Extreme Wolfert? Mais, oui!

Special to The Times

PRUNES that have soaked in Armagnac for six months, minimum. The blood of a freshly killed hare. Nine pounds of fresh fava beans, husked and peeled. A 6-inch-thick bed of pine needles. One dish alone -- a cassoulet -- required trips to two gourmet shops, three butchers, a farmers market and a produce wholesaler. It put 72.5 miles on my car and cost $91.13. Another dish -- salt-cured pork belly with fresh fava bean ragout -- took four days to prepare. Welcome to cooking with Paula Wolfert, which is about as far from "30 Minutes With Rachael Ray" as you can get. But once you've experienced it, there's no going back.

When the revised edition of Wolfert's 1983 classic "The Cooking of Southwest France" (John Wiley & Sons, $37.50) came out two months ago, I couldn't wait to start cooking.

I began with eclade de moules, a legendary dish from the Charentes region of France, along the Bay of Biscay. Traditionally, it's made by packing mussels tightly onto a wooden plank laid out on the ground of a handy forest clearing, covering them with half a foot of pine needles and lighting the needles on fire. When the flames die down, the ashes are brushed away and the mussels eaten with "ash-blackened fingertips."

Trying this at home seemed problematic, particularly since I live in a downtown loft, not in a pine forest.

But Wolfert's resourcefulness is catching.

It was just past Christmas. I had a gently desiccating, untreated pine tree within feet of my kitchen. So I wedged the mussels into a cast-iron pot per Wolfert's instructions, got out my handsaw and began pruning. By the time I'd hacked up my whole tree, I was having so much fun I almost forgot why I was deforesting my living room. I had piles of pine needles, more than enough to fill the pot on my stove. I steamed the mussels as the ornaments rolled unmoored across the floor.

The dish was more medicinal than I'd hoped -- clearly not the sublime evocation of the forests of Charentes that Wolfert had described. Perhaps it was because in her indoor method the pine needles are steamed rather than torched. I'll try this again next year, but outside, on my Weber grill. That way I can ignite those needles.

*

Exotic becomes familiar

TWENTY-THREE years ago, when Wolfert published the first edition of the book, few people outside of that region had heard of -- much less tasted or cooked -- things like cassoulet and garbure. The ingredients she listed in the introduction (duck confit, cepes, black truffles, foie gras) seemed terribly exotic. They still seem exotic, of course, but we're more accustomed to them now; then, they seemed almost magical.

Eating Wolfert's food was magical too -- as was being shown how to cook it at home. But finding the ingredients? Unless your best friend spent her summers on a farm in Dordogne shacked up with a customs official, forget about it. And even if you got your hands on the Bayonne ham and verjus, it could take days -- days! -- to make a single dish from one of Wolfert's recipes. And those were the easy ones.

Thus began the Cult of Paula, a secret handshake society for extreme cooks. These were not your weekend gourmets, but people who carved up ducks for fun, owned bacon presses, deveined and poached their own foie gras and thought nothing of spending three hours in traffic just to find Tarbais beans.

When Wolfert's book went out of print, it seemed almost fitting. Valuable things, particularly esoteric ones, become more so because of their rarity. Think black pearls. Or vintage Peralta Caballero skateboards. Food people would lend their copies of James Beard or Julia Child, but they kept this book in locked drawers or hidden under pillows. One friend even kept hers with the unpublished manuscript of her first novel -- in the freezer in case the house burned down.

So the November reissue of Wolfert's classic created no small buzz. Not only could you actually get the book now, but it wasn't stained by demi-glace; moreover, it was updated for modern times. Members of the foodie website eGullet, who had been enlisted to test Wolfert's recipes, were positively effusive, gushing at electronic length about the glories of every ingredient, every method, every dish.

A lot has happened since 1983. Truffles from Oregon! Confit at your local Whole Foods! Foie gras FedEx'd from D'Artagnan! To this end, the revised edition discusses new sources for food that's not only available now in America, but even produced here.

There are new techniques to accommodate health consciousness and advanced kitchen gadgets (like the sous-vide machine); coverage of a new region (the Auvergne) not included in the original; and 60 new recipes, either from another of her out-of-print books ("World of Food," 1988) or newly pried from the hands of the secretive Gascony matriarchs.

Wolfert's recipes are not concoctions she invented in her Sonoma kitchen. They're culled from years of fieldwork in Southwest France, updated for those of us without shotguns or root cellars, but otherwise straight from the local cooks themselves.

This is the charm, the importance -- and the difficulty -- of Wolfert's books. She's a cultural anthropologist for regional cooking, whether it be the rustic cuisine of the south of France, or the food of Morocco or the Mediterranean, all regions she's explored with depth and eloquence in previous books.

But not everyone is temperamentally suited to cutting up wild rabbits and draining their blood for use in sauces, or surfing the Internet and forking over big dough for fresh Boletus edulis (porcini or cepes). Extreme cooking, like whitewater kayaking and out-of-bounds snowboarding, is only for a small segment of the population.

For the ingredients, though much easier to find than they were 20 years ago, still require a kind of elaborate treasure hunt -- and one that often ends up on the Internet. And they're often prohibitively expensive. Tarbais beans, for example, are available for retail in only one store in Los Angeles (Nicole's, in South Pasadena). You have to ask for them -- they're so special that they're kept hidden in a box in the back room -- and they go for $10.99 a pound. For dried beans!

And the time involved can be quite astonishing, especially as Wolfert's recipes are filled with temporal fault lines and crevasses: batters that need to sit for an hour or two, fruit that needs to soak overnight -- or for six months -- pork belly that needs to brine for three days, then braise, then roast, then refrigerate, then chill, weighted down with that kitchen tool that very few of us have burning a hole in our utensil drawer, the bacon press.

But the challenge is part of the fun of Wolfert's recipes. There's a Maginot line between recreational cooks and people who buy blow torches for their creme brulees -- and any cookbook that nonchalantly calls for pig knuckles and forest fires (as a cooking method, that is) is worth its weight in duck confit.

*

A cook's largesse

COOKING my way through the rest of Wolfert's book wasn't nearly as much fun as steaming my Christmas tree, but it came close. A week and a half and 14 recipes later I was exhausted, my friends were spoiled rotten, and the contents of my refrigerator could have fed -- easily, exquisitely -- the French Foreign Legion.

The food was glorious: interesting, complex, deeply satisfying. But it was certainly not for the uninitiated -- and many of the recipes were often vague or problematic.

The recipe for poached chicken breast, Auvergne style, for example, doesn't tell you what kind of cabbage to use, or how exactly to wrap up the chicken. I assumed it should be Savoy -- that's what the photo showed, and so that's what I used. When cooked as long as the recipe demanded, Michel Bras' stuffed onions charred black in the oven. And both the creamy bean soup with croutons and crispy ventreche and the duck leg ragout with green olives and eggplant needed quite a bit of water added to them at one point during cooking to get them right.

The pureed soup was more like mortar than soup before the additional water; and the ragout was going the way of the blackened onions.

The recipe for casserole of moulard duck with potatoes was also highly problematic, firstly because I had to substitute Muscovy for the moulard (which, for Southern California cooks, is only available online), and secondly because if you follow the recipe, you end up with duck carpaccio.

These were problems that could be easily solved by the patient -- and knowledgeable -- home cook. But they were frustrating. Even given the normal vagaries of cooking (differing climate, pans and products, oddly calibrated ovens) one can't help but conclude that maybe it wasn't a good idea for Wolfert to rely on her fans on eGullet to test the recipes.

The book does include problem-free triumphs. The pork belly with fresh fava ragout came off without a hitch, as did the chicken thighs with Pineau des Charentes. Both were fantastic, multilayered, beautiful dishes. And flambeing a third of a bottle of the hard-to-find fortified Pineau, at almost $30 a bottle, was a kick, though fiscally painful.

Then there's the cassoulet, the true test of inclusion into the secret handshake society. The recipe is for Andre Daguin's "original" cassoulet -- "original" because, as Wolfert tells us, favas predated the white Tarbais beans more commonly used in the dish. Of course I had to try it.

I enlisted the Test Kitchen to help shuck. And shuck. And shuck. Nous avons shuckines. Then I went home and cooked. And cooked. Seven hours after the shucking had stopped, the cassoulet was ready.

The windows beyond my kitchen were dark; I could hear the traffic from the people heading home to eat ordinary dinners. I lifted the lid of the pot I had to spend $210 plus tax on in order to properly cook the dish. I ate my dinner at the stove, slowly. It's surprisingly difficult to eat when you're smiling.

In the end, it was worth it.

**

Creamy bean soup with croutons and crispy ventreche

Total time: 2 hours, 35 minutes plus overnight soaking

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert. Ventreche is not available in the U.S.; use pancetta, jambon de Bayonne or Serrano ham. Tarbais beans are available at Nicole's in South Pasadena. Piment d'Espelette is available at Nicole's in South Pasadena, Surfas in Culver City or through the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

1 pound dried Tarbais beans (or large white beans, such as cannellini)

1 carrot, cut into 1/4 -inch dice

1 large onion, cut into 1/4 -inch dice

4 tablespoons duck fat, divided

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup diced, crustless dense country bread

3 ounces lean ventreche, pancetta, jambon de Bayonne, or Serrano ham, slivered (about 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons minced fresh chives

1 cup heavy cream

3 to 4 pinches of piment d'Espelette or moderately hot pepper

1. Pick over the beans and soak in water to cover by at least 2 inches for 12 hours.

2. The following day, rinse and drain the beans and set aside. Meanwhile, in a heavy 4- to 5-quart flameproof pot, preferably earthenware, such as a Yankee bean pot or a Chinese sand pot, gently cook the carrots and onions in 2 tablespoons of the duck fat, stirring until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Scoop out and reserve about one-fourth cup of the onions and carrots. Add the drained beans and 2 quarts fresh water to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to moderately low, add a pinch of salt and pepper, and simmer for 2 hours, or until the beans are tender and the liquid is reduced.

3. In a medium skillet, heat the remaining duck fat. Add the diced bread, slivered ventreche and the reserved carrots and onions. Fry, stirring until crisp. Remove to a side dish, add the chives, and set aside.

4. Let the beans cool slightly, scoop out about one-third cup for garnish and set aside. Press batches of the remaining beans and liquid through the fine blade of a food mill or puree in a food processor or blender. Add the bean puree to the soup pot. Stir in the cream [Note: the Test Kitchen recommends adding 1 1/2 to 2 cups water to the pureed beans to create a thick soup consistency], bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and red pepper to taste.

5. To serve, divide the reserved beans among the soup bowls, ladle the hot soup over the beans, and garnish each portion with a spoonful of the fried onion and ventreche mixture. Serve at once.

Each serving: 525 calories; 23 grams protein; 54 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams fiber; 26 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 74 mg. cholesterol; 453 mg. sodium

**

Poached chicken breast, Auvergne style

Total time: 2 1/2 hours plus 3 hours soaking time and 2 hours chilling time

Servings: 6

Note: From "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert. Use Savoy cabbage. Chicken giblets are available by the pound at Farmers Market Poultry at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles, 99 Ranch markets or ask your butcher to reserve them.

Swiss chard, giblet and ham stuffing

2 chicken livers

2/3 cup milk, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 medium-large Swiss chard leaves

3 chicken hearts, trimmed

3 chicken gizzards, trimmed

3 ounces jambon de Bayonne, Serrano ham, or prosciutto

2 1/2 ounces pancetta

1/2 small onion, peeled and quartered

1 large shallot, peeled

4 teaspoons flour

2 cups cubed stale firm white bread, crustless

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 1/2 tablespoons minced chives

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ground allspice

Pinch of sugar

1. Trim any yellow or green spots from the chicken livers. Soak them in one-third cup of the milk with the salt in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Drain, rinse and pat dry.

2. In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, blanch the Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks for another use) for 1 minute. Drain, rinse under cold running water until the water runs clear, and squeeze dry. Finely chop the Swiss chard.

3. In a food processor, combine the chicken livers, hearts, gizzards, ham and pancetta. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Add the onion, shallot and the flour and process until well blended.

4. In a mixing bowl, soak the bread in the remaining one-third cup milk for a few minutes to soften. Press out and discard the excess moisture; leave the bread in the bowl. Add the egg and mix with a fork until they are light and well combined. Mash in the chicken liver mixture, then add the Swiss chard, chives and parsley. Season with the salt, pepper, nutmeg and sugar. Cover and refrigerate the stuffing for at least 2 hours or overnight to mellow and firm up. Makes 2 to 3 cups.

Assembly

1 batch Swiss chard, giblet and ham stuffing

12 large cabbage leaves

6 large skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

2 1/2 quarts unsalted chicken stock

3 small leeks (white and tender green), halved lengthwise

6 young carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal

6 small turnips, peeled and quartered

Coarse sea salt, preferably fleur de sel

1 tablespoon French walnut oil, or more, to taste

1. Up to a day ahead, make the stuffing.

2. About 2 hours before serving, blanch the cabbage leaves for 4 to 5 minutes in boiling salted water. Rinse under cold running water and drain. If the ribs are very thick, shave them off with a knife.

3. Enclose each chicken breast in one-half cup of the stuffing [by laying 2 blanched cabbage leaves overlapping on a work surface, spreading one-fourth cup stuffing in the middle of the leaves, placing a chicken breast on the stuffing and then spreading one-fourth cup stuffing to cover the breast]. Wrap each breast in 2 cabbage leaves, rib sides out, and tie securely with string [by rolling the bottom of the leaves over the chicken and folding over again to enclose the breast in cabbage, then tying in 4 places with kitchen twine]. (If desired, wrap each cabbage roll in a 12-inch square of cheesecloth and tie with string.)

4. About 1 hour before serving, bring the stock to a boil in a 5-quart casserole. Add the leeks, carrots and turnips and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the vegetables and set aside.

5. Add the cabbage rolls to the simmering broth and poach them over low heat for 25 minutes. Remove the cabbage rolls to a work surface and let them rest for 5 minutes. Remove the strings (and cheesecloth, if used) from the cabbage rolls.

6. Meanwhile, reheat the vegetables in the stock; drain. Cut each cabbage roll into 4 slices slightly on the diagonal. Arrange the slices cut side up, on warmed plates. Sprinkle the chicken with fleur de sel. Surround each serving with assorted vegetables; moisten with a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Drizzle a little walnut oil over the chicken and vegetables and serve at once.

Each serving: 429 calories; 51 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 13 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 231 mg. cholesterol; 1,256 mg. sodium.

**

Duck leg ragout with green olives and eggplant

Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: From "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert. Substitute three-fourths cup diced, canned tomatoes for fresh when not in season. Some kinds of duck legs may not render as much fat as necessary; purchase some separately if needed.

2 large whole duck legs, moulard, Muscovy or Pekin

Salt and freshly ground

pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

3 sprigs of thyme

1 imported bay leaf

1/3 cup poultry stock

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 recipe sauteed eggplant

1/2 cup pitted green olives, preferably Picholine, soaked in water if salty

4 rounds of French bread, toasted in the oven, rubbed with garlic

1. Trim the fat from all of the legs and render it. Reserve 2 tablespoons for preparing this dish; save the rest for some other purpose. Score the fatty skin without piercing the flesh. In a large, deep skillet over low heat, warm the rendered fat. Add the duck legs, skin side down, and cook, turning once, until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Pour off all the fat in the skillet. Season the legs with salt and pepper.

2. Add the onion, raise the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, until softened and golden. Add the tomato, thyme and bay leaf and cook for 1 minute. Add the stock and wine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cover and simmer until the legs are tender, about 1 1/2 hours, turning the duck legs from time to time [adding one-half cup water toward the end of cooking time if needed]. Note: Muscovy ducks will take an additional 30 to 60 minutes to cook. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 1 day in advance. If made ahead, reheat gently before proceeding.)

3. When ready to serve, add the sauteed eggplant and the olives to the duck legs with their sauce and gently stir to combine. Correct the seasoning and serve at once garnished with garlic toasts.

Each serving with eggplant: 543 calories; 32 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams fiber; 26 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 116 mg. cholesterol; 1,425 mg. sodium.

**

Sauteed eggplant

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 1 hour standing time

Servings: 2

Note: From "The Cooking of Southwest France" by Paula Wolfert

3 small (5 to 6 ounces) very fresh, very firm purple Italian eggplant, preferably homegrown or farmers market quality

1 1/2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt

1 1/2 tablespoons rendered duck fat (or olive oil)

pinch of sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped

flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

1. Peel the eggplant and cut into 1-inch chunks. Toss with the coarse salt. Place in a sieve over a bowl and let stand for at least 1 hour.

2. Rinse the eggplant well. Working in batches, gently squeeze out as much moisture as possible between your hands.

3. In a large skillet, preferably nonstick, heat the duck fat over moderate heat. Add the eggplant, cover with a lid, and cook, turning the pieces from time to time, until they begin to plump up, feel tender, and turn golden brown on all sides, about 10 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, add the sugar, and slowly cook, uncovered, turning the pieces of the eggplant often, for another 5 to 8 minutes, until tender and glazed. Remove the skillet from the heat. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 2 hours in advance.)

5. Shortly before serving, add the parsley and garlic to the eggplant. Toss to mix. Cover and cook over low heat to rewarm. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Each serving: 145 calories; 2 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 10 mg. cholesterol; 645 mg. sodium.

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