Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Duck Died Honorably

A while back, I wrote about the senseless demise of a particular duck I’d eaten at lunch. I’d been incensed, riled up and pissed about how badly the duck had been treated in the kitchen. I’d gnawed and masticated it, finally managing to get some of its chewy, leathered flesh down my throat.

“The duck died in vain,” I’d pronounced.

By sheer luck of the draw, I was given the opportunity to make amends.

The duck I’d eaten was one of the standard recipes prepared in the Cuisines of the Americas class, which I was currently enrolled in.

Each student is put into a team of two and assigned a menu from the course curriculum. You rotate to another menu item and another partner every two days. So far during the class, I’d roasted turkeys and made stuffing with chestnuts and sausage; I’d prepared eggplant parmesan with fresh mozzerella that I’d made myself (not nearly as hard as you’d think); I’d done crawfish etouffee with shrimp-stuffed mirlitons; and finally, sautéed snapper (silk or vermillion, I couldn’t tell which. By the way, I’ve learned that the chances are good that when you order red snapper in a restaurant, you’re not getting red snapper, but more likely one of the two other varieties. What’s the difference? About $15 a pound. It’s hard to tell which is which. But if you get a whole fish, look at the eyes. If it has a black ring around it, that’s a red snapper. If not, it isn’t) served with grapefruit salsa.

And now it was day 9 out of 14. I looked at the schedule. The next day—and the day after—I would be preparing the very same duck recipe that had made me so apoplectic months earlier. I would be able to honor the duck, and redeem the insult to the entire species. I would not, under any circumstances, bring shame to the short life of the duck. I announced to my friends at dinner that this was what I intended.

On day 9, I arrived early. The night before, I’d made a meticulous list of all the necessary ingredients. The menu indicated that my partner and I would be making the duck, a port wine sauce to go with it, scalloped potatoes, roasted carrots, and broccoli. I gathered every ingredient and all the pans I thought I’d need. I cranked up the convection oven to 475. I got out the duck stock that two students had made the night before.

My partner was late, but as far as I was concerned, my only true partner was the spirit of the departed duck. When my human partner arrived, I stared at him in confusion.

“Hi,” he said. I didn’t answer. He shuffled. Then cleared his throat. “Okay, then. I’ll start on the duck. Do you want to get the potatoes peeled?”
I leapt in front of him. “No. No. No. I’m doing this duck. No one else is touching it. I’m sorry. I know that sounded bad. But this is personal.”

He just stared at me. He seemed utterly perplexed. From behind him, someone said, “It’s probably better not to get between Jonathan and those ducks.”

“Alright…how about I start the sauce, then?”

“No,” I said right away. “The sauce is part of the duck.”

There was a lengthy silence.

“Right. Yeah. Okay. Ummm…why don’t I start peeling and cutting up the carrots? Those aren’t part of the duck, correct?”

“That’s true,” I conceded.

“And the potatoes? Is it okay if I touch those?”

“Yes. Yes, that would be acceptable.” He walked away. I addressed myself to the ducks. I arranged them on racks in two giant roasting pans. I patted the skin and the cavity dry. I ran my fingers over the chilled skin. I laid my palm on one of them. I started massaging the bird.

A voice to my left asked, “What are you doing?” It was one of my peers. I felt a sudden sort of shame, like I’d been nailed leaving the bathroom without washing my hands or something. “Uhhh…,” I started to say. “Well, I guess I’m massaging the bird.” I took my hand away.

“Of course you are. Hey, why don’t you come back to Earth? Come rejoin us.” He walked off. I felt too embarrassed to continue massaging. I seasoned the birds instead. When the oven beeped, I opened the doors and put the birds in. I watched for a few seconds through the door glass. Then I went ahead with preparations for the sauce.

The sauce started out as two gallons of stock. It would need to be reduced to a couple of quarts. I started to get it boiling away in a stock pot. It would have, at the end, a velvety consistency and a rich flavor. At this point, it was thin as water and tasted of nothing more than day-old duck. I got out a wider, shallower pot and dumped the stock in. At this rate, it would take until 2012 for the reduction to happen. I kept veering between the oven and the pot. I went back and forth, constantly monitoring. I’d watched my partner fabricate the carrots, and get the potatoes put together and under the heat. I saw him at the stove with a small pan and some raspberries. I deduced that he might be trying to get his hands in the duck and sauce. I went over.

“What are you doing?” I asked as casually as I could.

“The chef told me to make a gastrique and add it to the sauce.” He was boiling the raspberries in vinegar and sugar, and reducing it down to a syrupy consistency. This was meessing with my goal of being the sole caretaker of the birds. But he was operating under orders. And I recognized I was getting a little out of hand with all this. I nodded and walked back to the ovens.

An hour after the birds were in, they had browned pretty nicely; the convection ovens cook things quickly. I called the chef over and asked what he thought. He prodded and pressed the skin. I followed suit. He squeezed the meat on the leg. So did I. “Take ‘em out of there,” he said. And I did. The ducks began to rest.

I focused completely on the sauce now. It still wasn’t reducing the way I wanted. I got the biggest rondeau in the kitchen and dumped the stock, with all its aromatics and now the gastrique, into it and turned the heat to high.

And after a little bit, that was done, too. I remembered reading in The French Laundry Cookbook how Thomas Keller instructed the staff to strain everything through a chinoise 15 or so times. If that was what was done at the French Laundry, then I’d do it here. The duck deserved no less. I wound up straining it just six times. Each time, the amount of sediment at the bottom of the chinoise was lessening. On the sixth none was there. I swirled in butter. I picked up a spoon and tasted it. It was, I must say, exquisite. I could have done shots of the stuff. Rich, with a hint of sour from the gastrique, and the flavor of raspberries throughout.

We carved the ducks, which had now rested for 30 minutes. The skin was crisp. My hand feeling weighty with trepidation, I pulled a large scrap of meat off the bones. I put it in my mouth. It was moist and tender. The potatoes and carrots came out. We plated the meals and served them. We sold out within about 12 minutes.

As the dinner service died down, my partner walked by and we high-fived. Tomorrow, we’d do the same menu again. I wound up getting a 97 for the day.

Make way for the ducklings…


Anonymous said...

Another seDUCKtive entry, Jonathan. I feel so ... happy ... right now. Yes, all is ducky.

Seriously, thank you for doing what was within your power in your world to make it a better place for all. Conviction can be good.

As Pat C. used to say: Excellent conDUCKt, Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to post this blog. It is truly a fascinating insight into the goings on behind the doors of the CIA. Your ability to paint a picture with your words is impressive. I can almost smell and taste the dishes you are describing.

Your passion for food is inspiring. I feel as if I may become a better cook merely through osmosis.

Thank you

jane said...

Dix you have so many fans it's blowing my mind.

JaimeK said...

I tell ya, when you don't post (and I know you are swamped) I get pissed! =] That is how much I enjoy what you are writing. Thanks so much for the stories - they are great! I could taste that sauce here in Oregon. Keep at it!