Cold weather food for those long nights of winter, Classic Beef Stew & Dumplings is…
Easter at Chez Gypsy, by Chef B: green salad topped with seared duck breast, truffled potatoes & mushrooms, sometimes it’s the simplest of meals that make the most memorable moments.
It’s often just the two of us for dinner, the adorable three year old in our lives has a limited (but expanding) palate and we frequently entertain but largely it’s meals for two, in His kitchen or My kitchen. Coming from different cultures and creating a new life together, we often discuss family traditions and holiday memories, keeping what works and setting the rest aside, creating our own (new) traditions.
My West Coast Canadian roots and lack of structured religion in my nuclear family made for very simple Easter celebrations, long on ham and chocolate and short on piety and sermons. Hors d’oeuvres consisted of deviled eggs, a by-product of childhood art projects, made with store bought white eggs. Mom often indulged us with a batch of Hot Cross Buns and Dad thrilled to lead the hunt for Easter treats complete with treasure maps, compasses and clues. This is the Easter I know.
The Chef in my life grew up just outside Dijon, in Burgundy, France (yes, the place where they make the mustard). This Easter he called home, aligning family members for the weekly Skype chat and caught them napping, at 3PM (French time) after a big Easter lunch. Later that evening, while he chopped mushrooms and par-boiled potatoes, I asked what an Easter meal in Burgundy might entail.
“To start we would usually have rabbit, cold… like in a terrine. We don’t have the Easter Bunny in France and so there’s no attachment to rabbits, it’s just another meat” Chef B says as he quickly scores the fatty side of the duck breast with a sharp knife, in a criss-cross pattern and places it fat side down in a oven-friendly pan over medium high heat. While the fat sizzles on the back burner, he removes the potatoes after about 3 minutes at a boil, runs them under cold water, then drains them on paper towel and sets them aside.
The duck fat begins to colour, he flips it over, drenching the lean meat in the fat to ensure it keeps it’s moisture and seals in all those beautiful juices. This takes only a couple of minutes then he turns it back over, fatty side down, and pops it into a 425* oven for about 12 minutes, turning back to his mise en place, his wine, and his story.
“There would be another cold course, usually fish. When my Grandmother [Chef Georgette] was alive, we would poach a whole salmon, and it would be served with cold langoustines, homemade mayonnaise, and perhaps another seafood.” He coursely chops some mushrooms, a shallots or two, a clove of garlic, a bit of parsley and produces the last of the Porcini Black Truffle Pate from the fridge.
He opens another bottle of wine, and adds “then there’s the hot appetizer…” He removes the duck from the oven, turns it fat side up, again drenching the meat in the duck fat before setting it to rest, fat side down, off the heat (for about 15 minutes).
Of course, he kept the precious duck fat, he is after all, French.
The now cool, dry, half-cooked potatoes get tossed into the waiting, hot duck fat, seasoned and the pan returned to the 425* oven for about 10 minutes. Chef B turns to the plates, now set on the table and lays a bed of dry Romain leaves across and grabs he new favorite sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.
He continues, “the hot appetizer would be served in a puff pastry shells, probably sweetbreads, escargots and rooster combs cooked in a cream sauce, like a stew.” Rooster combs? Yes, the red, floppy thing on the top of the head of the rooster, he says they’re delicious. (It’s a French thing.)
The potatoes emerge from the oven, a generous portion of the clear duck fat is removed and then the pan in returned to the top of the stove on medium heat and in go the mushrooms for a toss and a sizzle.
“The main course is usually roasted poultry, sometimes goose or duck but usually capon [a castrated rooster]…” he says, seasoning the pan with a liberal twist of pepper and reserved dash of salt, as shallots and the thinly sliced garlic join the medley “…and a salad.”
He waves the aroma of the dish towards him, breathing deeply, an appreciative gesture; after 25 years in the kitchen his nose is as usful as his palate in the flavouring of dishes. He pokes at a potato with a knife, checking its doneness, and after turning the duck breast in the remaining fat one last time, he returns it to the oven at 425* for about 5 minutes to warm through.
“The last course would be cheese, followed by spirits to aid the digestion” he concludes, taking the last tablespoon of the precious Porcini Black Truffle Pate and swirling it with a splash of water in the jar, adding that slurry to the now full pan, with a generous pinch of parsley.
The duck is removed from the oven to the cutting board, where it’s sliced. He drizzles a touch of the tomato vinaigrette on the waiting lettuce and spoons the loose, fragrant truffled potatoes and mushrooms over top, then tops the whole works with the warm, rare duck. Voila, Seared Duck Breast, Truffled Potatoes & Mushrooms — the combination is cold and hot, earthy and savory, tangy and slightly gamy.
He tops his glass, and mine, and sits down grinning to see my somewhat gobsmacked expression across the table “what?!” he asks, as if defending the culinary obsession of hundreds of years of French history. “YOU DON’T HAVE THE EASTER BUNNY IN FRANCE?!” I said.
I am, forever, five years old.