Arguably, it has depreciated our appreciation of what it takes to make the cut: the bones of the matter…and the flesh and the tendons and the fat and the innards. While those on farms or living in multi-generation homes might have some familiarity with the whole animal concept, it is not something we often choose (or have) to confront in the course of basic meal prep.
Invited by a friend, I recently deboned my first duck.
In keeping with much of my food history, I wound up diving off the deep end – helping creating the Pate du Canard en Croute featured in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and showcased in the recent film Julie and Julia. In the film, it is featured as the book’s most challenging dish and has the titular Julie tied in knots. After one of the most educational cooking forays on which I have embarked, I am not arguing with that assessment.
Given to spontaneous cookery by nature, I agreed to co-create the dish as we had been invited for dinner by a pair of a fellow foodies
with both a fondness and flair for French cooking. Having not seen the film, I had no idea what I signed on for. Neither did my friend despite her greater grasp of culinary know-how.
Fortunately, her being a pastry whiz saved the day as the books recipe contained far more flour than required. Having a friend in the kitchen who is at least twice as bright as your knife is sharp is always helpful – especially when embarking on a dish that calls for a solid six hours on the main day.
Two of those hours are spent in the oven though, so there is plenty of reason and time to raise a glass of wine and enjoy a bit of charcuterie to celebrate your labours. If you make it to that point with opting to make duck soup, you might want to make that two bottles and call over another friend to shake their head in disbelief.
Deboning a bird is not a particularly difficult task – with or without the right tools. Getting the carcass and meat removed while leaving the skin intact, as the recipe requires, is a bit more of a go. While a fancy boning knife, like the Global 7” flexible boning knife I took to task, works to earn its name, a good sharp paring knife gives brings even better results as proven by my friend Nancy’s more affordable and effective choice of tools.
What the recipe essentially requires is for the carcass of the duck to be cut open upon one seam and parted from the flesh and skin to be removed.* Then the meat of the duck is cut away from the skin to be diced and marinaded and combined with a previously mixed and marinaded batch of ground pork, veal, fat, thyme and cognac. The mixture is then formed into a loaf in the centre of the skin which is then pulled up and around to be sewn together and trussed before being browned in a skillet, encased in pastry, baked for two hours, set and chilled. When ready to serve, the top of the pastry is cut away without breaking the form and the trussed duck mixture removed,** the string removed and the entirety reassembled for presenting and cutting at the table.
Definitely one of the most involving and challenging dishes any good food dude or lady can tackle, the Pate du Canard en Croute is ultimately worth the effort and for all its twists and turn in the kitchen, the ultimate simple slice of rustic country French on the plate. While the additional cost of the recommended black truffles was unrecognizable, the pastry and pate it yields is simply and subtly divine.
Though pulled from the pages through the film of Julie and Julia, for me it was really one of those Like Water For Chocolate moments, at least for those who triumph through the dishes more tender moments. One bite and you know what an act of love tastes like – and the bones and guts needed to bring it to the table.
For a pictoral walk through, visit thegoodfooddude’s Flickr gallery.
* Keep those giblets, the neck, carcass and leg bones to roast first in a pan with a touch of oil, to be browned golden in the oven and added to boiling water to create a stock. Bring to a strong boil, reduce heat and simmer until flavour is concentrated. I added a cup of orange juice and a tablespoon each of dried fennel and thyme, along with some black tea with dried pear and cinnamon.
*As promised in the cookbook, the duck mixture does shrink enough to allow for it to be removed with breaking the surrounding crust. However, it does so by moving a good portion of fat and flavour to the bottom of the pastry case effectively anchoring the duck. With two pairs of hands, it is doable with one person hold down the base and the other working a finger or two around one end of the duck, using their free hand to gently pull up on the truss strings.