Am I less of a cook if I get it frozen from the supermarket?by Wendell Steavenson / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
My boyfriend Adrien came back from a day of shooting in the drizzling French countryside with a heavy bag containing two pheasant, two mallard ducks and four little brown partridges. I took them out and laid them on the kitchen counter. Iridescent feathers, heads bright with flashes of blue and red, now limp. They were dead but very beautiful. I set to plucking.
I have only plucked a bird once before but it is not difficult. Like so many operations in the kitchen, the trick is to be gentle but firm. It was an intimate experience, sharply pulling up the strong angular tail plumes, burrowing my hands through the softest filaments of down. I traced the contours of body and flight with my fingertips, stretched out wings and cut them off with a pair of kitchen shears. I felt only a little bit guilty.
I prepared one of the robust ducks and a delicate partridge, pulled out their viscera and kept the hearts and livers for my morning toast. I pan fried the whole birds for colour, then roasted them in the oven and laid them on a bed of pommes de terre boulangère, potato gratin made with stock instead of cream. They were pink and delicious.
But what to do with the rest of the birds? The surfeit haul. How to eke out the abundance through the winter. I thought about pâté. But how do you make it? “Just take them to the charcuterie,” said Adrien, with a mild pleading in his voice. The kitchen was already covered with clots of blood and feathers.
Is it always better to make something yourself than to buy it ready-made? Why do I make my own puff pastry: a whole afternoon of rolling out dough and butter, re-rolling, folding, refolding, refrigerating, repeat. Am I less of a cook if I get it frozen from the supermarket? I think I make my own mayonnaise and chutney and cakes and pizza because my versions taste better than ready-bought. My pastry is all-butter, my mayonnaise pure egg yolk and mustard and grassy-bitter from good olive oil; I make a ginger cake with four kinds of ginger so that the zing will blow your head off and my pizza is super thin and covered in molten lava tomato and gooey buffalo mozzarella. But, also, some masochistic impulse insists I should be doing everything from scratch: jamming my own jam, fermenting sauerkraut and yoghurt on the window- sill, learning the intricacies of patisserie so that I can get up at 3am and begin the process for baking home-made croissants for my guests. And then I catch myself and think: why am I cooking this when I could buy it? At what point does perfectly normal foodie-fad-fetish tip over into madness?
I felt a little bad going to the charcuterie—Léautey, in Paris’s 17th arrondissement. The charcuterie is a traiteur, a French invention, a purveyor of ready-made supper, as well as a curious mix of saucisson and jambon and terrines. Pop in on your way home for cooked globe artichokes or mushrooms à la grecque and be seduced by the array of pâtés and galantines and crépinettes, all glistening enticingly under a generous nap of glossy brown jelly. The shop’s owner Christophe Léautey took my heavy bags of dead birds and smiled broadly. “Oh wonderful! This will make a lot of terrine! Come back in a week.”
Three big glass jars, six smaller glass jars and two giant loaf-shaped terrines. I could not carry it all and had to get a taxi home. That evening, Adrien and I ate a whole pot at a single sitting. It was smooth-rough, lightly gamey-meaty-liverish with a mushroomy woodland scent and globs of golden jelly hidden in crevices. Yum.
Christophe gave me a couple of pointers (“It’s simple!” he winked) and the following weekend I endeavoured to make my own terrine. This was the test. Should one try to master new techniques or simply defer to the masters? I smooshed together chicken livers and smoked bacon and mushrooms to make a creamy paste. I whizzed wild duck breasts in the Magimix. An egg, salt, pepper, a little brandy. Then, as directed, I mixed well with my fingers to “stretch the proteins in the meat.” I put the mixture in a pudding basin and baked it in a bain marie. It came out brown and shrivelled. By the next morning it had developed a grim rim of fat and a soggy gelatinous bottom which looked like the scrapings from a tin of cat food.
Adrien looked suspiciously at the grey wedge I put in front of him. It tasted like cold meatloaf. “Luckily we still have eight kilos of Christophe’s good stuff in the fridge,” he said. He did not add the obvious follow-up—“You really didn’t need to bother making it yourself.”