Monday, 9 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras BONUS: Turron Foie Gras from Pasacal Aussignac

I originally started off with seven days of foie gras but as a bonus here’s an eighth unconventional foie gras. Haven’t had this one so not entirely sure it works, but it’s so wacky it demands a mention!
Previous entries:
  1. Shaved Foie Gras, Lychee & Pine Nut Brittle from the Momofuku Cookbook
  2. Foie Gras Ganache from Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine
  3. Steamed Foie Gras with Broad Beans and Peas from Essential Cuisine
  4. Whole Roasted Moulard Foie Gras with Apples and Black Truffles from the French Laundry Cookbook
  5. Hot Foie Gras, Lentilles du Pays, Sherry Vinegar Sauce from White Heat
  6. Foie Gras Five Ways from Charlie Trotter's Meat & Game
  7. Roast Smoked Foie Gras with Onion Mousse from Made in Great Britain

Bonus Recipe: Turron Foie Gras

The dish: Turron is traditionally a rather moreish French nougat. So what’s it doing at Club Gascon, London’s premier foie-gras eatery? Infiltrated with duck liver of course! This is effectively a traditional foie gras terrine, but instead of macerating in port the foie gras is marinated in Baileys and sugar. Then, instead of being studded with truffles, it’s studded with chunk of turron and walnut. To finish it’s dusted with cocoa and served as a dessert with a passion fruit coulis.

Why it’s special: It’s a dessert. With foie gras. Nuff said. To be fair I have no idea if it’s a car crash or really does taste “amazing” as the cookbook says. Actually it may well be both, but as they say you should try everyone in life once apart from Morris dancing and incest… (Pass the jingle bells…)

The Chef and the Book: Pascal Aussignac is London’s unofficial ambassador of Gascon Cuisine and Conspicuous Foie Gras Consumption. After training with sud-ouest master Alain Dutournier in Paris he decamped to London to found a pocket-size restaurant-empire on the edge of the financial district (so far: one-star restaurant Club Gascon, epicerie-cum-bistro Comptoir Gascon and wine bar Cellar Gascon). It vaguely reminds me of Christian Constant’s 7th  arrondisement mini-empire in Paris, just with a higher duck count.

His book Cuisinier Gascon is an enticing combination of the old and the new. Think of it as Memories of Gascony for millennials (Pierre Koffmann even provides the foreword). While regional classics like garbure, poule au pot and cassoulet get a look-in, the spine of the book is the more contemporary cuisine served at Club Gascon. This is unmistakably bolshy, rustic food (think duck hearts with spinach, or beef fillet with oyster sauce) but dotted with off-beat cheffy touches - foie gras with popcorn, pigeon with onion & elderflower and, most outrageously, that turron foie gras. There are many regional cuisine books and many cheffy books, but this is one of the few unmistakably regional cheffy books.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras 7): Roast Smoked Foie Gras With Onion Mousse from Aiden Byrne

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:

The dish: A tranche of foie gras is hot-smoked over wood before being pan-fried until golden-brown and just soft in the center. It’s served alongside a set custard of white onions and parmesan studded with caramelised baby onions, a spoonful of stock, and nothing more.

Why it’s special: This is a dish I enjoyed many years ago at the Dorchester Grill. At first sight this is a traditional hot-foie-gras- with-something-sweet dish. However two things elevate Byrne’s version. Firstly there are the extra little grace notes – smoking the foie gras; using a sweet onion custard rather than the usual fruit sludge. They lift it above the ordinary. Second there’s a certain sense of restraint. Lesser chefs would be tempted to smother it with an extra slick of this or an extra crunch of that. Here the two main components stand alone. It’s a reminder that at the highest levels of cuisine, less is often more.

The chef and the book: Aiden Byrne is possibly the world’s unluckiest chef. After apprenticing in a number of fine kitchens around the UK (Adlards, Tom Aikens etc.) he finally got his big break as head chef at the Dorchester Hotel. Then, just as he was starting to make waves with his snappy modern British food, management decided to install a certain M. Ducasse in the restaurant across the hall, which took our Aiden from flagship to sidekick sooner than you could say “have you nicked my truffles again Alain?” Undaunted he decamped to a gastropub in Cheshire only to find that the locals didn’t really appreciate “fayn dining” (it’s a North/South divide thing). He is now at the theatrical Manchester House, still chasing stars. I wish him well – he deserves a break!

In between gigs he published the wildly underrated Made in Great Britain. This is one of the most delicious, unpretentious chefbooks of recent years. Despite the title, it doesn’t harp on about some ersatz British cuisine like, say, Historic Heston. Nor it is an exhaustive personal story like the Momofuku or Nobu books. It simply presents a dazzling sequence of dishes featuring (primarily) British ingredients.

This is a book which lives or dies by its recipes (some of the highlights shown below). They are what makes it such as great work. A few themes particularly stand out:
  • The first is a certain lightness and freshness, exemplified in a lovely summer Tomato and Peach Salad with Pine Nut Vinaigrette or zingy composition of Chicken Breast with Lemon, Rosemary and Figs. Despite Byrne’s roots in a Liverpool council estate, there is an almost Italian sensibility at play.
  • The second is a sense of restraint – there are rarely more than two or three components on the plate (e.g. the Veal Fillet with Lobster, Apple Fondants and Jabugo Ham). NB this isn’t St John “raw peas on a plate” simplicity; the dishes are undeniably complex but as I said earlier Byrne has the rare ability to sense what not to put on the plate.
  • The third are the flavour combinations. Everywhere you look there are interesting little touches – scallops poached in red wine with scallop tripe, pork chop with pear and hawthorn flowers, vension baked with Polish bison-grass. These are unusual, almost pastoral, pairings but ones which make sense rather than only being included for shock value. Highly recommended.
Coming up tomorrow: One last sweet little bonus!


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 6) Foie Gras Five Ways from Charlie Trotter

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:

The dish: This is a mighty composite plate comprising five separate foie gras preparations.
  1. Seared foie gras served with braised cabbage and golden raisins.
  2. A foie gras terrine interleaved with slices of Buddha’s hand fruit (no I’ve got no idea either; apparently it’s a type of exotic citrus).
  3. Another terrine of cured foie gras, smothered with a chanterelle gelee.
  4. A foie gras custard (basically foie gras crème brulee without the brulee).
  5.  A foie gras and apple ice-cream.

Why it’s special: This dish might as well be called “Heart Attack Five Ways”. I’m not going to claim it’s the most radically inventive plate ever created (although there are nice touches, like the Buddha’s hand fruit and the ice-cream). However as a set-piece shock-and-awe assault on the palate and the arteries it cannot be matched.

The chef and the book: The late Charlie Trotter is a controversial figure in the foie gras world – it was his original decision to ban it from his restaurant that lit the touch paper for the acrimonious Chicago foie gras ban. This book dates from just before that announcement so we have the peculiar picture of him cutely shooing chicks at a foie gras farm (see scan below), despite later claiming it was just such a visit which turned him against foie gras. However I much prefer to focus on the book itself which is IMHO the highlight of his blockbuster quintet of Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks. Even though he predates the molecular wave, we shouldn’t forget how much we owe him for his improvisional style and (for the time) daring flavour combinations. This is a must-have volume full of big, ballsy, beefy flavours.

Coming up tomorrow: We end the series with the world's unluckiest chef (and author of one of the worlds most underrated cookbooks)...
Charlie relaxes with a few feathered friends...

Friday, 6 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 5) Hot Foie Gras, Lentilles Du Pays, Sherry Vinegar Sauce from Marco Pierre White

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:
  1. Shaved Foie Gras, Lychee & Pine Nut Brittle from the Momofuku Cookbook
  2. Foie Gras Ganache from Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine
  3. Steamed Foie Gras with Broad Beans and Peas from Essential Cuisine
  4. Whole Roasted Moulard Foie Gras with Apples and Black Truffles from the French Laundry Cookbook

Recipe 5: Hot Foie Gras, Lentilles du Pays, Sherry Vinegar Sauce

The dish: An escalope of foie gras (almost certainly goose, given the vintage of the book) is fried until just brown and crunchy and served on a bed of braised lentils and garnished with ceps. The dish is finished with a demi-glace spiked with sherry vinegar and a touch of cream.

PS At the risk of being a pedant I have to say the fungi in the picture look a damn sight more like chantarelles than ceps to me! And I'd wager good money those are actually lentilles du puy, not lentilles du pays... :-p

Why it’s special: Mixing humble and haute ingredients is an old kitchen trope. Robuchon did it with his cauliflower cream and caviar; Thomas Keller with his oysters and tapioca pearls. This is Marco Pierre White’s version – allegedly inspired by pork pies with mushy peas/vinegar (squint and you might see a slight resemblance). Although the recipe and techniques are slightly dated now (why use demi-glace when you have a cryo-filtration rig?) the combination – rich buttery foie gras and earthy piquant lentils is a good one; Robuchon’s Cuisine Actuelle also has a version (reproduced at the end of this post) where he steams the foie gras and presents it on a soup-like lentil cream.

The chef and the book: Marco, Marco. Another chef who needs no introduction. Three Michelin stars at the age of 33, and it’s been downhill ever since. Last seen getting slammed by hygiene inspectors in Birmingham – how far you have fallen! But in his time he gave us some great food and one truly iconic cookbook. White Heat was a genuine revolution. Just as Jaws spawned the summer blockbuster, every soft-focus cheffy book owes its origins to Marco and his photographer Bob Carlos Clark. Up until White Heat the food was the star, after White Heat the chef was the star.

Coming up tomorrow: Shock and Awe from Chicago's controversial culinary godfather...

Joel Robuchon's alternative foie-gras-meets-lentil recipe

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 4) Whole Roasted Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Apples and Black Truffles from Thomas Keller

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:
The dish: A whole duck foie gras is scored, seared and then roasted in the oven for five minutes until slightly soft, like a rare steak. The liver is rested and sliced, while in the meantime apple pieces and truffles are sautéed together in the rendered fat and served on this side.

Why it’s special: Cooking a whole foie gras is a rare and festive dish which you almost never see in restaurants (aside from the cost, it just doesn’t work in a traditional individual-plated-portion setting). This rarity makes it a magical dish – serving up a whole foie gras sends a certain message about generosity and luxury which you just couldn’t with a comparable weight of individual portions. Do bear in mind this dish isn’t one for the faint-hearted due to the main ingredient’s alarming tendency to melt away to a puddle almost as fast as you can cook it.

The chef and the book: Neither really need any introduction. I would say though that the French Laundry Cookbook is also one of the best hands-on books for foie gras you will find anywhere. There is an extensive spread going through the cooking options and preparation techniques (including the dreaded deveining process) and along with the roast foie gras there are also an unusual poached foie-gras recipe (cooked in Gewurztraminer) as well as Keller’s famous foie gras au torchon where the liver is not so much cooked as barely melted together. Also don’t miss Keller’s iconic description of what a perfect hot foie gras looks like on p105:
… you need the proper thickness-three quarters of an inch to 1 inch-for the three textures you want in perfectly sautéed foie gras: a crisp exterior, an almost-molten interior, and a very slim center this is firm because it’s still rare.
Coming up tomorrow: A humble take on pork pies and vinegar from one of Britain's greatest chefs.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 3) Steamed Foie Gras with Salad Of Broad Beans and Peas from Stefano Cavallini

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:

The dish: This is a bright, summery dish. An escalope of foie gras is lightly steamed and laid on a bed of ripe broad beans, peas and tomatoes. It is simply dressed with a beetroot vinaigrette. That is all.

Why it’s special: Steaming or poaching is my favourite way of cooking foie gras. While you don’t get the crispy crust of the sauté pan, it’s made up for by a much cleaner foie gras flavour. And (unlike the terrine) you still get the bursting juiciness you get as you bite into the hot liver. Unfortunately recipes which use this technique are rare: Alain Senderens was famous in his time for steaming foie gras in a wrapping of cabbage leaves and Joel Robuchon paired steamed foie gras with a lentil cream, I struggle to think of many other versions. This recipe is also notable for ditching the thuggish foie/fruit combination and instead opting for fresh, green vegetable flavours.
The chef and the book: Trained in Italy with Gualtiero Marchesi, Cavallini ran a one-star Italian at London’s Halkin Hotel for a number of years. He dropped off the radar for a number of years (I vaguely remember him running a deli in Clapham which seemed a crying waste of his talents) but seems to have resurfaced recently at a restaurant called Bacco so maybe there is still hope. Essential Cuisine is his only book, a modish late-90s translation for Italian cuisine with Michelin-star accents. I wouldn’t say this is a must-have book but it’s a pleasant read and contains an excellent step-by-step masterclass on risotto Milanese (one of his mentor Marchesi’s most famous signatures).

Coming up tomorrow: A dish which doesn't do things by halves, from America's very own Mr Torchon.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 2) Foie Gras Ganache from Marcus Samuelsson

Continuing this week's series highlighting seven great foie gras recipes and the cookbooks behind them. Previous entries:

Recipe 2: Foie Gras Ganache

The dish: This is the signature of Ethiopian-Swedish-American chef (it’s a long story) Marcus Samuelsson. Basically it’s the Michel Bras chocolate coulant cake, except its spiced with garam masala and using foie gras instead of chocolate. It’s not that hard to make, but as with many coulants the trick is to get the timing exactly right so the outside is lightly browned by the centre is still liquid.

Why it’s special: This is one of the most unusual foie gras dishes you will ever find – notable for having no connection with either the traditional terrine or sautéed slice. It’s also a rare example of crossover between the sweet and savoury kitchen – the sort of thing that Michel Richard does well but no-one else quite manages to pull off.

The chef and the book: Aquavit is a sparkling book, taken from the eponymous restaurant which won three NYT stars in its day for its updated Scandinavian cuisine. The style could best be described as Nobu-meets-Nordic, substituting salmon & lox for black cod & miso. As well as their use of Scandi ingredients, the recipes are notable for a certain lightness of touch. Stand-out dishes include Rice-Smoked Duck Breasts with Honey-Ice Wine Sauce, Crispy Seared Salmon Bundles with Orange-Fennel Broth and half a dozen different recipes for aquavit to get you through those long winter nights… (Having said that Pickled Herring Sushi-Style on balls of mashed potato are probably a fusion too far.)

Coming up tomorrow: Getting hot and steamy with a forgotten Italian star.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Seven Days of Foie Gras: 1) Shaved Foie Gras, Lychee and Pine Nut Brittle from David Chang

A follow-up to my recent review of Ginor’s Foie Gras book. I’ve gone back and raided my bookshelf to find other great ways with foie grasRather than one big essay I thought I’d try something different and spend a week and highlight seven individual dishes with seven shorter daily posts. Here's the first - next one coming up the same time tomorrow.


Not... another... bloody... terrine!
You know what? Sometimes even foie gras gets a bit dull.

Nothing wrong with the taste of course. It's just that everyone only ever seems to cook it one of two ways.
  1. Either it’s served up cold as a terrine, with some fruity mush on the side to cut the richness or,
  2. It’s served up hot as sautéed slices with – you guessed it – some fruity mush on the side to cut the richness.
Not that I’m complaining of course! But nowadays I do tend to shy away from ordering the foie gras in a restaurant because well, to be honest, there’s only so many variations of foie gras + fruity mush a man can take. Plus I’m perfectly capable of sautéing a piece of foie gras at home for a fraction of the price Ducasse charges, and even making a terrine isn’t that difficult once you get the hang of it (anyhow you can always do the cheats version where you saute pieces of foie gras, cool, layer and weight them to produce an ersatz-terrine).


Thankfully it doesn’t have to be this way. As the Ginor book showed, there is a galaxy of other foie gras preparations out there without a terrine or a fruit compote in sight. The problem is however that so few chefs bother to make the effort.

So to save you the time I had a dig around my bookshelf and pulled out seven great foie gras recipes each which go beyond the conventional.


Recipe 1: Shaved Foie Gras with Lychee and Pine Nut Brittle

The dish: The first dish is David Chang’s notorious shaved foie gras with lychees, the signature dish at his high-end Momofuku Ko. Canned lychees (the cheaper/nastier the better) are chopped, placed in a bowl and topped with a Riesling/rice vinegar gelee and crushed pine-nut brittle (made with isomalt and glucose to keep the sweetness in check). Finally a mound of frozen foie gras torchon is shaved over the top with a microplane grater.

Why it’s special: This is a radical take on the tradition foie gras terrine + fruit combination. What elevates it are two things. Firstly the textural contrast from the crunchy brittle, the soft gelee and the melting snow-like foie gras. Second the temperature contrast where the coldness of the foie gras keeps its overwhelming fattiness in check. As Chang writes, it tastes almost light when you spoon it into your mouth, but as soon as it hits the back of your tongue – boom! Creamy, fatty, sweet and cold. Delicious.

The chef and the book: I’ve already written extensively about David Chang and the Momofuku cookbook. Let is simply be known 1) David Chang is a badass, 2) all he cares about is making food delicious (viz the cheap and nasty tinned lychees – if it works he will use it). 3) The pork buns ain’t bad either.

Coming up tomorrow: A classic dessert reinvented with foie gras by the world's most travelled chef.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Foie Gras: A Passion by Michael Ginor: Tour de Foies

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Easier than frying an egg

Foie gras is one of those legendary foods, like truffles, sweetbreads and plumped ortolans, which tend to intimidate the home cook. Maybe it’s the cost, maybe it’s the historical baggage, but I suspect the average chef would rather tackle cloudberry soufflé for fifteen than prepare a foie gras terrine.

Not nearly as hard as you think
But that just ain't so.

If you can fry an egg then you can cook foie gras.

Simply carve some fat slices off a raw duck foie gras (about the width of your thumb). Season and drop into a smoking-hot frying pan for thirty seconds until a brown crust forms, flip, repeat (don’t be alarmed if it seems to be melting away – after it is effectively a slab of slightly livery duck-butter) and serve on toasted brioche points with a few segments of gently warmed orange.

The problem then isn’t difficulty, or even expense (a generous portion of raw foie gas doesn’t actually cost much more than a good filet mignon). It’s simply unfamiliarity. Foie gras sits on a pedestal of unapproachability because people don’t know any better.

And there’s also the image problem. In recent years foie gras has come under increasing attack for the allegedly “cruelty” involved in its production. Because of their unfamiliarity, people simply swallow that line that foie gras is “torture in a tin”. It becomes a guilty pleasure, which people enjoy in spite of themselves.

That’s where Michael Ginor comes in with his 1999 book Foie Gras: A Passion.

Magic Mike

Michael Ginor is the Israeli/American co-founder of Hudson Valley, America’s largest foie gras producer, and the godfather of the US foie gras trade. Softly-spoken and philosophical, he has been one of the driving forces behind turning foie gras in America from an unpronounceable French import into a fine-dining staple. More recently he has become the voice of reasonableness defending his industry against the increasingly vocal anti-foie gras lobby.

More importantly his book Foie Gras: A Passion is the single best book on the subject ever written. Although he clearly has a vested interested in promoting what he calls the “foie gras gospel” this is so much more than a puff piece. The man is absolutely passionate about what it does, and it shows.

Phaidon would kill to have this line-up
The publisher is Wiley; an academic house best known for the CIA (no not that CIA) textbook The Professional Chef (which was, until Modernist Cuisine, probably the world’s heaviest cookbook). It’s a shame to pigeonhole them as a textbook-shop though because they have also published some of the most significant food books of the past twenty years – not least among them Dornenburg & Page’s ground-breaking Culinary Artistry, Grande Finales: The Art of the Plated Dessert (the ultimate volume of dessert-food-porn), and the works of James Peterson, the greatest teacher-chef since Jacques Pepin.

And Ginor’s Foie Gras is very much in keeping with this grand tradition. What you get is actually two books in one – the first is an exhaustive treatise running to nearly a hundred pages on the history, production and usage of foie gras. The second part – and the heart of the book - contains over eighty foie gras recipes contributed by the great and the good of the (1999) culinary firmament.

Let’s take a look.

Foie Gras – The Potted History

Ancient history

The menu from the Yehuda Avazi grill in Tel Aviv. Foie
gras skewers cost 25 shekels (around $6 in 1999 money)
Ginor starts with his own story. His first taste of foie gras came not in some Parisian temple but at a humble outdoor grill in Tel Aviv where skewers of charred foie gras were served up alongside fries and freshly-based flatbreads (I guess that would be why they call it the Promised Land… :-p).

He swiftly moves on to the history of foie gras, a fascinating exercise in culinary archaeology. He begins with the tomb reliefs of ancient Egypt, the first known examples of gavage (fattening waterfowl by force-feeding), and then follows the thread through the writings and the raucous banquests of ancient Rome, where
Ancient Egyptian carvings show the first recorded
examples of foie gras production
The livers were customarily served whole to display their size and whiteness, then carved at the table. In this way, guests could watch as the carver’s knife sliced into the soft flesh and the clear, slightly pink juices ran onto the platter. The flavour and feel of the meat was well suited to the Roman taste for luxury… the meat’s high percentage of fat causes it to flow down the throat like warm cream.
From here he follows the quest into the Dark Ages, unpicking the mystery of how foie gras production was handed down after the fall of Rome. Although received wisdom is that crafty French peasants kept the old ways alive, Ginor presents an alternate theory that Ashkenazi Jews also plays a role, teasing out oblique references fattening geese from the writings of medieval rabbis to support his thesis. The detective work is commendable.

French lessons

Once we reach medieval Europe the story of foie gras also intertwines with another tale, that of the rise of French cuisine and fine dining. So we see foie gras described in La Varennes’ Le Cuisinier Francois, the foundational text of French cookery (including an inevitable pairing with truffles). As we move into the Renaissance we see recipes for foie gras ragouts and tourtes (the ancestor of the modern foie gras en croute), as well as more outre preparations such as a stew of sea duck, foie gras and chocolate (sounds like something Pierre Gagnaire might whip up today).

Careme's humble foie gras stew... :-x
Come the Revolution the aristocrats go to the guillotine and their grand houses are dissolved, which of course opens the way for the modern restaurant as hundreds of unemployed country-house chefs rush to earn their keep. Foie gras is, of course, an essential part of their toolkit and soon we are onto Careme, Escoffier and all that jazz (e.g. Careme's  ragout a la financiere employing a small Strasbourg foie gras, half a pound of truffles, cocks coms, kidneys and lamb sweetbreads :-x).

Foie gras without the French

However the great strength of this account is that for Ginor's world doesn’t just revolve around France. His American/Israeli background gives him a perspective which most other Francophone (or Francophile) treatments lack. So he also presents a number of interesting counterpoints to the thus-far French-driven narrative:

One counterpoint is the British, who stand aloof on the edge of the story. They are the first to comment on the apparent cruelty of the force-feeding, something which Ginor theorises prevented them from producing foie gras themselves.

An Alsatian rabbi examines
a fattened goose
A second counterpoint is Israel, where Hungarian Holocaust survivors brought the secrets of foie-gras preparation to the fledgling state in 1948 (which explains how Ginor came across the delicacy that evening in Tel Aviv).

But the last and most important counterpoint is the American experience. He provides a potted history of the evolution for French restaurants in New York. We start with Delmonico’s in the nineteenth century, serving up imported Strasbourg pates for railway magnates like “Diamond Jim” Brady, who’s Rabelasian appetites expanded his stomach to three times that of a normal man. Fast forward through the Prohibition era and we have The Colony, a faux-Continental establishment frequented by hard-drinking socialites and celebrities. However it is not until the 1940s and Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon that haute cuisine really began to arrive. The foie gras though, as Jacque Pepin discovered when he came to NY in 1959, was still tinned although enterprising French chefs ran a smuggling ring shipping in the fresh stuff hidden in suitcases or cases of fish.

Then in the 1980s as American chefs started to discover their own cuisine, so they also discovered domestically produced foie gras pioneered by Hudson Valley on the East Coast and by Sonoma Foie Gras in California. This brings to story full circle to Ginor’s day job – the raising of ducks and the production of foie gras. This is where he speaks with real authority, which is important for the controversies that follow:

The Foie Gras Wars

Battle Stations...

Not to be confused with Foie Gras! Source: Ocado
In the fifteen years since the publication of this book foie gras – hitherto a rather rare and obscure delicacy – has become a controversial topic. Most famously, California and Chicago both banned its sale (although the latter has since been repealed). In the UK a campaign fronted by Roger Moore has persuaded middle-class stalwarts Waitrose and Selfridges to stop carrying it (although Waitrose does sell an endearing ersatz liver pate called Faux Gras; it resembles foie gras in the same way that a Big Mac resembles a hamburger). France, of course, carries inflating and slaughtering duck livers with merry abandon.

Three reasons why foie gras critics are wrong

A full discussion of the rights and wrongs of foie gras is beyond the scope of this review,

but having spent a long time ploughing through material from both sides I would make the following points:

  • Many of the arguments against foie gras are actually arguments against bad husbandry: The anti-foie gras lobby tend to use highly emotive pictures of caged and rather distressed looking birds. However they fail to make clear is why these are arguments against foie gras. What they are really showing are arguments against bad animal husbandry. There  is nothing about keeping a duck in a cage which is intrinsic to the foie gras process (actually cages are not used in the US and will be phased out in Europe from next year). If you mistreat a duck you will get a sick duck, just as if you mistreat a cow you will get a sick cow. But a sick cow is not an argument against foie gras. What it is, is an argument against bad husbandry.
Anti foie-gras piece overlaid
with amusing automated mobile
advert-targeting fail :-p
  • Many arguments against foie gras are driven by misguided anthropomorphism: Sticking a feeding tube down your throat is cruel. Ergo sticking a feeding tube down a duck’s throat is cruel right? Well no actually, because of the simple fact that a duck isn’t a human. For example, duck's throats are lined with a keratinous (horn-like) coating because they are designed to ingest spiny fish; compared to that a feeding tube is chickenfeed. What's more the tube doesn’t even choke the duck because ducks breath through a tube in their tongue not through their throats. The underlying fallacy here is a misguided anthropomorphism which says "if it’s wrong to do something to a person it’s wrong to do something to a duck". Well, it’s also wrong to kill a human and eat its flesh, but that’s not going to stop me enjoying my next steak…
  • Foie gras is attacked because it’s an easy target: If animal rights protesters really cared about eliminating the greatest suffering for the greatest number of animals then you’d have thought they’d pick another target. For example rather than going after the US foie gras industry (450k birds a year) they might think about going after the boiler hen industry (9 BILLION birds a year) which raises more animals in greater squalor and suffering than the most wild-eyed gavage-monger. But they don’t for the simple reason that foie gras is an easy target. The industry is small, it lacks lobbying clout, it’s perceived as elitist and it has a funny foreign name (remember many bans were enacted in the febrile post-9/11 era when France and “Old Europe” refused to back the war in Iraq). In short the anti-foie gras lobby is acting like a classic playground bully, picking on the easiest target and trying to create cynical “wedge issue”. Even if their arguments were coherent, their motives would still be dishonourable.
You'd be quackers not to read it
There’s a lot more to be written on this which I would like to cover in a separate post, but if you do want to understand what’s really going on then you should do two things. First order and read Mark Caro’s The Foie Gras Wars, a thorough and even-handed piece of reportage from the frontlines of the US debate. Secondly download and listen to this talk from anthropologist and foie gras obsessive Michaela DeSoucey, which expertly teases out the politics behind the protests.

Michael's Modest Proposal

I said at the beginning of this post the biggest challenge for foie gras producers isn’t actually winning the argument, it’s public unfamiliarity with foie gras. For his part Ginor devotes two pages to the cruelty debate. If the book were written more recently I suspect they would be more, but in the space allotted he does a good job of addressing some of the basic misconceptions:

  • The anatomy of waterfowl are different from humans; birds gorge natural before flight and the oesophagus is lined with keratin so tube-feeding does not cause discomfort.
  • Monitoring of corticosterone levels in ducks show they are not stressed by the force-feeding process.
  • Fattened foie gras livers are not “diseased” as diseases like diabetes and “fatty liver” does not occur in ducks as in mammals
His full comments are shown below (click on the image to zoom). If you can set aside any "well he would say that wouldn't he" cynicism, it is actually a sensible and well-reasoned piece:

First catch your duck…

The first half of the book concludes with five pages on the practicalities of choosing, preparing and cooking foie gras. There is good material on what to look for in a liver, but this is the one part of the book where I feel he could have done more. In particular the section dealing with the notoriously tricky business of cleaning a de-veining the raw liver could definitely do with some hands-on pictures. If you want a better hands-on guide I thoroughly recommend either the section in Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook, or the chapter James Peterson’s comprehensive guide-to-French cuisine-with-knobs-on, Glorious French Food.

The Recipes

It is in the second part that this book really shines as we pile into the eighty-two foie gras recipes – the largest single selection in any cookbook (the closest I could find is Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine with a mere fourteen).

82 shades of foie gras - the full list of recipes!
The recipes aren’t Ginor’s, rather they come from his cheffy mates. And not just any old cheffy mates – the contributor list is a Who’s Who of haute cuisine. With the possible exception of the Adrias (remember El Bulli was a random provincial three star back then) anyone who was anyone in 1999 then gets a look-in.

From Europe we have Ducasse, Gagnaire and Bocuse. From America the godfathers of 80s cuisine all feature (Pepin, O’Connell, Palladin) as well as the new generation who surpassed them (Keller, Nobu, Ripert). Also notable are the presence of some regional American chefs not normally seen outside of James Beard House dinners (Alan Wong from Hawaii, Susur Lee from Toronto, Susanna Foo from Philly).

And the great thing is these chefs have brought their A-Game. Often compilation cookbooks are full of recycled off-cuts, culled from a chef’s latest book. Not so here. Perhaps it’s the magic spell of foie gras, or perhaps it’s just Ginor’s persuasiveness but this book is chock-full of eye-popping and drool-worthy recipes.

Truffles three times a day

Let’s start with the truffles. This is a foie gras book so of course there are plenty of truffles. The very first recipe is Marc Meneau’s famous Cromequis of Foie Gras (p96), crispy breaded shells filled with a molten truffled foie gras centre. He uses the old Shanghai soup dumpling trip of setting the filling with gelatine and letting it melt in the final cooking. Paul Bocuse of course chips in with his signature Soupe aux Truffes VGE, a beef consommé larded with truffles and topped with puff-pastry (think of it as a truffle pot-pie without the pie; p242). Eric Ripert also plays the tuber melanosporum card by matching seared foie gras with sautéed scallops, crispy artichokes and black truffle (p248).

And for something a bit different...

Of course it’s not all foie gras and truffle (#firstworldproblems!). There are plenty of more innovative combinations. Pierre Gagnaire has a typically off-the-wall dish of tea-poached foie gras with watermelon, papaya, pine nuts… and cheese (this is one of the few recipes I’ve seen which poach foie gras – a highly underrated way of cooking it; p146). Strasbourg veteran Marc Haeberlin offers a rustic vision of foie gras with poached and crispy tripe (p164). Thomas Keller deploys a similar textural contrast by stacking a crouton with sautéed foie gras, abalone and a Meyer lemon sauce (p246).

Foie gras TV dinners

Then there are also a bunch of dishes which I would call “haute cuisine TV dinners” – home-style comfort food with an injection of foie gras. “Happy ChefMichel Richard has a typically whimsical “FoieReo”, sandwiching foie gras mousse between buttery foie-gras cookies (p98). Susanna Foo does the whole fusion-thing with foie gras & shiitake pot-stockers (p178). But to me the most evocative dish comes from Ukrainian ballet-dancer-turned-chef Dano Hutnik with his family recipe for peasant-style potted foie gras with Hungarian duck crackling biscuits (p228).

Let me repeat that. DUCK. CRACKLING. BISCUITS. :-p

Need I say more?

New World tastes

But to me the most interesting dishes are the ones which come from the generation of younger US-born chefs who were just making their mark as this book went to press. Two in particular stand out for me, both from NY chef David Burke. The first is a caraway-infused corn custard, served steamed in eggshells and topped with honey-glazed foie gras (p102). Think of it as the bastard half-child of a foie gras chawanmushi and the Arpege egg. A smooth custard with a corny-sweetness, lifted by a hit of smoky toasted caraway. Crispy melting foie gras. Kernels of crunchy corn and a scattering of chives. It’s a deceptively simple dish, but one with a rare sense of balance.

Burke’s second dish is a complete contrast: Crispy barbecued squab is served on a layered torte of cornbread, foie gras and the shredded leg. On the side is a coffee-barbecue sauce and an onion-pistachio marmalade (p292). A much more aggressive dish but again one which pulls together French luxury and American flavours (cornbread, barbecue). It is not a foie gras dish per se, rather a modern American dish which uses foie gras.

Of course with that many dishes not all of them are perfect. There are a few rather ropey Tex-Mex-With-Foie dishes which don’t quite work for me. And occasionally hilarious examples of culinary-overreach – most notably Susur Lee’s condiment inferno of “Almond-Crusted Croquette of Foie Gras with Truffled Scallop Mousse, Carrot-Ginger Marmalade, Tomato-Fennel Seed Confit and Crab Bisque” (bear in mind this is the chef who produced a two-part concertina-folding biography-cum-cookbook; p156).

Read this book if you care about your food

To sum up, this isn’t just the best book every written about foie gras. It is one of the best examples of an ingredient-led cookbook full stop.

Here are three reasons why:

First Ginor provides new and insightful content. There is a wealth of content here that you will not find anywhere else. His experience as a practitioner means he can explain where the ingredient comes from, not just how it is prepared. But on top of the practical experience his exhaustive history of foie gras is a work of genuine scholarship.

This is particularly important in the context of the ongoing “Foie Gras Wars”. As I said at the beginning the biggest challenge for foie gras producers isn’t having the right answers, it is addressing public ignorance and indifference. Ginor’s passion and knowledge help balance the scales.

Second he has marshaled a treasury of fantastic recipes. He has not only convinced the greatest chefs in the world to contribute, but he has made sure they have brought their best to the party. This man should herd cats for a living, not ducks.

Finally there’s the subject matter itself. It’s hard to get excited about a cookbook about duck, or even say trout, no matter how well written they may be. However foie gras is an ingredient of unique luxury and deliciousness. As Sydney Smith once said, “my idea of heaven is eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.”

But foie gras is more than just an ingredient. The arguments raised in the “Foie Gras Wars” touch on fundamental debates about animal rights and how industrialisation affects what we eat. That is why even fifteen years after it was published, this book remains as essential as ever. If you care about the food you eat, then you should read this book.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Signatures: Gargouillou of Young Vegetables (Bras)

After six months in abeyance, a return for my occasional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.

Salad Days

Robuchon's Salade Marachiere
aux Truffes. Fiver if you can
spot the novelty salad leaf...

Salad, it appears is staging a comeback.

Not just, of course, any old salad. Certainly not the limpid concoctions of lettuce and tomato you’d find at your local sandwich bar. Nor (alas) the glorious fin de siècle “composed salads” of the Escoffier era (primary ingredients: lobster, crayfish, as little shrubbery as possible). And not even the 1980s salade gourmandes of Guerard or Robuchon (primary ingredients: truffles, truffles and a little shaved truffle).

No this isn’t just any ordinary salad. In fact it’s more like a bonsai horticulture show. Imagine thirty, forty, fifty different varieties of shoots, roots and leaves: Each of them individually trimmed, blanched, and carefully arranged on the plate. To go with them no thuggish vinaigrette, rather a puree of this, a slick of infused that and a sprinkle of freeze-dried crunch.

The effect is overwhelming, and deliberately so. But rather than coming from expensive ingredients like truffles or lobster, it is the sheer variety on the plate that delivers shock and awe: The freshness of perfect shoots and tendrils plucked in their prime (preferably that morning, ideally about five minutes before the start of service). The painstaking work which has gone into preparing and cooking each little leaf. The glorious array of them laid out together…

It’s salad Jim, but not as we know it…

Salad modernista
David Kinch: Into the Vegetable Garden
This modern style of salad has become a recurring feature in some of the world’s greatest restaurants:
  • In California David Kinch has made Into the Vegetable Garden the high point of his nose-to-the-ground Californian cuisine.
  • In New York, Paul Liebrandt serves up at $48 entrée simply called “Garden”, a mix of 30-50 greens, tubers and roots dished up in a Le Creuset pot.
  • A world away in icy Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Vegetable Field applies the same idea to root vegetables, with their earthy connection emphasised with his famous trompe l’oeil malt soil.
  • Meanwhile in sunny Lancashire (that last adjective was ironic, by the way), Simon Rogan serves up signature “salad explosions” at L’Enclume and The French, adding his own touch to the dish with a sprinkle of lovage-salt.
  • And in sunny Spain (that last adjective was not ironic, BTW), chef Adoni Anduriz dishes up his Vegetables: Roasted and Raw, Sprouts and Leaves, Wild and Cultivated in two-starred restaurant Mugaritz.

Rene Redzepi: Vegetable Field
The genius of this dish is that it allows chefs to do is present a dish which showcases local produce cooked with the utmost simplicity, but also create an incredibly complex dish with variations of flavour and texture to challenge the most discerning palate. Remember, it is very easy to serve prime ingredients with little adornment (the Chez Panisse style). And it’s very easy, given enough gadgetry and work-slave stagieres (the El Bulli/Fat Duck/Noma model), to create incredibly complicated dishes with dozens of different elements. But it is very difficult to do both.

Of course this dish isn't just called a “salad” or even a “modern salad”. It has a very specific name and lineage.

Le Gargouillou.

The Dish

Michel Bras: Mountain Main

If there is ever a dish which is completely intertwined with its inventor, it's Michel Bras and his Gargouillou de Jeune Legumes. After all, the Gargouillou is all about showcasing the local terroir on a plate, and Michel Bras is the three star chef most closely identified with a certain sense of place.

That place is the windswept Aubrac plateau of central France, where Bras’ and his family run their eponymous three star restaurant. Locally-born and self-taught he has created a unique cuisine that is tightly bound with the rugged Auvergne landscape. Out on the hills he forages wild leaves and shoots for his Gargouillou. In the kitchen he prepares the hardy Aubrac beef which roams the neighbouring hills. In his dining room dishes he lays out traditional Laguiole steak names, made in the next village across. Indeed the whole restaurant complex – hewn from the peak of a lonely mountain with sweeping views across the hills, means the landscape is utterly inescapable for diner and chef like.

Dead Aubrac cow, in extreme close-up...

In short the food Michel Bras cooks is resolutely tied to his tradition and region. But at the same time, it is equally forward looking and willing to innovate. Nowhere is this contrast shown more clearly than the Gargouillou.

Le Vrai Gargouillou

The idea, he says, came to him during a long run in the countryside in 1978. It was June and the fields were in full flower. He wanted to capture the richness and the beauty, to translate it into a dish….

His starting point was the Gargouillou, a traditional and rather obscure peasant dish. The 1988 Larousse mentions it in passing as “a country ragout of vegetables” but adds no detail. It was actually so obscure that none of my traditional French recipe books (include Edisud’s Cuisine d’Auverge et du Bourbonnais!) even mention it. It was only a desperate query for “le vrai gargouillou” which turned up the elusive Pommes de terre en gargouillou.

The original Gargouillou, it turns out, is completely different from the Bras version. It’s a simple stew made by frying some country ham with bay leaves and then simmering it with potatoes, onions and a little broth (the name “gargouillou” comes from the bubbling of the simmering broth – shares a root with the English “gargle”), before finishing with a dash of parsley, cream and lemon juice. The sort of humble dish you’d expect an Auvergnat farmer to have bubbling away on a cold winters night – filling, cheap but unremarkable.

Good enough to eat...
Of course Michel Bras’ version is nothing like that – moredeconstructed gargouillouthan peasant potage. He begins by replacing the potato with vegetables and flowers. In a hat-tip to the original recipe some of the vegetables are simmered first, although individually rather than all together. The ham remains, but is gently fried and added at the last minute. As Michel Bras said, the countryside on a plate.

Niac, niac niac…

Of course so far what we have described is nothing more than an extremely posh mixed salad. Shrubbery? Tick. Plate? Tick. All we need is a dribble of vinaigrette and they we’re done.

Of course that’s where you’re wrong.

What sets it apart is the deployment of Niacs to create contrast and flavour in the dish. Niac is Michel Bras own term for little condiments, techniques or touches which add excitement to a dish. It could be anything from a herb puree to a dash of local fire-water to a sprinkle of dried olive. As Bras writes:
… we enliven our plates with many different combinations that I call niac. Niacs are structures of visual, scented, and tactile elements that sharpen the senses and prepare for new discoveries. A niac livens up, energizes, stimulates and provokes inquiry. When placed alongside the dish being presented, I design them as “touches” or “traces.” Or the niacs could be an emulsion of sorrel leaves or sweet peppers, or mixtures made from dry black olives, combinations of unrefined sugar cane and fruits, vegetable structures-the possibilities expand every day… I can find niac in a coffee cup. When the sugar has dissolved, I drink it without stirring. A teaspoon of sugar mixed with coffee remains at the bottom of the cup-the combination of strong flavours is comforting.
In the Gargouillou a number of niacs are deployed. “Flavoured pearls” of cep braised with a little garlic, coriander and parsley are used as a garnish. Parsley oil is painted onto the plate. “Crystal leaves” (oven dried herbs, shiny and brittle as glass) add a crunch, fried slices of country ham a salty note. These are all little touches which seem insignificant in isolation, but together create the little crunches and flashes which elevate the dish.

The Recipe

First take one large French plateau…

The recipe for Gargouillou of Young Vegetables was first published in of Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine (of which more later) but is now readily available from the Bras website. Actually it’s more an “instruction set” then a “recipe” per se; Unless you have access to a large French, mountainous plateau, a wide variety of its vegetation and a certain breed for French country ham, it is nigh on impossible to exactly recreate the dish. (That’s sort of the point – it’s a dish which is inescapably rooted in a certain place.)

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 1 & 2)

Nonetheless the broad formula is definitely replicable, requiring little more than a pan, some water and quite a lot of vegetable matter.

Variety and freshness of ingredients are the key. The recipe recommends several distinct categories of vegetables: perennials (asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, artichokes etc), leafy vegetables (with flowers), bulbs, roots, vegetables with pods and fruits (by this it means vegetables with seeds like cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins, not sweet things). There will inevitably be some kinds of plant life he mentions that you don't have access to (e.g. bryony, pascal celery, geslu, crapaudine, conopode, saint fiacre green beans, chayote, burnet, yarrow), but please don’t despair. I guess that’s why Michel Bras is a three-starred Michelin chef and you’re not!

The recipe gives instructions for preparing and cooking each vegetable – a list that stretches to nearly three pages. Mostly it’s just blanching in salted boiling water, but there are variations. Artichokes, cardoons and garlic are cooked in a broth flavoured with coriander and orange zest. Some greens (e.g. beet tops or fennel bulbs) are sauteed in butter or oil; crosnes are also pan-fried. Onions are wrapped in foil and roasted. A number of roots (e.g. parsley root or turnip root) are prepared as a puree, which presumably adds a bit of textural variation to the finished dish.

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 3 & 4)

The remaining pages covers the various niacs and dressings. Ceps (rather poetically termed “flavoured pearls and touches”) are blanched and then fried with garlic, coriander, parsley and thyme. There is also a parsley oil (the stems and leaves are simply macerated with the oil, rather than blitzed together as is more common). He also recommends sprouts which are gathered by soaking the seeds and sticking them in a dark place for a few days until they sprout.

To finish the dish an emulsion is prepared by frying slices of country ham and deglazing with vegetable broth and butter (note there is no viniger or acidic component, which you would normally expect). Everything is then tossed together – vegetables, sprouts, garnishes – and heated slightly before being plated “to give an impression of motion”. The recipe ends with the whimsical instruction to “Play with flavoured pearls and touches”.

The other Gargouillou:

There is also a second variation later in the book, the Gargouillou of Leaves, Roots, Mushrooms and Fruits in Autumn (p128). As the name suggests it’s a variation on the theme which focuses more on Autumn produce like roots, squashes and mushrooms. The flavours are slightly sweeter (on niac is a red wine, juniper and fig reduction, another step purees pumpkin with a slug of sugar). Also, rather than being dressed with ham butter he uses a more traditional hazelnut vinaigrette (the garnish is also raw prosciutto rather than fried country ham). The overall effect however is much the same.

The Book

Once upon a time in Connecticut…
Both recipes were originally appeared in Michel Bras Essential Cuisine. First published in French in 2002 we owe its existence in English to a remarkable outfit called Ici La Press. This is a boutique publisher was founded by husband-and-wife restauranteurs Bernard Jarrier and Carole Peck who ran the Good News Café in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2000 they teamed up with local typesetter Dennis Pistone to start a brand new publisher with a simply mission: to translate and published great European cookbooks for an American audience.

They had spotted a gap in the market for the treasury of world-class French chefbooks which never made it into English because their authors were thought of as too obscure or esoteric for an American audience. They basically took a bet that great food writing would sell whatever the audience.

Their modus operandi was to take the pick of French-language cookbooks, keep the existing design and layout but translate and update the text and recipes for an American audience. Notable coups included the first Spoon cookbook, Marvellous Recipes from the French Heartland by future three-star chef Regis Marcon, and Vegetables by Guy Martin of Le Grand Vefour. But their greatest triumph was, of course, Michel Bras’ definitive work, Essential Cuisine.

Time and Place in French Cuisine...
Even twelve years on the book feels remarkably modern. One reason is the design. Rather than the soft-focus “restaurant dishes on a plate” prevalent at the time, dishes are arranged in a flowing, vertical style and shot against a pure white background. This technique was unusual at the time, but is now widely used (e.g. in the Mugaritz and Coi cookbooks) to create an absolute focus on the food.

Another pioneering feature comes at the end of the book. At the time almost every cookbook finished with the Dessert section and acknowledgements. But in Essential Cuisine once you are through with the recipes it launches into a fifty-five-page travel-essay-cum-photo-montage which is basically a love-letter from Bras to his countryside. Today this sort of “mood and inspiration” essay is a common feature of any self-respecting chefbook (in Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine it pretty much takes up entire book). But in 2002 this felt entirely new.

Melting middles and monochrome monkfish

And the recipes aren’t bad either. Along with the two variations of Gargouillou, the standout dish is the recipe for Chocolate Biscuit Coulant (p166) - the original “melting middle” chocolate cake. Bras' version is unusual because achieves the molten effect by first freezing a ball of chocolate ganache which is then embedded in the cake batter and baked. This contrasts with most other recipes which simply part-bake the batter so the middle is half-cooked and runny. The advantage of the Bras recipe is a) you don't need to time it perfectly to get the middle right and b) the interior isn't laced with raw flour. 

Also check out the monkfish poached in black olive-oil (p74), a strikingly black/white presentation intended to evoke the light and shade of Aubrac:

Michel Bras' striking olive oil/monkfish combo. Shades of Heston's Salmon & Liquorice...

In short this book is well worth seeking out; even without the Gargouillou it would qualify as a minor classic on the basis of the Chocolate Coulant alone. Although the Ici La Press edition is becoming increasingly hard to track down (listing for well into three figures on Amazon), there is a 2008 reprint from the original French publishers which is easier to find (the restaurant website also has it for €59).

Unfortunately, the intervening years haven’t been as kind to Ici La Press. Despite their early success I’ve seen nothing new from them for ten years. My suspicion is that the globalisation of the online foodie world meant previously undiscovered French chefs suddenly attained a much higher international profile. This attracted bigger publishing houses like Flammarion, Phaidon and Ten Speed Press, leaving little room for a niche publisher like Ici La Press. Today the idea that a Rene Redzepi or Pierre Gagnaire would go with a small typesetting outfit from the backwoods of Connecticut sounds vaguely quaint. Commercial reality but, for lovers of fairy-tales, the food world’s loss.

Postscript: A few more spreads from the book (because it really is that good)

No self-respecting modern(ist) chef would be caught without a childhood-nostaligia based hors d'oeuvre...

Foie gras sandwiches. Because if you're a French chef no matter how many hydrocolloids you have,
some ingredients never go out of fashion...

Michel Bras is a man who would never mix his whites and his coloureds in the washing... :-p