I carry the same philosophy into cooking (or maybe it's vice versa?). I enjoy reading cookbooks on ocassion, but I very rarely choose a recipe, then buy the ingredients, and then follow the directions. Instead, I build a meal around one core ingredient, usually the protein, and then make something up.
I've been doing this pretty much since I discovered that I enjoyed cooking in high school (reading Simon Ortiz' great poem/narrative/recipe "How to Make a Good Chili Stew..." probably also had something to do with it). Sometimes, I fail spectacularly, usually because I forget an ingredient and/or when I start putting things together I realize I have a fraction of what I need and then improvise. But as I've been using this approach to cooking for over a dozen years now, I've had fewer and fewer misses.
Now the main drawback is the same whimsy that leads to some of my greatest success: I'll get the idea to add something a little different to a recipe, for instance unsweetened chocolate and coffee in chili, and then forget to add them the next time. Or because I also rarely measure, except when baking, I'll forget just how much. As a result, my greatest triumphs are usually one-offs that I'll never make again.
A couple months ago, I stepped into Kam Man by the South Bay Plaza, an Asian market in the vein of Super 88s. This is always a great place for a little departure from my ordinary food routine, or some random inspiration. It's also a great place to get less common cuts of meat (such as cow tendon, or pig tongue), or animals my Stop and Shop doesn't usually carry, like frog, squab, and duck.
They were having a boffo sale on whole (cleaned) rabbits. More expensive than chicken, but better than a decent steak. So I bought one. It languished in my freezer for a few weeks, while I considered lofty recipes. Finally, I decided that I would slow cook it with root vegetables and some port marinated prunes. I just needed to go to the liquor store to pick up port.
On the way to the port I passed through the brandy aisle. Brandy has always intrigued me. On the one hand it seems incredibly fancy. I imagine putting on my smoking jacket, filling a snifter and swirling it thoughtful in a library of leather-bound books. But the one time I bought it I was unimpressed. I found it bitter and not particularly complex. Even so, as I was walking through, a bottle of Laird's Applejack caught my eye.
It's brandy, but made from apples (or at least with apples), and has pleasantly old-fashioned and rustic packaging. I forgot my plans for port, and bought the applejack instead. Then I needed another trip to Stop and Shop to find a more appropriate compliment than prunes. And what better compliment than apples? From there the rest of the ingredients fell into place, and when I made my dish it was a grand success, so good in fact, that I sat down and scribbled out the recipe for further use. For a couple weeks the recipe has languished on my desk. I just knew there was an ingredient missing, but I couldn't remember what it was. Today I did. Without further ado, the recipe for my Applejack Rabbit Casserole:
Marinate rabbit pieces in shallow (3-4 inches in depth) casserole dish with equal parts rice vinegar and applejack brandy. Cover in saran wrap.
Chop parsnips into one inch chunks. Add to slow cooker.
Over parsnips, pour two mugs of chicken stock. Add one can of diced tomatoes (I used Pastene's fire roasted)
Turn slow cooker on.
Make a garlic-heavy gremolata (finely chopped garlic, parsley, lemon zest)
Peel, core, and slice 2-3 sweet apples, different kinds. Add to slow cooker. Peel and
liberally stud one golden delicious apple with cloves. Add to slow cooker. Slice a few one
inch long strips of ginger, toss into slow cooker.
Drain marinade off of rabbit pieces. Sprinkle salt and pepper on rabbit pieces. Dredge in flour.
Dice a medium sized vidalia onion.
Add a few tablespoons of olive oil and and a couple tablespoons of butter to a pan on medium
heat. When butter has melted into oil, add half of diced onions. Wait for onions to go
past yellow, but not quite brown.
In small batches, brown rabbit pieces in butter-oil and onions.
Reserve browned rabbit pieces and carmelized onions on tray. Then skim darkest onions from
pan, add a little more oil and a little more butter and add remainder of diced onions.
Gradually add flour, stirring constantly. Add gremolata. Continue to stir, as though making
a roux. When roux is just past yellow, add 25 - 50 cl applejack brandy to roux.
Enthusiastic bubbling should commence. Continue adding flour (roux should take on the form
of a thick gravy) and stirring until gravy no longer gives off alcohol fumes.
Pour half of gravy on apples and parsnips. Place rabbit pieces on top. Pour remaining
gravy on top. Add one half-inch latteral slice of lemon.
Make a bouquet garni in a small sachet. Put the sachet in a mug, fill with water, and
microwave for about a minute. Pour herb "tea" into slow cooker.
Cover and cook for about 1 hour. Remove studded apple at the point when it has softened
enough to begin to lose shape, but before disintegration, and nibble before discarding.
Continue to cook for another 1-2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the side salad...
Matchstick slice two granny apples (skin on), half a fennel bulb, and 1-2 endives.
Mix and toss with a dressy of olive oil, lemon juice, rice wine vinegar, and a small amount
of creamy horseradish. In a pan, toast a teaspoon of fennel seeds. Toss together.
(Watermelon radish would add a small pop of color and complement the flavor well).
After about two hours, turn the slow cooker off. Lift top and remove rabbit pieces and
reserve them on a dish. Wearing oven mitts, lift slow cooker ovenware and pour mixture into
collander to drain excess liquid. Shake, and then pour into initial casserole dish and
place rabbit pieces on top. Cover with tin foil and heat in oven for about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat, give 5-10 minutes to cool, then serve with side salad.