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.

Advertisements

A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.
~Czech proverb

The north to south plunge of the first stages of this year’s Tour de France bypassed the pastoral and gastronomically diverse region of Alsace-Lorraine nestled in the northeastern corner of France. Instead, the riders braved rain and then the harrowing, bone jarring rigors of 7 cobbled sectors in a more central route from Belgium south toward the steep mountain stages of the Alps. These are not those faux cobblestones seen in suburban malls, but are rather the old school, epic, rounded rocks with abysmal ruts and crevices that suddenly grab wheels with a Jaws-like vengeance. To cyclists perched atop two narrow high pressure tires in a frenetically paced and packed peleton, it is labyrinthine chaos. Seems a metaphor for modern life.

Home to handcrafted and hearty beers, Alsace-Lorraine is not to be forgotten though in this rustic chicken Ragout À l’Alsacienne. The braising beer should be darker with hefty yeast and malt tones. This is not fare for light lager. I might suggest your finest local microbrewery or a hearty bottled beer from the region.

RAGOUT OF CHICKEN IN BEER

6 thick slices high quality slab bacon, cut into 1″ x 1/4″ lardons

3 C fresh mushrooms, quartered
2 T butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 t dried thyme

3 T unsalted butter, softened
3 T all purpose flour

3 1/2 to 4 lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces and thoroughly dried
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T unsalted butter
1-2 T extra virgin olive oil

3 C yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed, finely minced and smashed again to a paste

4 C fine beer
1-2 C chicken broth
1-2 T Dijon mustard
5 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
1-2 T brandy

Italian parsley leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish

Bacon
In a large, heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, fry the cut bacon over medium heat until crisp. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Set aside, reserving about 1-2 tablespoons fat in the pan.

Mushrooms
Place heavy skillet with butter and oil over medium high heat. When the butter is well heated, add the mushrooms and toss well so they absorb the butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and thyme and continue tossing until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.

Beurre Manié
With your fingers, combine butter and flour. Set aside.

Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy skillet with the bacon fat over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the chicken and cook on one side until the skin turns an even golden brown, about 5 minutes. Do not crowd the pan and even brown the chicken in batches if necessary. Then turn the pieces, and brown on that side, 5 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside in a casserole dish, tented loosely with aluminum foil.

Reduce the heat to medium, and add the sliced onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes. Drain through a sieve to remove excess fat.

Return the chicken to the skillet, add the onions, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Pour in the beer, mustard and enough stock to barely cover the ingredients. Stir and bring to a simmer until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the sauce and boil the sauce down rapidly. Raise heat, fortify sauce with brandy and boil down rapidly—-tasting and adding any necessary seasoning. Then, remove from heat and whisk in the beurre manié little by little to lightly thicken the sauce. (There is no need to use the entirety of the beurre manié—just enough to lightly thicken.) Bring briefly to a simmer so that the sauce just lightly coats a spoon.

Return the chicken to the sauce, and add the lardons and mushrooms to the sauce. Top with parsley and serve with buttery artisan noodles.