Monday, 28 October 2013

The Duck Legs of Normandy

Duck is one of my favourite meats, but it does tend to be a bit expensive. Duck legs, though, are the cheaper option in most supermarkets. A while ago I got into a discussion with someone who was looking for new and interesting ways to cook duck legs. I can’t quite remember what conclusions we came to but afterwards I started wondering what was wrong with the traditional methods. To my shame, I hadn't made this sort of dish for years and I needed reminding just how good it can be.

There’s nothing new or revolutionary about this recipe. It’s the method of Normandy cooking that I first picked up years ago, although there’s no guarantee that it would be considered truly authentic in the Vallée d'Auge.  Very much the same method of cooking is often used in Normandy for chicken or guinea fowl, although they will usually require less time to cook.

I did use a genuine Normandy cider for this dish but it’s not the only place in the world that makes excellent cider. Most decent dry ciders will produce a good result in this dish but there are some modern styles of cider that are very dry and, although they're often excellent to drink, they can give a slightly unpleasant, bitter edge to the flavour when used in cooking. It’s best to err on the fruity or slightly less dry side. Incidentally, there are many fine ciders made in Normandy but, if you’re ever in the Cotentin peninsular, then I’d recommend the cider of Le Père Mahieu. (I’ve no connection whatsoever with Le Père Mahieu, I just really like their cider).

This dish might typically be served with potatoes sautéed in duck fat and very nice that would be too, but I served it with boulangère potatoes cooked in chicken stock to keep the overall fat content down a little. Some green beans or fresh peas would be good too. It will serve 2 people.
Normandy Duck Legs
Sorry about the quality of the picture. My excuse is that the light was really bad and my camera doesn't cope well with poor light. (In my camera’s defence, it would like to point out that it was only bought for holiday snapshots and since it’s already celebrated its 11th birthday, it would like to be shown a little more respect and understanding. That's all I need - argumentative hardware.)

2 duck legs
2 large or 4 small shallots, chopped
2 tbsp calvados
500 ml cider (see above)
250 ml chicken stock
1 dessert apple – ideally, choose an apple that’s quite firm and not too sharp
½ tsp caster sugar
1 - 2 tbsp crème fraîche

Place the duck legs, skin-side down, in a dry frying pan over a medium heat and allow them to brown a little for around 5 minutes. This should render some of the fat from the legs. Turn the legs over and fry briefly for around one minute. Remove the duck legs, lower the heat and add the shallots to the pan. (There should be enough fat in the pan but, if not, add a little butter).

Fry the shallots gently for 8 – 10 minutes until they have started to soften. Add the calvados to the pan and increase the heat. As soon as the calvados has pretty much evaporated, return the duck to the pan and pour in the cider and the stock (The duck should be largely, if not completely, covered). Season and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down, partially cover the pan and allow it to bubble away very gently for 1¼ - 1½ hours. Turn the duck legs several times while they’re cooking.

Towards the end of the cooking time, peel, core, quarter and slice the apple. Melt a little butter in a frying pan, stir in the sugar and gently fry the apple slices for around 5 minutes until soft, but not falling apart. (If you want to limit the amount of fat, use just a tiny amount of butter and a little chicken stock).

At the end of its cooking time, the duck should be tender and the liquid in the pan should have reduced by around three quarters. (If there’s still quite a lot of liquid in the pan, boil it for a while after you remove the duck).

Remove the duck and pass the sauce through a sieve to remove the shallot. Discard the shallot, skim some of the fat from the sauce and return the duck and the sauce to the pan. Reheat the duck and add the apple slices. Finally stir in the crème fraîche and allow it to heat through gently for a minute or two. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve as soon as possible.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Kedgeree's Eccentric Cousin

Once upon a time, when I was still young and foolish, a lady friend offered to cook me dinner. She made a classic kedgeree and very nice it was too. The second thing she cooked for me was also kedgeree. So was the third and the fourth. It turned out that kedgeree was the only dish she could cook. After a while,  she went off with an annoyingly handsome bloke from Sweden who played electric violin. Another friend of mine offered to cheer me up by making me dinner. She made me kedgeree. 

It hasn't put me off, though; I still love this British classic. Although, after all these years and several shedloads of kedgeree, I do tend to throw in a few variations now and then. This version has so many variations that I don’t think it’s quite kedgeree any more. One major variation is that I use short grain brown rice, which adds nuttiness and extra texture to the dish.  (This type of rice isn't common in supermarkets but you can find it in health food shops.) Rather than smoked haddock this time, I've used some poached white fish with the touch of smokiness coming from a little smoked salmon and the black cardamom. The type of white fish isn't critical, but pollock works well and is generally considered sustainable. Although eggs are traditional in kedgeree, I've added a few pieces of artichoke heart instead, just for a change.

I've also added a fromage frais (or yogurt) sauce to the dish as a contrast to the nuttiness of the rice. This sauce was inspired by two very different things. Back in the late 1970s, I remember eating fish dishes in English restaurants garnished with a slightly addictive condiment, which was made largely from mayonnaise and lime pickle. In more recent times, I heard about Alain Ducasse’s version of Le Fish’N’Chips which uses lime and Thai basil (amongst other things) in an alternative to tartare sauce.
Kedgeree's Eccentric Cousin
The herb perilla is a member of the mint family and is most commonly grown in the Far East. If you find the plant for sale in Britain, then it’s likely to be called shiso in line with the Japanese name, but the seeds are usually sold under the botanical name of perilla in garden centres. It has a fresh, slightly spicy and rather fruity taste that goes well with fish dishes. Perilla plants can look a little weedy, but I've been growing a bi-coloured type, which I think looks very pleasing. It’s easy to grow from seed, but it does seem to appreciate a bit of warmth and it will tend to sulk if it gets too cold or if it dries out too much.
Treat the amounts and ingredients here as a guide only, they can easily be varied according to taste. It’s a very forgiving dish. This will serve 2.

1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 litre light fish stock
2 cloves, garlic, finely chopped
2 cm fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
3 or 4 black cardamom pods
Generous pinch dried chilli flakes
Juice of 1½ limes
150 g short grain brown rice
200 g white fish, such as pollock
Small handful of fresh or frozen peas
100 g smoked salmon, either small chunks or offcuts
80 g grilled artichoke hearts, cut into large chunks
5 tbsp thick fromage frais or Greek yogurt
2 tbsp Thai basil (or another spicy basil variety), chopped
Zest of 1 lime
3 tbsp perilla (shiso) leaves, chopped

Soften the onion slowly in a little oil and butter. While that’s happening, toast the cumin and fennel seeds lightly in a dry frying pan. Carefully split the cardamom pods and remove the seeds – don’t throw the pods away. Crush the cumin, fennel and cardamom seeds in a pestle and mortar. Heat the fish stock to simmering point.

Once the onion is soft, stir in the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains in the oil. Stir in the ground spices, the chilli flakes, a little pepper, the empty cardamom pods and the juice of 1 lime. Stir in two ladlefuls of the hot fish stock. If you've ever made a risotto, then you’ll know the drill from this point – stir frequently and, once the liquid has been absorbed, add another ladleful of stock. Keep adding the stock one ladleful at a time and keep stirring (you don’t have to stir continuously, but the more the better), until the rice is almost tender. There are two obvious differences when using short grain brown instead of the more usual white rice: it won’t seem as creamy and it will take a fair bit longer to cook. In fact, you could be simmering and stirring for 45 minutes, so allow enough time – it is worth it, honest.

While the rice is cooking, poach the white fish gently in water or a very light stock until it’s just tender and comes apart in flakes. The poaching time will vary with the type and thickness of the fish you use, but it’s unlikely to be more than 5 minutes. Once cooked, remove the fish from the poaching liquid and allow it to cool a little. Break into flakes or chunks once it’s cool enough to handle.

When the rice is almost tender, add the peas and allow them to cook with the rice for a few minutes. Stir in the smoked salmon, artichoke hearts and poached fish and allow them to warm through for a few minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the fromage frais sauce. Mix the fromage frais (or yogurt) with the chopped basil leaves and the lime zest. Season with a little salt and pepper (white pepper will look best).

Adjust the seasoning of the rice mixture and add the juice of another ½ lime. Fish out the cardamom pods and discard them. Stir in the chopped perilla, take the mixture off the heat, cover the pan and allow it to sit for a few minutes. (If you’d like a smoother and richer finish to the dish, than stir in a little butter.) Serve in warmed bowls with a couple of spoonfuls of the fromage frais sauce on top.


I know it's not a very common herb, but perilla is a herb nonetheless. So I'm adding this to the October Cooking With Herbs Challenge over at Lavender and Lovage.

Cooking with Herbs