Paris – it’s a love-hate relationship…

…mostly love, actually :)

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A view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero

So we ate…a lot, but we walked a lot too. In fact, I’ve never walked so much in my life. I shall spare you most of my sightseeing pictures as I’m sure that there are more than enough travel blogs that cover this, but I think it is my duty to tell you about my adventures in Paris in relation to food.

I didn’t prepare too much. In fact I did not make an itinerary or reservations at any popular restaurants at all. Since sightseeing, getting together with "Hungry" Hubby’s aunt and his friend are priorities, we needed to play it by ear. From past experience, after spending the entire day walking everywhere, the last thing you want to do is to dress up and sit down to a 10-course meal.  What I did do was to make sure that I knew how to buy macarons and tarts in a pastry shop and my good friend Helen helped me brush up on my French (I took French language lessons from her over a year ago). She also recommended the restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My first day in Paris was marred by an embarrassing incident at the Paris metro. Taking Helen’s advice to take the RER B and skip the 50 € cab fare from Charles de Gaulle to the 6th Arrondisment, I think she did not realize  we had 3 huge suitcases, which was fine for the RER but the Paris metro was a different matter. I went ahead through the composter (the machine that accepts your ticket and the portals or turnstile let you through) but I was not quick enough and  was horrified that the jaws of the machine clamped down on my suitcase! HH, who was struggling with the 2 bigger suitcases saw my predicament and heaved from the other side to pry my suitcase free but not after an earnest struggle and a lot of stares from les Parisiennes.

We did get to our hotel without further incidents but became embarrassingly aware of our awkward burden as we passed more experienced, well-traveled Parisians pulling their dainty suitcases behind them. Our concierge conversed well in  English, and to our pleasure we were upgraded to a junior suite for the whole of our 12-day stay. Yipee!

When we got to our room, it was gorgeously appointed with luxurious silk drapes but our awe was short-lived once our American-sized suitcases filled the room and every inch of available space diminished. It had a gorgeous bathroom and an Elchim blow dryer – wow no cheesy Sunbeam blow dryer here. Bathtub was also lovely but not very friendly to take showers in. Ahh…the Parisians… they want nothing "pas jolie". Extra hooks to hang towels and toiletry bags would have been useful, but I guess they were "pas jolie" too.

Anyway, you are all here for the food, right?

I think the biggest misconception I had about Paris was regarding its coffee. The only French-press I saw was an antique and was not in use.  When we were in San Francisco at La Boulange, they served our coffee in a bowl and HH exclaimed that his Uncle in Paris prepared it that way every morning. So imagine my disappointment when I was served coffee in an espresso-sized cup – their café . I attempted their watered down version called café allongé but my face below says it all.

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not a drinkable cup

No wonder, there is an abundance of Nespresso boutiques in Paris. Even Parisians can’t drink their own coffee! Through sheer tenacity, we finally did find a great cup of coffee at Malongo Cafe (and I do mean great).

Okay let’s start with the best Macarons and overall Pastry.

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Pierre Hermé on rue Bonaparté

Sorry Ladurée fans, but Pierre Hermé simply blows everyone out of the water. I visited Ladurée’s tea room and had one of the most ordinary chocolate eclairs of my life.

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Tea at Ladurée

I also visited Ladurée’s boutique and was met by a pouty salesperson who treated me like I was scum as though if I touched anything on display I would contaminate it. So, uhm I was wearing a hoodie and did not look like I was dressed for high tea but I visited Pierre Hermé in the same outfit and they were cordial, helpful and extremely professional.

I did not let this prevent me from trying Ladurée macarons on another day. Sorry, but I can’t understand the hype. They were not good. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

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Laduree Macarons

In fact, I liked the macarons of Sadaharu Aoki and Gerard Mulot better than the Ladurée. Aoki’s matcha millefueille and Mulot’s canelé were also very good.

So why does Pierre Hermé rule (rock!)? Vivid taste, balance of flavor, luxurious ganaches. His white truffle macaron was sublime but I really loved his macaron Chuao – a macaron with single origin chuao chocolate infused with cassis (black currant), that also had pieces of the fruit in it.

At this point I realized that several of you are already up in arms for my remarks about Ladurée. The concept of how a macaron should taste is wide and varied and it’s all a matter of preference. I do not like shells that taste obviously crunchy. I like my macarons to have a shell that my teeth would not have a problem with. I like a macaron where I do not have to guess what its flavor is from the rest of the group. That said, the macarons made by the hands of Pierre Hermé and his assistant were still the best, so there is an obvious loss of vision in the end product when it gets pushed to production. The difference seems to be the outer layer. The egg-shell thin outer layer gives an audible snap that does not reduce to crumbles in your mouth. More about this in another post.

We took a selection of pastries back to a friend’s house for dinner.

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Clockwise from top: Vanille tart, hazelnut ?, Coffee tart, Chuao tart ->my favorite

Hubby cannot shut up about the coffee tart and wants me to reproduce it.

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Ispahan gateau – I had a smaller version of this back at the hotel
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More macarons at Pierre Hermé boutique

Best Duck Confit?

Chez Dumonet it is.

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Unbelievable Crisp Skin!
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Yes, that’s a thick slab of foie.

I’ve had good confit at a chain restaurant called Chez Clements too, in fact the taste of the meat was a bit better, but did not match the skin crispness of the Chez Dumonet one. I had a bad duck confit at another establishment, but I won’t say where since it is a historic restaurant. But I must say my own duck confit would give them serious competition, actually HH said in terms of flavor mine was still the best. :)

I wonder if Chez Dumonet deep-fried their confit leg?

So let’s insert something else I hate about Paris and would be a reason why I might not survive there. The wine, I just cannot take the wine. I know there are a lot of French wine lovers but I truly love Napa Valley wines. All I can say is, watch the movie "Bottle Shock".

So who had the best Hot Chocolate?

This is tough – the best le chocolate chaud. But I gotta hand it to La Maison du Chocolat. Its hot chocolate was thick and bitter yet glides smoothly  down the throat. A close contender was Angelina and Patisserie Vennoise – both these places get very packed so be prepared to wait.

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Angelina hot chocolate
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Watch out for the buses when you step out of this cafe

A chain called Le Deux Maggot also serves a decent hot chocolate. Stay away from the shops that have their hot chocolate in a swirling machine or you’ll get something akin to Swiss Miss.

My favorite place involves the kitchen shops. HH’s friend had us take bus #85 with him so we can see Paris from above ground. We got off at the Etienne Marcel stop.

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The historic cookware store, E. Dehillerin
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Can I say, hold on to that credit card?
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More Stuff

It can be real confusing when you get into this store. Most of the prices are listed in a book and you have to look it up with the item number stuck to the product. Someone actually followed me around and told me the prices of each, I felt a bit hurried but the salesperson was nice enough. I managed to get out of that store without having to take out a 2nd mortgage but I did leave with a very nice copper jam pot which HH later hauled all over Paris. :)

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Mostly haute pastry stuff here

Another kitchen store is Mora. It looked like it was manned by a couple hoity-toity pastry students. One of them yelled at HH for taking a silicone mat off an induction burner. Good thing HH’s friend was with us and he told off that dude in French which translated to " If you do not like working here, go home". Score one for the tourists. Yeh!

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Great ingredients here!

When we got to G. Detou, I had to mentally compute how much luggage room we still had. Shelled Iranian pistachios, plump vanilla beans, foie gras paté, canned duck confit, Valrhona chocolate packed to the ceiling what more can this girl ask for?

Why can’t we have a store like G. Detou in Richmond, Va? Shall I open one? :D.

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Butcher shop

My most favorite street in Paris is rue Montorgueil not too far from all the kitchen stores above. Now this is the kind of neighborhood I would love to live in. A neighborhood butcher shop, hubby refused to take a picture of the dead bunny on the display window (what happened to investigative reporting?)

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A fish shop

And home to the historic Stohrer Patisserie.

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A breakfast at Tiffany’s moment, instead of jewelry – food!

HH’s friend is a fan of Paul a boulangerie/patisserie that was further up the road.

Which reminds me, one thing I love about Paris is that everyone had great baguette. Even the shittiest tourist joint serves great bread! Unlike croissants which HH and I swore off after having them for a few days for breakfast, the smell and taste of bread is a constant welcome encounter.

One of the things I hate about Paris that could give any tourist heartburn is their constant strikes. When we were there, some museums were on strike. But the worst of all was the transportation strikes. Two days before our flight home, the taxis went on strike. I felt sorry for a guest at the hotel who had two kids (thankfully one was a teenager) who had to drag her suitcases around Paris looking for a cab to take her to the airport because the concierge couldn’t find her a taxi. Then on the day we left, the RER went on strike and that cost a bit of traffic too.

But you gotta love the Paris Metro (when they are not on strike). It can get confusing at first, but after a few tries that’s all you need to get around Paris. In fact, because of the taxi strike we decided to just take the metro to L’Ami Jean and it was easy-peasy…

…. and where I had one of the best meals of my life!

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That’s Chef Stéphane Jégo the genius of Basque cuisine

The interior was unassuming, I love the homey feel with ham hanging from the ceiling and football (rugby?) paraphernalia on the wall. Amusingly enough the cuisine is Basque not French. The menu was, despite my passable restaurant French, totally alien and all I understood was langue de veu (veal tongue) and lapin (bugs bunny). Our waiter spoke English (thank goodness) and he rattled down the menu in the language we understood.

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Pumpkin soup

I am not a fan of foamy dishes (visual yuck!) that seem to be popular nowadays with haute cuisine but this soup absolutely transported me to heaven with every creamy spoonful.

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Veal tongue

If there was a dish I wish I could savor forever, it was the braised veal tongue. I loved the texture but the flavor was just an assault on my gastronomical senses. It was hard to describe, heck I didn’t even know what was in it.

For dessert I had riz au lait. The waiter proclaimed it the best in the world. I took his word for it and it came in a big bowl enough to feed four people. It was pretty good but nothing as sublime as the hubby’s apple tart!

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Apple tart with granny smith ice cream

I was beginning to doubt that Paris could make an edible apple tart, I’ve had quite a few in several places and all of them were so tasteless I could only think of Helen’s remark about how most pastries in Paris are bland.

But this, this was perfect! I had a bite (okay 2) and this was second to the best apple tart of all time.

BTW, you get a better deal when you order entrée+plat+dessert. For our three course meal plus 2 glasses of wine, this fantastic dinner only cost 91 €, a bargain in Paris. The food here is haute comfort food!

Other notable eats were at Le Comptoir du Relais, Chez Christine and other brasseries and bistros but this post is already so long, maybe HH can cover them at his Hungry Hubby website (if he starts updating it again…slacker!) including the time when we asked for ketchup for our moule frites. :) Also, lest I forget the touristy Fouquet’s, where I had the most expensive bottle of coca-cola ever, 8 €, you can be sure I savored every drop of that soda from the bar till the end of our late lunch.

We’re at the home stretch, how can I not mention ice cream at Berthillon?

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Tarte Tatin with Vanilla ice cream at Berthillon

The ice cream was incredible, the Tarte tatin was not and was an example of a bland dessert. Do not be fooled by the beautiful caramelization. Here’s a view of the elegant interior of this famous ice cream shop.

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Berthillon

Along this stretch of road on Ile st. Louis is an amazing foie gras shop!

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foie gras galore!

I so wanted to bring home a couple of jars but HH was feeling icky of stuffing it in our suitcases. The guy did say he had U.S. customs clearance forms and I should have listened to my stomach this time instead of my Mr. Pasteurized Hubby.

This is in no way an expert’s guide to Paris. On the contrary, HH and I were a couple of wide-eyed tourists as any tourist can be on their first time in Paris. We were lucky that HH’s aunt (did I mention she lived a couple of doors up from Mariage Freres near Hotel de Ville) and his friend showed us a couple of places we probably wouldn’t have gotten off the internet without specifically looking for it. We love the architecture, we love the food and the bread! We just loved the walking and the metro! The only time we used a taxi was when we left for the airport to come home – with four suitcases.

If you are planning a trip to Paris, I suggest you read David Lebovitz  book "The Sweet Life in Paris" and website for great recommendations on places and how not to piss off the Parisians. :D And luckily, David had a book signing while I was there.

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The photographer should have told me my book was facing the wrong side!

And I found this map indispensible, Streetwise Paris. I also had the book "Hungry for Paris" by Alexander Lobrano. I did not use it much but it was no fault of the book, simply my unfamiliarity of Paris. Now that I have an idea of how Paris is oriented and have done most of my sightseeing, the next trip will be planned around eating.

Until then,

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Au Revoir!

Some notable addresses:

Pierre Hermé – 72, rue Bonaparte

Ladurée – 16, rue Royale

Sadaharu Aoki – 35, rue de Vaugirard

Gerard Mulot – 76, rue de Siene

La Maison du Chocolat – 52, rue Francois 1er

Angelina – 226, rue de Rivoli

Chez Dumonet – 117 rue de Cherche-Midi

L’Ami Jean –  27, rue Malar

Berthillon – 29-31 rue Saint Louis

G. Detou – 58, rue Tiquetonne

Mora – 13, rue Montmartre

E. Dehillerin – 18, rue Coquilliére

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My prized copper jam pot that the hubby hauled for a day in Paris

* All the pictures were shot with the Panasonic Lumix, LX-3, a great camera to take on a trip! The picture of the Tarte Tatin and most of the outside pics were unretouched. Pictures are best viewed in the lightbox just click on the picture to open the lightbox.

An Ode to Duck Confit

Duckleg_crisp_lores 

Thirty pounds of duck legs, 25 lbs of duck fat, and countless hours spent cooking, it’s been quite a series of experiments. Though, I have probably tried making duck confit more than 6 times in the past 2 years I must say that it was my latest effort that has left me palpably giddy with gastronomical glee.

The first time I attempted this method of meat preservation was through a recipe from Judy Rodger’s Zuni Café Cookbook. That time I did not understand the importance of having enough fat to submerge the duck and I simmered it stove top. The resulting duck legs were barely edible.

Then I started this blog to further my uhm…obsession in this particular realm of duck preparation. That time my references were Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. The ensuing duck confit were delicious but not quite as tender as I wanted them to be and the required cooking time of 8 hours or more were simply not acceptable to my life style.

Ingredients 

I finally decided to give the Balthazar’s cookbook recipe a try, after all it was the picture of their duck confit that caused me to swoon and be fixated about it in the first place. And I preferred the ingredients listed on their recipe – cloves, star anise and cinnamon.

Their set temperature of 225F for cooking the duck confit caused my duck fat to boil. The lovely gams almost fell apart and the skin got too thin and was difficult to crisp. That confit, though tasty, was on the greasy side.

Believe it or not, even if the legs are cooked in their own fat they should not be greasy.

Now for a little tweaking

So I do have a base recipe to work with. All that really mattered now was the cooking temperature, which upon further research, was definitely a key component of successful confit.  I have found that Paula Wolfert’s treatise on the subject of preserving duck legs in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France” a priceless guide in my pursuit for the elusive flavor I have developed in my head. Though I have tasted Balthazar’s duck confit in New York last year –which was very good by the way – I wanted something more and what that was controlled what spices and herbs I used as I continued the next iteration of my trials.

For a time I would experiment with two duck legs, playing with the dials of my stove top and the knob of my oven – I was even convinced that my oven was flawed. Just to give you an idea of how this quest has totally consumed me, I have three oven thermometers sitting at different parts of the oven cavity – none of them agree with each other within a twenty-degree range – that drove me crazy. I finally started measuring the temperature of the fat itself with an infrared as well as an immersion thermometer.

Last year, I was pretty close to what I considered a success. But it turned out I was too timid with the salt so I put the rest in a cassoulet, which injected more flavor into the duck legs – and that was incredible!

I was all set to make my adjustments and make this again, but my macaron adventures sidetracked me.

Last October, I decided it was time. I needed to get back on track and give this culinary journey some closure.

Lessons learned so far:

Salting – I have played around with this quite a bit. Wolfert’s recipe is 2 teaspoons per pound, Balthazar’s 2 teaspoons per duck leg – so I kinda stayed in the middle. Last year, I was using Maldon salt that is flakier and that threw off my calculations. This year, I am sticking with Diamond Crystal, which was what Paula Wolfert used in her book.

Temperature – I will preheat the oven to 200F. I will slowly simmer the pot stovetop until the fat reaches a temperature of 190 F and then I will transfer to the oven.

Staraniseclove 

Spices – I love star anise and want it to balance the clove and the garlic. Aside from being part of the salting mixture, I will put it in the simmering duck fat. Cinnamon does not come through from sticks alone; it is better to use the powder to evenly distribute the flavor.

Duck legs – I have used Moulard Duck legs exclusively in all my experiments. I find them to be meaty and flavorful and very suitable for the preservation process. For my duck fat I find the ones from Maple leaf farm very aromatic. They come in 3.5 lbs tub.

Duckfat 

Below is the recipe for Duck Confit that I have tweaked over the years.

Duck Confit

Serves 6

            6            Moulard Duck legs (around 5 lbs.)

            6            tablespoons of salt

            ½            teaspoon cinnamon

            1            tablespoon freshly ground pepper

            4            sprigs of rosemary, cut into 1-inch pieces

            6            sprigs of thyme

            3            bay leaves

            4             heads of garlic

            4            star anise, broke up into pieces

            2            cloves

            4-7         lbs. of duck fat

Rinse duck legs and pat dry. Combine salt and cinnamon and pepper and rub evenly on the duck legs, taking care to cover every crevice. Take the first two heads of garlic and crush with a mallet and sprinkle over the duck legs. Lay the rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and ¾ of the star anise pieces on the legs. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Put the duck fat into a pot and melt over warm flame. Take your legs out and run cold water over them to wash away the spices. Pat dry and lay them on the bottom of the pot –no more than two layers.

Carefully ladle the melted fat until the legs are completely covered. Cut the tops off the two remaining heads of garlic. Insert a clove and the remaining star –anise pieces into each garlic and add to the duck and fat.

Turn your stovetop on to low heat and slowly bring the duck fat to a temperature of 190 F. This process should take about an hour. Any quicker than that and you risk turning your duck legs stringy.

Pre-heat your oven to 200 F.

When the duck fat reaches a temperature of 190F, transfer the vessel, uncovered to the oven. Cook for 3 hours. The duck leg is done, when a knife easily pierces the leg, and the fat is clear. This means that the duck has rendered all its fat.

After cooking, it is important to let the confit cool down before storing. Carefully lift each leg and put them in a container. Spoon the fat over until the legs are completely covered.

Store for about two weeks before consuming, any sooner than that and the robust, husky flavor that is the trademark of a true confit will not be attained.

Crisping the confit

Two hours before preparing the confit, take your container out of the refrigerator to allow the fat to soften. Preheat oven to 400F. On a non-stick skillet over medium heat, carefully brown your duck legs – about 8 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish, skin side up and finish crisping in the oven.

Cooking Notes:

Duck Confit is not hard to make but it does take time and patience. Do not be daunted by my list of ingredients, you can make confit just by using salt. Before I cook the confit, I usually snip a little piece and cook it to check my salting. If it is too salty, I rinse the duck a little more. The fat really needs to be gradually brought to 190F. In the oven, you must monitor the temperature of the fat, if it falls below 190 F, increase the oven temperature for a bit (maybe to 210F) and then drop it down once you’ve restored it to ideal temp. The time of 3 hours is approximate; I usually like to see some of the bone exposed at the base of the leg before I pull out my confit. I have also read that you can cook confit in a slow cooker but I have not tried this method.

I will not even pontificate about what the hallmarks of a great confit are. All my experiments do not make me an expert. But I must say, this last batch made me feel like I have won a lottery of sorts.

Starting with perfectly crisped skin yielding to tender succulent meat that pulls away effortlessly from the bone – not one flavor overpowers, all were one cohesive unit in its assault on my senses which were actively savoring the perfect balance of all the herbs and spices. I had to slow myself down, chewing with purpose and taking in each bite even as I watched my piece of duck leg disappear before my very eyes. Even with just the bone left, I held the carcass in my hand and continued to suck the flavor out of the bone until my brain told me to stop this madness and to accept that it was all gone.

I had an image in my head about how the skin rides so sexily up the duck leg. I couldn’t resist imagining it in heels. And Ximena of Lobstersquad, in her intuitive drawing style, was able to put my strange thoughts on paper.

Ducklegs

A question came up between the “Hungry” Hubby and myself: Who were we going to invite for a duck confit dinner? We looked at each other and with a conniving smile on our lips, the answer was clear: No one. The duck confit was for us and us alone.

A Housewarming Stew : The Cassoulet

Cassoulet

Peabody is hosting a virtual housewarming party on December 8 to celebrate her move into her charming new abode. With the weather turning frostier by the day, what is more ideal than to finally attempt to make a cassoulet – that famed slow-cooked bean stew from the southwest of France.

The “Hungry” hubby had also been complaining about the lack of “real” food in the house since I had been in a baking frenzy lately and he noticed how most books arriving in the house were more of the sweet rather than savory nature.

            “How about some Osso buco ?” He would hint every weekend for a month now.

Finally taking a pity on my man, I declared this past week:

            “I shall make cassoulet.” (Not quite Osso buco , but still…)

The next question was: “Which recipe to use?”

After flip-flopping endlessly between Paula Wolfert and Anthony Bourdain, I decided to go with Bourdain’s version from his Les Halles Cookbook because it was simpler – besides I look forward to hearing his voice in my head complete with that acerbic tongue of his and tough-love type of instruction encouraging the home cook that, yes, she can turn out mean bistro fare worthy of three stars.

A typical cassoulet is made with tarbais beans, duck confit, pork sausages, pork belly and uh — some pork rind. I knew immediately that I would be buying my pork sausages (instead of making my own) and substituting lamb stew meat for the pork belly (otherwise, I would be eating the pork belly by myself). I called my local butcher and I was in luck because they just skinned a pig – so that took care of the pork rind part.

            As for the duck confit, I made a big batch of them three weeks ago – and I mean big – like eight legs.  I was not exactly pleased with the result texture-wise so I thought it would benefit from more cooking within the cassoulet.

            This was also my first time cooking with tarbais beans. And let me tell you that I have never seen or tasted a bean quite like it.

            The recipe said to use an earthenware pot which I didn’t have, but after I consulted with Helen who consulted with her brother in Toulouse (a cassoulet expert, I hear), she said it was okay to use a dutch oven.

Cassoulet

Adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

  • 1100g Tarbais beans or white beans
  • *1.5 lbs lamb stew meat
  • 1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 lb/450g pork rind
  • 1 bouquet garni (1 sprig parsley,thyme,bay leaf)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4cup/ 56 g duck fat
  • * 2 tbs. duck fat
  • 1.5 lbs pork sausage (orig. recipe – 6 sausage links)
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 5 confit duck legs (orig. recipe – 4 duck legs)
  • * 1 ham hock

Day one:

Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least two or three inches of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight. That was hard, right?

Day two:

* Salt and pepper the lamb stew meat and set aside.

Drain and rinse the beans and place in a large pot. Add the quartered onion, ¼ lb/112 g of the pork rind, the ham hock and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about an hour. Let cool for 20 minutes, and then discard the onion, the bouquet garni, and the ham hock. Strain the beans and the rind and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.

* While the beans are simmering, preheat the oven to 400 °F and heat the duck confit through for 20 minutes.

* In the sauté pan, heat 2 tbs of the duck fat and brown the lamb stew meat and then set aside.

In the sauté pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon/14 g of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside, draining on paper towels. In the same pan, over medium-high heat brown the sliced onions, the garlic, and the reserved squares of pork rind from the beans (not the unused pork rind; you’ll need that for later.) Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add 1 tablespoon/14g of the remaining duck fat and puree until smooth. Set Aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C. Place the uncooked pork rind in the bottom of a deep ovenproof earthenware dish/Dutch oven. You’re looking to line the inside, almost like a pie crust. Arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, lamb stew meat, beans, duck confit, and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork rind puree between each layer. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving 1 cup/225 ml in the refrigerator for later use. Cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 250°F/130°C and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Day three:

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°F again. Cook the cassoulet for an hour. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add ¼ cup/56ml of the reserved cooking liquid. Reduce the heat to 250°F/130°C and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, or until screamingly hot through and through. Then serve.

* NOT IN ORIGINAL RECIPE

Cooking Notes:

            I am not big on beans (the “Hungry” hubby loves them) but the tarbais beans surely peaked my interest – looking so big yet cute in their 1lb bags. I ordered them earlier this year fully intending on making the stew but the weather got hot so quickly that making a cassoulet in 70 °F weather did not seem so appetizing so I waited patiently for the seasons to pass.

            So at the first sign of fall weather, I quickly made my duck confit with a 50-50 chance of using some of them in the cassoulet. I did not follow Bourdain’s recipe for confit in the book which was why I did not include it here. I made my confit from the The Balthazar Cookbook and shall post that recipe soon, I just need to tweak some seasonings and cooking times and I think I would have accomplished my quest for duck confit. If you live in the Richmond,Va area the Belmont Butchery makes their own duck confit – though not as good as mine ;). It is also available at D’Artagnan.

            I was a little disappointed with my sausage choices at the local butchery. They did not make garlic pork sausage that week and I was left with some skinny little ones that looked so out of place in such a weighty stew. However, since I substituted pork belly with chunky lamb meat and had five pieces of Duck legs to throw into it, I think those sausages were not going to be missed. The pork rind I got wasn’t cut all that well either. I did not have enough to line the bottom of the pot and I think I might have added too much of the bean liquid afterwards.

            It is also a good idea to take out the duck confit from the refrigerator at least two hours before you need it so it would be easy to remove the legs from the fat – that glorious duck fat – without damaging the legs.

            Having almost non-existent experience in handling beans, I did not know that these babies could expand to almost twice their size – talk about beans on steroids!

            I added a piece of ham hock to the bean cooking liquid. The main flavoring of the beans happen during this part because the other ingredients you add later on like the duck confit already have their own seasonings so make sure you add enough salt and pepper to the liquid which you would be using later when you assemble the dish.

            My one mistake was making this stew so late in the day after I’ve already run around town doing errands. At first I was so overwhelmed about where to start but after I got into it – and had some wine – I began to enjoy the process!

            I followed the cooking time for the cassoulet of 1 hour to boil the beans and 2 hours to braise. In re-heating, it took an additional half-hour than the stated one hour and fifteen minutes to get the whole thing piping hot (I also took the pot out of the refrigerator an hour before it was going to be reheated)

            A word of warning. This recipe made a lot! Imagine a 9-quart Le Crueset dutch oven filled almost to the brim. I think the entire pot was about 40 lbs ( I think the pot –empty- was 25 lbs alone). I think I could have fed 10 people easily with it (although I think there might not be enough duck confit to go around as they were the first to disappear).

           Oh but what a heartwarming dish this was. It was truly an amazing alchemy of all the ingredients: the beans so pleasantly sweet, the wonderful broth so perfect for dipping bread and the duck confit attaining such exquisite flavor and texture as the succulent meat almost fell off the bone!

            So Peabody – I hope you eat duck and beans!

Duck confit recipe quest

I have always loved duck. Peking duck has always been my favorite. The crispy skin folded into warm thin Chinese pancakes garnished with hoisin sauce and green onions has always been the top of my all time favorite meals. And of course, there was always the regular Pato Tim (duck stew) and roast duck that my Dad prepared regularly at home. But let’s not get away from the subject of duck confit.

I first encountered duck confit in Balthazar Cookbook, the famed New York brasserie of the same name; and if it is possible to fall in love and be obsessed about a dish just by a picture well, this is it. The skin on that duck looked so temptingly crisp and the meat so palpably succulent, I could imagine myself taking a bite through the skin, feeling the crunch until I taste the flavorful meat underneath. I read a lengthy description of the confit process from The Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers. The recipe called for cooking it slowly on   the stovetop. Aside from not having enough duck fat to fully submerge the duck, I think I poorly regulated the heat and it might have been hotter than it seemed. After 2 weeks in storage I tried the confit and it turned out to be a stringy mess. Full of disappointment, I gave up for a year but now I’m trying it again and this time I will try and figure it out until I perfect it. Duck Confit is not a quick meal to make but is not an overly complex procedure. Of course I may recant this statement after this second attempt fails again but I’m optimistic that it will be better than the last one. So what have I changed? I did more reading and came across several more books that contained more information about this Southwest France delicacy. The first one is Bouchon by Thomas Keller. The second book is Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman. I will use Keller’s “green salt” salting guidelines. Both books suggested cooking the confit in the oven at a very low temperature which on average is 180°F to 190°F. It is cautioned not to exceed the 200°F temperature to avoid getting a tough duck confit.

Day 1: Salting the duck

   Ducksalting_3  I took out my 4 moulard duck legs, rinsed them under cold running water, patted it dry and proceeded to pull the visible fat from the flesh. I am experimenting with 22 grams of salt per 450 grams of meat (or approximately 1.5 tbs to a lb). The total weight of my 4 duck legs amounted to 1470 grams so I measured out around 71 gms of salt. I think the rest of the ingredients will be up to personal preference of flavor. The following are the rest of the ingredients I used.

Green Salt:

            71 grams of sea salt

            1 bay leaf, broken into pieces

            1 Tbsp chopped thyme

            2 TBS Italian parsley packed

            ½ tsp black peppercorns

I ran all ingredients through a food processor and rubbed it into the duck, taking care to make sure that every nook and cranny gets an even salting. I then covered the duck and placed it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Day 2: Cooking in Fat

           Duckfat_1  For those of you have cholesterol issues or have an aversion to fat, it might be best to stop reading now. I took out my 3 lbs of duck fat and started melting them slowly in a saucepan. Meanwhile, I set the oven temperature to 180 °F. I took out my duck legs and rinsed them under cold running water and after patting it dry proceeded to fit them snugly in a heavy bottomed pot. When the duck fat was all liquidly I transferred the melted fat to the pot containing the duck legs. I proceeded to heat the fat further along and then I transferred the pot to the oven.

            TIP: A 10 hour cooking period is a given. Since hubby would not let me leave the oven on unattended, what am I to do for 10 hours?  Well, watch “24” or any heart- pounding series will make the time pass quickly… very quickly in fact.

I checked at the 6 hour mark and saw that the skin at the base of the leg has not separated from the bone yet but the juices seem to be collecting at the bottom of the pot. This is known as the “confit jelly”, a very tasty by-product of the confit-ing process. When you confit meat and bones, they release juices and flavor and collagen and what you have is a very concentrated , tasty  gelatinized heaven that can be used in vinaigrette or served with the duck .

I checked again on the 9th hour. I think I’m going to end up with stringy duck legs again.  My duck legs appear very slow to cook, I don’t see much of the exposed bone that all the books are saying nor does it appear that it  is even close to falling off the bone. After 11 ½ hours in the oven I decided to call it a day. The duck does not look meltingly tender to me.  I transferred the duck legs to a glass container and transferred enough fat to cover the duck entirely. I will try the confit in the next few days to see what this weekend endeavor has yielded.

Day 3: Cooking the confit

            I took the confit container out of the refrigerator a few hours before I was to prepare the confit to let the fat soften so it will be easy to get the leg out without damaging the confit (although as tough as it looked it seemed nothing will break it apart). Preheating my oven to 400 °F, I proceeded to heat a nonstick pan on medium high heat.  When the non-stick pan was hot enough I lay the duck leg skin side down and proceeded to brown it. After I was satisfied with the browning of the duck’s skin I transferred the duck to an ovenproof casserole, skin side up for 20 minutes.

            In the meantime, I prepared the side dish which in French is called “Pommes ala sarladaise”. This is simply diced potatoes fried in duck fat and tossed with chopped parsley and garlic. I followed the recipe in The Balthazar cookbook although I used less fat than suggested. It’s a very easy side dish and very tasty, I could post the recipe of this later if anyone wants it.

         Duckconfit_2    Moment of truth; after plating the confit and potatoes, my husband and I could hardly contain our anticipation to taste this nicely browned duck leg. My fork pierced through crispy skin and surprisingly tender meat.  As I tasted it though, the flavor was there but the juiciness I was expecting appears to be missing. I was not totally disappointed because this was a vast improvement from my previous endeavor. In fact it only makes me want to try it again.

And the saga continues…

I will not post any succeeding blow by blow account of any Duck Confit that has not yielded anything short of the promise land. I feel this will be tedious for the reader to follow all failed experiments but I will publish the winning confit process once I have attained it:

Lessons learned:

a.      It appears that the temperature at which the duck cooked in its fat was very low. This might account for the lack of bone showing in the duck leg as it was finishing its cooking in the fat. The skin did ride up the bone when I was reheating the confit in the 400 °F oven. Temperature appears to be the main culprit for undesirable results in confit. Therefore, it is important to check the temperature with an oven thermometer at all times. I could have hit myself on the head on this one since all the books I’ve read said to do this but I showed too much faith in my oven.

b.      I also failed to heat the fat sufficiently on the stove top before transferring to the oven. I think this is important to kick start the duck’s own fat melting process.

c.       I don’t think my pot was the right one for the confit. I now have bought myself an enameled cast iron cocotte.

d.      Dealing with duck fat could be very messy. I think I will lay out saran wrap on counter surfaces to avoid finding greasy spots days later after cooking the confit.

e.      I will continue testing with just 2 duck legs instead of the regular 4 given in most recipes. I will be using less fat and it will take up less space in the refrigerator. (Although it can be countered that it takes up the same amount of energy since it will end up cooking as long)

f.       Although I believe slow cooking is the way to go, I will attempt The Balthazar cookbook method. I am trying this recipe because I find I like the ingredients in this more. I am also currently reading The Cooking of SouthWest France by Paula Wolfert , she has a very interesting topic on confit.