Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Getting An Ugly Dude Dressed Up For The Big Night, or, The Dark Side Of The Nutmeg

Do you like Celeriac a/k/a Celery Root? I do, and when I bought it the other day, the lady putting it in the bag had no idea what it was. Naturally, I spent the next 5 minutes explaining it to her--how it has a strong celery flavor, and is the root of a celery plant, though not the celery that we eat. How when peeled and sliced nice and thin, it is great raw; how when cooked low and slow it has a sweet, creamy celery flavor. She seemed pretty excited about it; maybe she was just frightened by my excitement. Anyway, I took my bag and went home, as I had a big, long night ahead.
It was Christmas eve; I was due at a friend's house for a large gathering. He and another friend had a whole black bass packed in a salt crust in the oven; short ribs were braising; creamy little polenta cakes baking; a controversial but decadent pancetta macaroni and cheese bubbling. I shaved my celeriac nice and thin, tossed it with minced serrano chile, thyme and cream, and baked the whole thing in a gooey gratin with the nutmeg pictured above shaved on top. Strong celery flavors, a touch of heat, herby-ness and unctuousness. As you can tell, this was a rich dinner, and, on Christmas eve, rightfully so; thus I decided to bring something else to cut all the fat: wilted chicory. Not the kind those of you in the South put in your coffee; this was the endive form of it. A bitter green, types of which include radicchio and the mild Belgian endive; the one I used was tall with white-to-green leaves, and quite bitter.
I got the cast iron out, still slick from frying that sausage for that sauce a couple weeks ago, got it super hot and put some olive oil in. Fried some red chile flake and whole cloves of garlic for a bit; removed the garlic (keep it and munch on it 'cause it's good) and threw in the greens. Just hammered them. Super fast; then I added some of my homemade red wine vinegar and another drizzle of olive oil and let it cool down. Packed it all into a mason jar (2 bunches squished down into one pint jar), and we served it room temperature. A great, sharp foil to all the richness that evening.
Which led into some gorgeous pastries brought by some other guests who happen to make some of the best pastries I have ever eaten, no joke. And of course, we all ended up talking into the night, drinking beer and whiskey after all the great red wine. Cuban cigars were produced at one point, and we indulged. Heavily. It made for a groggy brunch the next day, one more of recovery than celebration, but it was completely worth it. More meals should be like this. Not the indulgence part--but the warmth part. The sharing part. The "everyone has something to offer" part. So often I hear, "I don't know what to make" or "I don't know what to bring". Everyone can make something. And if you really think you can't, it's your chance to learn. Give it a shot. You'll find it's easier than you think. And if things should go wrong somewhere along the way, learn from it. I've bungled countless meals. But that's where we grow as cooks, and as humans.

And about that lamb stock I've been going on about. It's in its final state (before, that is, I put it into something and gobble it up): In cube form, in a ziplock bag, in my freezer. Little cubes of super flavor. Up next: a pork stock I made after excitedly finding pork neck bones, cheap, nearby. Rest assured that'll be going into the New Year's Hoppin' John.