Beans again? Here’s how to gussy ’em up
March 13, 2006
“Brokeback Mountain” is a beautiful movie: poignantly told, splendidly acted and gorgeously photographed. It’s got something for everyone.
I believe it is one of the great food films – which will probably take some of you aback. But then your mouths probably weren’t watering as those rivers of little white lambs defied gravity rolling happily uphill on their way to summer pasture. Granted, maybe I’m an exception – though it did seem to me that that image seemed to be repeated throughout the film with intoxicating regularity.
Still, there certainly aren’t a whole lot of what you’d normally think of as standard-issue food scenes in “Brokeback.” It’s no “Big Night” or “Babette’s Feast.” You’re not going to hurry home from a matinee anxious to repeat any of the dishes for dinner, not unless you have an inexplicable affection for canned beans.
But that does not mean that food is not an important part of the movie. Remember, it was directed by Ang Lee, who earlier did the cuisine-rich “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” He is not a filmmaker blind to the charms of fine cooking.
Rather, I think the lack of good grub was an artistic choice, meant to reflect the narrowed lives of the main characters and their deliberate turning away from comfort, perhaps even joy.
Let’s face it, these are guys who lived on canned beans for weeks before they noticed and even then it took another couple of weeks before they did anything about it. Plainly, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar did not think a whole lot about food.
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That’s pretty much true to life, judging from my experience with cowboys and cuisine. I have to say I’m pretty skeptical of the combination right from the get-go. I know that there have been books written about cowboy cooking, but I don’t know of any written by actual cowboys.
And I think I’m probably in a position to know. Well before I ever started to think about writing about cooking, I wrote about cowboys. I worked my way through college as a sportswriter on my local paper in New Mexico and for five years one of my beats was covering rodeos. I had the hat and I had the boots – everything, as they say, but the horse.
I got to spend a lot of time hanging around bucking chutes, talking to anyone who looked interesting. I even took a summer off to tend bar at a place that catered almost strictly to cowboys. The purpose of this little canter down memory lane is merely to establish my bona fides when I say that cooking almost never crosses a cowboy’s mind. Eating does, from time to time, but only as a necessary prelude to other, more important activities: working, drinking or dancing, not necessarily in that order.
3 pounds lamb shoulder blade chops
1 head garlic, separated into cloves but not peeled
2 pounds fennel (2 medium)
3 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 cup white wine
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 pound Great Northern white beans or navy beans
Freshly ground black pepper
8 fresh sage leaves
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the bones and any excess fat from the lamb chops and cut the meat into large pieces. Season with salt on both sides. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes, then drain. Cool, then carefully remove the peels. Trim the fronds from the fennel bulbs and slice away the dried-out bottom of the bulb. Cut each bulb in lengthwise quarters, leaving the core intact to hold the fennel together.
Heat the olive oil in a large cast-iron or heavy-enameled pot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb and brown well on both sides. Be careful not to add so much lamb at one time that the pan is crowded. Remove the browned lamb to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the carrot and cook without stirring long enough for it to caramelize lightly on one side, about 2 to 5 minutes. Stir and cook 3 to 5 minutes more. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 3 minutes.
Add the white wine, bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it reduces to a syrup, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and cook until they thicken and darken, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Add 5 cups water and the beans. Slip the fennel quarters and the peeled garlic cloves into the pot, being careful not to break them up. Layer the lamb on top, pressing gently into the liquid. The tops of the lamb pieces will be sticking out of the liquid.
Bring the mixture to a simmer and then press a sheet of aluminum foil close to the surface of the stew to form a loose cover. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place it in the oven. Bake undisturbed for 1 hour. After an hour, season the mixture with 11/2 teaspoons salt or to taste and a generous grinding of black pepper. Stir gently to avoid breaking up the fennel or crushing the garlic; return the pot to the oven.
Cook until the beans are soft and the lamb is tender, 2 to 21/2 hours. After 11/2 hours, check to see that the cassoulet is moist. If not, add up to 1 cup water, again stirring gently. Remove the pot from the oven and increase the heat to 400 degrees.
Cut away the crust from the baguette and cut the bread into cubes. Place the bread cubes and sage leaves in a blender; process to form crumbs. Start with six sage leaves and then smell to see if you want to add another two. When the oven is 400 degrees, spoon the sage-flavored bread crumbs over the top of the lamb and beans in an even layer. Drizzle with a thin thread of olive oil and return the pot to the oven to brown the bread crumbs, 20 minutes. Serves 6-8.
Note: Dried navy beans vary in age. You may need to add more water during cooking.
Broccoli Chopped Salad
13/4 pounds broccoli
4 slices pancetta (about 3 ounces)
1/2 pound white mushrooms
1/3 cup chopped green onions (about 3)
1/4 pound bleu cheese, crumbled
3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts (about 3 ounces)
2 T. plus 1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
To prepare the broccoli, remove the florets and break any large ones into bite-size pieces. With a sharp paring knife, cut off the dried-out base of the stem, then peel the tough skin, leaving the stalk in a rough squared-off log. Cut the stalk into quarter-inch dice.
Bring the water in the bottom of a steamer to a boil. Place the diced stems in the steamer basket and cook, covered, about 1 minute. Add the florets, cover again, and cook until the broccoli is bright green but still crunchy, another minute or two. Set aside.
Place the pancetta slices in the bottom of a cold skillet and place the skillet over medium-low heat. Cook until well-browned on one side, about 10 minutes, then turn and cook until the other side is browned, another 4 or 5 minutes. Do not rush the cooking or the pancetta will not be crisp. When the pancetta is crisp and well-browned, remove to a paper towel to drain. Set the drippings aside to cool.
Trim the bottoms of the mushroom stems; cut the mushrooms in quarters lengthwise. Place the broccoli in a large bowl and add the mushrooms, green onions, bleu cheese and walnuts. Crumble the pancetta over top. Pour the pancetta drippings into a half-cup measure. Add enough oil to make one-half cup and then pour the mixture into a small bowl. Add the vinegar and the salt and whisk to emulsify.
Pour the dressing over the salad and stir to combine well. Taste and correct for seasoning with salt and vinegar and finish with a good grinding of black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6 to 8.
Gratin of Oranges
8 navel oranges
3 egg yolks
3 T. sugar
3 T. orange juice
1 T. rum
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 T. whipping cream
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1/3 cup toasted, sliced almonds
Peel and slice the oranges: Using a sharp paring knife, slice off the bottom and the top of each orange, exposing the flesh underneath. Following the curve of the fruit, cut a one-half to 1-inch wide vertical strip of the peel. Repeat, working your way around the orange until you’ve cut away all the peel. Trim any white pith.
Slice the orange into quarter-inch slices and place in a baking dish (a 12-inch round dish works well); repeat with all the oranges.
In a small heat-proof bowl, combine the egg yolks, sugar, orange juice, rum, lemon juice and orange zest and stir to combine with a whisk. Place the bowl over a small pan of simmering water, like a double-boiler, and continue stirring with the whisk. The mixture will foam a little, then turn pale and finally thicken after about 3 to 5 minutes. When the mixture is thick enough that the whisk leaves tracks in it, remove the bowl from the heat, whisk rapidly to cool it down, and pour it through a fine strainer into a clean bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
When almost ready to serve, beat the whipping cream with a balloon whisk until it forms stiff peaks. Stir the egg mixture to loosen it, adding any orange juice that has collected in the bottom of the baking dish. Gently fold the egg mixture into the whipping cream.Sprinkle the oranges with the powdered sugar and stir to combine. Spoon the egg mixture over the oranges.
Sprinkle with the slivered almonds and place the baking dish under a cold broiler as close to the flame as possible. Turn on the broiler and heat just until the gratin puffs and browns, about 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 8.