionally to ensure even cooking. Add more liquid to prevent it from drying out, and cook at 300 degrees until you can cut it with a spoon.

Ask Ari: Foraging in freezing weather

I received this week’s first question by phone, after calling my Internet service provider to ask a question about my service. To my surprise, the person on the other line did most of the questioning. She wanted to talk about my point last week about cooking with good wine and beer.

Q: I hear you about not cooking with wine or beer that one would not want to drink. But my father likes to drink really cheap beer, and cooks with good beer that he doesn’t drink. What is going on there?

—Dad’s Backwards

A: When you asked me this question on the phone, DB, I was stumped, and three days later I still am.  Although on further reflection, I’m more of an eater than a drinker myself. Food is more important to me, and maybe your dad is the same way. Like a martyr saying, “Save the women and children before you save me,” your dad is basically saying, “Save the good stuff for the meal, I’ll drink the schwag.” Maybe it’s just because I’m seeing a heroic version of myself in your dad, but I think it’s pretty cool.
Anybody else want to weigh in here?

Q: Dear Ari,
It seems that the days of foraging and gathering in my local woods are well over—or are they? Are there any winter edibles still ripe for the picking, or do I have to resort to dumpster diving for the thrill of forage?  Please help.

—Desperately Seeking Sustenance

A: Sorry DSS. If you’d been reading my column and following my words of wisdom, this wouldn’t be a problem and you’d have a good stash of edibles. But as you’ve waited until now, when it’s currently three degrees below zero, then other than ice fishing and trapping ski bunnies, dumpster diving is your best option—at least until the whiff of springtime coaxes the first greens from the ground.

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