Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about cooking. Dad was a cook for many years, and growing up I always wanted to be exactly like him. Through my childhood, I’ve heard a few things in the kitchen that have become ingrained in my mind, and therefore I see them as universal truths. These truths include, but are not limited to:
You do NOT put tomatoes in the fridge. They stay at room temperature.
Garlic should be used liberally and emphatically.
And (Dad’s personal favorite) A stock boiled is a stock spoiled.
This past week started off ripe with anticipation simply due to the foreboding nature of the then coming Friday. 12/21/2012 was supposed to be the end of the world and the start of a new apocalypse. All of us were doomed, and this new reality would be decidedly more bleak.
I’m not a superstitious man.
Instead of worrying, planning for the coming end, and racking up my credit card debt in a last hurrah, I decided to look at Friday as a celebration of life for the past couple of millenia and a toast to new beginnings. In keeping with the celebratory theme, I decided to look for a way to decadently ring in this new way of life. Immediately, the thought, “What’s more decadent than French food?” popped into my head.
Before I get too far into this, I should make one small confession: I’ve never cooked a Duck in my life. That’s why it’s capitalized, you see. The Duck is a respected animal, and it’s necessary for me to fear the animal as I don’t quite understand the quirks of preparing it. I’ve mastered a turkey, and I can approach and prepare a chicken with surgical certainty. But a Duck required expert consultation.
I settled on Duck L’Orange for two reasons. One, the pictures I’ve seen make it look absolutely gorgeous, and I’m a sucker for presentation. Two, Matt Damon gets all flustered and bent out of shape in The Departed when the French place doesn’t have Duck L’Orange, and he needs to quit complaining and learn how to enjoy a date like the rest of us normal people.
Once I picked the Duck dish, I decided at least one complimentary dish had to be French as well – it just seemed right. In the interest of frugality, I decided to try my hand at ratatouille… with flair. Confit Byaldi was specifically invented after the film Ratatouille to emphasize the amazing color spectrum present when you combine two types of squash, roma tomatoes, and eggplant. It’s arranged over a piperade – a tomato, onion, and pepper based sauce – and baked slowly with garlic, thyme, and olive oil. The dish is served with a balsamic vinaigrette, and the idea is to take a cheap, peasant dish and make it classy.
Confit byaldi took an insane amount of prep time. I refused to use canned tomatoes, so my piperade was made after I blanched the skins off several tomatoes, diced and sauteed them to reduce the liquid. I also do not own a mandolin, so the eggplant, squash, and romas had to be sliced by hand. It took quite a bit of patience.
I’ll admit, my last dish was kind of an afterthought fueled by a nostalgia for my father’s cooking experiments. Every year for Halloween, Dad would make lamb’s wool, a type of Wassail popular in medieval cooking. While I didn’t have a recipe, I knew the basic recipe components: roasted apples, beer, sugar, and spices, all simmered and whisked together. I also had a pem to guide me.
LAMBS WOOL (Robert Herrick 1648)
Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool:
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.
With that, I had my spices.
As is usual with my cooking experiments, the dishes came together frantically towards the end, and I vigorously ended up adding my spices minutes before the first guests arrived.
With a stroke of luck, everything came together only a few minutes late, but now it’s time to Tarantino the story and tell you all what I learned this past weekend. That stock line I remember from Dad played into the experimentation from the very beginning, as a large portion of what makes up Duck L’Orange involves creating a strong brown Duck stock and flavoring it with Orange zest. Right after I trimmed and browned the bits of Duck and threw them in a pot with a few veggies and herbs and a bit of water. Soon, on low heat, a wonderfully aromatic scent filled the kitchen.
After about an hour and a half, I finally tasted my creation, and I must admit I impressed myself. I came almost immediately to a new, flavorful truth:
Brown Duck stock is one of the loveliest inventions on the planet.
Julia Child instantly became my new spirit guide. Butter for everyone!
I carefully monitored the temperature of my stock and took time to skim it every fifteen minutes or so, even with all the other hectic activity in the kitchen.
In addition, I had prepared and blanched some fresh orange zest to add to the Duck stock for the final fragrant pièce de résistance.I have to admit, the entire hectic experiment with French cuisine was a little nerve-racking. I’ve discovered French food requires a ton of fat, a good amount of patience, and a fair few exasperated sighs.
However, the food I produced may be among the most subtly flavorful creations I’ve graced with my name. Duck L’Orange is truly a dish to be reckoned with, and next time I think I’ll experiment with an orange glaze basted on in the last few minutes. But the flavor profiles I experienced with these dishes were truly novel, and I have to say….
I’m a changed man.
The dishes are also remarkably pretty.
So, here’s to French cooking, learning experiences, and a well-deserved beer after some frantic preparation in the kitchen. Until next time… good eats, liquid gold, and positive vibes to us all. Cheers.