Summer cooking

Cooking has always been a big part of my life. As far back as my elementary school days I would come home from school and watch Graham Kerr, the Aussie “Galloping Gourmet” on TV. But for much of the past year I have not been cooking due to travel and an inadequate kitchen. That all changed when I took an apartment with a gas stove (I really don’t like electric stoves) in downtown St. Petersburg in May. Since then I have been having a great run.

My most recent concoction was a confit of a lamb leg. The most common confit is duck but anything goes in my kitchen. To confit an item, you cook it slowly while immersed in fat. Bacteria are killed and the fat makes a lid that prohibits the entry of more bacteria, giving it a very long storage life.

I took a de-boned leg of lamb and pulled it apart along the muscle seams and removed the fat and silverskin, the tough stuff that holds meat together. The fat, silver skin, rosemary, and avocado leaves redolent of a light licorice flavor went into a pot on the stove with a pint of water. I slowly cooked it down over a few hours, adding water when needed, to render the fat into liquid. which was strained and stored in the fridge.

Meanwhile I put the lamb, now in pieces about the size of eggs, into a marinade of olive oil, garlic, salt, black pepper and more of the rosemary and pulverized avocado leaves. The lamb spent two days in the fridge.

The marinaded lamb and the rendered lamb fat went into an oven safe covered pot and baked at 250 degrees F for four or five hours. It comes out soft and tender, not oily at all. It is great to eat immediately and it is even better in other dishes. Part of this batch went into a pizza with re-hydrated dried figs, grapes that I pickled in balsamic and cloves, blue cheese, mushrooms and sautéed onion. Another part of the batch was seared on the stove top and used in tortilla rollups with veggies.

Making a confit is great because you can store cooked meat in the fridge for weeks if it remains submerged in the cooking fat. There is a layer of fat on top and another layer of the meat surrounded by a luscious thick sauce. I have also made a confit of garlic with a much shorter cooking time using olive oil resulting in an insanely soft garlic spread. Next up will be a confit of fresh veggies, probably tomatoes and I am considering a fruit confit.

The pickled grapes showed up in a few other dishes this summer, especially salads. If you don’t use them quickly, cook the alcohol off of some cheap white wine and add it to the pickling liquid to make sure the grapes are not too tangy.

My flat is a short drive to an Asian mega-market which I frequent, so variations on rice noodles have been a big part of my summer fare. I fell in with a MeetUp group this year that has had three pool parties at one member’s condo so I found an audience for my food. I had some homemade lobster stock in my freezer and made a Viet inspired rice noodle dish with spiced canned crab meet, lemongrass, ginger, galangal and veggies. The Asian ingredients also let me make a true tom kha gai, a chicken broth and coconut milk soup loaded with spices, chicken and veggies.

For a July 4th party I made the outrageously rich Oaxacan mashed potatoes. Peeled, boiled and mashed potatoes with mustard, sour cream, olives, onions, capers, diced pickled jalapenos, onions and raisins baked a second time into a creamy pile of ultra-flavorful fluff.

I made chicken vin cotto, chicken in cooked wine, for my first MeetUp party. A bottle of cheap red wine, 12 ounces of honey and a stick of cinnamon are simmered until the sauce is thick. Remove the cinnamon stick and add a pint of red wine vinegar and further cook it until the scent of vinegar is no longer present. Add slivered almonds, capers, olives and raisins or dried cranberries. Meanwhile, sear some bonless skinless chicken thighs on the stove top. Add them to the cooked wine and finish them off on the stove. I made a veggie risotto to serve them on but simple white rice would be fine also. By the way, I always brine my chicken for a day or two and usually use thighs, not breasts, to make sure the chicken is moist and tender. Mashed sweet potatoes with canned chipotles was a good side dish.

While I am not usually a dessert guy, I made a few passion fruit pies with a guava glaze, tangy and fruity, the kind of dessert that tastes great licking it from your fingers.

There was a lot of other food that passed through my kitchen this summer and more is to come. Any visitors to my place can put in their requests here.

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About Jim Marzilli

Jim Marzilli combines expertise in economic, energy and environmental policy with a deep understanding of public policy and politics. He has strong political campaign, organizing, networking, media and communication skills. He played a unique role for eighteen years as an elected official in state government, working nationally and internationally with sub-national and national governments, NGOs and businesses. He left state government in 2008 and went to Iraq to work on a democracy building program. He spent the winters of 2013 and 2014 working in Burma/Myanmar with people who are trying to expand democracy in their country.
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