Cooking Outside Your Comfort Zone

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Holly A. Heyser


Sometimes I need to step outside my comfort zone.

I consider myself a decent cook, but on my recent trips to Portland and New York, where Holly and I rubbed elbows with some of the best chefs in the world, I was reminded that there is a galaxy of cooks out there far better than I am—maybe better than I ever will be.

I've eaten some remarkable food recently, from the perfectly executed-but-familiar fare at New York's Porter House to a whimsical meal featuring rabbit at Simpatica in Portland to a swanky wild game feast served up by some of the Pacific Northwest's best. But no meal left as lingering a memory as the one we had at Public, served to us personally by the chef, Brad Farmerie.

Farmerie, as it turns out, reads my work on occasion. And the reason I know this is because he told me in Portland. And the reason I tell you that is because it was what Chef Farmerie was doing in Portland that got my wheels turning: He was making a pig's liver crème caramel.

I wrote about my first attempt to make Farmerie's crème caramel a few weeks ago, when I tried it with wild turkey liver. It was a failure, but not an epic failure. Despite its textural revoltingness, I could detect some bright spots. Ski fast, fall hard. Get up, ski again.

My first try was in a ramekin way too large for a rich little morsel like this, I used too much liver, and I used Worcestershire sauce instead of the soy sauce Farmerie used. Holly and I thought the increase in liver was the culprit, but when I went to make the dish again, this time with wild boar liver, I was smart enough to look at the ingredients of Worcestershire: listed first was ... vinegar.

Vinegar, apparently, does not play well with cream, milk, and eggs. That was the cause of the textural disaster in the initial version, not the excess liver. So I bowed to Farmerie's expertise and used soy in the second version.

Now mind you, before two weeks ago I had never made a crème caramel. Before three weeks ago I had never eaten one; I've had flan, but that's a little different. Why this sudden obsession with a French dainty laced with hog's liver?

Because I detest the texture of straight-up liver, yet, as hunters, Holly and I often find ourselves with a surfeit of livers: turkey livers, pheasant livers, lots and lots of duck livers, a venison liver here, a wild boar liver there.

I grind most of my livers into Umbrian liver-pork sausage called mazzafegati, or they find their way into liver ravioli, or pâté. But I can't really live with myself knowing only three liver dishes I actually like. I know, it's weird, but hey ...

So when I saw Chef Farmerie demonstrating this dish, I had to watch. I kept thinking, "This is just going to be a stunt dish. It can't be good." Then I got a chance to eat it. It is soft, creamy, super savory, and only slightly sweet. I could taste the liver, yes, but the overall effect was like the lightest liver pâté you've ever eaten.

And then there were the garnishes. Farmerie went with pan-roasted grapes, pancetta, and watercress. Sweet-tart-salty-crunchy-bitter-green. A brilliant, thoughtful balance.

Of course I could never actually bring myself to make his liver crème caramel exactly as he does. Not sure why, entirely, only it definitely has to do with making a dish mine, not anyone else's—both out of deference to Brad and as a personal statement. So I used wild boar liver (the last bit of Maximus, as it happened) and will use wild game livers from now on. I also switched Chef Farmiere's Asian spices—curry, kombu, five-spice powder, shiitake mushrooms—with my European ones: French quatre épices and porcini mushroom. But, like I said, I stuck to soy sauce, which adds umami and salt without adding vinegar.

As for garnishes, I went with crispy-fried lardo, wild arugula that grows in my yard, dried figs from the yard that I'd soaked in balsamic vinegar, plus some of the first cherries to come to market here in California. As it happens, cherries are apparently a natural for crème caramel, but I did not know that at the time. Got lucky, I guess.

I am happy to report that I nailed this dish, which was as delicious as Holly's picture suggests. Thanks to Chef Farmerie's blueprint, I was able to make a liver dish I loved, venture into a format (crème caramel) I was totally unfamiliar with, and succeed on my second try! For those of you who make crème caramel often, you're all like, "Duh, Hank, crème caramel isn't that tough." But it was intimidating to me, and I don't get intimidated by food very often.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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