Monday, December 03, 2007

From Farm to Table with Duck Confit

With all the talk of food-miles, organic ingredients, and other frequently empty rhetoric concerning what we eat, we easily become distracted from one of the central measures of naturalness in food. The distance from farm to table – related to the idea of “eating local”, but different – is important. It has more do with feeling ingredients in your hands, touching the plants and animals we eat, than with where the farm was. In a time when most meat is sold in neat shrink-wrapped packages under fluorescent lighting, there is something primitively attractive about holding a whole duck in your hands, feeling its meat and fat and joints, and separating it into pieces yourself.

It’s easy to forget that we are eating animals. Preparing a duck for confit will remind you. Confit, the process of gently cooking duck pieces and then preserving them in their own fat, is a rich and ancient way of preserving meat into the winter months. Delicious by itself, it is also a halfway point to cassoulet, a classic French stew of meat and beans that ranks as perhaps one of the richest meals imaginable. Confit requires duck pieces, and with the notable exception of breasts (magret), good duck is rarely sold other than whole.

Beginning with a whole 8 or 10-pound bird splayed out before you on a cutting board, you can feel the layers of fat, attached but loose enough to slide across the meat when pushed. Using a cleaver or a sturdy knife, the limbs come off with resistance, a sharp blade slicing easily through the flesh but resisting against the bones and sinewy fat. Depending how you cut the bird, the familiar pieces begin to take shape: thighs, breasts, wings. The back, the neck, and especially the spine are less familiar, and may make your stomach turn slightly if you’ve never separated a duck before. Even a chicken is clean, or at least familiar, by comparison. Trimming the excess fat with scissors, it is important to save all of the fat — it is a delicious and extremely useful ingredient in many recipes, including confit. As tradition shows, almost every bit of the animal is useful, at least for stock.

At this point, the memory of neat vacuum-packed breasts from the store takes on a more realistic hue. We are killing and eating animals, no doubt about it, and that is honorable. But is it honorable to do it without ever feeling the spine snap in your hands, the inner organs spilling out on your cutting board? Even if you don’t cut up your own ducks routinely, which is reasonable and understandable, having done it once brings you that much closer to the idea of “natural” food. Buying organic cage-free eggs in a store, while positive, does not challenge you. It doesn’t spur the thought process that, while uncomfortable for a moment, will likely leave you even more dedicated to eating meat than you were before. Taking a duck from whole bird to individual servings will do that. Aside from butchering the bird yourself, it is in some sense the quickest, truest path from farm to table.