24 December 2006

Benito vs. the Produce Section: Fingerling Potatoes

OK, not the strangest thing I've cooked, but I couldn't pass these up. One of the local grocery stores got in a shipment of mixed 1½lb bags of Melissa's potatoes, representing small versions of four heirloom potato varieties.

How did I choose to prepare them? Left the skins on, cut into one inch chunks, pan-fried in duck fat, and then tossed with French grey salt and some of my homegrown rosemary. Looking at the finished product speaks volumes about the history of potatoes and their preparation. There are many old and variously colored varieties of potatoes, and yes, they may have been harvested when tiny or large or somewhere inbetween. Likewise, in the decades before the 90s, the high art of cooking tubers seemed to culminate in one bland ideal, the perfectly white and smooth dollop of mashed potatoes, topped with one of three items: butter, white gravy, or brown gravy.

I'm not knocking that preparation, and Lord knows I'm getting hungry just writing about it (Mom made awesome creamed potatoes), but I appreciate the 90s California cuisine revolution that made it OK to leave some skins on with your roughly mashed potatoes, mix and match varieties, and even throw in herbs, olive oil, and roasted garlic if wanted. Likewise, these days people seem to be paying more attention to their potatoes and realizing that there is life beyond the Idaho russet. In particular, I love the thumb-sized new potatoes that pop up in the farmer's market in the spring.

For the wine, we drank the 2003 Lyeth Meritage from Sonoma County, California. Dark berry aromas, similar flavors. Well balanced, if not complex. Firm tannins, long finish. Could probably use a bit of age on it. I decanted it a half hour before dinner, into the glasses and with the leftover in a glass measuring cup. Lo and behold, that very night I received a nice glass decanter as a Christmas present. Thanks Paul!

I'm a fan of the Meritage movement in California, and it's lucky they agreed on a name for Bordeaux blends before it became legally problematic to use the term claret. (By the way, I agree with the restrictions on Champagne and some of the other regional names, but I think that claret is a fairly generic term that shouldn't have been included.)

Here's the final plate. I quartered a duck and put it on the smoker for nearly three hours. Nothing but hickory, which turned out to be a mistake. It ended up being a little heavy on the smoke flavor, and the waterfowl probably would have matched better with a mild fruit wood like apple. However, this had the additional impact of giving a ham-like flavor to the outer layer of the meat. Imagine roast duck wrapped in bacon. Then there's a little rapini cooked down in some homemade turkey stock. A little bitter, but a pleasant counterpoint to the other flavors on the plate.

As for the potatoes? Phenomenal. I've read that the best fat for frying potatoes is rendered horse fat, but it's difficult to obtain here in the States, and the ethics of consuming horse products is a topic I'd really rather not bring up on this site. After that, such products as beef tallow and goose or duck fat are highly recommended, if prohibitively expensive for most restaurants (plus, animal fats have a much shorter lifespan and lower smoke point than things like peanut oil). When buying a duck, you get a lot of excess fat from the neck, tail, and thighs that must be trimmed away before cooking and that can then be rendered out if desired. (I save the neck, wings, and bones for stock.) Those scraps provided a little over half a cup of duck fat, plenty to nicely caramelize the potatoes. They were nice and crispy, with a delicious hint of sweetness. And the salt and rosemary made it even better.


Allen said...

Great meal, photo's and story. Merry Christmas and keep the food and wine coming.

Big Mike said...

Merry Christmas Ben! Great potato's. You can get them in a 5 pound bag at Costco... I love them. Lets get together soon and maybe even invite the folks..
May your new year bring success and everything you wish for.