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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Duck Fat

December 26th, 2007 by Maureen McHugh

Roasted Potatoes
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.

Posted in Bob Y., Food, Holidays, Maureen | 18 Comments »

18 Responses

  1. Madeleine Robins Says:

    I am fighting the urge to go out and get duck fat and roast potatoes. I do have a can of bacon grease, the only use for which is greasing the pan when I make cornbread (which gives it a slight redolence of bacon, which is always nice).

    Have I mentioned that I adore your food writing, Maureen? Happy hols.

  2. Holly Black Says:

    Oh yum.

  3. Sean Craven Says:

    I made schmaltz for kasha varnishkas a little while ago (mash the browned onion and cracklings into potatoes) and while in the process fantasized about a grease-of-the-month club. One month bacon grease, ghee the next, drippings… I’ve heard that fresh hippo suet is the prime taste treat that Africa has to offer. Ah, dream a little dream of grease.

  4. Maureen McQ Says:

    Fresh hippo suet. Man, when Central Market starts offering that…then, Sean, all we’ll need is a recipe.

  5. Caroline Spector Says:

    One question, Maureen: Does the duck fat freeze well? If it does, I say you’ve got some damn fine eating ahead of you. Otherwise, the only answer is for the Babies to come and jam at your house and you make all of us potatoes.

    Stick with moi. I can solve everyone’s problems but my own.

  6. Barb Says:

    I vote with Caroline – name the time & day and we will show up hungry. (Loyal friends, we is!) All problems should be so easily solved.
    Animal fat is indeed the reason the previous generation’s food tastes better than ours, as we were reminded at the Christmas Eve extended-family potluck. Our moms & aunts are not up to the heroic cooking of past years, but luckily the cousins rose to the occasion with three batches of homemade rolls. We missed Aunt Etta’s fruit pies and Aunt Twila Mae’s cabbage casserole though. Sigh…

  7. Maureen McQ Says:

    Cabbage casserole? I love the sound of that. I LOVE cabbage, which probably marks me as a peasant, deep in my genes. What is in cabbage casserole, might I ask?

    Caroline, I don’t know if it freezes well, but I suspect I will find out. And then I’ll invite the Brains over.

  8. Sara Says:

    Twila Mae’s Scalloped Cabbage (from the family cookbook)
    1/2 head cabbage
    salted water
    1 1/2 c. white sauce
    1/4 t pepper
    1/2 c bread crumbs, buttered and toasted
    1 t salt.
    Wash and soak cabbage insalted water:drain. Boil cabbage in fresh salted water until tender. Allow to cool and cut finely. Season cabbage with salt and pepper. Grease a large baking dish and cover bottom with layer of cabbage: cover cabbage with white sauce. Prepeat, using remainder of cabbage and white sauce. Top with bread crumbs. Bake, uncovered, 20-25 minutes at 350 decrees.

    I was tempted bring this dish to Christmas eve, but you know how it is, I could never match the memories. We sorely missed some aunts and uncles this year.

  9. Paula Helm Murray Says:

    Last time I had duck, the fat kept quite nicely in my fridge. I skimmed it of anything untoward, put it up in a clean glass canning jar and used it for rather a long while.

    I imagine you could dole it out by tablespoons in a ice-cube tray, then when solid decant into a zipper plastic bag and keep in freezer in easy-to-serve pieces.

    hmm.

  10. Dr Paisley Says:

    I am Manteca
    Lard of Mexico
    Look on my crusts,
    ye mighty
    and despair!

  11. Barb Says:

    Hey, thanks, Sara! I tried to fake the cabbage casserole at one reunion, but the recipe I found in a church cookbook had an embarrassing amount of Velveeta along with the white sauce. It came out OK, but not the same.

  12. Maureen McQ Says:

    It looks really good. I love vegetable casseroles, including green bean casserole. I also love hashbrown casserole. I’ve never understood why casseroles get such a bad rap. Oh wait, I do understand. Tuna and Noodle casserole.

  13. Steven Gould Says:

    After eating the duck fat potatoes at your house I came home and did them myself.

    Okay, I used Olive Oil. They weren’t quite as good as yours but they were surprisingly good. I used lots of oil and got it really hot and cooked them long.

  14. Craig in Batavia IL Says:

    I found your article, wondering what I could do with duck fat from the ducks I cook (and totally love!). I started using schmaltz (chicken fat)for various things, but ducks have a whole lot more fat. Love the article, and going to make roast potatoes.

    By the way, to make perfect roast potatoes, as described above, is simple. Use red potatoes! Not white, not russet, not idaho, not baking—RED potatoes. They’re richer, have a different starch makeup, and with just a bit of butter on top (cut into regular pieces), you roast at 450 for half an hour, turn once, let them go another 15 minutes or so, and wah-lah! Perfectemundo! So good, you can do them in a quality toaster oven.

    I do this with standing ribs because the heat isn’t usually enough, nor is there enough fat. But wirh red potatoes in the toaster oven, they’re always perfect, every time.

  15. Eat Our Brains » Blog Archive » Posts For Maureen: Food Post #1 — Goose Says:

    [...] The stuff in the very bottom are water-based meat juices but the rest of all that is pure schmaltz which sells for about the same amount really good steak does per pound.  There are lots of great things to do with goose fat, but to my mind, the best one is Maureen’s Roast Potatoes as seen previously here at Eat Our Brains. [...]

  16. Foodguru Says:

    I think eat food pyramid diets.THE BEST WAY.

  17. Philly Says:

    Just reading this makes me want to eat! I haven’t had duck in so long and it is sound soooo good right now! I may actually make cabbage casserole tonight when I get back home :)

  18. Randy Says:

    Just ordered a couple tubs of duck fat from HVFG. Can’t wait. Also anxious to try that cabbage casserole!

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