Trish McGregor’s slow cooking is a fast way to please friends and family who tuck in around her table.
Now an empty-nester with husband Pat, Trish continues to make meals from scratch in her Liberty kitchen that bring people together and entice her two children — Cole, 24; and Abby, 19 — to return home as often as they can.
An interior designer by training, Trish applies the same aesthetic principals to a plate of food as she does to a home.
“It’s about balance,” she says. “If a dish is a rich brown from being braised, you need a fresh, colorful dish to balance not only how it looks, but how a meal tastes. Something tender needs a counterpoint of something crispy.”
Q: I’m going to admit it: I have Aga envy.
A: I’ve had my Aga cooker for 16 years now. While it’s not for everyone, my experience cooking on my first Aga was when my husband, son and I lived in England. We rented a place in Scotland for a while that had an Aga cooker and I fell in love with it. Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic about this oven, because being in the U.K. was such a magical time in our lives, but once you learn how to cook on one, it would be an adjustment to go back to a traditional stove.
I have a four-oven model, in which you can roast, simmer, bake and warm. There are two hobs on top — a boiling and a simmering plate. The only thing the Aga can’t do is broil. But it’s always ready to go and cooks food in so many ways at the same time.
Even after all the meals I’ve prepared using it, the thing my children talk about the most is getting their clothes out of the warming oven during the wintertime.
Q: I’m sure you also have your own memories from childhood that shaped the kind of cook you are today.
A: I have a very emotional connection to food that was probably forged watching and cooking with my great-grandmother (Maude Lacy) as she prepared enormous dinners for our extended family in Adrian, Mo. She was an excellent cook who never used a recipe, and if Mamaw was cooking dinner, the family showed up. She also had an extensive garden, which I now have, and I enjoy canning all the fruits of my labors — tomatoes, especially.
Q: You also seem very social around food.
A: I grew up in Prairie Village and my mother, Becky Fritts, was always entertaining, and I helped her a lot, too. I taught cooking classes in my home for several years, and I guess if there was a theme that ran through my classes, it was that cooking for those we care about can enhance our lives, as well show our family and friends how much they are loved. It’s cliché, but preparing home-cooked meals is something that seems to be going by the wayside as everyone is so busy.
For many, the thought of the time and energy to bring people together at the table is simply too daunting. When I was teaching classes, I wanted to empower people by providing foolproof recipes and to express that meals with family and friends can be some of the most precious moments we can have.
Q: So is this duck ragu recipe one of your foolproof go-tos?
A: Braised meals are perfect as they allow the cook to prepare the meal on his or her own time schedule. Slow-cooked meals provide that home-cooked taste we all love, and a host can enjoy guests with a minimum of fuss in the kitchen when entertaining.
When I am entertaining and making duck ragu, I will braise the duck legs in the sauce and refrigerate for two days before serving. I like to do as much as I can ahead of time and simply reheat the sauce while cooking the pasta and serve with the cracklings on top.
I usually order my duck legs online from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, but I know that McGonigle’s Market (1307 W. 79th St.) has frozen duck legs. Even the Local Pig (2618 Guinotte Ave.) has duck legs available now if you call in advance.
Small things — like using parchment paper to reduce the headroom in the pot and concentrate the braising juices — are the little tricks I’ve learned that make a big difference. But while I enjoy learning cooking techniques and the act of cooking, I really use food as a means to connect with those I love.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Duck Ragu With Pasta
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 duck leg quarters
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided use
3/4 teaspoon pepper, divided use
1 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 stalk celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 cup red wine
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 (1-ounce) package dried porcini mushrooms, optional
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 (16-ounce) package pasta, such as bucatini, penne or spaghetti
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, as desired
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Warm a cast-iron Dutch oven on the stovetop over medium heat.
While pan is warming, season duck leg quarters with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add 2 duck leg quarters to heated pot, skin side down. Brown until skin turns crispy, about 7 minutes. Using tongs, turn duck pieces over and brown other side for another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove duck from pot onto a platter and repeat process with remaining 2 leg quarters.
Add onion, carrots and celery to the rendered duck fat in pot. Season with remaining salt and pepper and sauté over medium heat until vegetables are softened and the edges are beginning to brown, or about 7 to 8 minutes.
Add garlic, rosemary and allspice to pot and sauté 1 minute more. Deglaze the bottom of pan with red wine, scraping up any browned bits on bottom of pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for about 6 minutes, or until wine is reduced by half.
Add stock and optional dried porcinis and reduce liquid by half again. Pour in tomatoes with juice and simmer for another 3 minutes.
Return duck to pot and add bay leaves. Cut a large piece of parchment paper that will cover the pot. Place parchment over the duck, so that it is almost touching the leg quarters. Allow the edges of the parchment paper to hang over the sides of the pot by 1-inch. Cover pot tightly with lid. Place covered pot in oven and braise until duck is fork tender, or about 2 hours.
Remove from oven and allow the duck to rest in the braising liquid in pot for about 1 hour. (If you are making this ahead, you can transfer the pot’s contents into a glass or plastic bowl with a lid and store in the refrigerator for 2 days.)
To assemble dish: Prepare pasta, according to package directions.
As water is boiling for pasta, remove duck pieces from the braising liquid and set aside. Skim as much surface fat as desired from the top of the braising liquid.
Remove skin from the duck pieces and reserve. Debone the leg quarters, discarding the bones. Return meat to pot with braising liquid and add red wine vinegar. Warm contents over medium heat on stovetop.
If sauce is too thin, raise the heat and reduce the liquid, until desired consistency is achieved. While sauce is warming and pasta is boiling, make duck cracklings by cutting the reserved duck skin into 1/2 -inch pieces. Add to a cast-iron skillet that has been heated over a medium-high temperature. Fry for about 6 minutes, or until duck skin is crispy. Remove to a paper towel to absorb excess fat.
To serve: Divide pasta between 4 to 6 warmed plates and spoon ragu over the top of the pasta, evenly dividing it between plates. Garnish with duck cracklings, and/or grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve immediately.
Per serving, based on 4: 767 calories (30 percent from fat), 25 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 43 milligrams cholesterol, 106 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 458 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.