After a full and joyous year of cooking, it’s the very end of this past year that stands out, and one of the very last dishes I made in 2013 that will remain in my memory as the best thing I cooked all year. It’s a long story, and it begins here, with our friends at Pleasant View Farm.
Rose and John’s Pleasant View Farm produces foie gras and duck of exceptional quality, and I was lucky enough to get two of their Moulard ducks and one foie gras this year for our holiday festivities. I spent days happily cooking them, and turned out an amazing number of delectable dishes.
The ducks arrived looking like this, since the carcass must be cut open to remove the foie gras. This was my first experience butchering a duck, which, after watching about a dozen YouTube videos on the subject, turned out to be a lot easier than I had expected,
even if I wasn’t able to remove the breasts as cleanly as a pro would have done. The breasts were enormous and beautiful – that’s a full-sized dinner fork next to them for scale. We ate two of them pan-roasted and sliced, for traditional deliciousness, and I set aside the other two for what was to become my most favorite duck dish. I also separated the legs and wings and put them with the necks
the fat I rendered from the ducks. Because these ducks were raised for foie gras production, they were really fat; each of mine weighed about eight pounds, and that’s without their livers, which weighed over a pound apiece. I ended up with about 2 quarts of the most pristine duck fat, and also a giant heap of cracklings from the skin. If you have cracklings, called gratons in French, and some good confit, you can’t do better than to make Paula Wolfert’s awesome Salad of Duck Confit with Red Cabbage, Chestnuts, and Watercress, which I served for Christmas dinner. I shredded the confit into the salad, instead of presenting the legs whole, but otherwise I follow the recipe exactly and so should you, as it’s probably the best salad you’ll ever eat.
I also picked the meat off the confited necks and wings and made duck rillettes, which aren’t pretty enough to merit a picture, but were a favorite around here during the holidays. I like to add a little quatre épices, or French four spice, to the rillettes for a hauntingly sweet spiciness.
The duck carcasses went into the roaster before being made into stock. Two ducks made about a gallon of light stock, which I then reduced to about a cup and a half. Once chilled, this became an intense duck jello.
What on earth can you do with duck jello? Well, you can serve it as a garnish to this absolutely stellar duck paté. I was happy to have island-grown pork and pork fat to use in the paté, as well as some really great bacon, so everything that went into it was of an excellent quality. I used this recipe, with one small change, since I discovered at the last minute that I didn’t have any green peppercorns, but what I did have was the last of my annual batch of preserved Meyer lemons. Finely diced preserved lemon made a great substitute for the peppercorns, and went so well with the Grand Marnier-marinated duck breast that I think I’ll always make it like this. And I’ll definitely always make this, because it’s stunningly delicious, and takes a satisfyingly long time and enough finicky prep to be really fun to make. Plus, it makes a huge amount, and ours fed us and our guests from Christmas day through New Year’s Eve.
Also, Toby, who is strictly not allowed on the dining table, conceived a mad passion for the paté, and every time I had it out of the fridge there he was, begging piteously, then eating with unmistakable devotion whatever little pieces I shared with him. But don’t make this just for your cats, make it for a party where you want to show off, and where your guests love good food. This tastes exactly like a paté from a great charcuterie in France, and even though we ate a lot of good food in France this year, this paté, fait maison, by my own two hands, is the best thing I put in my mouth in 2013. Try it, you’ll love it.
And you know it must be good when it takes top billing even over the terrine of foie gras, which I made in the classic French style, just sprinkled with Cognac, salt, and pepper. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous, as foie gras should be, and then some. Still, it’s the paté that will stay on my mind, and that’s saying a lot.