Cook offs, once the sad and grubby purview of repressed Republican housewives in the Midwest, are now the urbane, retro-chic terroir for the hipster, post-ironic set.
This weekend, Stephen and I attended the Third Annual Greenmarket Cassoulet Cook-Off at Jimmy’s in the East Village. Our friend Lisa entered, with a fierce, traditional, uber-artisanal dish featuring homemade sausage with duck confit, duck liver, pork shoulder, magical white beans, a spirited persillade and bread crumbs toasted in duck fat. (All sourced from heritage animals and local, organic farms, natch).
I helped her cart about 20 pounds of the unctuous, lush stuff over to the back room of Jimmy’s, where we set up a makeshift warming stand and sat down to eat and chat with a few hundred fellow food nerds. A baker’s dozen worth of competitors entered the cook off, and each one was more quirkily outfitted, sweetly countenanced and offered a more aggressively artisanal and offbeat menu of fare than the last.
There’s something magical, corny, lovely and life affirming about a cook off. Much like homemade Twinkies, Jello molds and marshmallow fluff, the cook off seems to belong to a twee-er era of American History, one in which Leave It to Beaver sounded less like a bad porn, and more like a veritable window into American suburban life.
Pre-DDT drama, pre-Silent Spring; post-Depression; post-post Industrial Revolution; a brief blink of God’s eye when the country held its breath, smiled and waited to see what would happen next.
And, yes, even a time when people gathered their food — not just in giant plastic and metal boxes where they’d buy a variety of smaller plastic and metal boxes to put in their plastic and metal driving boxes so they could rush home to unpack their small plastic and metal boxes and put the contents of those small boxes in their cold plastic and metal storage box that sits in a larger plastic and metal kitchen box in their plastic and metal housing box — but in actual, you know. … Markets.
Outside. Where it’s green and other green things grow and die, and one is reminded of the circle of life and dust to dust and that from which we come … yada, yada, Michael Pollan, yada.
At the Greenmarket Cook Off, there was no room, no time, for off-season from across the planet flown asparagus, there was only the here, the now, the warm,the homey, the rich food; the fizzy, the cold, the hoppy beer; the near, the dear, the cozily dressed good friends and fellow travelers.
After many well-spent hours, Stephen and I bid adieu to our Brooklyn-bound friends, waddled home to White Plains, full of rich meat, beans, small-batch beers, hot air.
I woke up the next day, feeling re-invigorated and newly inspired to cook and eat seasonally, take a few extra minutes in the kitchen to make each meal special, and to remember to celebrate each meal, whenever possible, with friends. Oh, and monter au buerre, darling.
This week, I made Braised Brussels Sprouts (with extra canneloni beans and an added dash of fat at the end to make it a mini meal in and of itself), Roasted and Brined Chicken (sick of the interminably rubbery and flab-ladden results I get from traditionally sauteed and roasted chickens, I decided to try brining on for size) and Pickled Winter Veg (to enliven salads, sandwiches and meats in the dull, cold nights when I can’t muster the zest for life to cook a proper meal). Click on for recipes and pictures.
Braised Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Makes 4 servings
- 1 TBSP olive oil, divided
- 2 heaping cups Brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 15-ounce can cannellini beans
- 1 TBSP butter
- 2 ounces Pecorino Romano (or other salty hard cheese), grated coarsely
- Heat 2 tsp oil in large heavy skillet over high heat. When hot hot hot but not smoking, add Brussels sporuts. Cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove to bowl and set aside.
- Add remaining 1 tsp oil to skillet, add garlic, sautee until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add broth and cooked sprouts. Cook until browned and crispy, stirring quite a bit. Add beans and butter. Stir until butter and broth is a syrupy, golden, glazed-over, but still liquid-y. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Throw back in bowl, add cheese and serve.
Nutritional breakdown for Braised Brussels Sporuts: 200 calories and 11 grams of fat per serving. Full of fiber, protein, Vitamins A, C, K, B6, Iron, Copper, Magnesium. Low in saturated fat.
Cost breakdown for Braised Brussels Sprouts: About $5, or $1.25 per serving. (I had butter and spices at home).
Verdict / In the Future: Stephen would prefer to lock himself in a closet with a band of rabid monkeys than eat Brussels Sprouts, cheese and butter (my usual weapons of culinary appeasement) be damned. The blind fool! I adore the mellifluous melody of the nutty, crispy, swampy sprouts and the soft, lush, buttery beans and the rich, salty cheese. The butter, broth and olive oil tie the dish together — alone or over brown rice, this is a great dish on its own and it reheats quite well, with a spritz of lemon for freshness.
Brined and Roasted Chicken
Makes 6 servings
For the brine:
- 1 gallon of water
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 cups kosher salt
- 1 TBSP yellow mustard seed
- 2 TBSP crushed black pepper
- 4 cloves unpeeled garlic cloves
- 1 tsp dried thyme or 1 TBSP fresh tarragon, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup rice vinegar, unseasoned
Method for the brine:
- Put all ingredients in large stock pot (small enough to fit in the fridge, make room now!) and bring to boil.
- Remove from heat and let cool. This takes a long time. Be patient, don’t rush it.
- Add chicken breasts and thighs (skin on) and submerge.
- Refrigerate and brine for 24-48 hours.
- Remove chicken, pat dry before cooking. Discard brine.
For the chicken:
- 2 chicken breasts, 4 thighs (brined as above)
- salt and pepper, to taste + 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 or more TBSP olive oil
Method for the chicken:
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- Heat 1 TBSP olive oil in large skillet over high heat.
- Season the dried chicken with spices and put as many pieces of chicken as will comfortably fit in pan when hot. Make sure there’s plenty of room between pieces of chicken; if the pan is too crowded, the chicken will steam, and the skin will taste like thick saran wrap. Do this in batches and take your time.
- Sear until golden brown on each side.
- Remove to baking sheet; when all chicken is seared, put in oven.
- Cook for about 20 minutes, flipping once. Check for doneness after about 12-15 minutes. Cut through the bottom of each type of cut to determine if chicken is cooked through; no pinkness should remain, but don’t overcook it because the brine-tenderized meat will be dry.
Ingredients for the sauce:
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Makes enough for 6 servings
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 TBSP Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp dried tarragon or 1 TBSP fresh
Method for the sauce:
- Remove excess fat from saute pan.
- Pour in wine, reduce by half (about 1 minute).
- Whisk in cream, mustard, tarragon, salt pepper. Simmer until thickened, about 1-2 minutes.
- Keep warm until ready to plate, stirring occasionally.
To assemble plate: Spoon a few healthy ladels of sauce onto a warm plate. Put chicken either behind or on top of sauce. Add more sauce to chicken, if you’d like. Dot the plate with pickled vegetables (recipe below).
Nutritional breakdown for Roasted and Brined Chicken: (This is an approximation; depending on how hot your pan is, your chicken may absorb more or less oil in the cooking process. Also, I have to fess up: I can’t figure out how many calories from the brine the chicken soaks up; I made my best educated estimate). About 350 calories and 12 grams of fat per serving, including sauce and pickled veg. A heaping serving of protein, iron, selenium. Also high in cholesterol and moderately high in saturated fat, which can be remedied if you nix the cream sauce, but really, what fun would that be?
Cost breakdown for Brined and Roasted Chicken: Here’s the deal. Cheap chicken sucks. There’s no getting around that, folks. The widely bemoaned and denounced factory farming practices that produce most of the chickens in our country are, forgive the pun, completely foul. And the meat bears an insipid, flabby stamp of their perfidy. So, if you want chicken that tastes like chicken, be prepared to pay what it actually should cost to raise a chicken that has room to run and doesn’t eat filth. In other words, this cost about $16, and I had the spices, brine and everything for the sauce at home. But still, that’s only about $2.67 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: “This is the best chicken. The best chicken I can remember in … years. It tastes like … chicken. The first bite is total chicken — then for a second it tastes really salty, then the sweetness of the brine hits you, then it’s just a melding of layers of flavor that, are, for lack of a better term, chicken-y. I am a huge fan of this thing you call brining. Whatever that pot was taking up all the room in the fridge. Brining, right?” This extended soliloquy brought to you by my husband Stephen.
Pickled Winter Veg
Makes 10 or more servings
- 4 shallots, peeled and sliced very thin
- 1 large carrot, peeled and sliced very thin on an angle (NOTE: cauliflower, any type of onion, and most root vegetables would also work in this recipe)
- 1 star anise
- 1/3 cup Dubonnet (Port wine would work too)
- 1 cup rice vinegar, unseasoned (white wine or Champagne vinegar would work too; red wine or cider vinegar in a pinch)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 TBSP water
- 1/2 TBSP salt
- Toast star anise in medium saucepan and set aside.
- Pour Dubonnet into saucepan, reduce by half.
- Add all the other ingredients (except sliced veg), plus the star anise, to pot. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cook for about 3 minutes.
- Cool, pour over vegetables and put in refrigerator-safe container. Eat within one week.
Nutritional breakdown for Pickled Winter Veg: About 20 calories and 0 grams of fat per serving. Full of Vitamins A, C, B6, folate, potassium, antioxidants.
Cost breakdown for Pickled Winter Veg: I had everything on hand (you probably do too), but even if I had to buy most of it, this would be super, ridiculously cheap.
Verdict / In the Future: Home pickling is fun, cheap and so much tastier than the store-bought alternative. The artisanal pickles on the market, are, admittedly, better than mine (so far!) — but they’re not worth the $8 price tag, unless I need them for something super specific. The only issue is storage. I don’t have official pickling jars, and until I do — and I master the art of pickling — I’m only going to make them in batches that I can eat within a week. You should too!