Clayton and I felt oppressed the other night. A particular brand of home-based oppression we’ve been suffering under for some while, and when we feel like that, we gots to GO. And go we did — to one of our neighborhood’s chic’est joints: Central Kitchen. It is about an 8 minute walk, right up the street, from our little pad. And when we got there, we had a nigh on *perfect* meal. I mean, everything was prepared, seasoned, and served just right. EVERYTHING. They totally had their game on that night. Out of it all, though, the dish I loved best was this lovely warm duck salad with sweet root vegetables, currants, frisée, and some sort of simple complex dressing. I just about licked the plate; Clayton got, like, one bite.
Tonight, I’m flying solo; Clayton’s out of town. Since I didn’t let him eat any of this at the restaurant, I thought tonight would be a perfect time for me to make this and be totally guilt-free about not sharing. I mean – he’s all out having fun in DC, and I’m stuck here bringing home the bacon. So, this was my reimagining of that perfect dish, and I have to tell you, I think I knocked it out of the park. I couldn’t find the currants at Savenors, although they did have some duck confit legs (I’ll have to make these for myself one of these days, but for now, I let D’Artagnan do all the hard work). Since I had some dried bing cherries at home, I didn’t worry about the currants. I also purchased a nice wee head of frisée, and a pleasingly misshapen yam.
My gastronomic precognitive powers were at an all-time high last night, and – almost in a dream – I found myself quick-pickling a carrot I had in the fridge – and it provided just the dressing, and just the bitter sweetness, this dinner required. I first ran it across my mandoline’s lowest setting, and then sliced it into even thinner ribbons. I dumped those in a zipper bag, and added 1/2 cup of salt, 1/4 sugar, and some cracked black pepper.
The final ingredient for a quick sweet pickling process is vinegar. But since I wanted my carrot shreds to be even sweeter, I used some of my own tarragon vinegar, which I always have on hand. All one needs is some fresh tarragon, white wine vinegar, and a bottle. And what a difference the tarragon makes; fennel-sweet, richly aromatic, yet still the dry bitter tang vinegar’s supposed to impart.
I added enough to cover the carrots, and then pressed all the air out of the bag before I placed it in my fridge last night. Like I said, I almost can’t remember doing this, but obviously, I did. Nice!
Roasting sweet potatoes takes patience, even when you peel one and break it down into perfect little cubes like this. But for my serving idea for this salad, I want lots of little bites. I toss them with EVOO, sea salt, and cracked black pepper, and then throw them into a large ceramic dish on 300° to roast for 30-45 minutes. I wanted them nice and soft, but lightly caramelized on the edges.
I then roast my confit legs. It takes about 20 minutes on 400°, which is fine. I just wrap my potatoes in foil to keep warm; I’m going to heat the whole salad through again later, sort of, anyway. You’ll see what I mean…
I break out my frisée, and cut off the core. Then I wash it thoroughly in my salad spinner, and toss it into a large bowl.
I pull the fat and skin off the top of my now sizzling hot roasting duck legs, place the skins back in the ceramic dish, and then back in the oven, now set to broil, for 5-8 more minutes to crisp and render, while I prep the salad. Using two forks, I shred all that rich, dark, steaming, glistening duck meat off the bones. And I pick, here and there, just to make sure it, y’know, hasn’t gone bad… which I know it hasn’t… but still I pick… it’s my right.
Remember this? My overnight sweet pickled carrot ribbons are pulled out of the fridge, and I tentatively taste one slice I fish out of the bag. It’s pickled, all right. The flavor when the thread touches my tongue is almost saccharin-rich at the very onset, complex with an ouzo-esque opulence, but that experience evaporates immediately into an absinthian dryness. I’m not sure if I love it, but I decide to have faith in the ingredients I’ve assembled: a fatty dark meat, snappy, sinewy greens, and toothsome starchy yams. I think (spoiler alert: I was right!) that each item will compliment, in fact, almost *need* each other ingredient to make this dinner the delight I desire. To me, that’s what this cooking stuff is all about. So, I dump about 1/2 the dressing into my bowl with the duck, potatoes, and greens. I remove my cracklins from the oven, and pour 1 tbs of the duck fat over the contents of the bowl. Hot grease over a salad? For shame! But wait — methinks I remember fondly that mid 90’s craze for hot bacon dressing, which was basically bacon fat and vinegar. With that factoid for reinforcement, I toss away. After all, this is what wilts my greens and rewarms my potatoes, along with the already hot duck meat.
Cherries. I love these things. I can sit for a whole night and ingest a pound of these. I’m more apt to do so when they are concentrated and dried like they are here, but I would go all Witches of Eastwick on fresh ones if I could. I think the Bible got it wrong: the fruit of temptation wasn’t the apple, it was the cherry, baby. I throw a handful into the bowl, and mix well.
I pack an 8 oz conical juice-glass tightly with my salad, and then turn the formation onto a plate. I drape some of my pickled carrots over the mound, scatter a few cherries and chopped duck cracklins over everything, and then drizzle some balsamic glaze at the last moment. Although I’m not happy with my pedestrian curlie-que drizzling style (yes, I know… it looks like cheap chocolate sauce squirted over a dessert plate at Applebee’s), the impulse was a good one. Delicious duck, yummy yams, luscious lettuce, perfect pickled carrots, chewy cherries, crispy cracklin, and beautiful balsamic glaze. A sophisticated dinner served for one. Run towards me all you want, young Billy Baldwin and sexy Cindy Crawford (yes, I’m watching FAIR GAME. Sue me.). Run as fast as you can. You still won’t get to me before I dive headfirst into this delectable delight, and I doubt there’ll be any left when you get here.