Thursday Night Smackdown: Charlie Trotter goes "meh."

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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.

Possibly I am still a touch bitter.

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.

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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.

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Scallions do not have to be supremed. I love scallions!

Luckily, who can tell from supremes once everything is whisked together? Not me!

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…Yum?

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.

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I KNOW!

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.

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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.*

*Fuck you.

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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.

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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.
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Fin.

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.

0 thoughts on “Thursday Night Smackdown: Charlie Trotter goes "meh."

  1. I love that you have a “to braise” list. Gutted bout the celery, but that duck, those potatoes…I should wear some kind of bib when reading your posts. They look divine! I can’t really comiserate at the moment as Tastespotting (miraculeuse!) have employed a couple of my pictures but trust me, for the three that they’ve accepted, there were about 47 perfectly serviceable ones they rejected. I blame this on the lack of matcha in my posts…

  2. I had Peking duck last night, but this looks a lot better. As for TK, I’ve had his book for years and have yet to make anything out of it. Maybe some day when I have an industrial kitchen (you know the kind that requires a fire suppression system) and an army of Oompa Loompas helping me.

  3. Yes, you did the right thing, and the gods love you for it. In fact, they’re so proud of you, they’re crying monsoonal rains in approval over Brooklyn. (ps – before you cook something in duck fat again, could you give me a warning? I hate rain).
    Anywho… I often shave down my duck fat before cooking it. I know that’s probably a little weird, but it makes for, imho, a more perfect cooking time, and doesn’t harm the presentation at all.
    Nice dinner… I wish it’s what I had last night! But, no. I’m on a mooshie foods diet… stupid dentist.

  4. I’m a list kinda person, but I don’t yet have a “to braise” list. Will have to add that to my list. I haven’t worked with duck much, but those potatoes look worth the duck fat investment! Great post, as always!

  5. you dirty bitch! as i was reading i kept rooting you on (in my mind, of course) thinking “she better fucking keep that rendered duck fat to make duck fat fries! she bettttter do it… come on girl!” And then, magically, you heard me and there they were! this dish looks awesome! All the flavors and the richness cut by a bit of citrus… yum.

    and tastespotting can offically lick my taint – i can NOT understand what is up their ass sometimes. i’ve actually never cursed a website more in my life. is it like this stupid “white balance” conspiracy!? i hate them.

  6. Tastespotting infuriates me regularly. Jack and I have a whole routine:

    Him: Did you submit that photo to tastespotting?

    Me: REJECTED, as usual. Bastards.

    And can I just say “yum” about the duck fat fries?

  7. Oh my. Duck fat fried potatoes. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’m sorry to hear the duck was just “good”, as they did look like such perfect little morsels. I’m shocked he had you sear the shit out of them, rather than a slow render. How does it feel to be smarter than Charlie Trotter?

    …and yes- tastespotting can go right ahead and suck it.

  8. laura: i think everyone should have a “to braise” book. or at the very least, own molly steven’s marvelous “all about braising.”

    marc: if you screwed some legs into it, it would make a really nice side table though. at least then it would be useful.

    ann: the monsoon is sitting over jersey city as well (and over my office in midtown). but it was totally worth it. i would do it again. and i WILL, because i still have a store of rendered duck fat in the fridge, biding its time.

    shari: do you keep a list of lists? because that’s one step beyond.

    WANF: whaddaya think, that i’m some kind of amateur here? i know what to do when a pint of duck fat gets thrown my way.

    2nd ann: you can. just don’t say “yum-o,” of you will bring the pain down on yourself. my readers are harsh motherfuckers.

    brittany: it was gooooood. is that better? it would have been excellent if not for the searing thing.

    BE: i guess i just have to accept our mutual dislike.

  9. You are hysterical!
    Duck, is just frightening to me on many levels, but if you say you fucking love it, well then I believe you and maybe I need to give it another go!
    And I think your pictures look fab.. The tastespotting people are really picky, right?

  10. i recently had meh fiddlehead ferns
    BUT THIS
    this looks and sounds wonderful

    i will say that i too did the moulard duck(in a blueberry gastrique) and was just not in love with the moulard. big? yes. meaty? yes. yields lotsa fat? sure. but not very tasty to me. next i’m trying the muscovy. i think i like gamier duck…

  11. I love Trotter. I have a book from him The Jazz Sessions or something or other where hes influenced by jazz. I have yet to attempt any recipes however.One day I’ll make it to his restaurant here in Chicago or at least Charlie Trotter To Go ;-)
    And I love me a good seared duck breast!

  12. Okay, I was seriously laughing so hard at all of this, it is like complete entertainment. It looks delicious but your story is the best ever!

    Love it, love you.

  13. Beautiful photo, Michelle!
    You love !@*% duck, and I !@**%#! hate it. I agree about some of those cookbooks, though. Kudos for you for even trying—I wouldn’t!

  14. Yep, you can definitely pass those potatoes over here. Without the napalm, if you don’t mind.

    I know your rules don’t allow you to change anything, but maybe try fennel instead of celery?

  15. heavens, your site is just food pron.

    anyway…speaking of fowl fat (foul fat?), if you slow roast a goose at a lower temperature (300 F or so) it will render out most of the the under skin fat making the skin more like cracklin’ skin of pork. the fat makes absolutely delicious bread.

    i’m just sayin’

  16. erinn: do not be frightened by the duck! aside from the fat thing, it’s not that different than cooking steak.

    katie: i wouldn’t want to bruise my delicate hands. can i douse ‘em with hot duck fat instead? on the other hand, that would be a waste of perfectly good duck fat.

    claudia: i remember that duck. i wanted that duck. i still want it.

    also, my last experience with fiddlehead ferns was also “meh.” i don’t get the hype.

    courtney: charlie trotter to go? interesting. we have some “wolfgang puck to go” but i don’t trust it.

    pig: gracias! i blush, i blush.

    toontz: thanks! tell me more about this “hating duck.” how can that be? because duck? she is delicious.

    christie: well, they can officially suck it. because where is that pic? not on tastespotting, i’ll tell you that.

    forkful: no, i really can’t. i’m not sharing those potatoes.

    naomi: a goose? and bread, you say? i’m intrigued, and will file this away for next winter. (because goose seems like a wintry kinda thing)

  17. Heh heh, I usually put the better picture at the top too, but at least yours are all good photos. And celery is evil – except when it’s braised. I know, there’s always one…

  18. It sounds like you spoiled yourself. You make a 12-minute meal and the next thing you know a dish that takes less than an hour is an interminable wait.

    Mmm…potatoes in duck fat. If McDonalds started doing that I’d start eating there again in a heartbeat. There are few things that the flavor of animal fat cannot improve upon.

  19. I agree with the above-it might motivate me to hit the drive thru-McD’s are you listening? Oh, Tastespotting-I submitted a photo (the whole flayed goat from my barbeque post) THREE times (each time cursing my computer, who I wrongfully blamed for the non-posting of the pic) before I figured out that they had REJECTED ME! ha.

  20. I bought that book for my husband so he can just get the fuck over his fear of cooking. He’s made a few good things from it, just not when I’m home. Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess.

    Tastespotting are a bunch of snobby clique fuckers. Ever notice it’s always the same ten people on there? Fuckers.

  21. I actually don’t love duck, but gawdamn that looks good.

    and the potatoes? you must be kidding me. WOW.

    celery… I’ve braise it in chopped pieces when I make the short ribs or veal shanks or lamb, and it works with everything else, but I’ve never done those larger pieces. soooo… yeah, I guess that’s all I had to say about it. :)

  22. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Blog Archive » The day went downhill from here.

  23. So, an out of focus bag of King Arthur Flour makes it into Tastespotting for a “Flour Taste Test”, and your duck entree does not.

    Tastespotting frequently equals the tables of bitchy mean Cheerleader Girls in the highschool cafeteria, casting knowing, superior looks on the table full of Home Economics chicks. I say this even though I’m pleased a FEW of my pics have made it on there.

    I say, we all get together, and submit Michelle’s duck photo to Tastespotting. Over. and Over. and Over again. At least for our own entertainment.

  24. P.S. As soon as I read your “rules” I felt inferior and ashamed. I typically try to stick to a recipe fairly religiously to give it justice, but I’m very much a “pinch of that, pinch of this, and this mushroom will improve things…this celery will not” kinda girl. Even though they are your rules and not mine, how spineless am I that I instantly felt shame? I suck.

  25. OMG…you are BRILLIANT! Though, I just got that book and I contend his freakish obsession with cooking in pickling juice should be reigned in when cooking at home. Or anywhere for that matter. On the other hand, I admire his commitment. And yours for doing this dish! OUTSTANDING! Bravo!

    (As for the celery…try snapping the very end off and pulling back to get out the strings…doesnt change the taste – obviously – but makes it more pleasant when braised.)

  26. nicisme, if you know the secret to make the braised celery taste good, you must share!

    elle, they magically raised my cholesterol 9 points!

    rachel, i was spoiled long before this.

    rebecca, holy crap, a whole flayed goat? i gotta admit, i’m a littel scared of you now.

    heather, if a husband cooks in the kitchen and there’s no one around to eat it, did he really cook at all? check under the top layer of trash for the red baron boxes.

    melissa, see, i’ve also done celery in other stuff, like stews. but this was clearly meant to be its own thing – just braised celery. i still don’t get it.

    kate, do it. you can be in charge of spearheading the efforts, since it would be unseemly for me to do so.

    also, don’t be so hard on yourself. i shame a lot of people.

    rachael, but the flavor, the flavor! what is to be done? CONFOUND YOU, BRAISED CELERY.

  27. Tastespotting have some strange way of choosing recipes… sometimes they don’t accept something that is really good… and then I see them accepting some nonsense… They have never accepted my Wholesome Lunchboxes or even Sea Bass with A Pine Nut Crust by Marcus Wareing (!)

    Have a nice day :)

    Margot

  28. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Blog Archive » Thursday Night Smackdown: Everything’s Better With Butter

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