Thursday, February 25, 2010

Part deux: Duck fat in Deutschland

Khatir told me to be back at the warehouse first thing in the morning. "I'll be here at six," he said. "I won't," I replied. 

Nine was the best I could do and as it turned out, much better than he could manage. "I am stuck in zee fahking trafeek, poutain merde," Khatir said when I called to announce my arrival. "I weel be zer een feefteen minewts." 

True to his word he pulled up a quarter of an hour later and we pulled the duck legs out of the refrigerator. They were covered with a thin layer of dew - the moisture we sweated out of the meat with the salaison.

He instructed me to wash each of the legs in cold water until they were free of the salty herb coating, dry them and stack them on a plate. I did this while he ran into the city to grab a new gas canister - turns out Samir had taken the only one they had to warm the wagon while out pedaling their wares at another weekly market across town.

Clean legs, a full can of gas, an enormous aluminum pot and we were ready to bust out the product that had brought us together in the first place: the duck fat.

this is not ice cream

He pulled eight ice cream container sized tubs of duck fat out of the fridge. Two of the containers had a fine layer of mold on the surface, he threw these out explaining that although it was heart wrenching to have to part with it, the risk of salmonella was too great.

duck fat jello removal

He turned the containers upside down, one by one and scraped of the bottom layer - sometimes a  thick layer of duck fat Jello, sometimes only a think speckling of impurities.

and other impurities

Once the block was clean and looked like an enormous pat of sweet butter, he tossed it into the 20 gallon pot that sat atop a small portable gas stove. Six butter bricks later and the pot was nearly half full, though the level continued to drop slightly as the fat began to liquefy.

And as it did, the atelier began to smell like Thanksgiving. The smell of a bird in the oven slow cooked over the course of a long lazy afternoon. And once all six bricks had fused into one bubbly caramel soup of holiday memories, we dropped the duck legs, clean and dry with no idea what was about to hit them, into the pot. 

"Reviens dans duex heures", instructed Khatir. Come back in two hours. 

too bad there is no such thing as scratch-and-sniff-o-vision

our "gas stove"

fully submerged, fully sick

Exactly 120 minutes later I returned with my friend Lowri and an appetite, having purposely forgone breakfast and lunch (it was 2 p.m.) to make sure I would be huunnnnggggrrry and have enough space in my stomach for all of that duck fat. Samir poured the wine, the butcher from next door set the table and I played waitress, collecting the legs from Khatir as he pulled them out of the pot and delivering them to the table. They are done, he explained, when the meat pulls away from the bone on its own.

In our exuberance, we neglected to throw a couple of potatoes into the duck fat, and instead settled for a crusty baguette and some spiced French mustard. And of course a full glass of red wine.

a taste-o-vision function would serve you well right now

Remember how I mentioned before the importance of getting this dish right? Look at the plate. There is no where to hide a mistake here. It's just a duck leg. And this duck leg was done so right that I couldn't bring myself to put a condiment like mustard on it. It would have been an insult. The meat was so subtly flavored with the mixture of nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and juniper so as to create a sort of deja vu-like sensation, like, Haven't I tasted this somewhere before? No, I realized, I had tasted the spice elsewhere in other dishes. But not like this. The texture I can only properly compare to a roast that has been braised in vasoline. The meat slid off the bone when I merely picked up the fork and thought about taking a bite.

We washed it down with a 50 year old truffle cognac that tasted a bit like cough syrup that someone had buried in the backyard, forgotten about and unearthed in the next century. Not exactly my cup of tea but definitely not boring. As a parting gift, a souvenir and confit diploma, Khatir handed me four legs vacuumed packed - the French love their sous vide machines - to take home.

My first French cooking lesson was over. But if Khatir was serious about his offer to take me on as a pupil, it may be just the beginning of a French culinary education.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Prelude to a sequel

Is this:

a.) butterscotch sauce

b.) melting butter

c.) grandma's famous homemade caramels

d.) duck fat

Tune in to smashandsniff tomorrow to find out!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Duck fat in Deutschland

I had been trying to track down some duck fat - a task I hadn't realized at the undertaking would be so difficult. As it turns out, duck fat basically DOESN'T EXIST in Germany. Or so I had more or less been told. Every butcher shop or poultry store I have hit up has been unhelpful at best, down right condescending at worst. "Duck fat?" they balk. "What do you want duck fat for? I have gänseschmalz (mostly goose fat). Why don't you just use that?" And when I INSIST that I MUST HAVE duck fat, they turn back to whatever it is they were doing or the next customer while sarcastically wishing me luck. "Have you LOOKED at a duck lately? They have almost NO FAT. Why don't you buy a couple of whole birds - you might manage to squeeze a bit of fat out of them."

Undeterred, I decide to go straight to the source - the cannot-fail-surefire-if-they-don't-have-any,-I will-finally-concede-defeat source of duck fat: the French. There is a superfab French stand in my favorite bi-weekly market in Hamburg, Délice de France, with this very charming (in the Frenchest way possible) man selling patés, foie gras, cheeses, brioches, etc. Pinning all the hopes in the world on this one little food wagon, I stroll up, wait my turn in line as he charms the Hamburger hausfraus trying to decide between a creme forestière and rillette du porc, and when he turns to me with his signature, "BONJOUR MADAME! Que est-ce que je peux faire pour vous aujourd'hui?", I lay it all on the line. "Est-ce que vous avez.." I begin and then trail off because suddenly I cannot remember the word for duck fat in French. "... Duck fat?"

The man looks as though I have just asked him if he can score me some smack. He must not have heard me correctly. He looks to his left and then right and finally narrows his gaze on me.  "Why?" he asks with enough suspicion to make the innocent feel extremely guilty. I tell him I need it for a duck confit. He asks me how much I need and I tell him I don't know. I don't have the recipe on me. A kilo? I offer, figuring I would err on the side of excess. And then he laughs. "How many duck legs you wanna make, one?" hawheehawheehaw. He leans across the counter and practically whispers, "You want duck fat? I will give you an entire vat of it. For free."

So I'm all, what's the catch? "Come to the slaughterhouse on Tuesday at 4 pm. I'll bring the duck legs and the fat. You bring the wine. Two bottles. And I will teach you everything you need to know (subtext: you poor ignorant American fool who I am only taking pity on because I like anyone who asks about duck fat)."


Khatir Sayad had invited people to his warehouse before to learn the tricks of the trade - tricks that he had learned while working in the kitchen with Bernard Loiseau, a five Michelin star French chef (and for you trivia fans, the basis for the chef character in the Disney movie, Ratatouille). But no one had ever shown up. Until I did. Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. as instructed, armed with two bottles of decent French wine, a notebook and a digital camera. Khatir, his brother Samir and their partner Khader were part astonished part amused when I called from the gate of the warehouse complex - which houses mainly meat packing and food shipping companies. Khatir drove out to the gate to pick me up. I stood waiting for someone to arrive on foot- so when a strange car pulled up along side me and the driver motioned for me to get in, I retreated. Until he rolled down the window and yelled, "Tu viens ou tu viens pas?" Are you coming or what?

Khatir Sayad

His brother Samir

His atelier was not what I expected. There were no ducks waddling the premise awaiting the slaughter. His ducks - and geese, and pigs - were already stored away, en sous vide, neatly stacked in the fridge. There was a gorgeous old wooden table in the center of a very industrial room with white tiled walls, neon lighting, stacks of crates, an old armoir filled with moutarde and old copies of the menu from the French restaurant Khatir used to run in Hamburg, and a wine locker with bottles ranging in age from five to 50 years old.

I learned more about his background in what was part diatribe against the German character and cuisine and part declaration of love for anyone who appreciates good French food and the time and attention it takes to prepare it. He was amused by this random American woman who timidly inquired about duck fat in order to make a dish that she had no clue how to even attempt. But he gleaned an adventurous culinary spirit, an appreciation for classic French cooking and a brazen ambivalence toward large quantities of animal fat. He approved.

They invited me to sit down and poured me a glass of wine, nodding approvingly at the two bottles I had brought as an offering. We talked for 10 minutes or so and when I mentioned the duck, fearing perhaps they had forgotten WHY I had come, Khatir batted the topic away with his hand, "We'll get to that."

Four hours and several bottles of wine later, we got to that. And when we did, the process took maybe 15 minutes. Because all we did was the salaison - rubbing the meat in a mixture of salt and herbs, covering and putting it back into the fridge for the night. Khatir explained that duck meat is typically quite dry because of their diet. In order to draw the little moisture that there is in the meat to the surface, you salt it - "just like ice on zee sidewalk" he explained.


a mixture of fleur du sel, juniper berries, bay leaves and quatre epices: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black pepper, a four-fingered pinch of each, mulched together


The thing about a dish like confit is that it's so naked. Technically, yes, it's easy. However, if you fuck it up, it is painfully obvious because all you have there in front of you is a duck leg. There is no hiding your mistake under a sauce or complimenting your mistake with a side dish. There it is, SCREAMING at you from the plate. No way around it, no avoidng it.


After the salaison, I ignorantly declared, "THAT'S IT!?!? That's all there is to a confit? But that is so EASY!" Khatir looked a bit amused, a bit like he'd like to slap silly, arrogant little me. I quickly back-peddaled, blamed my inadequate French and said, "What I meant is, YOU make it LOOK so easy!" He shook his head and smiled in an I'm onto you but I'll let that one slide because you are right, IT'S MY MAD SKILLLLZZZ. And then said, "Tu es tres intelligent, Madame." Yes, a wise woman is always prepared to stick her foot in her mouth. Especially if that foot is followed by the leg of a duck.

"Come back tomorrow", Khatir said. And with that - four hours, a salaison and an embarrassing number of empty wine bottles - my first French cooking lesson came to a close. 

Part deux (the part where the duck fat comes into play) to follow on Thursday...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: LARD

In some countries, grocery stores have a whole aisle dedicated to a single delicacy, such as cheese, chocolate, or salsa. Honduras has aisles upon aisles of tubed LARD. And not even the tasty delicious kind that comes from succulent fatty animals, no it's the trans fat kind that comes from... uh.... vegetables?

I wish I could expound upon the slight nuances of the multitude of brands and varieties, with tasting notes like.... "Clover Green has a heavy waxy finish that suffocates your taste buds and makes you want to scrub your tongue with sandpaper after eating." Or, "Doral Yellow is about as far from tasting like animal fat as a vegan is from dressing up in bear's skin still warm from the hunt." However, with nothing but a glass of dehydrated milk to wash it down, I never did get around to sampling what would appear to be one of Honduras's greatest culinary treasures.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot(s): Am I just totally immature...

Or do the Germans come up with like totally awesome brand names? Exhibit A: Crusti Croc potato chips. Just a letter or two away from an old man's groin.

Exhibit B: SNACKY CRACKY!! All I will say about this one is that Ingo and I chortled, snorted, guffawed and then snorted some more at this brilliant brand. I think we freaked the kids out a little.

And Exhibit C: the popular, MCENNEDY AMERICAN WAY dried cranberries. Now that Bush is out of office, the AMERICAN WAY cranberries are back in good standing in Germany. Although MCENNEDY never went out of style.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sayulita: It's What White People Like

Mexico has many charms, but once in a while a white person wants their dose of sand, sun and culture to be comfortably diluted by familiarity. They want to go to a place built by and for them. Sayulita is such a place.

A rambling of sun-soaked cobblestone and dirt streets tucked between the Pacific and tropical Sierra Madre Mountains are what make up the charming Mexican beach town of Sayulita. A magical hybrid of bohemian-gypsy-beach style welcomes its visitors. Sayulita attracts a “diverse” white crowd of surfers, backpackers, hippies and hipsters, Hollywood stars, families and bachelorettes.

Eight years ago, when Carter and I first visited Sayulita, we couldn't spend ten dollars. What I mean to say is, there was nothing there. No expat-owned MTV cribs-style mansions, no galleries stocked with Mexican handicrafts, no jewelry or silver shops, no restaurants selling time under umbrellas on the beach. Described as a super-chill Mexican fishing village, it was a perfect destination for us. We couldn’t wait to kick back on the then desolate beach.

Times have changed. A feature in Travel + Leisure, a mention in Food and Wine, cheap real estate and killer surf, plus the close proximity to Puerto Vallarta International Airport have turned this once quiet typical fishing village into a vacation vortex that satisfies the needs of traveling white people. Things you will not find anywhere else in Mexico have been woven into the local fabric of Sayulita in order to provide the comforts and demands of fantasy vacation-land. Here are a few luxuries you will find that make white people love Sayulita.

Burritos- Judging by the line of sunburnt gringos wrapping around the sidewalk bar of Revolution Burritos, white people love burritos! The owners of Revolution Burritos know their clientele well and are serving up what the flip-flopped masses are craving. These are American-style burritos: large and packed with more ingredients than a plato mixto at Chevy’s.

Fish Tacos- Mexicans love fish and they love tacos, but you will never hear of a fish taco outside of Baja. Local businesses have figured out that if you put some fish in a tortilla with a bit of cabbage and some sauce you can charge five times the amount you could for the same ingredients, deconstructed. And God bless them.

Margaritas- Toasting with a sweet-limey tequila slurpee is synonymous with vacation in Mexico. The first margarita was created by a white person, served in a round of funny shaped glasses, as a way to thank his white friends for the blender they gave him as a wedding present. If you want to mix with the gente, get hip with the people’s margarita.

Learning to surf –Surfing is just about the coolest extreme activity to most white people, and if they can’t afford to learn in Hawaii, there is always mainland Mexico. When we first visited, we had to rent our surfboards from who we believe was the missing member of the Dog-town and Z-boys crew-- the guy who escaped from prison and was thought to be somewhere in Mexico. Well, we found him sketchy as all hell and living in Sayulita. Back then, it was already a well known surf spot, but was still waiting to draw the surge of tourism that would sprout the large and lucrative surf board rental businesses that now dominate the beach. And dominate they do – there are about a dozen board sellers up and down the sandy bay. On a heavy day, tourists have their pick of gigantic sponge beginner boards. The waves are usually gentle, which allows most people to go out for a few hours and stand up and then say they “surfed” on vacation. Thankfully, most of the locals are used to the crowds and play “Frogger”, dodging their way through the brilliantly white masses.

“English Spoken Here”- There is no better place than the bars and restaurants of Sayulita to bust out your two years of high school Spanish. Faltering and stammering, or simply not even trying is welcomed with a smile, just like your American dollars.

Coffee- White people do not travel all the way to the passport stamp of their favorite dark-drip at Starbucks to have a mug of Nescafe put in front of them. Around the central plaza of Sayulita, organic Mexican brews are poured into disposable cups with lids and little burn-free belts—this you will not find outside of a Starbucks in Mexico. When served up with Wi-Fi the white thumbs-up is extra enthusiastic.

White people like to get back to their bohemian roots- They like let their inner boho-freak flag fly to the beat of the Mexican drum circles, drink and dance into the wee hours at a place called the Buddha Bar (every beach-side bohemian enclave has one), buy Indian imports (the connection here is unknown, but seems to be pervasive in such towns around the world) and they love to OM with the tides at the foreign owned yoga studios.

White people also like to feel rich – even if they are not. In Sayulita, tourists can rent gigantic haciendas built and owned by foreigners with infinity pools and views to match for the price of a windowless hotel room in New York City. With the pesos you've saved, you can let it rip, buying tequila shots (with lime and salt of course) for all your new friends at fire-sale prices, and tons of kitschy Mexican crafts to bring back home.

White people love Sayulita!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: La Playa

I just spent a perfect couple of days with friends from San Francisco in Sayulita. It really is a blessing to live in a place where people want to come visit, but the true blessing is friendships that span the decades and the globe. Hey, let's toast to that!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Two Nights in Paris: Au Pied de Cochon

With all of these superlatives, you are probably thinking, 'does she ever have a meal that she isn't, like, toootally enthusiastic about?' Oui. At Au Pied de Cochon. I guess it was this article I had read in Saveur a while ago about this Parisian institution that peaked my curiosity.

"Before the so-called Forts des Halles – the strong men who worked nights lugging meat and produce at Paris’s famed Les Halles wholessale food market – decamped for the suburbs, Au Pied de Cochon at five in the morning was the wildest party in town," writes Jay Cheshes in his article "Nighthawks at the Brasserie" for Saveur (issue No. 107). "As Paris awoke and the market disgorged its blue-collar workers, the nearby brasseries’s dining room and bar heaved with with life; haulers and off-duty butchers took their seats alongside Paris’s nocturnal creatures, who were only just winding up their revelries, and slurped oysters and chilled beaujolais.“

Apparently the place doesn’t really get going until after midnight and back in it’s heyday, it was not uncommon to find revelers passed out on banks across the street as the sun rose and the 9-5 set made their way to work.

Cheshes also recalls a story, retold by French food critic Pierre Rival, author of a book titled "Au Pied de Cochon", about French icon Serge Gainsbourg, a regular back in the 70’s. He "walked in with a coterie of hangers-on just before dawn. The place was bustling and Gainsbourg ordered lavishly...When the bill arrived, Gainsbourg, in one of his moods, refused to pay. 'Come, Monsieur Gainsbourg,' beseeched the waiter. 'Be nice.' The singer pouted: 'I don’t feel like paying.' Though Gainsbourg was a regular, the management was hardly prepared to forgive the tab. When a few gendarmes walked through the door, he finally relented, but only on the condition that the police officers sit down and dine with him. 'Then the police drove him home in the back of their van,' Rival said."

And so it was for a bit of this revelry, history, nostalgia and simple curiosity that we headed to Au Pied de Couchon at the slightly early but still respectable hour of 11 pm for dinner.

The oysters were divine – salty, fresh, slippery, good. My pied de cochon farci périgourdine, a boneless pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras kind of reminded me of a giant tatter tot. It was not bad but it did not impress the way it could have. Ellen and Sylvain were very content with their cote de boeuf and Alessia’s tartar was one of the best she’s ever had. Nathan was less than pleased with the sole menueirre and Eva found the „vegetarian“ options lacking (though I suppose one shouldn’t expect much by way of vegetables at a place called the Pig’s Foot).

The deco - kitsch? Nostalgic? Too much? Just right? Morg seems to like it ...

Ohh but the onion soup...

The pied de cochon farci perigourdine i.e. the giant tatter tot..

Apparently, you do not come to Pied de Cochon for the food; rather the atmosphere, the history. And atmosphere was abundant. At around 1 am, a Swiss theatrical group came in and sat down across from us. A group of Czech women broke into song at a table around the corner and suddenly, the curtains went up and it was SHOWTIME. The Swiss group followed suit and we sat back and enjoyed the show.

Morgan and I have been known to put on a raucous yet heartfelt production of showtunes while out in Kabul and so we thought what better time, in this palace of nostalgia, for an encore performance in the company of fellow late night singers. What we didn’t take into account however was that the Swiss group was professional – i.e. they did this for a living and we did it for temporary loss of proper reasoning. Regardless, after a quick "rehearsal" outside, we marched back in and after a brief word of introduction from Sylvain, we hit the Von Trapp family with a heartfelt rendition of „Consider yourself at home“ from the musical 'Oliver'. They politely exploded into an overzealous bout of applause and we took a bow and made like oysters and slipped out of there.

After a slightly average meal, but way-above-average convivial atmosphere and fellow dinner commaraderie, we headed home, another evening of French food and cantankerous company ending in song.