If Tastespotting doesn’t want this one, they can officially SUCK IT.
Thomas Keller could maybe take the teensiest lesson from Charlie Trotter. Because in addition to his many other cookbooks showcasing his incredible restaurant food, he puts out books like Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. Do you hear that, Keller? AT HOME. IN ONE’S HOUSE, where there is a HOME KITCHEN, one does not want dinner to take 17 HOURS TO PREPARE and liquids move from one place to another CONSTANTLY without going through the chinois which one does NOT EVEN OWN. AT HOME. HOME HOME HOME.
So tonight, from Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home, we have seared duck breasts with orange vinaigrette, ginger-braised celery and swiss chard. And yes, it was slightly meh, but it also took slightly less than 1 hour to prepare.
This is my signature look, and I’m going to wear it out.
I put the dressing together first to give it a little time to meld. It was a fairly simple affair, mostly: fresh orange and lemon juices, scallions, olive oil and salt and pepper. There was more orange than lemon, so it had a fresh, sweet taste that I thought would really perk up the duck. If someone more irritating had written this cookbook, the intro to this recipe would say something annoying about how this is a “lighter, friskier interpretation of the classic duck a l’orange.” Thankfully, Charlie Trotter is not That Guy (At least, in this book. I can’t vouch for him in real life).
The instructions indicated that the dressing should be studded with chunks of orange, so I decided to try and supreme the orange. I know what “supreme” means and just watched them do it on Top Chef last night, so I figured I knew what was going on: You peel the orange completely, making sure to get all the pith and membrane off the outside of the fruit, and then slice in between each segment membrane, pulling out perfect little slices.
I don’t know what’s going on. See that little white bowl? See how many actual supremes there are? (Hint: 5) See how they’re not remotely uniform? Yeah.
Scallions do not have to be supremed. I love scallions!
Luckily, who can tell from supremes once everything is whisked together? Not me!
Once the dressing was done, I put the celery on so it could braise while I worked with the duck. The celery is actually the main reason I chose this dish. I often find myself sitting and thinking of all the things I might like to braise one day* – lamb shanks, short ribs, pork belly – and celery pretty much never pops up on that last. Scratch that: not “pretty much never,” just “never.”
But I’ve read Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The woman not only braises celery, she braises lettuce, so one has to trust; I was actually pretty excited at witnessing the transformation of such a hum-drum vegetable into a sweet and tender side dish. I threw the celery into a pot with some chicken stock, butter and fresh ginger and turned my attention to the duck.
*I feel safe sharing this with you because I know you do the same thing.
I’d purchased 2 moulard duck breasts that clocked in at nearly a pound apiece; half a pound of which I assumed was fat. As you can see, my estimation wasn’t far off. I scored the skin and fat with a knife, being careful not to cut into the actual meat, to allow the fat to render out more easily. Dragging a sharp knife across the skin with no pressure – allowing the weight and sharpness of the knife to do all the work – made the perfect cuts.
Really, I know. I was there, remember?
A truly stunning, vast amount of fat started seeping out of the duck the second it hit the hot pan. Within 2 minutes, the duck was sizzling away in nearly half an inch of beautiful, beautiful duck fat.
So here’s the thing about the Smackdown: I’m pretty strict about my self-imposed rules. Dishes have to have some new ingredient, technique or flavor combo. All recipes need to come from the same book. And changes are a no go: There’s no “a pinch of this would be good” or “what if I tried it this way.” So when Charlie Trotter told me to lay the duck in a searing-hot pan I did it, even though I thought that starting over more gentle heat would give more of the fat a chance to render out before the skin took on excessive color.
Sometimes, though, the soul is willing and the flesh is weak. Especially when one has a frying pan full of newly-rendered duck fat and a bowlful of tiny, gorgeously creamy baby yukon gold potatoes. You would do the SAME THING and you DAMN WELL KNOW IT.*
Cube ‘em up, fry ‘em up, salt ‘em up, eat ‘em up, rawhiiiiide.
Yes, I broke. I crumbled like a short crust. And I’m GLAD, I tell ya, GLAD. I diced up the potatoes, threw them in the still-sizzling fat and let them fry until they were golden brown and crunchy. Brian mixed up a little garlic salt to anoint them upon their exit from the pan.
I’m looking at the cause of my own death.
Only the knowledge that tiny bites of napalm lay inside these tauntingly crisp shells kept us from eating all the potatoes before we even got to dinner.
Meanwhile, the celery reached what I had to assume was “tender” (how tender can it get?) so I turned off the heat and left it in its braising liquid while Brian sliced the duck and I wilted down the chard. Which happened so quickly that there was no time to take any pictures. I’ll tell you about it, though, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out: We put a giant pile of chard leaves in a hot pan. They instantly turned into a tiny lump of dark green that could barely feed two. The end.
Don’t you like how I put the better picture at the top of the post to suck you in? Suckers.
I laid down a bed of chard and built a little platform of celery, a sort of duck dais. I laid a few slices across and then spooned the dressing over the whole thing, making sure to get a good amount of scallion and orange. On the other side of the plate, I heaped a giant fucking pile of duck-fat fried potatoes.
The Good: Duck-fat fried potatoes. Gloriously salty and crisp, with a rich flavor that vegetable oil can only hope to approach in its wildest, most cocaine-fueled dreams.
The orange vinaigrette. Sweet, a little tart, not terribly heavy, delicately seasoned. A great match for the duck, able to match its natural sweetness without being cloying or heavy while also adding brightness. A sort of lighter, friskier interpretation on the classic duck a l’orange.
The Slightly Less Good: Duck. I fucking love duck. These particular specimens were formidable; huge, fatty, perfectly unmarred skin, deep garnet meat. However, my cooking instinct was right – the breasts really did need more time over lower heat to get rid of more of the fat. I love duck fat as much as the next person, but the layer that was left under the skin was a little disturbingly thick, even for me.
The Average: The chard. It is what it is and I don’t judge it for that. On any other night, it would be good. For a Smackdown, it’s average.
The Meh: I was originally going to put the celery here. But I’ve changed my mind, and the celery is now classified as…
The Bad: I think there’s a good reason that celery never appears on my “to-braise” list*: because it’s not good. I’m assuming that I did something wrong, and would love to hear others’ experiences with celery braising. Although the celery was tender but slightly toothsome, it just didn’t taste good. It took on a great deal of the ginger and chicken stock flavor, and its own flavor was just muted. There was no magical transformative moment.
It actually created a vacuum on the plate, sucking the superior flavors of the other foods into the void of its being.
Final Score: Us, 1; Food, 0; Celery, you suck.
*Yes, I have an actual list. As should you.