So if you’re looking for a meal that you can cook at home, which isn’t too hard in terms of technique or ingredients, but which will strike your friends as fancy as heck, let me suggest you consider doing a menu that’s based around a duck.

Duck is one of those proteins that most folks never get around to experimenting with at home, so it has a kind of implication of the exotic.  It’s also fairly easy to work with (assuming, of course, you’re not uncomfortable working with a whole bird).  Additionally, you’ve got the added benefit that when you cook a duck, you get as a by-product a whole bunch of beautiful, golden duck fat, which you can use for a variety of other stuff for the next month or two.  If you buy rendered duck fat on it’s own, it’s a fairly expensive proposition.  Amazon has it for $15 a bottle, for instance.  That’s the cost of an entire frozen duck.

I like to prepare my duck two ways — I sauté the breasts in a pan, and I do the rest of the meat as a kind of mock confit.

An arugala salad with duck skin cracklings and a duck fat vinegarette

An arugala salad with duck skin cracklings and a duck fat vinegarette

You break down the duck, and strip off all the skin and fat that’s left on the carcass (leave some of the skin and fat on the legs, thighs, and wings).  Cut all the skin and fat in to small morsels, then render them in a low pan for about 30 minutes or so.  All the little bits get brown and crunchy, and all the fat melts out.  Strain it out, keep the fat, and the crackly brown bits are yours to use as you like.  I like to add them to the salad, for instance.  They’re like little chicharrones. Pro-tip — use some of that duck fat when you make the salad dressing, too.  Just sub it in instead of olive oil.

Take the duck breasts and set them aside.  The rest of the duck pieces go into a baking dish, skin side up.  Salt and pepper them generously, add a little thyme or whatever herbs you like.  Pour the reserved duck fat over the meat; you should have enough to nearly cover it, but not quite.  Then stick that bad boy in the oven at about 300 degrees for about two, maybe two and a half hours.

That long, slow heat draws even more of the duck fat out, and the skin crisps up slowly.  The meat itself takes on this velvety, luscious quality from practically poaching in the fat.

Then, before you serve, slash the layer of fat on the duck breasts in several places, and sauté the duck breasts skin side down in a medium pan.  Flip them once, after the skin has gotten a deep brown.  Shoot for cooking them a little less than you think they need; if they’re medium, they’re perfect.

Slice the breast, serve it with some of the confit, and boom, duck two ways.  Make a little pan sauce if you like to serve with the breast meat.

Here’s how it looked when I served it with some fresh asparagus and turnips from the farmer’s market:


Not to mention, you’ve probably still got some duck bones and carcass left. Throw that in the stock pot, make up a slow-cooked batch of duck stock, and then freeze that shit. Next time you’re making a soup or a sauce or a risotto or something, reach for the duck stock and push the awesomeness to the next level.

If it’s value you’re interested in, you can hardly beat duck. One bird goes a long way in terms of ingredients.  By the time you’ve used up everything you’ve made, you’ll have cooked at least four or five high-quality dishes, and probably more than that.

So, I honestly can’t believe it took me so long to figure this trick out.

If you’re like me, you’ve made hamburgers or cheeseburgers at home plenty of times.  And, if you’re like me, you’ve learned to unplug the battery from the smoke detector before you start cooking the patties because it’s going to undoubtedly smoke up the house a little.  There’s even an episode of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home in which Julia Child jokes that the best place to cook hamburgers is at your friend’s house, because it’s inevitably going to smoke the place up.

I mean, you want to get a good sear on those things, and since it’s ground meat, you definitely want to get it cooked well.  Beef fat’s got a low smoke point, though, so by the time the patty is cooked, the beef fat has started to burn, and you end up smoking everything up.

But it turns out the secret is simple.  For years and years, I’ve just thrown the patties into a dry pan because I knew they’d render plenty of fat when they cook, and I didn’t see any reason to add more fat.  But the secret is to use a little bit of oil with a high smoke point to get the patties started.  Just pour in maybe two or three teaspoons of something like canola oil into the pan (I prefer cast iron) before you put the burgers in, and that will raise the smoke point of the beef fat which renders as the patty cooks.

Simple and brilliant, and makes it much more convenient to cook hamburgers at home in a small apartment kitchen.

The friendly Irish pub in my neighborhood hosted a little chili cook-off last night.  Naturally, I assumed it was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, but apparently it was really about some kind of sporting event.
I felt pretty good about my entry, but alas, it seems that my palate is not so finely tuned to the average tastes as I thought.  I used all the tricks in my book for maximum flavor; I used five different chilis to make the base, I maximized glutamates, I slow-cooked the heck out of it for optimal tenderness, I finished it with masa to thicken it up, I made sure it was pretty darn spicy, but not so spicy that it gave you hiccups ….
But for all that, I came in fifth place.  Out of seven.  Philistines.

The nice thing about a crock pot is that you pretty much can’t go wrong with it.

If you’re like me, you often find yourself with lots of little bits of stuff to get rid of, and the crockpot is great for that.  Clean out your fridge in the morning, have nice fresh dinner waiting for you in the evening.

And so it happened I found myself in just such a position last week.  I wasn’t about to go out and buy groceries; we’ve been stuck in a polar vortex this winter, and it was several degrees below zero, with several inches of fresh snow on the ground.  I decided to work from home, rather than running the gauntlet of commuting in such terrible weather.  I took a break in the morning time and threw together this tasty crockpot soup:

A chicken breast.
Half a carrot, chopped up.
A can of corn.
A big handful of dried black beans.
A banged-up stalk of lemongrass.
Enough chicken stock to cover.

Let it cook a long ass time. (~6-12 hours on high) You’ll know when it’s done because the beans will be soft.

Add a dollop of barbeque sauce.
Add in some curry powder. A healthy amount.
Add some chili powder.
Add about a half can of coconut milk, and let that go a while longer.
After that all tastes delicious, finish with a couple of tablespoons of masa to thicken it up, and let it go another 10 min.

This is also what’s known as the “cleaning out the fridge” style of slow-cooking. If it were kung fu, it’d be Vulture Claw style.


Hey, it’s not molecular gastronomy, alright? It’s a cheap-as-dirt weeknight dinner. You know you’d eat it.

Look, let’s not lie to each other. Sometimes humans eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. (Kraft Dinner, if you live in a country that cares about the proper status of cheese in culture.)  But come on — it’s like a dollar a package, anyone can make it, and it fills you up.  Sure, there’s nothing even approaching real cheese that’s ever been anywhere near it.  It’s the very epitome of American low-brow cuisine, utterly unpretentious in every way.

You eat it.  You’re not proud of it, but you eat it.

It needn’t be like that; don’t be the fool who just follows the directions on the package.  Do it up right. It can be pretty good eating, if you take the time to customize it.

  • Put some real cheese in there. You know, whatever you’ve got in the fridge, just at the end when you’re mixing in the orange powder. Fresh.
  • Cut up some smoked sausage or chorizo and throw that shit in there.  Fry it first, to get all the edges nice and browned.  That’s where the flavor lives.
  • Use cream instead of milk. What, are you worried about getting fat or something?
  • Why not chop up a tomato and mix that sucker in there? I like the Roma ones, but even a can of diced tomatoes would do in a pinch.
  • Got a little bottle of liquid smoke in the fridge? Drop a few drops in, and prepare to have your mind blown.  Or hell, maybe  dash of smoked paprika and cumin. Mm mm!
  • And this is my new favorite.  Make it according to the package instructions, but then, just before you serve it, spoon in a couple of tablespoons of Mexican crema. I suppose you can use sour cream if you want, but honestly, I don’t know why anyone would buy the regular kind if you can get the Mexican version instead. It imparts an awesome, tangy, smooth creaminess that’s just fantastic.