Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quel gros canard!

The last couple of weeks of my sabbatical were busy ones. (I am home now and writing this from the comfort of my kitchen table-- more about that soon!) I was counting the days until I would see my family again but racing against the clock to fit in as much as I could before leaving Provence and France. Chef Érick knew he still had a lot to teach me about cooking and one day came home with the biggest duck I have ever seen. Admittedly, I do not have a lot of experience with ducks other than watching Daffy Duck on Looney Tunes most Saturday mornings of my young life and eating quite a bit of it in June while in southwest France with the Arles 6. Professor Rich and I went to a farm where duck and geese are force fed- gavage- while near Sarlat in June. He, as a biology professor and turkey specialist, was curious and I was his chauffeur and translator. I had also vowed to myself upon receiving the sabbatical and arriving in France that I would not pass up an adventure during my six month stay. We did not witness the actual process, but we did listen to the owner explain how the ducks and geese are cared for and fed, all very ethically, of course, according to him. I am no one to judge and let's just say that visiting the farm has not kept me from eating duck or pâté de fois gras. The birds are fed a mixture of ground corn and oil through a tube for a period of about 15 days until their liver is the proper size, ideally around 750 grams. We were told that the birds basically will do this to themselves before migrating-- well, they don't force the food down their own throats obviously, but they will eat enough to sustain themselves during the long flight. After they are slaughtered, all parts are used and consumed. The French are not wasteful. Listening to the monsieur talk about the process reminded me of watching my grandmother on her farm. No part of an animal was ever wasted. That is why I am still curious about those pig ears that I saw in the market one day...
So, the day came when I arrived in the kitchen to find M. Canard on the steel work table in the kitchen in Arles. I declined Chef Érick's offer to chop off his head. He did so and then went to work with a sharp knife. The first thing was to remove the liver. We got out the scale so that we could weigh the "parts" as we removed them. The liver weighed one kilo or 2.2 pounds. We put that aside and went too work on the breasts. By this time I had lost all sense of trepidation and was ready with my knife, too. We carved out the breasts and they weighed 500 grams (about one pound) each. Érick salted them and put them aside. He cures them with salt. I chopped off the feet and we set aside the legs. (I would love to have them right now for the cassoulet I plan to make soon...) We saved every part of this duck. The neck and feet were to be used for stock. As I said, nothing goes to waste.
I brought home two breasts and some of the liver. My suitcase did indeed make it through customs with truffles and duck! Sorry, Rich, no drama at the airport! I do appreciate the fact that you and Pat were ready to come rescue me should I be detained at customs for "illegal substances," but I made it through. One suitcase arrived at RDU held together with tape. I think it must have been opened and the agent didn't want to even bother to try to zip it back up. The other one, the one with the truffles and duck, didn't seem to have been opened, thank goodness. Chef Érick has become quite adept at packing foodstuffs for the journey to the U.S. He packaged Dorette's saucisson (all 7 of them!) this summer. He has made numerous trips to the States for cooking demonstrations and has made it through customs each and every time. Vacuum-sealing is essential!
I am including a recipe for cassoulet that my mom found in a recent edition of Guideposts. She read the article about it and knew it would interest me. The woman called it the French version of pork and beans. Gross understatement if ever there was one. I did eat cassoulet while visiting the city of Carcassonne the week before I left. We ate in a café, supposedly the oldest one within the walled city. This dish of "pork and beans" was just right on a chilly, rainy day, with a glass of local red wine and freshly baked bread. A nice dinner for a cold January day. It is well worth the time it takes to prepare! Rosie and her husband ate it in a French restaurant in Brooklyn and then worked for quite a long time to find the right recipe. As she says in the article ..."even though it does take time and patience to prepare cassoulet, I discovered that the dish isn't as complicated as I first thought. I think of it as the best pork and beans you've ever tasted-- rich and garlicky and herbaceous, with a crust that crackles when you dig your fork in. It's not health food- that's for sure. It's country food. Soul food, even. French-style."
I love that! We Americans are not the food Barbarians the French think us to be! At least not those of us who would spend practically an entire day on one of their best-loved dishes for winter! Now, where can I find those confit duck legs here in Durham??

(thanks to Rosie Schaap and Guideposts January 2009)

4 cups of Tarbais or other small white beans, such as great Northern
4 fresh ham hocks, about 1 lb. each
3 large onions, peeled and quartered
6 sprigs thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. duck fat (can be ordered from D'Artagnan, dartagnan.com)
4 links unseasoned fresh pork sausage, cut into 2-in. pieces
1 large head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
4 whole confit duck legs (can be ordered from D'Artagnan)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Topping: (optional, in my opinion; the cassoulet in Carcassonne did not have it)
1 cup bread crumbs (made from dried out bread)
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, minced
1 garlic clove, minced

Rinse beans thoroughly, pick through and discard stones, set aside.
Place ham hocks in a large pot. Add 2 onions, thyme, and salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from heat, allow to cool 15 minutes then drain ham hocks, discarding onion and thyme. Cut meat from each hock into 2 pieces, fat and skin, and set meat aside.
Empty water from large pot. Add beans and enough water to cover by 1/2 inch (about 8 cups) and season with salt. Bring to a simmer then reduce to low and cook until bean are tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt, if necessary, then set beans aside to cool. Reserve cooking liquid.
Heat duck fat in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausages and cook, turning to brown on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Place garlic, remaining onion and 1/2 cup water in a blender and purée until smooth. Add garlic paste to sausages and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, turning sausages occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about half the beans to a heavy, wide-mouthed, 6-quart pot, about 4 inches high. Assemble cassoulet in layers: Place meat from ham hocks on top of beans and cover with sausages and garlic paste. Divide duck into 8 pieces by separating drumsticks from thighs. Arrange duck on sausages then spoon in remaining beans. Season with nutmeg and add just enough reserved bean cooking liquid to cover beans (about 3 cups). Reserve remaining liquid. Bake cassoulet uncovered until it comes to a simmer and crust begins to form, about 1 hour. If cassoulet appears dry, break top layer by gently pushing it down with the back of a spoon, allowing a new layer of beans to rise to the surface. Add just enough bean liquid to moisten the beans.
Remove cassoulet from oven. Allow to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare topping: Mix bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and a good pinch of salt.
Remove cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature for at least 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F. Bake for 1 hour. When cassoulet begins to simmer, break crust and add enough warm water to just cover the beans (about 1 cup). Reduce heat to 250F, add bread-crumb topping and bake, breaking crust and adding water as needed, for 3 hours. Remove cassoulet from oven and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes. Serve cassoulet from the pot, breaking the crust at the table. Serves 8.

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