Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A wee little duck and some other stuff

Yesterday afternoon at school we cooked with the benevolent and bearded Chris Douglass of Icarus and Ashmont Grill. I was confronted with what continues to be something of a bete noire: the animal carcass that has to be broken down into useable parts. In February we had one butchering class, but all we'd done was observe the breaking down of a lamb into lamb chops and legs and tentatively hack at a couple of chickens. In general I've not had enough practice to feel confident carving up a beast. Happily I am not the squeamish short, so it's not about the blood and guts and tendons. My fingers aren't overly practiced at feeling along a backbone, cutting around a collarbone or wishbone, the exact point between two joints through which a knife can cleanly slice. This will come in time, I guess. Happily yesterday's butchery involved only a wee little duck, easy enough to break down into leg and breast parts. I managed not to slash up too much of the meat while separating it from the central ribcage. It helps that at least 45 percent of a duck seems to be fat, so you don't have to be too delicate.

With the duck was served a compote of rhubarb and strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar, sugar and black pepper. This little topping would be divine with ice cream or in a tart shell (perhaps adding a little more sugar). I have to admit I prefer Beijing or Hong Kong-style roast duck to a Western style preparation, but this was pretty good, although I ought to have salted the duck a lot more and cooked it for five minutes less. I continuously forget that when I'm cooking for school I have to surmount my fears of oversalting and dump on four times as much salt as I'd put normally, what my instructors insist on calling "a little." (Just like "a little" butter is a quarter of a pound.)

Carving up the duck into leg and breast parts and cooking them separately is a good strategy for duck, as it saves you from having to siphon off the Hoover Dam's worth of fat that renders out of the thing if you roast it whole. The last time I roasted whole duck it took three hours for the thing to stop dripping sludge and the guests were served at the sophisticated hour of 11PM. Once you have obtained your bone-in duck leg and boneless breast, season the duck legs and throw them in a 425 F oven for 20 minutes, or a little more, for medium rare. The breast--leave at least some skin on so the fat renders out and crisps the skin--can be seared in a heavy saute pan on both sides for 8-10 minutes.

Then we made a dried porcini mushroom-encrusted halibut with watercress garnish and--oh joy!--mashed turnips, which I have decided are far far better than mashed potatoes any day.

We also made a delightful salad of escarole--a new green for me, and one I'll remember--with ricotta salata (aged Ricotta cheese), shaved sunchokes, Marcona almonds and a lemon vinaigrette. Raw sunchokes have a much milder, blander flavor than I'd thought. Then again I have only encountered that odd little bulbous nubbin in one other dish: The Thomas Keller Sunchoke Soup. THAT dish we made with old Tommy K (as he is known in some kitchens) himself for a big shebang. I feel I almost ruined the whole event, but that is a tale for another time.

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