There I was, sitting beneath 26 Edison lights glowing softly over the bar at the Pacific Grill — my friend Gordon Naccarato’s swanky Tacoma restaurant — slurping my second glass of wine, the delicious Townshend T3 blend that Gordon pours there by the glass. Another friend, my mentor Aaron Valimont (then the executive chef at Pacific Grill, now dishing at the Capital Grille in Dallas, Texas), had just joined me after his shift, still wearing his chef jacket, a smear of fresh blood on the sleeve. It was OK, because it was late and any barflies who might have been put off by our appearance had already flown the coop. I bought him a glass, knowing full well that he drank for free, easily deserving it after a 12-hour day.
“So, I had this dream the other night,” I said, as Chef Aaron slurped half his T3 in a gulp. “I had this big bag of cooked lentils in the freezer and I was trying to think of what to do with them, and I had this dream.”
“Oh yeah?” You could tell he was interested.
“I was thinking lentil soup — you know, regular lentil with sausage and some fresh spinach. But then in the dream, it came to me: make it with duck.” I proceeded to outline my plan to roast a spare duck carcass I had in the freezer with a vegetable mirepoix to make a rich stock for the base, then to braise the legs and thighs in red wine . . .
“You dreamt about duck soup?” Aaron interrupted.
“Yeah,” I said. “I made a stock and then braised the legs and thighs until they were falling apart . . .”
Aaron swilled the rest of his T3, which was immediately refilled by Paul, Pacific Grill’s expert bartender. “You dream about food?”
“All the time,” I sighed.
“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I figured. You got it bad.” He gulped some more of the Townshend. Euro jazz pulsed in the background; only a couple of patrons still lingered at their tables over blond-brownie sundaes and Frangelico. “I dream about food, too. All the time. Menus, farmers’ markets, techniques.” He paused for a second and drained the rest of his vino. “Good luck with that.”
Yeah, good luck with that indeed. There is a saying that suggests “moderation in all things,” which is perhaps among the biggest crocks of all time. Life is not only short, but uncertain; there is precious little time for moderation. One is advised strongly to live and live large. As the people of Minneapolis now know, we live in a world where the interstate freeway bridge you are driving across (specifically, I-35 on August 1, 2007) can and will simply fall down, dropping you into the muddy Mississippi below. If you take nothing else from this missive, please make it this: there is not a moment to waste. Ours is a universe of chaos and beauty, with chaos prevailing often enough that it should give us pause.
Humans wishing to hedge their bets are well-advised to live in the present. For those of us who cook, who dream of things like duck and lentil soup, this means getting a few things straight. For me, one of those things is to know what to do with a duck — surely the bird that God had in mind when he invented poultry.
Duck can be tricky. I grew up in a duck-hunting household, where it was not at all unusual for Sunday dinner in January to feature a brace of bluebills. Sad to say, too many of those precious birds ended up overcooked, their splendid carcasses in the trash bin rather than in the stockpot, where they belonged. Today, if I had three quarts of duck stock, deeply rendered and reduced from wild widgeon and gadwall bones, I would hire an armed guard for their protection.
Since I long ago gave up hunting wild duck (not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation in a heartbeat to join your blind), my duck these days is not only purchased but tame. Not that there aren’t some splendid birds to be had out there. Two of my favored purveyors at the Proctor Farmers’ Market (Tacoma, Washington) — Little Eorthe Farm and Calendula Farm — have gorgeous dead ducks to sell me from time to time, free-ranger Muscovies who lived calm, happy lives in a barnyard. At prices approaching $50 for a single bird, cheap they are not. Nonetheless, I would argue that they are a great value indeed, far exceeding in culinary satisfaction anything one might procure from the freezer section of the local grocer at half the price.
The key with a fifty-dollar bird, of course, is not letting a single ounce go to waste. Here’s how I proceed. First, remove the leg/thigh segments where the thigh joint meets the body. These cuts are generally tough and tendon-y, especially the leg. However, when cooked in the French confit method, immersed in their own fat for half-a-day at 190 degrees, they become a dish so melt-in-your-mouth delicious that words themselves fail. I would have to sing for you in order to fully describe the sensation.
Similarly, remove the wings, reserving them for a stock. Once the bird is fully cut up, carefully carve the breasts off the bone, trimming (and reserving) the deeply fat-layered skin to the edges of the meat. Now you are left with a large carcass, from which you should trim all remaining fat/skin from the back. Trim any excess fat from the leg portions as well as the breast, and place it in a pan to melt; this must be reserved, as it is a precious essence. As for the carcass, brown it in the oven and then boil it with a vegetable mirepoix — celery, onion, leek, carrot, garlic — for five hours or so (this results in a house that smells so good, it deserves its own Glade scent).
From a single bird, you now have the following: boneless, skin-on breasts (meal one); leg/thigh portions for confit (meal two); a carcass for stock (soup and sauce base); and a batch of precious duck grease for confit and/or the best damn french fries you have ever eaten. Each element results in a dish that is its own special occasion, one that makes life worth living.
While the stars of this show are the boneless breasts (these rival Heidi Klum’s, in my book), the dish I will leave with you is the humble confit, this recipe being one I shanghaied from Thomas Keller’s splendid cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Not that this dish differs all that much from any other confit recipe, but I believe in offering credit where credit is due. Keller’s restaurants — like The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York — are paragons of culinary sophistication, but Ad Hoc approaches cooking with humility; it offers a rustic, approachable take on everyday eating at its very finest. You won’t cook like Keller every night, but if you do so once a week or even once a month, that’s a helluva start.
Ad Hoc Duck Confit
2-4 duck leg/thigh sections, trimmed of skin and fat to the edge of the meat
4-6 cups rendered duck fat
⅛ cup kosher salt
2 tsp. brown sugar
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
⅛ cup Italian parsley, chopped
¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns
Rub each leg/thigh section with one tablespoon of the herb salt and store overnight, flesh-side up and covered in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator.
Remove from refrigerator, rinse well, and pat dry. Nestle the pieces closely in a baking dish, crowding them without overlapping. Cover completely with duck fat, topping up if necessary with olive oil. Cover with foil or a lid. Cook at 190 degrees for eight to ten hours. Remove and cool. Refrigerate if using soon, or store frozen for up to six months submerged in remaining fat.
To serve, drain and wipe off the fat and fry each portion, skin-side down, until the skin is crispy and golden brown and warmed through. Served on a bed of cabbage braised in a small amount of champagne or cider vinegar.
This music clip In Too Deep is from my friend Kevin Bowe’s new album Natchez Trace. It features the screaming fiddle of Scarlett Rivera, who you probably last heard on Dylan’s Desire lp.
strange but good; thanks
Lovely post. I stayed at a house for two weeks where the owners left us two pounds of rendered duck fat. For two weeks, life was a little more delicious.
Nicely done, John, and worthy of forwarding to another foodie friend I have, who loves duck and would consider waiting 9 hours for it. “you got it bad, but this is good.”
How did I miss this all those years ago? What a great evocative piece of food writing John. The only thing I would add is do not boil the stock as the fat and impurities in the stock will rise to the top and can then be skimmed to make a beautiful stock. If you boil it while reducing the stock may emulsify the fat. Bring the initial stock to a rolling boil. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the stock for a minimum of 8 hrs. Overnight even-better. Another trick I use as a single-person is anytime I eat a meal “on the bone” whether squab, quail, roast chicken, or fish –after the meal I take the niblled-clean bones and add them to a larger freezer bag and “stockpile” them together in the freezer until needed for stock. Some times I even add a few of these bones into a pot of favorite grains steaming, without a stock, or to a soup, beans and so on, for added deliciousness.