No bones about it: Chefs know how to deal with fat

No bones about it: Chefs know how to deal with fat

December 28, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Chefs are different from you and me. Their knives are sharper. They can bone a chicken leg in a flash. And they have caul fat. Caul fat is a lacy membrane that comes from pig stomachs.

You won't find it in the grocery store. It comes in bulk, in 15-pound batches that sell for about $25, according to Erik Oosterwijk of Fells Point Wholesale Meats, who supplies the product to a few area restaurants.

When Timothy Dean stuffs a chicken leg, he wraps it in caul fat. That is what he learned to do when he was in France, picking up the cooking techniques of his mentor, Jean-Louis Palladin, a renowned Washington chef who died in 2001 at the age of 55.

Dean pulled out the caul fat during one of the cooking classes he conducts on Saturday mornings at his Eastern Avenue restaurant, Timothy Dean Bistro.

In the view of Oosterwijk, caul fat has a utilitarian role. "It holds things together, pate usually. You could probably do the same thing with string."

Chef Dean, however, sees a deeper meaning in the artful use of the membrane. Not only, he said, does it add moisture to a dish as it discreetly disappears, melting in the heat of cooking, it also taps into a noble culinary tradition. "People in Europe have been cooking this way for centuries," Dean said as he dropped a caul-wrapped chicken leg into a sizzling cast-iron skillet.

When I tasted this chicken leg, stuffed with a mousse made of apples, mushrooms and cream and pulverized chicken breast, it did have wonderful flavors. But I wasn't so sure that I would get the same marvelous results if I tried replicating it at home.

There was, for instance, a difference in the boning procedure. When Dean showed the class of about 25 how to remove the bones from the chicken leg, his keen-edged knife danced. In less than a minute, the leg and thigh were transformed into an appealing, boneless vessel, begging to be stuffed with a mousse.

Yet when a couple of us took up a boning knife, and, under Dean's watchful eye, separated bone from bird, the action was much slower. The results were also much less enticing. By the time I was finished boning my chicken leg, it seemed to be limping. Who knows what it would look like if I had used the dull knives found in my kitchen?

The making of the mousse was pretty straightforward, mixing apples, mushrooms and a pulverized chicken breast with cream. But when it came time to marry the mousse with the chicken leg, another difference in our cooking styles showed itself. I would have been content to grab a spoon and plop the mousse into the leg cavity. Not Dean. He put the mousse in a pastry bag and gracefully eased the mousse into its new, attractive home.

Next came the caul fat, a new ingredient in my cooking life. I did possess a cast-iron skillet somewhat similar to the one Dean used to cook the stuffed chicken leg.

But when we members of the class who had paid $50 for the combination class and lunch sat down to eat, the stuffed chicken leg appeared before us cloaked in a dark-red sauce. The sauce, the chef explained, was just a little something he had whipped up using red wine and stock, made from bones that had been simmering on the restaurant's stove for an eternity. Note to self: Buy bones.

The chef and his assistants also made chestnut soup with duck confit and shallot flan and a pumpkin cheesecake with grilled pineapple. Those, I figured after reading the fives pages of instructions, were far beyond me.

A couple of weeks later, I checked with some of my fellow students to see if they had tried fixing any of the dishes that Dean had demonstrated in class.

Lisa A. Robinson of Annapolis said that she had attempted the cheesecake. Her version was good, she said, but not as good as the chef's. Robinson said she and another classmate, Monica Jackson, had signed up for additional course work, a similar class and lunch session to be held on a Saturday in February. "I am not sure whether it is the class or the food that brings me back," Robinson said. "Probably the food."

As for me, I am going to try fixing that stuffed chicken leg, as soon as I find a half-dozen home cooks who want to split a box of caul fat.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Timothy Dean Stuffed Chicken Leg With Wild Mushrooms and Fuji Apples

Serves 2

1 chicken breast

3/4 cup heavy cream

sea salt and pepper to taste

2/5 pound wild mushrooms, chopped

2/5 pound Fuji apples, diced

1/4 pound caul fat placed in cold water (see note)

2 chicken legs, boned, thighs attached

butchers' twine

2/5 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. First, prepare the chicken mousse. Cut chicken breast into cubes. Place in food processor with metal blade and pulse. Add the cream and pulse again until mixture is smooth. Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Remove the mixture with a rubber spatula and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

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