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.

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