One of the nice things about the program I'm doing in Toulouse is that there's a large community of American assistants in the city. Coming here, finding French roommates and practicing my French was my number one priority, and I'm thankful that I was able to achieve that, but even so, I appreciate having people to take an (English-speaking) break with. Even in a first world, western country like France, which on the surface might seem very similar to the United States, cultural differences--some subtle, others not so--abound. It's important to have friends from a similar background with whom you can discuss, critique, and--let's be honest here--sometimes playfully make fun of those differences.
Towards the beginning of my stay, when I was meeting other assistants at various "mixers," one thing I often found myself talking about was--big surprise--food. Like myself, many others cited an interest in good food as one of the primary motivators for their move abroad. After sharing some less formalized meals together, my friend Bonnie and I decided to organize a dinner club, so that our friends who like to cook could come together more often to share recipes and ideas. So far, we've been meeting twice a week: on Meaty Mondays, that week's host makes a dish with meat, and the attendees bring wine or dessert. On Thursdays, the cook makes something vegetarian. The next week, two different people cook on Monday and Thursday, and the next week two other people, and so on and so forth. It's a nice break in the daily routine, where we can come together, speak English and talk about our jobs over some good food.
Last Monday marked the initial meeting of the club, and I hosted. As I mentioned, I would be making a meat-based dish, and because I would be cooking for 7 people, I wanted to select something budget-friendly. Sadly, that usually means chicken, and since I'm often bored by chicken, I wanted to see if I could find something a little more exciting. Luckily, my local Casino supermarket features a weekly meat sale in a refrigerated case near the front of the store. Each week, they load it up with meat that's about to (but hasn't yet) passed its expiration date, at bargain prices. It's a fun way to be inspired: pick up some meat that's dirt cheap, and let that main ingredient dictate what else you'll buy and cook.
For Monday's dinner, I was lucky enough to find some rich, meaty duck legs on sale. I picked up four large ones, and the total came to less than 8 euro! Duck legs need long, slow cooking, both to render the enormous amounts of fat that they come enrobed in, and also to tenderize the somewhat tough meat. I decided to make a slow-simmered ragù, with shredded duck meat and a simple base of carrots, onions and tomatoes.
I started off by slowly searing the duck legs over a low flame, without any seasoning, in order to render most of their fat. And don't throw that duck fat away! For cooking, it's liquid gold: use it to sauté vegetables, use it to make warm salad dressings, and definitely, definitely use it to roast potatoes: their flavor and richness is, well, indescribably good. (To keep rendered duck fat, strain it into a clean container, cover, and refrigerate indefinitely.)
Once I had rendered the majority of the fat off the duck legs, I removed them to a plate to cool, then I used a small sharp knife to cut off some of the pockets of fat that remained. I sautéed garlic, onions, and carrots, along with a bit of dried thyme, in a heavy pan, then added crushed canned tomatoes and red wine once they had softened. I slipped the duck legs back into the pan, covered it, and simmered away for about 3 hours. Then I took the duck legs back out, chilled them down rapidly in the fridge, pulled away and discarded all the remaining skin and fat, and shredded the meat into bite-sized pieces that I deposited back into the sauce. A little before my guests were due to arrive, I turned the heat under the pan back on, and further reduced and heated the sauce for about a half hour. Finally, I ladled the sauce over some al dente egg noodles, garnished it with shards of parmesan and chopped parsley, and ate. A 30-minute meal this was not, but it was well worth it in the end.
Slow-Cooked Duck Ragù
Serves 8 - 10
- 4 whole duck legs (both thigh and drumstick)
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 large onions, cut into a small dice
- 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into a large dice
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 1/2 bottle dry red wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grated or shaved parmesan cheese, for serving
- Chopped parsley, for serving
- 1 1/2 lbs. egg noodles, cooked, for serving
1. Arrange the duck legs in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pan and place over low-medium heat. Cook for 20 - 30 minutes, turning the duck pieces occasionally, until they have rendered the majority of their fat. Strain the fat into a jar for later use. Set duck aside to cool. When cool, use a small sharp knife to cut away any large pockets of fat.
2. Drain off all but 1 tbsp. of duck fat from the pan and add 1 tbsp. olive oil. Sauté the onions, carrots and garlic over medium heat until softened. Add the red wine and bring to a boil, using a wooden spoon to scrape any bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the canned tomatoes and some salt and lower sauce to a simmer. Put the duck back in the pan, cover, and simmer for 3 hours.
3. Remove the duck legs from the sauce and cool them on a plate in the refrigerator. When cool, remove all remaining skin and fat from the duck and discard. Using your hands, remove the duck meat from the bone and shred into bite-size pieces. Stir the duck back into the sauce.
4. Place the whole pot in the fridge and cool for at least 2 hours or as long as overnight. The excess fat will rise to the surface; skim it off and discard.
5. 30 minutes before eating, turn the heat back on and simmer sauce. Check for seasoning. Serve over egg noodles, garnished with parmesan and parsley.