Norman Van Aken's A Word On Food
8:00 am
Sat October 19, 2013

Leg Man

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I have a leg in my luggage and its coming home with me.

It's a short leg. It's a pink leg. It's a salt sweet leg. It's a leg I was not going to leave behind in Orlando—that’s for sure! This leg once belonged to Chef Sean Brock of "Husk" restaurant fame, up in Charleston. I hope he's not missing it and hopping mad.

But that can't be. He gave it to me. Sent it actually. The leg.

Some mornings I remember how large the leg muscle known as ‘the ham’ is in my own body. I remember because it seizes up and causes me to frantically try and stretch it out. I am impressed once I get over the pain.

When we consider animals from a culinary standpoint in the modern kitchen too often we consider only the tender cuts of meat. They are the cuts that are not the ‘work horses’ of the anatomy. Our Creator had to come up with a real mixture of muscles, tendons, bones, fat, skin, hoofs, organs and more to enable us to live, walk, eat, work, play and rest. We are all of the Animal Kingdom, but in most cases we humans are on the eating end of the food chain. I think our Creator would be mighty chagrined if we wasted his creations.

I am joined in that concern by the growing number of chefs, nutritionists, social activists, farmers, teachers and animal rights activists who preach the aptly named movement called, “nose-to-tail” cooking.

One day long ago, My father was talking to a fellow car dealer while I was visiting him at his place of work, Van Aken Motors. I was in his office eating some fried chicken when I heard him from the hallway. “I’m a leg man Vince. You know that.” Vince was looking out at a woman shopping for a Buick and smiling admirably at her. I was about nine years of age and unable to grasp the more subtle depravity of men at the time. I stuck my small mitt into the cardboard basket of food and came up with a leg. Maybe that is what my Dad was referring to. I drank my root beer and munched on.

Chickens are a bit unusual, but they’ve been bred that way. The legs of those animals used to be more uniformly sized in comparison with the breasts. But through the acts of genetic selection and breeding the birds of modern times are breast heavy. The softer white meat was determined to be more prized.

Nowadays, I almost always buy the thigh meat or leg and thigh meat when I shop. The flavors are so much deeper! But the ratio of breast to leg disparity in the cluckers is not the same in most animals we consume. To learn to cook the much more provident leg meat is an advantage whether it’s veal, pork, lamb or even goat.

Easter at our home growing up meant a beautiful roast leg of lamb. Mint jelly optional.

But the apotheosis of leg meat is definitely the creation known as a ‘ham’. While I do love a Nochebuena Roast Pork made with the fresh version of a pig’s leg. I doff my “John Deere Tractor Cap” to the men who learned to transform raw pig meat into the deeply complex beauty known as ham.

And now that my luggage is safely home I’m taking my leg and putting it in the fridge. But just until I can get my ham rack set up and slicer sharp. 

RECIPE FOR QUICK DUCK CONFIT

Yield: Serves 4

4 Moulard duck legs

1 Tablespoon kosher salt

1 Tablespoon black pepper

1 head of garlic, cut in half cross-wise

3 fresh rosemary sprigs

3 bay leaves

2 1/2 Cups Duck Fat

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees.

Place the duck legs, salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, and duck fat in a large ovenproof skillet and bring to a low simmer over medium-high heat.

Transfer to the oven and cook until the meat is falling off the bones, about 3 1/2 to 4 hours.  Remove all of the meat. Shred the meat. Now cover it in a dish with some of the duck fat. Allow to cool. Cover and reserve.

Note: D’Artagnan is a great company to get the duck and duck fat.