Wednesday, December 26, 2007

'Tis the season

'Tis the season to overindulge--in my neck of the woods, to stuff one's self full of baked goods. I'd pretty much had them all: fudgy, green-icinged, candy-sprinkled, oatmealed-and-raisined, you name it. I've had lemon coolers and Russian Tea Cookies; I've had horrifying monstrosities of an unappetizingly green hue that resembled something from a short story by Isaac Asimov (strangely enough the creatures--actually marshmallow-and-cornflake treats that for some reason had been dyed a bright lime green--were rather appetizing). Terry--not my wife or girlfriend, just my housemate (don't ask, it's complicated)--was doing a batch for her sister; some days earlier, the sister had been wondering what to do for the cookie exchange she had agreed to join (apparently in this part of rural America such exchanges are common); I suggested lengua de gato, a crisp little treat I used to love as a child. "Everyone and their sister will be baking chocolate chip cookies--maybe oatmeal, if they're imaginative," I said. "Lengua de gato would be something they'd never seen before."

It was not to be, but we did get a box full of other people's produce out of it (one of which is the aforementioned shapeless, green-tinted treat), and a large tupperware full of Terry's leftover cookies: simple chocolate chip, oatmeal, and (simplest of all) sugar cookies that were nice and crisp--almost like a lengua. Call it consuelo de bobo (rough translation: moron's consolation), but I was happy with what I had.

Have to admit, I went totally nuts this year, and I don't mean just cookies. Went to a wine shop to buy a red (for my spaghetti sauces), a bottle of Marsala (for cream sauces and desserts), and a gift for Terry's sister's friend when I looked up at the shelf behind the cash register and spotted a familiar label. "Is that Dom Perignon?" I asked. "Yes," said the cashier." "How much?" "A hundred and forty nine dollars." "Well," I said, after picking my jaw up off the floor, "that's about the size of our holiday dinner budget, I suppose," and found myself for some weird reason actually reaching for my wallet. Before I realized what had happened, I found myself sitting in the car with not three but four bottles clinking away in the rear seat.

A few nights later, I was wondering what would go well with that bottle of Dom--cheese? Strawberries? Not bad choices, but I stumbled upon this website, and couldn't help clicking on a few links--whole duck liver: seventy-one dollars. Not that I had seventy dollars lying about to spend on just anything I wanted (and with overnight shipping--a must, considering the item--the grand total was a clean hundred dollars), but a) it's Christmas, and b) for once I could actually afford to buy it without worrying about my electricty getting cut off (again, don't ask). Reason 'a' wasn't all that simple a reason; I loathe Christmas and could care less about celebrating the damned thing...but I've spent too many years (the last five to ten, in fact) under a tight financial leash and a self-pitying funk during the holidays and thought: what the hell--if I'm expected to indulge, I might as well go all the way. I was a weak and unprincipled sinner all last week, you betcha.

The liver arrived exactly five days later (three days for processing then overnight delivery), in a styro box, sitting on cold packs; beside the pale creamy lobes was a pair of duck breasts. I suppose I should be grateful, though I don't remember breasts ever being mentioned in my order form--but never mind; they were a bother and a distraction, but I might as well use 'em. If no one at the dinner table wanted to actually try medium-rare duck liver, the breasts might actually come in handy as some kind of backup dish.

The night before Christmas I was struggling to make a fruit compote--for the liver of course (I hadn't even begun to think about the duck breast); the Dom was chilling away in the fridge. I'd downloaded a recipe, was about to pour my just-bought bottle of Marala into a bowl full of sugar and chopped fruit (peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, dried apricots, dried figs, candied ginger, mint sprigs), when I realized that the recipe called for Madeira wine. Should I just use what I bought? I don't know Marsala from Madeira from manure, which was kind of the point--I didn't feel confident enough to try a substitution. So I sent Terry out to buy a bottle which she did (patient and angelic temperament that she had); the whole watery mess went into a large gallon bowl, which in turn went into a fridge.

Terry stood behind me while I was pouring. "What's all that for?" "Oh, just a compote for the duck liver." "You're going through all that trouble just for liver?" "It's very special liver. It cost seventy dollars, plus a pair of duck breasts." That shut her up for a moment, out of sheer astonishment. "Well," she said, "I was thinking of making my egg rolls too." "Sure, why don't you do that? Just in case."

D-day dawned, and my compote was mixed one more time in early morning (I'd been mixing it every few hours the previous night). I'd also dug up an easy duck breast recipe involving dried cherry sauce, only I didn't have any dried cherries--searched high and low, nope, nothing. Was acutely aware that not a single store was open this Christmas day (actualy I also had a problem with the toasted bread that was supposed to go with the duck liver--but that was a whole other issue).

Took out my 12-inch nonstick, put the breasts in it scored-skin down for four minutes; turned them over, did it again for another four minutes, then transferred the breasts into a baking dish to finish in the oven at 400 degrees for ten minutes. In the nonstick pan tossed in the 'cherry sauce'--half a cup of red wine, half a cup of chicken broth, a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, salt and pepper, and instead of cherries I threw in the half cup of craisins (dried cranberries) I found hiding in someone's ziploc snack bag, reduce for eight minutes; add two tablespoons of butter to finish.

Then the scary part: with a knife kept continually moist by dipping it in running water, I cut roughly half-inch slices from the duck liver (had to be careful to keep it from breaking apart); added butter to a medium high pan (which immediately started smoking, setting off alarms), and as quickly added the duck liver. Counted to sixty, gingerly lifted the browned slices off the pan and into a serving plate--and came away with roughly eight beautifully browned (only on one side) medallions of pan-seared foie gras, one of the most luxurious foods in the world.

Laid a foie gras on one side of a plate, spooned fruit compote at the liver's one end, garnished with a mint sprig; laid a duck breast on the other side of the plate, spooned craisin sauce at the breast's other end, and yelled "COME AN' GIT IT, 'FORE I THROW IT OUT!" Each plate came with a glass of Dom Perignon.

The medallions were crispy brown one side, unbelievably creamy the other; the sweet, tart compote crunchy with fresh fruit cut through the richness nicely. The duck breast had crisped skin and a red, rare meat, and the craisin sauce complemented that perfectly, too. The Dom was dry and cold, and washed down all that decadence nicely.

Only there was something missing...the texture was there, but the flavor was lacking somehow. It was when I bit into the duck breast, feeling the crunch! of skin against teeth and the skin's strong flavor that I realized what I'd forgotten to do, the most basic step of all: add salt and pepper before you cook the meat.

"Holy--" I ran to the serving dish, sprinkled salt and pepper on the slices; put salt out on the table for everyone to use. But it was too late; the damned hundred dollar's worth of breast and liver was tastewise flat as pancakes. Hundred dollar pancakes, in effect.

Oh, I'd salvaged something from the experience--Picked up two leftover slices of foie gras, salt-and-peppered the uncooked side, seared them for a minute, then invited everyone to taste. Oohhs, and ahhs all around, this time sincere; they finally realized what it was all about. Ah, well. Maybe next year I can afford to do this again--do it right.

Just before I went to sleep some time after midnight, I felt a hankering for something to eat before I turned in. Not foie gras--that was all gone; not duck breast--that was much too rich. Something simple and homely and good.

I noticed Terry's egg rolls, sitting cold on a plate. I picked one up, dipped it in its vinegar and crushed garlic sauce, bit. The flavor of ground pork, chicken and shrimp flooded my mouth, the sweetness of pork and shrimp sharpened by the hint of soy, sesame oil, scallion, coriander leaf; and I could feel the crunch of the wonton wrapper, the crispness of the chopped water chestnuts. Not fancy, not expensive--just time-consuming and painstakingly difficult to make, a real labor of love, and the single best piece of food I tasted that night.

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