Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Swinging flies on the Clackamas

To the Unseeable Animal
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the wood's shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
                         Wendell Berry 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Cassoulet with Pheasant Leg Confit

A pot of cassoulet and confit being browned for serving.
A bit more than two years ago, in a fit of obsessive frenzied desire for confit, I bought a gallon of duck fat.  The internet is an astounding resource for those of us not living anywhere near a major city.  The fat was ordered through Amazon came from Hudson Valley Foie Gras.  A gallon of duck fat cost less than forty dollars but the shipping accounts for 2/3 more again.  I've been keeping mine frozen, but even frozen, fats can go rancid. I'm just now using the last of that stash, it's almost two years later and it is still good.  At the time of my first confit attack I made batches of Canadian Goose, Blue Grouse and Jackrabbit confit.  I occasionally use the duck fat to brown meat for stews but until recently, I have not gone on another confit making binge.

Pheasant legs in duck fat ready for the oven.
Confit (pronounced in English as "con-fee") is a ancient method of preserving meats and goes back at least to the Romans. Traditionally, the meat is salted and rested for a day or more and then submerged in its own fat and simmered in a stoneware pot very slowly until tender.  When stored in a cool place, the fat congeals and forms a barrier against air.  To eat a confit, the pot is heated again until the fat softens and the meat is plucked out and the pot is returned to the cool storage.  Meats preserved in this way and stored in a cool place can be good for months. Most commonly confits are made of duck, goose and pork but rabbits, hares and game birds are excellent. Other fats and oils can be used to make confit and even olive oil.  Of course game birds are lean so do not have enough of their own fat for confit; but if you gave a gallon of duck fat it is an astoundingly rich way to prepare them.  A game bird leg and attached thigh, submerged in fat and slow cooked will not dry out, it just gets falling off the bone tender.

Cassoulet is a baked white bean dish originating in southwest France that often includes, among other things, pork belly, pork rind, pork sausages and duck or goose confit. The bible on confit and cassoulet is Paula Wolfert's book The Cooking of Southwest France.  The one linked to here is a new edition. The book was first published in 1983 and my own copy is an early one which is unfortunately still in a box in my basement waiting for me to build bookshelves.  Wolfert's book popularized these dishes and she acknowledges that there are as many "authentic" cassoulet recipes as there are cassoulet cooks.  Because of the difficulty of obtaining exotic ingredients in  locally I often have to improvise, but that is part of the tradition of the dish.

Other cook books that are on my shelf (and not in boxes) that have confit and cassoulet recipes are Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook,  Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, and Hugh Fearningley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book   Hank Shaw's wild food cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook includes confit recipes for game.  Hank's recipe (also available online here) uses a kind of Sous Vide method which requires the meat be sealed in plastic with just a little of the fat and slow cooked in a water bath; I don't have one of those sealers. Hank uses Olive oil and specifically warns against using duck fat claiming it will overpower the flavor of the pheasant - obviously I don't agree with him.  I'm thinking that the commercial duck fat I'm using must be far milder than what he is used to because the pheasant certainly is not overpowered by ducky flavor it in my experience.

A plate of cassoulet and confit.

I make my cassoulet using the fattiest pork bits I can find. Bourdain uses two pounds of pork belly. This time the best I could find were some fatty loin chops.  Ribs can be good too.  I dusted the chops with flour salt and pepper and browned them in duck fat. Of course if you don't have duck fat, just use some bacon fat. Add the browned chops to the bottom of the pot you will cook the cassoulet in. I cook mine in a large cast iron pot. In the same frying pan, saute a chopped onion and a hand full of garlic cloves. When the onions are browning up nicely, add 1/4 bottle of white wine, a bunch of thyme, salt and fresh pepper.  Let the wine boil for a few minutes and then pour that into the pot over the meat.  Pour in the haricot beans (which have been soaked overnight) and top up with 1/2 trotter gear and 1/2 water - to just cover the beans. If you don't have trotter gear, just use chicken broth.  Put the whole thing in the oven (uncovered) and cook at about 230°F for six to eight hours.

For the confit.  Rub the legs well with salt (this is a salt cure) and sprinkle them with some finely chopped thyme and pepper. Put them into a baggie in the refrigerator overnight while the beans are soaking.  To prepare the leg-thighs for cooking, remove as much of the salt as possible, dab them dry and place them in a casserole dish and cover them with duck fat. Put them into the oven at 230°F for six to eight hours. If they are not completely covered by the fat you may need to turn them occasionally.

When the cassoulet and confit is cooked, finish up the confit by browing the leg-thighs in a hot frying pan.  Serve a leg-thigh with a healthy serving of cassoulet and a bitter salad.  I have previously been publicly chastised for recommending a white wine with this meal but, barbarian that I am, I stand by my recommendation.  Most recommend a hardier red but perhaps because I do not have as much pork fat as some recipes call for (Bourdain wants two pounds of pork belly) my dish is lighter fare.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Trotter Gear Meez

I cook up a batch of Henderson's unctuous stock recipe a couple of times a year and freeze it up in jars for general use in the kitchen.  The recipe is in Henderson's book Beyond Nose to Tail: More omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook. It's what Bourdain might call my kitchen Meez (Mise en Place). He writes about this in his Les Halles Cookbook which has been my go to cookbook for the past couple of years. For me, having a few jars of this stock in the refrigerator is part of being prepared to cook.  When done right, it thickens up into a stock that is jelly at room temperature, you have to melt to use and it adds rich texture to dishes it's used in.  I end up using most of my stock of stock in game stews. I also sometimes use it to as a substitute for demi-glace in recipes that call for it; it has a different flavor from a reduced veal stock which I have not made in many years but which I am thinking I'd like to make sooner than later.  You can not beat the rich texture provided by trotter gear.  One favorite is elk medallions cooked following  Bourdain's Salade d' Onglet recipe using trotter gear instead of demi-glace.

From: Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook by Fergus Hendersona dn Justin Piers Gellatly. Bloomsbury 2007

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Technology in the Field

Elk kit.  But what's that plastic orange thingy on the pack?
I hunt with a 104 year old shotgun and a 50 year old rifle so I would hardly consider myself to be on the cutting edge of technology, but somehow modern technology has slowly but surely found its way into my kit.
*     *    * 

It started with a GPS.  I was hunting elk in the Sierra Madre above Encampment WY and had parked my truck in a pull off on a forest service road.  After a long hunt I navigated back to the road -- duh, just head east and you'll hit the road. Dead tired, I turned left and walked more than a half mile down the road in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake.  Once home I got on the internet and found the least expensive GPS I could. I have used one ever since.  My use is completely unsophisticated, but it's all I need.  When I park the truck I mark the location on the GPS and then turn the thing off and put it in my pack.  I used to park in places where I was more likely to find the truck without trouble, now I can comfortably park it in more hidden locations.  The GPS also turns out to be useful for packing out.  Once the location of the animal is marked, it often turns out that hte shortest route to pack the animal out is not the one you used to hunt it.  This has saved me some miles of hard walking with heavy packs.  Of course, now I have to carry some spare batteries too.

*     *    * 

Estimating distances across narrow canyons is a useful skill for mule deer and elk hunting. I turn out to be a fairly bad at it. Once I realized I really had no intuition for estimating distances a laser range-finder seemed like it a useful tool.  It turns out I'm not terrible at estimating on level ground but that I almost always overestimate the distance across a steep draw.  Two hundred yards just seems to be quite a bit farther when viewed across a chasm than it does on flat ground.  Aside from perhaps holding too high and missing a shot, the downside of overestimating distance is that I might pass on a shot that I thought was too long but which really wasn't.  Generally speaking, 250 yards has been a long shot for me, but with a rangefinder in hand, what might appear to be 300 or 350 yards turns out to be a much shorter distance. My original idea was that I'd carry it around with me before the season started to build my intuition and then to just leave it home.  Of course, now I always carry the rangefinder too. It takes different batteries than the GPS.

*     *    * 

The latest bit of technology I've acquired is a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger. A friend has been carrying one for years but I wasn't much interested until recently.  I'd seen older versions of this type of device in stores and heard the urban legend about the guy who pushed the wrong button in the store and was charged tens of thousand of dollars for a helicopter rescue in the middle of NYC.  The SPOT communicates via satellite so a cell phone signal is not required - which is why it works.

SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger.

I spend a lot of time alone in the wilderness: I mostly hunt alone, I often fish alone, I cut firewood alone, etc.   So, even though I am mostly technology adverse,  I started to think it might not be a bad idea to get one of these gizmos.  Roger is an avid hunter who also spends a lot of time racing around on snow machines in the winter, he absolutely swears by the SPOT.  He used his last winter to avert a full on rescue when he and some friends got stuck out in the field overnight on their snowmobiles.  They found an old cabin so they had shelter for the night.  He sent an "OK" message so his wife and she knew not to call for a rescue which she might well have done otherwise.  He uses the tracking feature to keep an eye on his wife's progress when she's driving long distance across Wyoming in the winter to visit family.   His enthusiasm sold me on getting one.

You pay for the device itself and then pay a yearly service fee to activate it.  When you sign up for service, you can also pay a small additional fee for rescue insurance which covers up to $100K in search and rescue costs.  The device itself has six buttons: an on/off power button (top center), an "I'm OK." button (left center), a on/off tracking button (right center), a "message" button (bottom center), a "help" button on the (left side) and an "SOS" button on (right side).  The "help" and "SOS" buttons have covers over them so you can not accidentally push them.  When you activate the device you set up which messages get sent when you press a button and who receives those message.  You can choose to have messages texted to cell phones or sent to email addresses.  If it gets sent to an email address, the message arrives with the message and a link to a google map pinpointing the location where the button was pressed. Pushing the SOS button will initiate a rescue.

I have to say that toting this thing around this past fall gave me some peace of mind that I did not know I was missing. When I head out I rarely know exactly where I am going to end up and to be able to indicate to family and a few friends where I am is a useful thing and the messages record times and locations which provides a useful record of my season.

Of course the SPOT uses different batteries than the GPS or the range finder.
*     *    * 
Mostly I hate carrying these gizmos.  Bringing technology into the wilderness makes it less wild, but these things have all proven their use when I'm chasing big game.  Unfortunately, these things are all just more stuff for me to keep track of an to break or lose.  Absent minded professor that I am, I seem to be prone to loosing things. I'm a bit too self-conscious to enumerate my loses over the past five years.  I'm almost at the point where I need a larger pack but that's a topic for another day.