Father’s Day today, so I get to have a day off from cooking and washing up.
Ha ha ha ha ha!
No seriously I enjoy food too much to leave my wife alone in the kitchen, so I’m cooking today.
On the menu: duck breast with mushroom sauce, roast potatoes and asparagus with parmesan.
The planning: The duck takes about 10 minutes to cook and 10 minutes to prepare; the asparagus 5 minutes to cook and prepare; the potatoes about 15 minutes to cook and 5 to prepare. And the mushroom sauce takes….well, as long as you can give it, really. The longer you can cook the sauce, the better it will be.
The real art of being a good restaurant cook is getting every part of the client’s meal onto a plate and onto their table at the same time. It’s no good serving them the steak and sauce and then arriving five minutes later with the fries. This is what I spent a fair amount of time learning about when I became a professional cook – timing.The first timing sheet is the sort of thing you’d get a commis to use when they’re learning how to cook one dish; the second is the type of sheet you’d be expected to use during a whole-day exam to show your timings in 30-minute slices throughout the day of the exam. This one’s just for patisserie – I did a general cookery course, not this specialised one.
The procedure is fairly simple – at the bottom you’re shouting ‘Service!’ and the
monkeys waiters turn up and carry the prepared plates out to the hungry customers. You work backwards from there for each dish – remembering to have separate serving times for your starter, main and dessert courses. You spread your time out, in this case including your compulsory breaks, back to now to see what you have to do first.
The principles are simple – if I need the duck out of the door at 1pm it need to have spent two minutes being cut up, and have rested for five minutes before that, and have been roasted for five minutes before that, and been browned for five minutes before that, and been prepared during 10 minutes before that so I need to have started working on it, at the latest, at 12:33. Assuming I have nothing else to do.
So in the case of the simple duck with mushroom sauce and roast potatoes, the thing which needs to start first is the mushrooms – the longer you cook them the better, so you start chopping them. Next I’d do the potatoes which simply need to be steamed at this point – later on they’re cut up into quarters lengthways and fried off in duck fat and, since the duck fat comes from cooking the duck, you need to cook the duck before you can fry the potatoes. Simples.
Whilst the mushrooms are frying in a little olive oil and salt (the goal is to remove liquid from the mushrooms at this point, with the aim of concentrating their taste) I trim the duck breasts.
This is what the duck breasts look like when they come out of their sous vide packaging. Note that in France these magrets de canard (nothing to do with maigret) come from ducks raised for foie gras and so may be larger than the duck breasts available in other countries where gavage is frowned upon.You may find that there are a few stubs of feathers sticking into the skin side – if so use a pair of fish tweezers to remove them.
They’re heavy-duty tweezers with a curved end, ideal for poking into fish and other types of flesh for pulling out reluctant bones and feather roots.
Once you’ve finished de-feathering, turn over your duck breast and remove the traces of fat and, in particular, two areas of what in France are called ‘nerves’ but which are really veins and/or ligaments or some such anatomical things. You should remove them as carefully as possible, since if you leave them in they’ll feel like gristle in the eater’s mouth.
Trim around the edges to make the fat level with the meat and chunk up the fat into a fairly small brunoise-size dice. Cross-hatch the fat so that it dissolves more easily and looks prettier when you cook it. You should have an odd number of cuts down through the fat just to the flesh – everything is done in odd numbers in kitchens because it’s more pleasing to the eye.
Place the duck breasts fat side down in a very hot pan and sear them until they’re nicely browned just on the fat side. Don’t brown the meat side at all. You can see a slight incision in the lower side of the nearer duck breast – this is where I cut out the nerve/vein/whatever so my diners don’t have a mouthful of gristle.
Here you can see the fat is nicely browned and quite decorative; the meat side isn’t coloured at all. When cooking time arrives they’ll go (fat side up) into a 180ºC oven for 4 minutes saignant/rare, 6 minutes à point/medium. Any more cooked than that and you’ll be in trouble with the taste police, proceed at your own risk.
While the pan is still hot, throw in the bits of duck skin you cut into cubes (not the trimmings from the meat side – they’re basically inedible even to French people).
They will colour quite quickly and you need to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t shrivel up to nothing. But basically when they look cooked, take them out, put onto a serving tray, sprinkle with salt and try to resist the temptation to eat them all before dinner.
Now you have the duck prepared the mushrooms should be nicely fried off – keep an eye on them while you’re preparing the duck so they don’t stick to the pan. Now it’s time to déglace/deglaze the mushrooms with the alcohol of your choice.
I like to use Noilly Prat vermouth or, sometimes, Muscat wine. The latter is sweet and goes well with chicken and lamb sauces. The vermouth gives a nice grown-up taste a depth to your sauce. Déglacer/deglazing means using alcohol to scrape up the caramelized bits of whatever you’re cooking that have stuck to the bottom of the pan; you add enough to cover the bottom of your pan and scrape with a wooden spatula, and then leave this to reduce until the alcohol has almost disappeared. You can add a second round of alcohol if you like or, if not, some stock.
I mostly use chicken stock because it is easy to make and, since we eat a lot of rotisserie chicken, I always have lots of chicken stock on hand. The secret – one of the secrets – to making a good sauce is not to add all your liquid at once. So if you’re adding, say, a litre of chicken stock to your sauce then you add it a little at a time in four or five batches. Just enough to cover the main ingredient of the sauce, the mushrooms in this case, then reduce it down until it’s almost all disappeared then add some more. It doesn’t take any longer than reducing down the entire litre added at once but gives more flavour – the mushrooms or whatever aren’t simply boiled in the stock liquid.
When your sauce is reduced to a decent consistency you can simply take it off the heat, ready to re-heat just before service.
Your potatoes should have cooked by now, so when they’re cooled enough to handle cut into quarters.
Keep them somewhere safe where they can dry a little – on the chopping board is fine. The dryness and rough bits will become nice and crunchy.
Last thing to prepare is the asparagus.
Preparing asparagus is quite simple; hold it in both hands and snap it in the middle. It has a natural break point – the lower, root end is harder and will break off easily. This is the part that’s harder to eat but which is fine used in a stock, for example, so I keep and freeze these broken off bits to use in the future.
The spears I line up on a baking tray and grate parmesan across them, then grill them under a very hot heat for two or three minutes. This works well with very fine spears of asparagus, if you like the thick ones or white asparagus you’ll need to go a more traditional steaming/boiling route.
So by now you should have everything ready and five or ten minutes away from being served.
Make sure the kids/butler have set the table then put the duck into the pre-heated 180ºC oven, put the potatoes into the pre-heated (maximum heat please) duck fat in the frying pan and the asparagus under the grill. In this order, too.
After four/five/six minutes, take the duck out of the oven and set it to one side to rest for five minutes (meat should rest for as long as it cooks, generally speaking). Put the mushroom sauce on to heat and add in some cream if you like – I usually add a 200ml briquette of single cream. This should just heat up – if it boils it may curdle.
When the parmesan has melted and is browned, take the asparagus out of the oven. Keep turning the potatoes until they’re browned on all sides.
Put the potatoes on a serving dish and them and the asparagus go onto the dining table. Cut up the duck – diagonal slices down from the top looks nice – and arrange it on a serving dish, pouring all juices into the mushroom sauce. Send out the duck, put the sauce into a sauce boat and send it out. Have a drink. Sit down at table with your adoring family.