The Paradoxical Duck Confit

The Paradoxical Duck Confit

Thursday night, on a whim, we asked our neighbors Stéphan et Patricia over for dinner, and I prepared the kind of dish that epitomizes the French paradox * : duck confit.

Back in July, Maxence and I spent a lovely extended week-end in the South-West of France, visiting his grandparents in Gourdon and driving around the incredibly beautiful countryside. On our last day, as is becoming the tradition, we indulged in a shopping spree at the Canard du Midi store. We joyously filled our shopping basket with foie gras, magret de canard (roasted duck breast), canned cassoulet (a typical regional dish that involves white kidney beans and various meats in goose fat), a black truffle in its jewellery-like box, canned gésiers de canard (duck gizzards), ostrich (!) and boar terrines, canned confit de canard (duck confit), confiture d’oignon (onion jam), and noisillons (chocolate-covered walnuts). This was stashed away in our luggage, keeping company to the other marvels purchased at the marché : dried cèpes (porcinis), an assortment of duck, boar, hazelnut and pork saucissons (dry sausages), a scrumptious walnut cake, and a rather unreasonable number of Rocamadours, these succulent individual little goat cheeses – which we redistributed to gleeful family and friends upon our return.

* What is referred to as “the French paradox” is the seeming contradiction between the rich foods we typically consume in France and the comparatively low incidence of heart disease. Jeffrey Steingarten (brilliant author of “The man who ate everything”) was among the first to identify it. The expression, in its implication that this is the only paradox the French have, amuses me to no end…

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Luscious Persimmons

Persimmon

Persimmons are still a newly discovered continent to me. I experienced my first persimmon about two years ago, in California. Sofya, a coworker of mine from Russia (St-Petersburg to be precise), had a tree laden with them in her garden, so she brought some to work for sharing. I loved that about my workplace, there was always something in the kitchen that someone had brought in – especially at Halloween and Christmas time, when everybody was trying desperately to get the darn chocolate out of the house, only to find there was even more in the office. Once, I even brought home a beautiful butternut squash that somebody had abandonned on the table with an “adopt me” note stuck to it. What can I say, I’m tender-hearted.

Anyway, back to our persimmons. I had never seen anything of the kind, and I was intrigued to say the least. She gave me two, richly orange, plump and heavy, adorned with perfectly shaped four-leaved stems. They were still pretty firm, and Sofya warned me fiercely against trying one right away, unless I wanted to discover the true meaning of astringent and puckery. Those two lovely words, but not so lovely feelings, are the persimmon’s natural weapons to discourage anyone from eating it before its seeds are mature, and ready for digestion and [hum] dispersal. It works. Sofya instructed me to leave them out to ripen for a while, stem down. So for a few weeks, my two increasingly pumpkin colored little buddies would greet me from their cubicle shelf. From time to time, when Sofya came around to chat, she would feel the fruits, wrinkle her nose, shake her head and say with her lovely accent : “Better wait a little longer“.

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Triple Sesame Snow Pea Salad

Pois Gourmands

[Triple Sesame Snow Pea Salad]

In French, snow peas (or sugar snap peas, apparently the difference is that snow peas are a lighter green) are called Pois Gourmands (Gourmand Peas) or Haricots Mangetout (Eat-Everything Beans). The reason for that, I just found out, is that unlike regular peas, you eat the pod as well, so you “eat everything”. And eating everything makes you a qualified gourmand, hence the alternate name. Cute, huh?

I love the sweet taste and the mix of softness and crunch these peas provide, and I think they lend themselves particularly well to Asian-style salads. Maxence and I have experimented over time with different sets of ingredients for the dressing, but I came up with the following on Monday night, which I liked very much. I will call it Triple Sesame Snow Pea Salad, as it involves sesame in three forms : sesame seeds, sesame oil and sesame butter.

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Broccoli Soup

Broccoli Soup

[Broccoli Soup]

I am not a soup maker. For a very long time, I was most intimidated by it. Something about the large pot and the veggies cooked to death turned me off. I also didn’t grow up in a soup family — we hardly ever had it, though it was delicious when we did — so I don’t think of it as a particularly comforting dish. And finally, I’d rather eat a thing than drink it: I’d rather eat an orange than drink its juice, and I’d rather eat my vegetables than have them as soup.

My first attempt at soup, about three years ago, wasn’t altogether convincing : I tried to make a potato-leek soup, but I used too many potatoes and they killed the taste of the leeks. Plus, I burned the back of my hand with piping hot soup. Not quite what you’d call a success, but valuable lessons were to be learned. Lesson #1, do not underestimate the Power of the Potato. Lesson #2, do not assume your food processor is watertight, unless you would like your kitchen cabinets repainted in pale green accents. Understandably, this episode put an end to my soup making ambitions.

But I underwent dental surgery on Thursday, I am unable to chew much for a few days, and I thought, what better occasion to exorcise my fear of soup? So yesterday night found me and my swollen cheek tackling broccoli soup, loosely following Dean Allen’s sarcastic recipe for Something Soup.

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Melt-in-Your-Mouth Chocolate Cake

Yesterday we had a small party at my office to celebrate my company’s fifth anniversary, and our pendaison de crémaillère, which is French for a housewarming party: une crémaillère is a trammel, the metal adjustable hook that was used to hang pots in the fireplace in the days of yore, and the hanging of this essential piece of equipment in a new house was as good an occasion as any to have a village gathering.

Our new offices are located in the south of the 13th arrondissement, close to the Parc Montsouris and the very nice Butte-aux-Cailles area. The street name happens to be Rue Brillat-Savarin, in reference to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin*, who’s considered the first food writer/critic in history. Cool, huh?

I had offered to bake a cake for the occasion, and used a trusted recipe for fudgy chocolate cake — gâteau au chocolat fondant in French. It is a very easy recipe that does not require a food processor, and like all dark chocolate cakes, it is best made the day before, or at least in the morning if served for dinner.

Edit: Over the years, my way of making this cake has evolved, and I’ve updated the recipe below to reflect that. I now use 180 g of sugar (instead of the original 250 g) and 4 eggs (instead of the original 5). I bake the cake at 180°C (instead of the original 190°C) for slightly longer (25 instead of 20 minutes), and I sprinkle the surface with fleur de sel, which enhances the chocolate flavor and provides tiny jolts of saltiness here and there.

The cake was suitably wolfed down by my appreciative coworkers. It has a nice thin crust, while the inside is 100% melty gooey chocolate goodness. Needless to say, it is pretty rich, so it is best served with something refreshing — ideally, Marie-Laure and Ludo’s fruit salad, but your own fruit salad, fresh strawberries, ice cream and/or whipped cream will be great too.

* Brillat-Savarin published a treatise on the art of dining called “La Physiologie du goût” (“Physiology of taste”) and he’s the one who said “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”, translated as “Tell me what you eat, I will tell you who you are” or “You are what you eat”.

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