Reflections on Risotto, Duck Breast, and Winnie the Pooh.
I had a great time cooking for a winery recently and I’m trying to make sure that I get all of those recipes on this site. There were two lunches that they needed catered, the catch was that every dish needed to pair with a very specific 2012 cabernet sauvignon. It was a serious challenge to make two different menus knowing that the owner of the winery, a man with a seriously discerning palate, would be hosting both lunches.
Duck breast just had to happen. It’s so good with cabernet and it also pairs amazingly well with berries, which I wanted to use not only for my dessert, but also for the duck. There is a sweet local stand nearby that somehow had some gorgeous berries for sale, just begging to be incorporated! I went with raspberries in the dessert, so I used the blueberries for the duck.
I remember the first time I got to take apart a duck and cook it. Living in London, my student visa only legally allowed part-time work, so the jobs that I was able to apply for were extremely limited. The kitchen that did wind up hiring me was absolutely amazing. It was a flat-out gorgeous restaurant with a cast of kitchen characters imported directly from other countries. Immigrants the lot of us. Most of the cooks (Alessio, Alessandro #1, Alessandro #2, Danillo, Fabio, Francesco, Gregorio, Ignazio…) as well as the Chef, Paolo, and original sous chef, Stefano, were there straight from Italy. There were two incredibly talented rock star cooks and motorcycle aficionados, Macek and Piotr (Piotr was promoted to sous chef when Paolo moved on and Stefano was promoted) from Poland, two fun and fabulous guys from somewhere near Sri Lanka (Subethiran and Tharshan) and the kitchen porters, Germain being the only constant, were from Africa. There was also Kimmie, the most wonderfully supportive, helpful, and constantly funny girl from Switzerland who wound up working pastry much of the time. I was the only American, and for a couple of the guys, the first American woman they had ever seen outside of the movies. We mostly communicated in broken English and thoroughly shattered Italian. Relegated to the customer restroom downstairs when our tiny, frequently broken toilet was occupied or in need of repair, every moment of peace outside the kitchen was eternally punctuated with Winnie the Pooh piped in through the sound system. It was a never-ending audio recording of a woman’s voice with the most beautifully polished British accent reading the story over and over. “Rabbit?… Rabbit?” the Italians would yell when they returned from a run to the toilet.
We were quite a merry band of pirates. Laughing, singing, fighting, screaming, brawling, interrupted only occasionally by the appearance of an occasional police officer or a quick trip to the hospital. We drank bottles of Aqua Panna through every shift and ended our best nights with Birra Moretti. Winnie the Pooh on constant repeat, punctuating our escapes. Every single day one of the servers would be forced to bring us each an espresso or cappuccino, which we would take to our stations and enjoy while we prepared for the shift ahead. Unfortunately, though we were well taken care of, none of us were able to take a lot of actual money home with us at the end of the day. This meant that a good chunk of my meals came from family meal at work and from the leftovers of whatever project we had worked on that day in our practicals. Family meal at the restaurant was truly a family meal. One of the cooks would spend serious time making a full meal and we were all required, no matter what, to go and sit together at a table in the downstairs dining room and enjoy our meal together, sharing stories and occasionally reciting lines from Winnie the Pooh on the rare occasions conversation would die out. There were days where I ate weak soup or potatoes at home in my flat, but there were also days where I would head home after a practical and feast on foie gras, salmon and lobster sausages rolled in brioche crumbs and butter, wood pigeon, guinea fowl with rabbit (“Rabbit?… Rabbit?”) farce, or (you guessed it), duck.
Of course, this all completely ignores the month spent dating the Italian pastry chef, a fascinating and talented man who barely understood a word of English. Volitile and pig-headed, when he couldn’t find what he needed, he would open the cupboard doors and scream into them to give him the tool or ingredient he demanded. As we all did, he could also scream the occasional broken line of Winnie the Pooh, understanding it not at all. He usually went straight from his job at this restaurant to his job in the kitchen at a “gentleman’s club,” but when he was available, he and I would go to the nearby Tesco, pick out ingredients, and he would make the richest and most decadent variations on a theme of risotto on my little hot plate while feeding me treats like lardo drizzled with chestnut honey, laughing when he decided to be lazy and chop the garlic “the American way” (meaning sliced rather than perfectly brunoise) and teaching me how to say all of the different parts of the human anatomy in Italian. Patiently, he would teach me each word over and over again until I could say it correctly.
The first time we cooked duck breast in practical, the class was led by our mentor, a fiery and passionate Frenchman called Chef Franck. A man of strong convictions, he had informed us on our very first day during orientation that women and Asians had no place in professional kitchens. Women were too weak, and Asians used too much pepper. This was a statement of fact and it was our introduction to the school. We also learned where to find and how to use the fire blanket.
It was with great trepidation that I went to cook the breasts. Chef Franck was watching me, as he watched everyone all the time, and I just didn’t want to screw it up. Not that day. Exhausted from an insanely busy late shift at the restaurant the night before, I just couldn’t deal with failure that day. Completely lacking in subtlety, he was extremely clear when a meal was disappointing. Extremely loud and extremely clear. His concerns had nothing to do with our precious little feelings. Plus, our Chefs had made such a huge deal about the travesty of an overcooked duck breast in demonstration that I just couldn’t put a badly cooked duck breast up for critique.
I was careful. I was somewhere far and away beyond careful. I checked everything. Delicately removing the breasts from the rest of the carcass, cooking the legs confit, using the bones to make a stock which would become the sauce. I just needed to get it right. By some miracle, it worked! Perfectly rare breast, falling apart legs, plus my vegetables and sauce passed muster! That will always be my miracle meal. It was the first time I got an unreservedly positive critique on my entire dish. I took those leftovers home with me and enjoyed them beyond measure. To me, duck will always taste like success.
The key to making a good risotto is always the stirring. Just keep stirring and stirring and stirring, making sure that all of your liquid is absorbed before adding more. Your stock or broth should be kept warm–I like to keep a pot on the stove over the lowest flame while I’m making the risotto, using a ladle, one scoop at a time. For what I think is the best description of making risotto, check out Felicity Cloake’s article at the Guardian.
Ingredients do matter, so if you’re lucky enough to have access to them, Liberty Farm duck breasts and mushrooms from Wine Forest (Connie will always be one of my favorite people in the world from which to source ingredients) are far and away the best decisions you can make.
(I was making this dish family-style for a group, so the pictures above are much larger quantities than this recipe makes, all piled into a big serving bowl.)