North Fork Chef: Consider capon for a tasty alternative

JOHN ROSS PHOTO | Ingredients for a classic Thanksgiving dinner.

A fresh capon weighs about 8 pounds and produces an abundance of tender white meat and flavorful dark meat. A naturally raised capon can be purchased locally at Miloski’s Farm in Riverhead. The capon provides a good alternative to turkey for a smaller family gathering of 4 to 6 people. Caponization is the process of turning a young rooster into a capon by surgically desexing it, much like turning a bull into a steer in beef. The result is meat that is more moist, tender and flavorful than that of a hen or rooster. The locally raised capon grows slowly to about 8 pounds, taking 16 weeks to reach processing age rather than the five or six weeks for an industrially raised broiler/fryer.

It continues to amaze me that we have such a bounty of fresh ingredients on the North Fork. Late November sort of signals the end of the growing season, but we are still able to assemble turnips, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, potatoes, leeks, onions, cabbage, kohlrabi and many more vegetables. We can also purchase clams, oysters and Peconic Bay scallops in addition to our local capon. The whole meal ends with Mutsu, Braeburn and Ida Red apples — some of the best in the country. Here are some simple recipes for enjoying the treasures in our backyard.

Bay Scallop, Oyster and Clam Soup
Purchase 1 dozen littleneck clams, 1 dozen oysters and 1/2 pound of Peconic Bay scallops. Scrub the clams and oysters with a brush and set aside. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and add 1 cup chopped leeks, 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Cook at low heat for 5 minutes and add 1 cup chardonnay and 1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley. Bring to a boil and add the clams. Cover and cook at high heat until clams open. Remove the clams with tongs and set aside. Add the oysters (in their shells) and continue cooking until they just begin to open. Remove and set aside.

Lower the heat and add 2 cups heavy cream along with the scallops. Simmer until scallops are just cooked, about 3 minutes. Remove the clams and oysters from their shells and add to the soup. Season with 1 teaspoon ground pepper and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped parsley and serve with oyster crackers.

Roast Capon
Remove the giblets and extra fat from a fresh capon of about 8 pounds. Prepare a brine solution by combining 1 gallon cold water with 1 cup salt and 1 cup sugar. Place the capon in this solution and refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove the capon, drain and dry with paper towels. Place the capon on a V rack in a shallow roasting pan.
Soften 1 stick of unsalted butter and fold in the zest and juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. With your fingers, carefully loosen the skin of the capon starting at the neck end. With a teaspoon, slip as much of the butter mixture as possible under the skin. Rub the outside of the capon to distribute the butter.

Place in the cavity 6 sprigs of thyme, 2 sprigs of rosemary and 2 lemon halves. Tie the legs together with string and melt the remaining butter mixture so that you can brush it over the outside of the bird. Place the capon in a 425-degree oven and roast for 30 minutes, basting once with the juices.

Remove the pan from the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Peel and cut into large pieces 4 carrots and place them in the pan. Peel 6 large shallots (or cippolini onions) and add to pan. Coarsely chop 2 stalks of celery and add them to the pan. Toss the vegetables in the pan drippings and place the pan back in the oven. Continue cooking about 2 hours or until internal temperature in the thigh area reaches 170 degrees. Remove the bird from the pan and set aside to rest with a foil covering for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the vegetables from the pan and keep warm. Pour the drippings into a saucepan and deglaze the roasting pan with 1 cup water on the stove. Pour these drippings into the saucepan along with 2 cups chicken broth. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small sauté pan and add 1/4 cup flour. Cook for 3 minutes and add to the simmering broth to make a gravy. Check for seasoning and serve.

Carve the capon at the table or bone it in the kitchen. It will serve up to 8 people. (In addition to the above roasted vegetables, the meal should include some local potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and turnips.)

Bread Stuffing
Make small cubes from 1 loaf of country white and 1 loaf of whole wheat sandwich bread. Cut half of each loaf into 1/2-inch pieces to equal about 1 1/2 pounds. Place the cubes of bread on a sheet pan and cook in a 325-degree oven for 30 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a sauté pan and add 1 cup chopped celery and 2 cups chopped onion. Cook until onion is soft and add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme and 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, beat 2 eggs and add 3 cups chicken broth. Add the vegetables and the egg mixture to the toasted bread cubes and combine.

Place in a roasting pan, cover with foil, and put into the oven with the capon. Cook for 30 minutes, remove the foil and cook another 30 minutes.

Apple Brown Betty
Cut 2 slices of country white bread and 2 slices of whole wheat sandwich bread into cubes. Place them into a food processor along with 1 cup walnuts, 3 tablespoons cold butter and 3 tablespoons brown sugar. Pulse this mixture until coarsely ground.

Spray a sauté pan with no-stick and place it on medium heat. Add the bread crumb mixture and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Dice 3 pounds of peeled and cored apples into 1/2-inch cubes. (I used a mixture of Mutsu, Braeburn and Ida Red, but any cooking apples will do.) Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan and add the apples. Add 1 cup dried cranberries and sprinkle them with 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger. Cook 3 minutes and add 1 cup fresh apple cider. Bring to a boil and cook until apples are tender, but not mushy. Add the crumb mixture and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Place in individual crocks or in a casserole and serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].