Braised Duck + The Series

October 25, 2016

Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.
~Michael Caine

The World Series begins tonight — with a connection to the past, the two teams with the longest title droughts in the same game (parenthetically or asterisk laden) the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Cubs have gone over a century without a series win, and the Indians with many decades without winning in unfulfilled seasons. Times of anguish without a taste. One of the most touted series ever — history and the game is here, it waits for no one. By the way, it is the aces, Kluber (Indians) vs. Lester (Cubs) that will take the mound in Game One.

I must admit to adoring the Cubs, as my childhood was suffused with Chicago, and then watching those fans delirious with their team in the field and later in Wrigleyville, tears streaming and beers and shots in hand, after the NCLS game clincher. I was fortunate enough as a grasshopper to meet Billy Williams, now still barely holding on, as well as Ernie Banks (and his no. 14 in diamonds) and Ron Santo, now both gone. I have experienced ivied and bricked Wrigley Field with men fans donned in suits and fedoras and women adored in finery during daytime games as well as Jack Brickhouse who bellowed “Hey, Hey” to signal Cubs’ home runs. As Williams has been quoted, “they’re somewhere celebrating now,” and these legends should be proud given their regular season winning percentage of 103-58.

The Cubs have superb starting pitching, assume a keen approach at the plate, use the field well, value divine defense, and have a sublime bullpen to boot. Sound familiar? — yes, Virginia, I have seen us win. Then again, the Indians also have supreme starting pitching, run the bases well and have a glorious bullpen too.

Nothing against Cleveland, but despite the “old-school look” of upper socks, the Cubs have earned one. Then again, the Indians play at home.

BRAISED DUCK

1 whole duck (around 4 lbs — preferably Pekin), cut into 8 or so pieces, plus liver reserved & trimmings coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 t dried herbes de provence
1/2 t cloves
1/2 t allspice
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t ginger
1/2 t cayenne pepper

Refrigerate well dried, cut, seasoned pieces overnight in a ziploc bag. Turn a couple of times.

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 (28 oz) san marzano tomatoes, cut well
1 C dry red wine
4 C chicken broth
1 piece of cinnamon stick
3 pieces star anise
2 bay leaves, dried
4 thyme sprigs

2 lbs small plums, pits removed and halved
1 lb turnips, quartered or more
1 lb parsnips, sliced & halved
1 carrot, peeled and roughly sliced
1-2 T butter

1/2 C Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
3 T chives, finely chopped
1/2 C walnuts, roughly chopped
1 t lemon zest, grated
1-2 t extra virgin olive oil

Place a heavy, wide skillet with extra virgin olive oil, butter and fresh garlic cloves over medium high heat. When the pan becomes shimmering and hot, add the duck so as not to crowd — likely in a couple of batches — 5 minutes per side. Set aside, tented in foil on a baking dish or platter.

Pour off all but 2 T of duck fat into a ramekin and cover (for a later day). Add tomatoes, stirring well, then add wine and broth and bring to a nice simmer. Add cinnamon stick, star anise, bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Transfer duck to a heavy, large Dutch oven and pour the broth mixture & herbs/spices over the duck.  Cover and simmer for about 40 or so minutes, until duck is quite tender.

Heat butter and duck fat in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add reserved plums skin side down as well as turnips and parsnips and sauté for a minute or so, until lightly browned, then turn and cook on skin side for a minute more.

Transfer duck to a warmed platter and spoon over the sauce. Garnish with sautéed plums, turnips and parsnips.  Mix together parsley, chives, walnuts, lemon zest and olive oil. Sprinkle this mixture over the top and serve.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
~Mark Twain

These bosoms need little augmentation or enhancement — well, besides a few spices.

MAGRETS DE CANARD (DUCK BREASTS)

2 duck breasts, each about 1 lb, always equal
Salt and ground black pepper

1 1/2 T raw sugar, divided in half
1 C shallots, finely chopped

Zest and segments from 2 oranges or blood oranges
1 C dry red wine

1 T red miso

Heat oven to 200 F.

With a sharp knife, score the skin side of the duck breasts in a crisscross pattern but do not cut into the flesh. Season with salt and pepper. Heat an ovenproof heavy skillet to quite hot. Place duck breasts in pan, skin side down, and sear until browned, at most about 2 minutes. Remove and reserve 1 tablespoon of fat, discarding the rest. Return duck to pan, skin side up, and place in oven for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Place reserved duck fat in a heavy skillet on medium high.

Toward the end of roasting, sprinkle breasts with half the raw sugar and cook a couple of minutes, until the pieces start to brown but remain crisp, then remove to a platter or board.

In the meantime, reduce heat to medium low in a heavy pan or skillet, add the shallots and sauté slowly until very tender. Stir in both the orange zest and wine. Simmer gently until the wine is reduced by half. Stir in remaining raw sugar and the miso. Season with salt and pepper and then set aside.

When duck is finished, allow to rest, then slice the breasts on the bias and arrange on a platter. Briefly and barely the reheat wine sauce and fold in the orange segments. Assure that the salt and pepper is to your liking and spoon sauce over and/or under the duck breasts.

All sorrows are less with bread.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

This late summer and early fall mark the centenary dawn (1914-2014) of The War To End All Wars. Well done, humanity — as a species, we have been in global conflict and slaughter almost continuously since then.  Strife upon strife.

So, perhaps a few words about French grub on or near the front lines during The Great War are in order.  Much like with latrines and other necessities, les générals and les officiers (generals and officers) always fared far better than les poilus and les soldats (infantrymen and soldiers).  Fine cognac and haute cuisine in opulent estates away from the Front prevailed for generals, while pinard or plonk  (a cheap, low class wine) and often inedible or even missing rations were issued to the regulars who daily lost their limbs, minds, and lives on the Front.

Some background is deserved. Early on, both sides dug a network of trenches on the Western Front that eventually extended for nearly 500 miles each from the North Sea to Switzerland. Each side dug labyrinthine lines of zig-zagging trenches for some 24,000 miles (nearly the circumference of the earth).  As few expected the war to last past Christmas, the first trenches were hurriedly made scrapes and shallow pits in the ground — mere hollows dug by soldiers to protect themselves from the rain of metal from the sky, machine gun barrages and incessant snipers. These hastily constructed defenses often flooded and folded. When the front line later stabilized, trenches became deeper and were more elaborately constructed shelters, which became the troops’ home away from home, often far, far away.  The conditions in soggy trenches remained deplorable with rampant cases of dysentary, trench foot, trench mouth, diseases, hunger, rats, vermin, and body lice mingling with the horrific stench of diseases, decaying bodies, open wounds, human filth and open sewage. The trench reek alone made it difficult for many to even eat.

Because France’s armed forces expanded dramatically from peacetime to the onset of war, the Ministry of War undertook a staggering juggling act to feed the troops. While relying upon a loosely drawn network of foreign suppliers, limited local production, and meager tithes from abroad, the French not only provided for their own troops, but for some allies, colonials, and foreign volunteers.

Among other things, French troops were provided at basic training with a bidon (canteen), musette (haversack), gamelle (mess kit), quart and utensiles (cup and utensils). The soldiers usually received two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. While there was no standard time for when the meals were scheduled while afield, breakfast (PDDMPetit Déjeuner Du Matin) was usually served around 8 or 9 am, with coffee or wine sometimes served a tad beforehand. Dinner normally was served sometime in the early evening depending on the day’s conflict. Sometimes, both meals were received in the morning, with half slipped into mess kits as reserves for later. Of course, conditions at the Front sometimes prohibited meals from either being prepared or even delivered to the men. It was not uncommon for a soldier to exhaust his reserves, in which case he simply went without until food supplies were replenished from the rear. Front line troops had to subsist on bread, fruit, wine and sausages. Sometimes, troops survived on some form of soup or stew (la soupe or rata), a morcel of greasy meat, hard dry biscuits, and perhaps a cup of coffee.

Major mess kitchens were set up near supply railheads and other rear echelon trappings, such as hospital posts, rest camps and training areas. Soldiers who were line infantrymen might also be cooks or food laborers, with fatigue details assigned on a rotating basis. The concept of mobile field kitchens ensued with meals prepared behind the lines, which would then be hauled to the trenches in large food transport tins with carrying frames similar to backpacks. These kitchens were dubbed roulantes (“rollers”), and they rendered certain camping implements superfluous. Stationed in the rear or in support or supply lines, rollers were staffed by cuistots (“cooks”) who stayed with the kitchens to prepare the meals.

Though the food was prepared in field kitchens, the task of transporting food to the Front fell to fatigue men quasi-organized into ration parties. Variously called cuistots, ravitailleurs or hommes-soupes, they brought up the rations on their backs to their waiting comrades. Bedecked with stew pots, mess pans, canvas buckets, sacks, loaves of bread and dozens of filled canteens, the ration parties would usually depart during the night to ensure enough time for them to return by morning. Cooked food was placed in Bouthéon stew pots, a label morphed to bouteillon (“bottle”) due to pronunciation proximity. A large camp mess pan called the plat-á-quatre (“plate for four”) could also be used to carry food to the Front. Loaves of bread were carried either by stringing the loaves together with twine to make a bandolier or by impaling them onto a stake and hoisting them over a shoulder (see above). Canned foods were carried either in haversacks or large canvas distribution sacks. Though the food was hot when it was in the rear, by the time it arrived at the front it had already turned lukewarm or usually cold. The beverages, such as pinard, coffee and water were brought up in individual canteens as well as in the bouteillons or canvas buckets. Not only were these journeys tedious, the hommes-soupes details were often considered more hazardous than combat, as ground covered by enemy artillery fire and machine guns had to be traversed while adroitly carrying bulky equipment making it difficult to seek cover.

Food that arrived at the Front was generally chilly, of dubious nutritional quality, often soiled, sometimes spoiled, usually overcooked, greasy, and nearly inedible. Bread was usually carried without wrappers, coffee (le jus), pinard, and soups or stews with beans or potatoes were transported in open cans and the like. The overall quality and invariance of diet was a constant source of complaint among soldiers. Fine dining it was not, far from a beatific merger with “the All.”  Most troops would have been flatly elated at a deep platter of warm cassoulet — a rustic, one-pot meal from southwestern France.  Afterwards, death would be more embraceable.

CASSOULET AU CANARD

1 lb. dried white beans, such as tarbais, Great Northern, or cannellini, soaked overnight and drained
4 oz slab bacon, cut into 4 pieces
12 or so C water

4 t whole black peppercorns
2 t whole cloves
8 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves

2 boneless duck breasts, with skin and gently, not deeply, scored in a crosshatch pattern
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lb good quality duck or pork sausage

2 duck legs with drumsticks and thighs separated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 C duck or chicken stock
2 legs duck confit, skin and bones discarded and meat shredded
1 – 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, cut finely or puréed
3 T duck fat

1 C fresh bread crumbs (optional)

Baguette, sliced (and perhaps grilled or toasted)

Boil beans, bacon, and water in a heavy, large saucepan. Then place peppercorns, cloves, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves on a piece of cheesecloth, bundle with twine (bouquet garni) and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered slightly, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard spice package and transfer beans and cooking liquid to a bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Season duck breasts with salt and lightly with pepper and place breasts, skin side down, in a sauté pan already heated over medium high. Cook, without flipping, until fat is rendered and skin is crisp, about 5–6 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter.

Cook sausage, turning once, until browned, about 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and slice 1/2″ thick on the bias.

Season the duck drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper and working in batches and cook, turning as needed, until fat is rendered and the duck is nicely browned, about 5–7 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter. Add garlic cloves and onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Now return the sausage, drumsticks, and thighs to the pan and add the stock, confit, tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until duck is tender, about 1–1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit to a glass bowl and reserve broth for later.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rub a large, heavy Dutch oven with some, but not all, of the duck fat. Using a slotted spoon again, layer the beans, sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit and pour 1 cup of reserved broth over the top. Slice duck breasts 1/4″ thick on the bias and arrange over the top. Melt remaining duck fat in a small, heavy saucepan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle optional bread crumb mixture over top of the dish and bake in the oven until the cassoulet begins to bubble, about 40 minutes (otherwise, just omit the bread crumbs). Increase oven heat to 450-500 F and cook until browned, about 3–5 minutes.

Let the cassoulet sit 10-20 minutes before serving with sliced bread. Bien mangé!

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices filled with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.
~James Joyce, Ulysses

The gizzard, also referred to as the ventriculus, gastric mill, or gigerium, is a digestive organ comprised of a tough inner membrane, surrounded by a muscular pouch which provides grinding action for food. While fowl are the focus here, gizzards are also found in the stomach tracts of other critters such as reptiles, fish, mollusks, and insects. Some, but not all birds use swallowed gravel, called gastroliths, as grist to masticate and help with digestion. These stones usually become round and smooth from the polishing process in the belly.

A much revered food in so many of the world’s regions, gizzards are sautéed, poached, braised, roasted, grilled, boiled, stewed, pickled, deep fried or even used to flavor stocks. I adore these burgundy hued nuggets, and they are seductively cheap.

The English word “gizzard” comes from the Middle English giser which derived from the Old French word gisier (Mod.Fr. gésier) “a bird’s entrails,” from the Latin gigeria. The Latin term was likely drawn from the Persian word for liver, jigar.

While most gizzards are sold partially cleaned, the importance of diligently prepping the gizzards cannot be understated. (Although many prefer the chewy textured ones.) Simply rinse off any grit and trim off and discard any of the connective cartilage and silverskin membrane before using. A very sharp blade is imperative.

DUCK GIZZARD CONFIT

12 duck gizzards, cleaned and trimmed
1/4 C sea salt
1 T dried thyme

4-5 T duck fat

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 lbs fresh chanterelles and/or crimini, sliced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Fresh thyme sprigs

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh tarragon and/or parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Mix salt with dried thyme and toss in the gizzards to coat well. Put the seasoned gizzards in a covered container in the refrigerator overnight. The following day, rinse the cured gizzards thoroughly and dry with paper towels.

Heat a large pot of water until almost simmering. Put the gizzards into a ziploc bag, and spoon in the duck fat with them. Seal tightly pressing the air out of the bag. Submerge the bag in a colander and then into the hot water, carefully positioning so that water does not seep into the bag. Maintain the water over a very low heat and slowly poach for about 4 hours.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat and add olive oil and butter. Add the mushrooms and shake the pan or stir with a spatula to cook. Add the shallots and toss to combine. Cook just until the shallots are lightly brown. Add the garlic and fresh thyme and cook until the garlic softens but does not burn, about 2-3 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs and season with salt and pepper.

Carefully remove the gizzards and duck fat from the bag, slice them and add to the mushrooms, shallots and garlic over medium high heat. Shortly remove from from heat, season with salt and pepper to taste if necessary, then sprinkle with tarragon or parsley. Serve in a bowl with grilled artisanal bread nearby.

BRAISED CHICKEN GIZZARDS WITH CURRY

1 1/2 lbs. chicken gizzards, cleaned and trimmed

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced into very thin half moons
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped finely
1″ ginger root, peeled and chopped finely

1 T cumin seeds, dry roasted then ground
1 T coriander seeds, dry roasted then ground
2 dried red chiles, dry roasted then ground
1/2 t mustard seeds, dry roasted then ground

1 t fenugreek seeds, ground

1 t turmeric
1 t red chile powder
Sea salt

3 T grapeseed oil
1 T unsalted butter
3/4 C chicken stock
3/4 C water
1 cinnamon stick

Roasted peanuts, chopped (optional)
Cilantro leaves, stemmed and roughly chopped

In a bowl, combine ground cumin, coriander, red chiles, mustard seeds and fenugreek with turmeric, red chile, and salt. In a heavy large sauté pan, heat grapeseed oil and butter over medium high. Stir in the onions for a couple of minutes, then the ginger and garlic and cook until until just light golden. Stir in the spice mixture and cook another 2-3 minutes or so.

Then, add the gizzards, stirring until well coated. Stir in the stock, water and cinnamon stick, cover and simmer slowly until gizzards are tender, about 1 hour or more. Assess liquid from time to time to assure a fairly constant level. Feel free to add hot water instead of additional broth. You will need adequate curry sauce to smother the gizzards and ooze into the rice. While braising, stir occasionally and add sea salt to taste.

Serve in shallow soup bowls over Basmati rice topped with peanuts and cilantro.

Tea + Duck, et al.

October 20, 2011

Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
~T’ien Yiheng

With due cause…tea is a cultural icon, a ritual, even the stuff of ceremony and likely the most beloved libation on earth for centuries—sating rich and poor alike.

Tea is made from processed and cured leaves and buds harvested from various cultivars of an evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis. The plant usually grows on plantations in tropical and sub-tropical regions at varying elevations. The cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for easy access, and only the 1-2″ tops of the mature plant, known as flushes, are plucked.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried promptly after picking. Leaf size and post-harvest processing, particularly fermentation, determines the type of tea. The word “fermentation” in tea speak refers to how much the leaves are allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation during the drying process. The oxidation may be stopped by heat via pan frying or steaming before the leaves are completely dried.

The more ubiquitous tea types on the market are green, white, oolong and black. Green tea is withered with little oxidation and then heated to impart its unique flavor. A rather scarce commodity, white tea is made from silver fuzzed buds that are barely unfurled. It is unprocessed meaning that very little is done to the harvested leaf. Oolong is plucked and then laid out on withering racks in the sun which causes evaporation. The dried leaves are then tossed so the edges are bruised to allow partial oxidization. The leaves are fired to halt the oxidization process. Black teas are heavily oxidized and fully fermented making them deeply fragrant.

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, but pronounciations vary by region. One is , which derives from the Min Nan dialect while the other is chá, used by the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

Tea-smoking has a long culinary history in China. Originally, it was a means of preserving food, but later was strictly used to impart scents and flavors. This dish calls for a more robust black tea, Lapsang Souchong, whose fermented leaves are pressed into bamboo baskets and hung over smoky pine fires to infuse the tea with its notorious flavor. But, feel free to substitute another black, oolong or even green variety.

TEA-SMOKED DUCK BREASTS

2 (3/4 to 1 lb each) duck breasts, whole and boned, with skin on
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
Sea salt

Marinade
2 T Chinese rice wine (preferably Shaoxing)
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
1 t sesame oil
1/2 T honey
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into strips lengthwise

Peanut oil

Smoking Mixture
1/2 C dry Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1/4 C packed raw sugar (turbinado)
1/2 C dry rice
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
3 star anise

Toast peppercorns in a dry small heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking occasionally, until peppercorns are just fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Allow to cool some, then coarsely grind in mortar and pestle or grinder.

Gently mix all of the tea smoking ingredients in a small bowl.

Pat the duck dry. Shallowly score the breasts in a diagonal pattern about 1/2″ apart, taking care to cut only into the fat and not into the meat. Season with the roasted, ground peppers and salt, massaging the mixture into the skin. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk together the rice wine, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey. Add the scallions to this mixture and stir.

Place the duck either in a ziploc bag or tightly covered glass baking pan and cover with the marinade. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight and then transfer duck to a platter and bring to room temperature before proceeding. Discard marinade.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet or wok over medium high until nearly smoking. Sear the duck breasts on the skin side only until golden brown about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

To smoke the duck breasts, line a Dutch oven or wok by lining it with two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving an overhang. Wrap the top in foil as well for easy cleaning. Spread the smoking ingredients in the bottom of the Dutch oven or wok and place a steaming rack about one inch above the smoking mixture.

Set the uncovered Dutch oven or wok over high heat and cook until wisps of smoke emit from the smoking mixture. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the rack. Tightly cover and smoke duck breasts, about 8 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, and additional 8 minutes for medium rare. Carefully uncover as smoke and steam will billow out. Remove breasts to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil, and let stand for 10 minutes. Carve breasts across the grain in thin diagonal slices and serve.

Pourboire: with minor variations, this same technique of (1) marinading, (2) searing or steaming and (3) smoking can be used for a whole host of fin and feather, even swine.

Eve, Duck & Figs

September 23, 2011

The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.
~Oscar Wilde

Call me old school. I am not yet converted to the phenomenon of e-books, and may never be. This by no means criticizes Kindles and kin nor exalts ecologically unfriendly hardbacks. Opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of both have been voiced ad nauseum. For now, I cannot deny myself the pure almost childlike pleasure of feeling a book in my hands—adoring the cover art, peering under the dust jacket, feeling the spine, ever so gently cracking the book, reading the title page and dedication, caressing the paper stock, leafing throughout the book—then hunkering down and raptly savoring, sometimes tackling, each page of prose while admiring the font, fondling each turn with tactile pleasure, sensing the slight whisper of air as each page settles down snuggled against its mates, memorizing the last page read, closing the unfinished volume softly, and shelving it until we next meet. A blissful seduction. The affair ends in time but is sometimes rekindled.

Banned Book Week, which celebrates free and open access to text and denounces book censorship gets underway this weekend. Underscored are the intellectual freedoms that come from candidly sharing information and expressing thoughts, however unorthodox, and the looming dangers of literary restriction. For whatever flimsy social-political-religious excuse, banning a book is cowardly.

In Eve’s Diary, Mark Twain wryly interpreted the biblical fable of Adam and Eve replete with illustrations depicting Eve frolicking and lounging in Eden. The artist, Lester Ralph, chose to show Eve as she was described in the Bible—naked and comfortable in her skin. While there were no fig leaves, his drawings were far from prurient or lascivious, with her pubis mostly obscured and always rendered sexless. Nothing more and likely less than the typical T&A that had adorned art for centuries beforehand. (A young Picasso had already been penning openly erotic images by the time of Eve’s Diary.) Nevertheless, in 1906 the Bible beating board of trustees at the Charlton Public Library (MA) shamefully claimed outrage and voted to ban the book, removing it from the shelves. Oh, the horror of the female body. The excommunication by this gutless trio comprised of the town clerk, a minister and an undertaker was ridiculed far and wide at the time. Their sinister actions were not reversed until just this year when the current library board voted to put Twain’s porn back into circulation.

In a letter to a friend, penned under S.L. Clemens, the esteemed author bristled: “But the truth is when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.”

ROAST DUCK WITH FIGS, BALSAMIC & PORT

1 duck (3-4 lbs), liver reserved & trimmings (neck, heart,
wing tips) chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dried thyme

12 fresh figs, halved
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into diagonal slices
2 medium shallots, peeled and cut into thick slices
4 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 C balsamic vinegar

2 T honey
4 T balsamic vinegar
1/2+ C port wine
4 T unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 425 F

Remove the fatty glands from the upper side of the bird’s tail. Season the duck inside the cavity and out with salt, pepper and dried thyme. Place the liver in the duck and truss neatly with string so it will retain shape. Place the duck on one side in a large heavy roasting pan with a rack, and set it in the oven with the breast side facing toward the back. Roast, uncovered for 10 minutes. Turn the duck on the opposite side and roast for 10 minutes more. Turn the duck on its back and roast for 10 minutes more.

Remove the roasting pan and strew the chopped trimmings, figs (cut side up), garlic, carrot, shallot, and thyme under and around the duck. Cut and remove the trussing string. Return the pan to the oven and roast the duck for about 13-15 minutes per pound. (The time varies according to bird size—with more time per pound for a smaller duck, less time per pound time for a larger duck.) Using a bulb or large spoon, baste several times with pan juices while roasting. During the last 15 minutes, baste with some balsamic as well.

The duck is done to medium rare if the juices from the fattest part of the thigh run faintly rosy when the skin is pricked, and when the duck is lifted and drained, the last drops of juice from the vent are pale rose. The duck is well done when the juices run pale yellow.

Once done, transfer the duck to a platter or cutting board which is propped up at one end at an angle with breast side down and tail in the air so gravity draws the juices into the succulent breasts. Tent and allow to rest.

Carefully remove the figs and set aside covered in a serving bowl for later. Return the roasting pan to the stove with the trimmings over high heat. Cook until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Partly drain and mostly discard the liquid in the pan. Deglaze with several tablespoons of balsamic and honey for about 2 minutes, then add port and simmer for 5 minutes more.

Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve place over a new sauce pan, pressing down on the trimmings. Also add any juices that have drained from the duck as it was resting nearby. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, and add another couple of tablespoons of balsamic, and reduce. Remove from the heat and add the chilled butter, a few pieces at a time, whisking so that the butter slightly thickens the sauce.

Carve the duck and arrange on plates. Spoon some sauce over, adorn with reserved figs, and serve.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.
~Blaise Pascal, from Pensées

DUCK RAGOUT WITH POLENTA

While the precise date for Easter is a matter of contention, the celebration is a moveable feast, in that it does not fall on a specified date in Julian or Gregorian calendars. Rather, the day for celebration is determined on a lunisolar calendar—the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal moon) following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox—even though this does not comport to ecclesiatical strictures. Polemics on the nearly endless theological, philosophical, mythological, and even biological controversies surrounding this rose from death holiday will serve little good here. Not that I fear expressing valid doubt; it’s simply a question of venting space.

Since childhood I have however pondered about the duck’s entry into the Easter fray, given that it is bunnies that really lay eggs, right? You know, that common marsupial form of the family Leporidae…or how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to the celebration of Jesus dying on a cross and then resurrecting a couple of days later. Apparently, the egg bearing bunny evolved from the fertile Saxon goddess named Oestre, the pagan goddess of spring and personification of dawn. The goddess saved the life of a bird whose wings had been frozen by the snow, making him her pet and some even say her lover. Filled with empathy at the bird’s inability to fly, Oestre morphed him into a snow hare and bestowed upon him the gift of being able to run so rapidly that he could evade hunters. Still sensitive to his early aviary form, she also gave the male hare an ability to lay brilliantly hued (now pastelled) eggs one day each year.

We now know this tale may have been mischievously invented by a monk who became known as Venerable Bede. While research has failed to unearth much mention of Oestre earlier, Bede mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book authored in 750 CE. So, was the Easter bunny a literary forgery?

Myths built upon myths, all leading to marketing mirth.

A derivative of the French verb ragoûter, meaning “to stimulate the appetite,” ragoût is a thick, deeply intense stew of meat, poultry, fish and/or vegetables. Its northern Italian kin, ragù, is a sauce that often contains ground meats, pancetta, tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, and wine.

As befits its name, this fare is far from taciturn.

4 duck leg-thighs, excess skin trimmed
3 T extra virgin olive oil

3 ribs celery, trimmed and finely diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

4 premium anchovy filets, rinsed, dried and minced

6 juniper berries
1 1/2 C dry red wine, such as a Zinfandel or Rhône
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

3 T tomato paste
2 C chicken stock

1 T fresh sage leaves, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sautéed or fried sage leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F

Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil, and when it begins to shimmer, add the duck legs, skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned and the fat has begun to render, about 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the legs over and brown the other sides, some 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove and allow to rest.

Add the celery, carrots, onion and garlic to the pot, and stir to combine. Cook until the onion has softened and has just started to color, approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Clear a space in the center of the pot and add the anchovies, then swirl and press them in the fat until they begin to dissolve. Stir further to combine. Add juniper berries, wine, cider vinegar and duck legs, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, approximately 15 minutes.

Add tomato paste and stir to combine, then enough chicken stock so that the combination takes on a saucy consistency and just barely covers the duck. Increase heat to high and bring just to a boil. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook until the meat is almost falling off the bone, about 90 minutes.

Remove duck from pot and allow to cool slightly. Peel off skin, dice and reserve. Shred meat off bones and return to pot. Place pot on stove top over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add duck skin, sage, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Strew shredded duck over polenta, spoon over sauce, and top with a couple of sage leaves.

Serve in shallow soup bowls, paired with creamy polenta.

Polenta

2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
1 C chicken stock
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 C polenta
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

In a medium heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, stock, and thyme over medium high heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Discard thyme sprigs and garlic cloves. Reduce heat to low, slowly add the polenta and cook, stirring constantly, until creamy and thick, about 5-8 minutes. Gently stir in the parmigiano-reggiano.

Pourboire: the sauce and legs can be stored separately overnight in the refrigerator. The fat will rise to the top of the sauce and may be easily skimmed off when you are ready to heat it through the following day. You may even find this method preferable. Also, give strong consideration to serving the ragoût over delicate gnocchi.