Friday, March 31, 2017

Canard á l’Orange

    Chicken, steak, fish drowned in tartare sauce, interspersed with toaster-oven pizzas or spaghetti and pennies saved. Vegetables followed seasons. There was plenty. Our ups and downs were not about food. Still, the occasional exotic dish felt inexplicable and disgusting. Calves liver, cow’s tongue, and boiled beef. I interpreted these dishes as hostility. I had no idea my mother might seek pleasure in something other than what I thought good.  
     I traveled on my own by subway and bus downtown to junior high, crosstown for after-school art classes and the orthodontist. What was important was the candy bar in my lunchbox or that on Fridays Debbie and I would cut out of school for a burger at a diner where crocks of pickles and table-side jukeboxes graced each booth.Wednesdays after drama at the YMHA Julie and I got Blimpies with extra everything. Week-ends were for sleepovers. I don’t remember the meals at my friends houses or what they ate at mine but I do remember our giggly caresses as we played ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ under the covers during long sleepless nights, drifting off, then waking near noon for French toast and bacon smothered in Log Cabin syrup.
     What changed my world was the Canard á l’Orange from a restaurant called The Library. We'd pass from the familiar lights of Broadway through a forest of hanging fern and navigate the long dark bar to the backroom maze of bookshelves holding real books. Tables were tucked in the nooks and crannies. We went as a treat, sometimes with neighbors, if my mother was tired, or maybe just because.
     How did I love thee? Mahogany, shatteringly crisp skin taught over melting flesh. Sticky sweet glaze and salty fat soiling eager fingers and lips. Gilded, elegant, French; everything my mother was not. She never made duck. With its lousy bone to meat ratio and abundant fat it was not something it would've occurred to her, to us, you could make. 
     It wasn’t till much later, when I’d moved downtown after college that I’d stride with bravado to the butcher shop to ask for duck. At that time ‘New American’ and lite were all the rage and I switched allegiance to barely seared Magret breasts flavored with star anise and peppercorns, or olives, lemon and thyme. I fancied myself a connoisseur, but ducks migrate south only to fly back home. I see now my lavish cooking was no different from my mother’s liver or tongue or pot au feu. She must have had strivings. She must have had her passions, only then I couldn’t see them, it wasn’t my concern. 

    Two days after my mother died I sliced a tomato as she would have and ate it with onion, like her. Next day a tuna sandwich helped me think past her illness. Stirring chocolate pudding expressed what I could not. Grief sparked the memories and the stories followed suit. A dish gets in my head, I cook it and emotions rise. I write them down. Words instead of tears. At first I needed to feel a strong connection so what came to mind were dishes from when she was the center of my universe. But she's been gone a year. Canard á l’Orange marked a separation when I discovered it. It marks one now too. 
     I went out and bought a duck, available as if it were nothing special in a cryovac sack from the local store. The duck and I slow-danced across griefs’ stages; denial, regret, anger, flashes of relief. The thought of dousing it with cloying sauce dispirited. What was it I had liked so much? Why go there now? Taste changes, and memory, and the person remembering, and what we remember isn’t necessarily what it was. I couldn't bring myself to make the dish. The duck sat in my fridge a week till I cut off its legs and stuck them in the freezer and boiled the carcass for broth.
     Later I bought another duck, cut it in half, added one leg to the legs in the freezer, defrosted the old breast, added it to the new breast, scored their skin to quickly sauté, boiled the wingtips and backbone for gravy. The other half, the whole half, I pricked with a knife to release the fat and while it roasted skimmed half dozen recipes for sauce. Fresh squeezed juice and julienned zest simmered with brown sugar or white sugar or honey, sherry vinegar or cider vinegar, Grand Marnier or marmalade. Once the dish was the sexiest I’d ever tasted then it became quaint, now it seems lurid. 
     When my mother was alive I didn't pay attention. Now what I remember are fragments without details, or my focus rests on what wasn't there. Longing comes in waves. I'm not sure what for. Maybe a moment of her voice on the other end of the line.
     At supper the slow roasted half lay by the quickly seared rosy breast, au jus. A piece of history striped bare. Full flavored. Un-sauced.

Sous Vide Duck Confit
3 duck legs
2 t Kosher salt
juice from 1/2 an orange plus strips of zest from same orange
1 t  black peppercorns
1/2 t Sichuan peppercorns
1 small knob fresh turmeric, cut in half
a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme
2 smashed garlic cloves
1 shallot, roughly chopped
2 T rendered duck fat (or substitute butter)

Put the duck legs on a plate and sprinkle with salt
Let sit in the refrigerator overnight, uncovered
Pat legs dry and seal into a heavy duty ziplock bag with the remaining ingredients
Make sure you press the air out of the bag—do this by submerging the bag in a pot of water, keeping the last inch of the zip held out of the water and unsealed until all the air has been pressed out. Be careful not to get water inside the bag
Attach sous vide device to a large water filled pot and set for 76.C 
When it reaches temperature, submerge the sealed bag of legs in the water bath. You might need to weight the bag or jerry-rig something to make sure the bag is submerged (I clip a small metal bowl to the side of the pot to weigh down the bag) 
Cover pot as best you can with foil or plastic wrap to help minimize evaporation
Set timer for 10 hrs. Check water level from time to time.

When done, rapidly chill bag in an iced water bath. When cool enough to handle, pull legs from bag, reserving fat in one bowl and accumulated juices in another. Lay legs on a sheet pan and broil for 5 - 10 minutes until skin crisps and browns. Be cautious of spattering fat. Meanwhile, simmer “jus” with a splash of Grand Marnier or Brandy until slightly thickened and serve with duck. Save fat for other uses.