While everybody else is spreading good cheer and all that, I view major holidays as an opportunity to eat. I can’t actually afford to eat in the style that I wish I was accustomed to, so I cook. This Christmas is a traditional fat and carb filled extravaganza. Oh, we’re having roasted green beans, but that’s about the only nod towards rational healthy eating. Otherwise we’re having an artery-clogging, insulin cranking traditional feast. A big beef standing rib, Yorkshire pudding, roasted potatoes.
When I was a kid, we never ate at my grandmother’s. Other people remember grandma’s cooking. My grandmother was not domestic. She didn’t actually wash her glasses, she just rinsed them, which my mother found so skeevy that I don’t think she ever drank so much as a glass of water at her mother-in-law’s, although she also never said anything until long after my grandparents were gone. We did eat there once. Overdone roast beef, potatoes, and those ice cream cups with the little wooden spoons. As a kid, I found the whole bag-of-little-ice-cream-cups thing enchanting. And I suspect it certainly saved on clean-up. But what I remember even more were the roasted potatoes. Brown and caramelized on the outside, meltingly creamy on the inside. I had never had a perfectly roasted potato before and to be frank, I don’t think I ever have since. I have always suspected it was an accident. Or maybe it was the one thing she cooked really, really well.
So when I found Nigella Lawson’s recipe for roasted potatoes, promising the secret to the perfect crunch brown exterior and the soft, creamy interior, I was instantly reminded of those wonderful potatoes from my grandmother. Nigella says that the perfect roasted potato is all a matter of one simple thing—the fat. And the fat is goose fat.
Goose fat? Where does this woman shop? I’m pretty sure my grandmother didn’t use goose fat. I mean, maybe in Britain you can walk into you local grocer or butcher and say, ‘A standing rib, please. Oh, and I’m going to need some goose fat.’ But in the U.S., we have a rather complicated relationship to animal fat. It wasn’t always that way. Bacon grease, was a staple of regional cooking for generations. There are still people who make pie crusts with lard. But frankly, we recoil from the whole animal fat issue. (I don’t make my pie crusts with lard. My mother used Crisco, and that’s what I use. I find butter makes great pastry, but not my favorite pie crust. The lard available in Ohio smelled odd. I’m told that manteca, the lard of Mexico, is much more refined, in no small part because there is a larger market for it. Still, I’ll probably stick to Crisco.)
That’s not to say that Americans don’t eat and like animal fats. Packaged cookies and crackers, refried beans, flour tortillas, ready-made pie crusts often have lard in them. I’ve cooked with schmaltz (chicken fat). Not often, but it does tend to make people eating whatever I’ve cooked ask for seconds. For years McDonalds used beef tallow for their french fries. Jeffrey Steingarten, food essayist, has an essay on the perfect french fry (reprinted in his collection, The Man Who Ate Everything) in which he reports that there is a strong body of opinion which claims that horse fat is the perfect fat for making the perfect fry. It is illegal to sell horse fat in the U.S. but you can get it in France and apparently, people have been known to smuggle it through customs. I can only imagine the distraction it provides drug sniffing dogs. In America, we like animal fat just fine, thank you, but we’d prefer not to know about it. Like sausage making. Which, not incidentally, leans heavily on the inclusion of animal fat for succulence. Cause fat is, you know, succulent. Luscious. Rich. Smooth on the tongue. Heavy on what foodies call ‘mouth feel.’
(Steingarten says a lot of interesting thing about french fries and if you are a person who really loves to cook and really loves fries, it is a fascinating essay. The technique involved in fries pretty complex, but there are some quite doable ways to make what are apparently excellent fries at home. He also explains that the best fries are not French, but from Belgium.)
It turns out that the Internet, as always, provides all. Goose fat is available, by mail order, from France. Luckily for my family, I did not discover I wanted—no, needed—goose fat until Christmas Eve. But, while standing in line at the butcher counter in Central Market, I asked if they had goose fat. The tired butcher behind the counter, already run ragged by huge numbers of people buying food for the holiday, and used to the questions of people who have read something in some magazine or another, just said, ‘We’ve got duck fat in the case.’
I bought it.
Then I got it home and stuck it in the fridge where it sat, a kind of monument to my sins, primarily the sin of sitting at the tippy-top of the food pyramid. I kept expecting Bob to open up the fridge and say, ‘Holy fuck, is this duck fat? How many ducks had to die for this?’ Not that Bob actually would. Bob is pretty laissez faire about eating the animal kingdom. He reserves his political pique for the fundamentalist right. But still, isn’t duck fat pretty decadent? I mean, it’s not as bad as Roman emperors who used to eat ices—the ice being carried by relays of runners from the mountains, each running their hearts out so the emperor could enjoy the startling contrast cold on a warm day. I can just imagine these guys running, carrying their ice, five miles down the mountain to hand the ice off to the next guy and stand with their hands on their knees gasping. A hell of a way to make a living. I hope the pay was good.
Of course, the ducks don’t’ get paid. They just get rendered.
Christmas day. I tell Jason (who’s staying with us for the Holiday) about the duck fat because, well, Jason loves shit like that. But I don’t tell anyone else. Still, Bob instantly asks, what’s with the potatoes? Did I fry them? They’re a marvelous brown and different from any roasted potatoes I have ever plunked on the table. Jason smirks and I tell Bob and Adam I won’t tell them until they try them—not because they’ll be grossed out, but because it just sounds so, well, pretentious. Which it is. But it also turns out that roasting potatoes in duck fat is really good. Bob says they’re like the best french fries he’s ever had. Crispy on the outside, light, fluffy yet creamy inside. They’re beautiful, too. Crackly-crispy and golden. Really great roasted potatoes.
So now I’ve got some duck fat in the fridge. I guess I could make cassoulet. Confit. I don’t know but it seems a shame to waste it. One of the problems with being pretentious is that it’s the vice that keeps on giving (although I guess they all do.) Once I’ve been pretentious about the potatoes, then now not only have I set the bar rather high for next Christmas, but I’ve got half a pound of rendered duck fat in my refrigerator. Ducks gave up their lives for this plastic tub of what looks like creamy Crisco. It begs for me to come up with some way of using it. And I will. Just as soon as I’ve laid down for awhile to digest this meal.