Thursday, October 8, 2009

Puff Pastry, or, Isn't It About Time To Get Ready For Hibernation?

A group of friends gathered at my place last Sunday to do the usual: talk about food and eat plenty of it, along with some nice wine, beer and cider. The catalyst for the get-together was to simply talk about a project we are all working on, but when you get these people together, you can't help but put out a big spread. 'Cause you know they're going to be bringing some tasty stuff, too.

So I had a bunch of food in the larder when this thing got planned. And why go drop a lot of cash at the market when I have so much at home? Let's see. I had about a pound of left over beef tenderloin from an event I worked; barely seared, which was in my favor. I also had, in the freezer, a filling I had made from a friend's old chicken. (He had let this chicken run loose on his farm for a long, long time; thus the chicken, when it was given to me, weighed about 10 pounds cleaned and gutted. That's like a turkey, and far heavier than the 3-4 pound fryers one usually finds. This also means the meat was a lot tougher, but also a lot more flavorful. Some might call it gamy. All in all, it tasted like chicken is supposed to taste: like chicken. I remember roasting a heritage turkey at Thanksgiving one year, free range, and so many of the people eating it, who were used to the usual bland Butterball turkey, said it tasted "weird". In fact, it tasted like turkey, and many people haven't been exposed to that in the past 50 years of industrialized meat production. The chicken I used in this meal, however, was deliciously well developed; I ground the legs and mixed the meat with scallions, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce.) Another friend had brought me some ham steaks, and I had, coincidentally, been stewing some lima beans and kidney beans with some onions and carrots and garlic, and a great big smoked ham hock. And a Miller High Life. And I did pick up some salami and St. Andre cheese and a big loaf of french bread to start things out.

So, people arrived, bearing fresh figs and more cheese (Roquefort and another triple cream, I believe) and a beautiful hard Apple Cider from Michigan which would serve as dessert; a hoppy 3 Floyds beer and the makings for a rich, unctuous "salad" also showed up. Naturally, we popped a bottle of champagne and dug into the cheese and salami.

I had decided, the day before, that I would turn the beef into pot pies, and thus decided to make some puff pastry. It can be daunting to think of making puff pastry at home, and it can border on being one of those things that is better when bought, made by people who make it for a living. But hey, it had been awhile, and I was in the mood to make it. And I had remembered seeing a pretty good looking recipe for it in Saveur at one point. And for those of you not familiar with the process, it is similar to that of croissants: rolling dough out with lots of butter, then making a series of folds that create exponential layers of dough separated by thin layers of butter (81 layers are created when making croissants). Lots of work, but really worth it. And when the dough is baked, moisture in the butter basically separates the layers of dough, and the crust puffs up, making the ever so texturally interesting light, crispy layers that are puff pastry. Just think of apple turnovers.

So, on the big day I sauteed some carrots, onions, turnips and beets in butter, got 'em nice and soft and added some flour, then some red wine, beef stock, parsley and thyme. This made a nice, unctuous, gooey stew, which I ladled into individual bowls. I rolled my pastry out and laid it over each bowl, brushing it with an egg wash, and into the oven it went. It came out nice and puffed up, a delicately crispy crust over that thick stew. Perfect timing, too--sun was cascading into my place by that point, and as we broke through the pastry into the stew, steam came billowing out for the ultimate in cozy effects. Hearty as an appetizer, wouldn't you say? It's okay, 'cause we had a big Bordeaux to wash it down.

Next came the rich salad my friend made: caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms, roasted radicchio (yes, roasted!), goat cheese and mint.Heavy for a salad, hence the quotes used above. But tasty; freshened and lightened up by the mint. A good second gear in this first fall feast.

Now, for that chicken leg filling I had. I decided to make tortellini with it, and simply serve it in chicken broth. Not having any on hand, I got some broth from the store, and simmered it on the lowest of heat for a couple of hours, fortified with some onion, carrot, and plenty of herbs. I made some fresh pasta and rolled it out, cut it, filled it, and formed the tortellini. It was a nice moment in the kitchen, a couple of us in there, my buddy working on his salad and me forming the torts, champagne flowing. Reminded me of one Thanksgiving where a chef friend of mine came over, and we spent the entire day cooking all kinds of food, drinking all kinds of wine; no one being "cheffy" and stepping on anyone's toes--a perfect day of cooking. Anyway, the tortellini were simmered in that broth, then served in the broth with scallions and parsley on top.
Which brought us to those ham steaks, and those beans. The beans were nice and soft by now, and I slowly cooked the thick (about 1 1/2 inches!) ham in my cast iron skillet 'till it was nice and browned. Sliced it and put it on top of those beans, alongside a sweet potato gratin (thinly sliced sweet potatoes, grana padano cheese, and cream that had been warmed with onions, herbs, and scraps of the sweet potatoes, baked nice and slow until thick and bubbly), and a maple-mustard sauce made of, well, maple syrup and whole grain mustard. It ain't rocket science to see that would go well with ham. We ate this with that beer my friend brought, and finished the meal out with the cheese and figs, and the hard cider. A perfect fall meal.

Naturally, all the excitement got me riled up to go have some more beer at the Hop Leaf (I, for one, can't wait until the fireplace gets lit in there on a daily basis), which we did, where we met some more friends; after awhile, I forced us all back to my place where I insisted on making a plate for my underfed college student friend who I try to feed any chance I get in the hope he won't waste away over the winter.

And the leftovers? Well, I did have some puff pastry left a couple of days later. And some of that tenderloin. And the beans. Tons of beans. So I wrapped the beef in the puff pastry and baked it, and put it on top of the beans. So I'm staying well fed as the winter approaches. This is a time where I eat like mad; some ancient survival technique is what I tell myself. I think we all know better.

And, looking to the weeks ahead, any of you who haven't already expressed interest to me in the lamb dinner (, please do so as plans are coming together for that as we speak!