"Too often, we think of French haute cuisine without remembering the old, rustic heart that beats beneath it."
A Split Personality
France is a two-faced country. About a month ago, I ordered duck confit at an English French restaurant. It came out like a sculpture, the plate glazed with a filigree of haricots verts, and laced with a doily of frisée. It was all very embellished--like a necklace belonging to the Empress Josephine, with the duck as the crown jewel.
But then last week, I ordered duck confit in Paris. It was perched unceremoniously atop a smattered nest of coin-sliced potatoes, seared in duck fat and garlic. I often find that we regard the French, and French food, from without as something different from what they truly are within.
When I was very young, Maman used to roast a duck almost every week. She would slice up potatoes into allumettes, and fry them fresh. We would sit in bed, as a special treat, and watch The Cosby Show and Family Ties as we gnashed apart crispy-skinned duck meat, crunched down frites, and sucked on salty, greasy fingers. It was the farthest thing from the ritzy Duck à l'Orange we could have ordered at Le Cirque, but it was in some respects quite closely related: it was, after all, French duck.
By the time Maman met Alain, I was seventeen, and she wasn't roasting ducks anymore. I had been vegetarian and a teenager; neither had been good to our family dinners. I moved off to college, and he moved from Normandy into our house. When I came to visit, there was no duck in bed anymore. Suddenly dinner became a very serious ordeal. We had to sit at a table, and compliment Maman's cooking, and use napkins.
In protest, I grabbed an all-American pie from the fridge, and nested into the couch. A cold pie was more warming than those frigid dinners, despite the hot Le Creuset in the middle of the table.
Birds of a Feather
Four years later, I was home at Maman's house, and before long I found myself en route from my bedroom to the fridge. There he was, buried deep inside the door, rifling through the snack drawer. "Hi!"
Alain jumped. The open little jar of Maille cornichons that he always had sent from France spit juice onto his t-shirt. And for the first time, I noticed that he was frightened of me. That he had a kind face, and large ears, and a charming, honest smile. That he had stayed with Maman, when I had moved away. And that he had left everything he knew, from Maille cornichons to his antique car collection to his country, to be with her.
"What are you eating?" I asked.
His face lit up like a fridge when you open the door. "Duck pâté!" He lifted the precious parcel up to our noses. He inhaled, and smiled his enormous smile. "Do you want some?"
And so I joined him at the round little table in Maman's kitchen, overlooking the ocean that eventually laps against the Normandy coast, thousands of miles away. He told me about all the regions of France he had travelled to, and how one particular area cooks only in duck fat. "I never," he swore to me, "feel in better health than when I eat exclusively those foods cooked in duck fat."
It was in the middle of our unceremonious little feast that Maman came into the kitchen with every intention to pull out that Le Creuset pot. "What are you doing?" she cried. "I was just going to make dinner!"
Alain and I giggled like two naughty school children into our pâté, and finally Maman relaxed. "You better have left me the end of the baguette," she ordered as she sat down. Finally, we weren't eating at Le Cirque anymore. Alain had brought the duck back into our lives. At the end of the day, he just wanted to lick the duck off his salty, greasy fingers like the rest of us. He was the real confit.
Too often, we think of French haute cuisine without remembering the old, rustic heart that beats beneath it. Being two-faced doesn't mean you're a hypocrite. Diamonds, after all, are multi-faceted. It just means you're worth getting to know a little bit better.
Rustic Roast Duck Legs with New Potatoes, Sugar Snaps, and Spring Onions
Duck at home makes you feel fancy, but this dish is simple, warm and hearty. The duck legs are seasoned so that when you sear them, their skin becomes a cracklin' crust of herbes de Provence and sea salt. Potatoes, sweet sugar snaps, and green onions contribute very different accents to the vegetables, but all serve as the nest for the roasting duck legs, and so are bathed and roasted in the duck fat as it melts and runs and puddles around the pan. This is definitely something you can eat with your fingers, perched like a downy duck in your couch cushions. True French comfort food.
- 1 1/2 pounds Jersey Royal potatoes, or other small boiling potatoes, sliced in thirds
- 1/2 pound sugar snap peas
- 7 scallions, trimmed and cut in thirds
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon
- 2 duck legs, thighs attached
- Herbes de Provence
- Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Prepare the vegetables by slicing the potatoes and scallions into thirds. In a roasting pan, toss together the potatoes with the fresh thyme, 1 scant tablespoon olive oil, and salt and pepper. Put into the oven to begin softening.
Meanwhile, prepare the duck. Trim the duck of any excess fat, and reserve. Rub both duck legs with 1 teaspoon of olive oil total, just to give it a light coating.
Sprinkle the duck liberally on both sides with herbes de Provence, and season well with salt and pepper.
Heat a sauté pan on medium-high heat, and add in the reserved duck fat so that it begins to render. Place the duck legs skin side down into the hot pan, and sear just about 4 minutes until the skin is nice and golden. Flip the duck, and sear another minute.
Open the oven, and toss the scallions and sugar snap peas in with the potatoes, coating the green vegetables with the seasoned potato oil. Place the duck legs skin side up on the bed of vegetables, and roast for 30-35 minutes, or just until the juices run clear. Garnish with stems of fresh thyme.