Monday, February 27, 2017

The Oscars and Mardi Gras

I went on a date with John Besh over the weekend. I found him quite charming when he was in competition for a position on Iron Chef, so when I needed some guidance on preparing dinner for the Oscar-watch party two days before Mardi Gras, Besh Big Easy was readily available to me.

I love the philosophy behind this book, which is to get more people cooking at home. I love the stories he tells to go along with the recipes. This is not to say the cook book was as reliable as Ina Garten's tend to be. I've got quibbles with both of the recipes I wound up actually using from the book, which I will explain below. Fortunately, I have a friend who lives in New Orleans and got to me via email and Facebook to give me some tips and point me in the right direction. She's also sending me River Road Recipes "the only cook book that Southern women used" which has never been out of print and which professional chefs have been noodling with ever since. Should be interesting.

I expected we would have about 10 people come by to watch the Oscars with us. Then I discovered we would have closer to 20. Part of the plan for the evening was it would be a pot luck, so I did throw out the New Orleans theme pretty early, and almost everyone contributed at least Southern food. There was plenty of food.
Oscar Night Mardi Gras Buffet
 I looked at making four recipes from Besh Big Easy. I wound up making two, since someone else brought a soup, and several people brought desserts (in addition to the King Cake I made.)
Chicken Liver Pate on Toast
I love chopped chicken liver, so Chef Chris' Chicken Liver Pate (page 23) looked like a good bet for an appetizer. The ingredients (chicken livers, eggs, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, celery salt and melted butter are combined in the blender and then baked in a water bath. I liked the idea that it skips hard-boiled eggs and sauteing onions and results in something that looks much more like foie gras. The downside: you can't taste a mixture with raw chicken liver. The problem: the recipe called for 1 tablespoon of salt, on top of the half tablespoon of celery salt. The result: too salty for my taste. When I make it again, and I will definitely make it again, I intend to cut the salt back to a teaspoon.
Duck, Anduille and Oyster Gumbo
 I love duck. I love oysters. Mr. Paul's Duck, Andouille & Oyster Gumbo, page 74, had all the right elements to make me happy. Plus, it called for four quarts of stock, so I figured it would feed a good portion of the crowd (excepting those who won't eat duck or oysters, like my husband.)

The recipe called for a quartered duck which would be browned in the roux. I read that a number of times and thought about all of the fat that would be rendered into the pot and couldn't be saved for later use. It did not make sense.

My friend Lynn Latham, she of residence in New Orleans, found a copy of a similar recipe from Besh on-line and sent it to me. She also said that chicken gumbo sometimes has skin and sometimes doesn't, but she doesn't like the skin floating in gumbo. The recipe dealt with the duck by roasting it first and then adding the meat to the gumbo. So I spatchcocked the duck, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and herbs de provence, and put it into the convection oven. The fat rendered, so I could add it to the duck fat I had in the fridge from our Julia Child cook book club lunch to make the roux and save the rest. My sister and I enjoyed the crisp skin along with the duck wings while we cooked.  I saw no reason to add the cracklings to a stew.

There were other differences between the two recipes, most notably the use of vegetable oil for making the roux and the lack of okra in the cook book version. I think perhaps the chef was trying to adjust the recipe so that people in places where ingredients weren't so readily available would still be able to try it. I did not have wild ducks, of course, but frozen ducks are available at my grocery. (I want to share this recipe with my brother, whose freezer is always well stocked with fish and game he's shot or caught.) The oysters were a little less easy to procure, but I did find them shucked.
Duck, Andouille and Oyster Gumbo over Rice
Even with my issues, the gumbo was delicious served over rice.
I baked bread, but Darla Kershner also brought a huge pan of cornbread to accompany the other food we had, including red beans and rice and collard greens from Liz Mortensen and Ed Green and carrot soup and beet hummus from Gillian Horvath. I also made a roasted pork shoulder (cooked overnight in a very slow oven), Lisa Klink made cheesy grits, Maria Alexander brought turkey chili, and Maria Rodriguez brought a shrimp quiche.
Slow-cooked Pork Shoulder
For dessert, I made a King Cake. Donna Lettow, visiting from Baltimore, found the baby, so she'll just have to come out from Maryland next year to provide the cake. Darla Kershner made banana pudding with 'Nilla Wafers (which I think of as truly Southern.) And Dani and Jeff Yaroslow made wonderful beignets while the rest of us were watching the Oscars.
King Cake
We were well fed and well entertained by the Oscar ceremony. But there was that shocking ending. I feel so sorry for the schlub who gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope and happy that Moonlight beat the light-weight La La Land, even though I was rooting for Hidden Figures to win.

I think I'm going to give John Besh's recipe for bread pudding a go when I next have a crowd for dinner. There's cubed pannettone in the freezer waiting to be used.

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