Cooking Outside Your Comfort Zone


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.

I spent some time carefully writing down my recipe for liver creme caramel, so if you are up to it, I'd love to hear how your experiments go.


Holly A. Heyser

With that success behind me, I decided to tackle a signature dish from another great chef: Thomas Keller's duck roulade from his French Laundry Cookbook. I cook a lot of duck, and what struck me about his dish was that it was a very pretty way to highlight a skinless duck breast—not something I use often, but I know that many hunters do breast out their birds.

The basic form of Keller's roulade is a cylinder of duck breast, wrapped in a leaf (chard or cabbage) set atop a vegetable that is sitting in a pool of concentrated sauce. Topping it all is a sauté of mushrooms with some herbs thrown in.

It is a beautiful dish. Making it, however, requires some delicacy and restraint I don't normally employ.

The duck breast needs to be pounded a bit—not something Keller says in his recipe, but if you don't, the breast will be of different thicknesses, making the resulting roulade uneven. Then you need to square it off; tossing those scraps of prime duck meat was tough. Wrap the breast tight, then place it in a strip of blanched chard leaf, then roll it all up. Wrap everything in plastic, roll that tight, then poach it for eight to 10 minutes.

This basic technique is really cool. I could see doing it with all sorts of things, from pheasant to grouse to venison. You could use chard, cabbage, turnip greens, collards, grape leaves—maybe even fig leaves.

What I also realized is that this may be the fanciest way to prepare "trash ducks" like scaup or sea ducks or spoonies—when you strip away the skin and fat, you strip away the fishiness of the bird. I used the breast from a Ross's Goose here—if you've never heard of them, a Ross's Goose is a miniature snow goose about the size of a mallard. Like their larger cousins, Ross's Geese typically have no real fat on them and a bluish skin that looks unappetizing.


Holly A. Heyser

Keller uses creamed corn in his version of the duck roulade, but I really like the combination of scorzonera with duck. Scorzon-wha? It's a root vegetable, also known as black salsify, and salsify is also known as oyster plant, which is a misnomer because it actually tastes a lot like artichoke hearts, not oysters. Mashed, it's an interesting accompaniment to all sorts of meats.

To finish the dish, I used the last of the blonde morels I got from Earthy Delights (time to head into the Sierra for more ... ) sautéed in butter with shallot and then simmered in homemade duck démi-glace. It was damn good, and I am really happy to have learned Keller's roulade.

Here is my version of the duck roulade recipe; I hope you give it a go.

I cook nearly every day. And nearly every day, I get a little bit better. Sometimes it's just a tiny realization, like that the best way to know when to move mushrooms that have been dry-frying in a pan is when the pitch of the sound of their sizzling increases—it means the water is almost gone and the 'shrooms are now unprotected against the hot pan. Time to add butter.

Yet on other days, like with these recent experiments, whole new vistas are opened to me. I never would have thought to make a savory crème caramel, although I've made savory sorbet before. And I had always been reluctant to dive into Keller's roulade. It just looked too hard.

But it's not. And neither was that crème caramel, once I figured it out. Thanks to Chef Farmerie and Chef Keller, I am a better cook now than I was a week ago. My limits are a little higher. And for that I am thankful.