This is an exciting time in American cuisine. Home cooks have common access to products unimaginable a generation ago (foie gras, organic fava beans, wild morels and cepes, truffles, not to mention current staples such as ginger and cilantro). And chefs have a similar freedom to experiment for an eager and increasingly sophisticated public.
In this situation, one of the main things professional chefs can contribute to home cooks is reexamining classic techniques to expand their boundaries and possible uses without traveling too far from their source.
The confit is one such technique. Traditionally, confit denotes meat cooked and stored in its own fat--such as duck confit, originally used to preserve duck legs. Duck legs are first marinated in salt and aromatic seasonings, then poached in duck fat till tender, then stored in crockery throughout winter protected from bacteria by being submerged in the solid duck fat.
But offshoots of this same idea may be reasonably called confit too, particularly when things other than meats are cured by salt. A common one today is the tomato confit. Tomato quarters are salted then drizzled with oil and cooked slowly. The salt draws out water to change the nature of the tomato, a process resulting in a rich, dense fruit whose acid and sweetness have been intensified by the salt and oil cooking.
Lemon confit, also called cured or preserved lemons, works in a similar way. Lemons are submerged in salt and after many weeks, the rind will be “cured"--it will possess a salty sour flavor that makes a beguiling seasoning for fish, poultry and stews. (We prefer freezing this mixture for three months for more thorough curing, the freezer acting as a further “cooking” device in addition to the salt). A quicker cure can also benefit the lemon: Slice it, coat the slices with sugar and salt and restack them. After 24 hours, they can then be cooked (tempura is best) and used as an exciting dessert element.
Other sweet fruits are also suitable for confit. Try the pineapple: Salt it to draw out the water and intensify the flavor, then broil the slices or cook them in a sugar syrup (as you would cook a traditional confit in fat) and serve them with ice cream.
That’s a far cry from duck confit, but delicious evidence that many cooking techniques can be applied to other foods than those they were originally intended for. The only limitation is the imagination of the cook.
Keller is chef at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Ruhlman is author of “Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard” (Viking, $24.95). They are co-authors of ‘The French Laundry Cookbook’ (Artisan, $50).