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Confit - Shrimp

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Last weekend, I picked the first tomatoes of the season from our little vegetable garden out back. It felt like an eternity before the fruit on those massive plants finally ripened; now all of a sudden the garden is littered with bright red tomatoes. I have been tossing them in with salads and grilling thick slices with a little salt and cracked pepper, fixing tomato ’n’ mayo sandwiches and toasting the summer’s bounty with Bloody Marys.

Despite all that, I’ve already realized I’ll have to be more creative in the kitchen or that summer bounty will turn into a curse. So I decided to experiment. With confit.

The definition has evolved over time, but confit traditionally has referred to anything that is cooked slowly in fat. Originally, it was a way to preserve food. Now we do it just because it’s so delicious. The method is simple: Immerse an ingredient in fat and cook gently to moist tenderness. Why fat? Because it imparts flavour. Amazing flavour.

Back in the kitchen, I halved a few pounds of tomatoes and arranged them on the bottom of a roasting pan. I scattered over a few cloves of garlic and some fresh thyme, and seasoned them with a few grinds of black pepper. Then I added a layer of bacon, slightly overlapping each strip to cover the tomatoes like a blanket. As I roasted the tomatoes, the rendered bacon slowly dripped down over them, gently infusing them with flavour. When the aroma was almost too much to bear, I pulled the pan from the oven and lifted the layer of crisp bacon. Roasted tomato confit. Using bacon fat.

Tomato confit is nothing new — there are numerous variations using oil — but when done with bacon fat, the flavours were fresh yet rich, the bright acidity from the tomatoes a perfect counterpart to the smokiness of the bacon, the garlic and thyme adding nicely to the harmony. It was rich enough to work as a main course, served simply over a bed of fresh pasta with a few shavings of Parmesan. But it also works coarsely chopped and spooned over crostini. It would be great tucked into a grilled cheese sandwich.

Confit is one of the oldest cooking techniques in the book. It’s been used across cultures since ancient times to keep meat from spoiling. Cooks learned early on that if you store something under an airtight layer of fat, it lasts longer.

It also tastes good. With the dawn of modern preservation techniques, such as refrigeration and canning, some classic techniques have been lost to time. Others, such as smoking, curing, pickling and confiting, have stayed with us because of the wonderful flavours they impart on food.

“Confit” has most famously referred to the French method of cooking goose, duck or pork in its own fat. After the autumn slaughter, when the birds were fattened, farmers would “confit” all that meat over low heat for hours to preserve it over the winter. These meats were then used to flavour rich and hearty stews and soups, perfect for cold-weather meals.

Today almost anything can be confited using a variety of fats. Variations are no longer limited to mid-winter meals, and the cooking process doesn’t necessarily have to take all day.

Try a riff on potted shrimp (shrimp gently poached in butter). Toss a pound (450 g) of shrimp with a batch of charmoula (a North African spice blend of garlic, ginger, cilantro and lemon balanced with a little cayenne pepper and paprika) and cook them gently, covered with olive oil until the shrimp are opaque and firm, about 30 minutes.

Serve the shrimp simply over a mound of couscous or rice with a fresh squeeze of lemon, or toss them with a simple salad.

Most of us may think savoury when we hear confit, but the method is just as applicable to the sweet realm in the kitchen. The word “confit” comes from the French verb confire, which translates as “to preserve” and “to candy.” Food science writer Harold McGee mentions that it was originally used in medieval times to refer to fruits cooked in sugar or alcohol for preservation (hence the word “confection”).

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Ingredients

  • Makes 4 servings
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) grated ginger root
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped parsley
  • 1/3 cup (80 mL) chopped cilantro
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) sweet Spanish paprika
  • Pinch cayenne powder
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) ground cumin
  • 1 dried bay leaf, crumbled
  • Pinch saffron, optional
  • 1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
  • 1 lb (450 g) peeled and deveined medium shrimp
  • Olive oil to cover, about 3 cups (750 mL)

Details

Preparation

Step 1

Make the charmoula spice blend: Using a mortar and pestle, or in the bowl of a food processor, grind the garlic and ginger to a paste. Add the chopped parsley, cilantro and lemon zest and coarsely mash. Stir in the lemon juice. Stir in the paprika, cayenne, cumin, bay leaf and saffron (if using), and grind to incorporate. Stir in the salt.

Place the shrimp in a large bowl. Add the charmoula blend, tossing to coat the shrimp completely. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the shrimp for 15 to 20 minutes to marinate.

In a large, heavy-bottom sauté pan or Dutch oven, place the marinated shrimp and the charmoula blend in a single layer. Add enough oil to completely cover the shrimp.

Place the pan on the stovetop over low heat to gently cook the shrimp. After several minutes, the oil will begin to bubble gently. Continue to cook the shrimp just until firm and opaque, being careful not to overcook, 20 to 30 minutes (timing will vary depending on the heat, thickness and diameter of the pan). Remove from heat.

Serve immediately, or set aside to cool, then refrigerate the shrimp (place them in a large glass jar or bowl and cover with oil). The shrimp will keep up to 5 days, refrigerated.

Approximate nutrition per serving: 242 calories, 15 g fat, 21 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 1 g fibre

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