Laura Zinn Fromm, writer, editor, and former Business Week reporter, chronicles life as a flawed, middle-aged Mom.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Duck in Winter
This story ran on making duck and remembering Mom's version of it ran on Patch Sunday morning. As always, if you have recipes. comments or memories to share, please leave them on the Patch site. Thank you!
New Year’s is full of resolutions. You’ll be thinner, kinder, and happier. You’ll play fewer games of Words With Friends on-line and – gasp!– maybe even play Scrabble with people in person. You’ll eat better and healthier. You'll eat less fat and fewer carbs. You'll load up on raw vegetables and fresh salmon.
You will, you will, you will and then, of course, you won’t. January is a cruel month. You get back from whatever holiday you've taken, start out with the best of intentions, try to be good for a few days, amend your New Year’s resolutions and then what do you have? The rest of January to muddle through. If you live in the Northeast, January is the harshest month because it's cold and when you finally get to the end, all you get is a nose-dive into freezing February.
To stay sane post New Year's, I try to do something new every January. Usually, that just means buying a new cookbook and cooking from it but I always start out the month planning to take up some new game or sport. My neighbor and I went for a walk the other morning. We talked about taking an EMT course, doing competitive rock-climbing and buying snow shoes. Oh, the fun we would have! I said I might take up bridge, which my grandmother played almost up to her death. As always, our conversation turned to food. My neighbor's goal was to make a zillion meatballs to sell at a wrestling tournament her son was competing in. I said I planned to make duck while my kids watched the Giants game.
Yes, duck is expensive and fattening. So what? This is January, and we have to find our pleasures where we can. Plus, the duck dish I was thinking about was worth saving for. It had been almost two years since I had made it and I could still remember how happy we all were sitting down to it. The beauty of duck is it lasts a while. Make this dish on Sunday and you will still be happily nibbling on it Wednesday. And this particular dish is so rich, delicious and nutritious, you won’t need dessert or a side dish to go with it (though you may need a cup of coffee later to keep you awake.)
I learned to make duck from my mother. When I was growing up, she made Duck a l' Orange. Later in life she complained that making a whole duck was messy because it splattered but she made it frequently throughout my childhood. There are plenty of things about growing up that I'd rather forget about but my mother's food is not one of them. She was an excellent cook who learned by watching Julia Child on TV. She made elaborate meals almost every night and her bible was Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook.
My parents eventually divorced but for years, my mother bent over backwards to make the dishes that my father loved – Yorkshire pudding and roast beef, filet mignon, veal scallopini, lamb chops, spare ribs, spaghetti with meat balls, lasagna, tongue, stuffed potatoes, fried chicken, matzoh ball soup, garlic bread, chocolate mousse surrounded by lady fingers, chocolate and Grand Marnier souffles and apple pie. My father was a lot of things, some of them not so nice, but he was smart and successful and we ate well. From my parents, I learned that to cook is to please.
Almost two years ago, I found this duck recipe in the New York Times Dining section. I love the Dining section. When I was growing up, it was called the Living section, and my mother was once featured in it in a story that ran on on Dec. 10, 1975. The headline was "He Designs Meals - And Kitchens as Well. My mom and her friend John Cristaldi, a carpenter turned kitchen designer, cooked a meal for Craig Claiborne, then the food critic for the Times. Somehow, my mother persuaded Claiborne to drive out to Short Hills and sit down in her kitchen so “Uncle John” could cook an old fashioned Italian meal for him. John made Claiborne sesame steak, broccoli rabe, zucchini with tomato sauce and sauteed chicken with Italian sausages.
He discussed his cooking philosophy, said he grew his own basil and oregano, and learned to cook from his father, a stone mason. I'm looking at the story now. There are the old blue tiles from my parents' kitchen, there is Uncle John, there is the island where my father used to stash the Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies he brought back from Zabar's. They're all gone now, and my mother doesn't cook much anymore but she still lives in that house and the stovetop is still there.
The Dining section remains my favorite section of the paper. Every Wednesday morning, I turn to it before I read the more pressing news of the front page. Some days, I'll cut or print out some recipes, put them in a recipe binder and forget about them. But other days, I cook whatever the Times tells me to. This duck recipe came out on one of those days. Last Sunday, I took out the recipe again. My mother was coming over to say hello to my kids, while they watched the Giants play the Falcons.
While they were watching, I made duck. All I can say is, Oh, Mama. This dish will make your heart race. I doubled the amount of string beans the recipe calls for because I love string beans and that way I could pretend this was a watercress and string bean salad with a little duck thrown in, and not the other way around.
You start this recipe by melting honey in a pot. Nothing beats the smell of warm honey. Once you add the raw sugar, salt and nuts to it, your party has started. If you do nothing else with your life, make these nuts.
The first time I made this recipe, the wax paper stuck to the nuts. This time, I let the nuts cool and put the tray into the refrigerator for a half an hour. When they were really cold, the wax paper came off easily.
The duck itself takes little time to make. Clark’s recipe says it only takes about 8 minutes in the oven, though I found it takes 12-15 minutes to cook two thick duck breasts. After the first the eight minutes, I took the duck breasts out. They were gorgeous and grilled dark on top, but inside they were raw. I sliced them in half lengthwise, so that there were now four thin duck breasts on the platter, and cooked them a few more minutes.
My mother came upstairs just as I was arranging the duck on a platter with the greens. "Oh, duck!" she said. Her eyes lit up. I like to think that I've lived my life in opposition to my mother but the reality is I've moved back to the town where she still lives, and like her, I cook all the time. We take turns driving each other crazy but she has taught me a thing or two. I made her a plate to taste. As my mother bit into the duck, she looked happier than I've ever seen her in my presence. “I think this is the best thing you’ve ever made,” she said. Thanks, Mom.
Duck Salad With Almonds, String Beans and Watercress (adapted from The New York Times)
Time: 75 Minutes, makes enough for four people
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup slivered almonds
2 tablespoons raw sugar
2 duck breasts, trimmed (1-1/2 pounds total)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
1 teaspoon chipotle or other chili powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 bunch watercress
1-2 pounds string beans or haricot verts
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook honey and salt until thin and runny, then mix in almonds until coated. Add sugar and toss to coat. Spread nuts on baking sheet (lined with parchment paper) and bake, stirring once, until deeply golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Let nuts cool, put them in the refrigerator to cool for half an hour or so, then peel off the wax paper and break up clumps with your fingers.
2. In a medium pot on medium-high heat, bring six cups salted water to boil. Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Cook green beans until bright green and tender, 2 to 4 minutes depending on thickness of beans. Drain, then plunge into ice water to stop cooking. Drain and pat dry.
3. Raise oven heat to 400 degrees. Using a sharp knife, score duck fat into a crosshatch pattern, with cuts a half-inch apart. You want to cut through fat but not into flesh of duck.
4. In a small bowl, mix salt, chili, pepper, cumin and cinnamon. Rub mix all over duck, working it into the fat.
5. Set an ovenproof pan on the stove over medium-low heat. Add 1 teaspoon of oil, heat for a few seconds, then add duck, fat side down. Sear without moving until dark brown, about 10 minutes (if it starts to burn, lower the heat). Flip duck and cook for 1 minute, then transfer pan to oven and roast until meat is done to taste, 4 to 8 minutes longer for medium rare (130 degrees). Let duck rest on a cutting board. Reserve 2 tablespoons of fat from pan.
6. Mash up garlic and make a paste from garlic and a pinch of salt. In a small bowl, mix it with lime juice and a half-teaspoon salt, then drizzle in remaining olive oil, whisking well.
7. In a large bowl, toss green beans and watercress with reserved pan drippings and just enough of dressing to coat. Taste and add salt if desired.
8. Slice duck breasts and toss with salad. Garnish with almonds and serve.