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I know it’s tooting my own horn, but I have to say this – the Duck Confit I made? Is amazing. A tango of taste in my mouth. Why did I wait so long before making this dish myself?

And the Duck Prosciutto? Also seriously fantastic.

Both are totally made of win (and yummy rich meat) and I have to give major kudos to the Ruhlman/Polcyn Charcuterie book for making it straightforward and demystifying both processes.

Two of the eight legs from the confit fell apart as I was removing them from their slow simmering bath of goose fat (doesn’t that sound great?) and put them into jars. Amazingly, duck fat was available at Whole Paycheck Foods, but at an extra third the price! Any decent French farmhouse wife would have thrown up her hands in horror and killed the goose too.

So I packed four of the whole legs into one huge Talas clip-top jar, deboned the other four and parcelled them out into three of the re-used fat jars. It’ll be easier to melt the fat and extract the meat like that for stir-fries and stews.

Mark has received one of the three jars of shredded confit, for when Tanya feels like cooking him duck (times like this I love that  is a vegetarian!) but as she’s away this weekend I might break out the whole legs and do roast duck with honey and lavender, and goose-fat fried potatoes. Mmmm.

The proscuitto was delicious. Yes, I mean was.

They were pretty tiny duck breasts to begin with, and once they’d lost a third through dry curing, the rounds of meat were about 3cm wide and 2 cm high. Mini proscuitto! But the taste was rich and tasty, with a peppery afterburn from the ground white pepper crust, the texture was amazing and altogether it was a pretty awesome result for my first attempt at red meat curing.

I think I’ll hunt down some bigger breasts [sniggers like a fourteen year old schoolboy] and repeat. I bought a digital hygrometer to tell the humidity and temperature in the kitchen. I might have to investigate making a drying cupboard…

Made (or at least started the making of) today:

 

Image

A-salting the duck breast for proscuitto before chilling it for 24 hours in the fridge

>Every now and then you’re lucky enough to stumble across a recipe that hits you like a bullet in the taste buds. On Monday, I did a quick Google for sweet potato recipes and found this little gem by Lillian Chou, on the Gourmet website:

Roasted Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Scallion Butter
Ingredients
8 small slender Japanese or Garnet sweet potatoes (4 to 5 pounds total)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, well softened
1 1/2 tablespoons miso paste (preferably white)
3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion

Preparation

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in upper third.
Prick potatoes all over with a fork and put on a foil-lined large baking sheet.
Bake until very soft when squeezed, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
While potatoes bake, stir together butter, miso, and scallion until combined.
Slit hot potatoes lengthwise and, using oven mitts, push in sides to puff up potato. Serve with some scallion butter in center of each and with additional scallion butter on the side.

    Cooks’ notes:

    • Scallion butter can be made 4 days ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to warm room temperature and stir before using.
    • Sweet potatoes can be roasted (but not cut) 4 hours ahead and kept at room temperature, covered with foil. Reheat potatoes on a baking sheet on middle rack of a 350°F oven until heated through, about 20 minutes.

    It tastes fantastic. The combination of the sweetness of the potato, the saltiness and umami of the white miso, the creaminess of the butter and the bite of the spring onions is a balancing act of genius.

    I’m not sure if this is a traditional Japanese recipe or not (the inclusion of butter would rule against that, it seems to me), but wherever it comes from, it gets two thumbs up from me – and a permanent place in my recipe repertoire.

    >Soap Making by Me

    >As it involves liquids, the application of heat and extensive use of the kitchen, I thought I’d add this post:

    Last month I achieved something I’ve been wanted to accomplish for years – I made soap the traditional way from scratch. And it was as satisfying and fun as I hoped it would be.

    To start off, I bought the equipment and materials, got out a couple of cold-process soapmaking books from the library, even looked it up on the Internet and watched some videos.

    And came to the inescapable conclusion that this was definitely something I wanted a real, live human to teach me.

    Fortunately (again, via the wonder that is the Internets), I found a company in London that would do just that – Makesoap Biz, run by Melissa Coss, who is the author of a couple of excellent soapmaking books.

    So off I trotted to a community hall in east London for a day’s workshop. There were 18 attendees, 3 tables set up as workstations, and 4 fully-trained tutors. In fact, most of the tutors had earlier in the year offered their time and expertise to NGO programme Soap Making Nigeria, and gone to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and over the course of a week taught nearly 2,000 people in soap-making training, so they could then return to their rural communities and set up micro enterprises.

    The tutors were all very clear, informative and friendly, and encouraged our questions (so I didn’t feel like an idiot for asking some of them!). We started off in the morning with a talk on soap, its history, chemistry and particulars of the process. Then we moved to the practical.

    Each table was to tackle a different soap – goatsmilk and lavender were the most popular, but I was intrigued by the idea of fresh cucumber soap which, along with other fresh vegetation such as strawberries, is very good for the complexion (unless of course you are allergic to strawberries!). We were guided through the process by our tutor, with ourselves doing the weighing, mixing and very essential paperwork. At the end we had a lovely creamy looking soap with pale green flecks, which we doled out into cupcake papers and set to one side. Sadly, our tutor told us the only type of vegetation that retains its colour in soap and doesn’t go a yellowy-brown is calendula [marigold], which is yellow anyway! As you can faintly see from the blurry cucumber soap below, this is very true.

    Lunch was a lovely vegetarian spread and then it was back into the fray. The afternoon’s practical revolved around colour and scent, and each table got the chance to choose different essential oils, additives and colourants. All the ingredients for the course – including the aforementioned – were natural materials, which I was very pleased about.

    My group chose cedarwood and orange as our essential oils, and red-brown (which turned to the dark pink below), lavender (I was a bit huh? about that one) and green (which as we put rather a lot in, turned to a solid ‘only kids would like this’ bluish green) minerals for colouring. We didn’t add anything other than to the top of the soap as decoration. The finished soaps were again poured into cupcake papers (normally these wouldn’t be used and soap moulds were discussed, but for the workshop we needed lots of samples) and put to the side to set. After a final summary talk, we were each given a selection of the soaps, to go with the course notes and DVD.

    The sampler of soaps made on the day. L to R: Cedarwood scented (dark pink), Goatsmilk with oats – I think (on top), Fresh Cucumber complexion soap (back), Lavender double layer soap (top right), Cedarwood scented (bottom front)

    Now came the hard part – the wait! Rather like alcohol, soap has to mature first before it can be used. The lye in it must completely saponify or you will burn yourself with the unchanged chemicals (eek). It takes about 4 weeks to do so, and should be left in a temperate, airy location to properly dry. Then, after a month you can wash yourself with your own creation. Lovely! Or should that be latherly? (heh)

    I love what the lavender group did with their soap – pretty, isn’t it? I was watching whilst the tutor showed them how, so might give it a whirl some time. I must admit I rather foolishly stuck the soap in a closed plastic container for a week, which meant the condensation made the vegetation on top (dried flowers and slices of orange rind) rot. I had to cut the tops off, as you can see. Though truthfully, I’m not a fan of large hunks of dead vegetation on top of my wash bar.

    I’m quite tempted by the other courses Makesoap Biz runs – how to make liquid soap (I use a lot of this in the bathroom), creams, balms & lotions making (always useful), and how to create natural perfumes (I’m violently allergic to the alcohol in most commercial perfumes, so this looks especially enticing). They also run a course on starting your own soap business for the budding entrepeneur, as well as providing various EU legislation-compliant assessment services. And if you really want to get away from it all and do something creative as well, they hold three day soap making courses in France at Melinda’s restored farmhouse in the Dordogne.

    To anyone that’s interested, I definitely recommend the workshops. Thanks to my day’s tutoring I feel confident I can safely produce my own soap, to my own design of materials and scents, in my own kitchen. This is pretty exciting to me! And I plan to create a batch or two next weekend. Guess what you all are getting for Christmas?

    >Organic on a budget

    >Today is the start of the Soil Association’s Organic Fortnight here in the UK.

    One of the big problems with organic, I personally think, is that it is more expensive than normal food. Monetarily that is – the cost of chemical-sprayed, preservative-full, antibiotic-pumped ‘normal’ food is a hidden one.

    But when it comes to the end of the month and your bank balance (or overdraft) is about to hit rock bottom, it’s really tempting to say, “What the heck!” and go for the tomatoes you know have grown up being sprayed sixteen ways to Sunday with nasty, nasty pesticides – rather than the organic ones that are almost twice the cost…

    If you step back and take a think about it however, perhaps this extra cost isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes you value the food you do buy more, and be less inclined to waste. I must admit I used to be a shocking waster of food. I’d see a lovely assortment of apples, or slice of steak, or bag of brussel sprouts (hey! brussel sprouts lightly steamed, with butter or cream and diced bacon are awesome), buy them, and then just not have the time or energy to cook before they went off. As the saying goes, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach.

    Various recent public campaigns have highlighted this trend, and gave me a bit of a reality check. I’ve always prided myself on being a good cook and a good ecologist, but realised that in this area – actually? Not so much. I’ve since made a concerted effort to plan out my meals and spending so I’m much more efficient, and wastage is kept to a minimum.

    One idea I recently saw was to keep a small notebook by the rubbish/compost bin, and write down what you throw out that could have been eaten. After a month you should hopefully have some idea of the areas that need tightening up.

    And for some other ways of cutting costs and still eating organic, check out the Soil Association article here:

    Organic on a budget

    >Continued from Part 1 below.

    After lunch we got stuck in making the actual oven.

    First the base was paved with fire bricks – these are what the food is baked on, so ordinary bricks don’t work, as they 1. don’t retain heat the same way and 2. would fall apart. Brick crumble – not a good addition to your diet!


    Kate tapping down the fire bricks at the oven mouth

    The cob walls have to be a certain minimum width for the oven to cook properly, and the inside of the oven the correct shape and size and as smooth as possible for optimum air flow and heat distribution. Kate showed us how to work out and build a sand mound of the necessary measurements from slightly damp sand. It looked rather like an old-style beehive to me:


    Measurements for the oven interior

     


    Sand beehive!

    After we’d built and smoothed the mound, it was covered in wet newspaper so the cob wasn’t removed when the sand was removed:


    Smoothed sand with wet newspaper layering

    We then started to build the inner layer of the oven with the strawless cob, carefully pushing handfuls of it against the sand mound and into each other, layer by layer, spiralling up – but remembering to leave a gap for the oven door:


    The first level of the inner layer

     


    The inner layer almost complete

    The outer, insulation layer with the straw needed to be at least four inches thick. We built the layer up in the same way, but this time we got to plonk it on much harder and slap it all together – great fun! Took me back to making mudpies in the yard as a child:


    The outer layer being constructed

    The door blank (a thick slab of wood) was pressed into the layers and an outline cut out with a penknife around it, so that it would fit snugly.


    The door

     


    Door creation

    Any pits were then filled in and smoothed with a trowel until there was an even, pit-less dome. Using a paintbrush and water, the cob was then ‘washed’ to give a final smoothing finish. Then the scraggly edges were removed and smoothed, leaving one beautiful cob oven!


    A bit of final finishing

     


    One beautiful cob oven

    The oven can then be decorated by sculpting more cob on top of the oven. We decided to do a salamander – which is; 1. a lizard, which is an earth creature, 2. a mythical fire elemental, and 3. the name of a medieval kitchen grilling tool. A pretty good pun I thought…

     


    Nena sculpting the salamander’s back

     


    The salamander’s head (I did that bit!)

     


    A short collapse

    When the sculpting is done, we removed the sand from the oven. This helps it dry quicker. You can also paint the oven with lime pigments when it is dry, which takes two weeks. After 1 week of good weather you can light a fire in the interior and that will help the drying. After two weeks you will be able to cook you very own pizza, bread, stew, etc in it.


    Joel shovelling

    And there we have it – one bread oven, ready for business:

     


    L to R: Bren, Rozzie, Derek, Rowan, Nena, Joel and myself (wearing the famous daisy gumboots!). Lil and Ben had to leave a bit early.

     


    Kate not only runs her excellent one day courses on how to build a pizza oven, but also 5 day courses on how to build a cob house. Kate herself lives in a lovely little 200+ year old cob cottage and is building another next to it.

     


    Cottage under construction of Cob and Straw bale with cob rendering

    I was amazed to learn from her that the earliest cob/adobe building that is still in use is a 10,000-year-old building in Jerusalem. Cob has a high thermal mass, and is ideal for houses because it keeps the interior cool in summer and hot in winter, varying only about 1°C.

    It’s very stable as a building material too – cob has a compressive strength of about 5-15 tons per foot! The minimum thickness required for cob structures is 7-8” and house walls are usually about 24″ thick, but there’s no need for a framework in a cob house as it is load-bearing. You can also incorporate other techniques such as straw bale construction with it, as in the cottage above

    I’ve put that down on my agenda for 2011, and am looking forward to it already.

    Check out both courses and some beautiful examples of her work on:

    www.edwardscobbuilding.com


    Bibliography

     

    BENZER, K. Build Your Own Earth Oven Hand Print Press, 2004, 2nd ed. ISBN 0-9679846-0-2

    EVANS, I. & SMITH, M. & SMILEY, L. The Hand Sculpted House Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2002. ISBN 1-890132-34-9. www.chelseagreen.com

    WEISMANN, A & BRYCE, K. Building With Cob: A Step-by-step Guide Green Books Ltd, 2006. www.cobincornwall.com

    >Pink peppercorns

    > I’m particularly fond of the scent and odd, slightly tart resinous flavor of pink peppercorns. They make a lovely contrast in salads, and go particularly well with more delicate poultry, such as poussin.

    Sometimes known as Peppertree or Peruvian Pepper, calling it a ‘peppercorn’ is a misnomer, as they’re not actually a pepper at all, but the berry of the Baies Rose (Schinus molle) plant, a South American tree totally unrelated to Piper nigrum – the producer of white, green and black peppercorns – or indeed any other member of the pepper family. It’s actually more closely related to ragweed!

    Finding a good source is tricky though. The ones I bought on my trip to Hediard in Paris were large, yielding and loose-skinned with an ethereal sweet aroma and beautiful rose-pink sheen. Sadly all the jars I’ve bought in supermarkets previously have been small, hard and flatly-flavored (aka stale), doing this lovely spice no justice at all.

    So I highly recommend only buying them at spice specialists or quality food stores (I must admit to being highly prejudiced against buying spices in ordinary British supermarkets, but history has supported my opinion). Also, if you can, buy organic, as apparently the plants are often sprayed with PE3, a nasty pesticide.

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