Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Duck Fat Fantasy

When my Mamma was growing up, almost no one cooked with olive oil. When I was growing up, no one baked with lard. Our family’s transition from butter to margarine and back again was repeated millions of times across the country in the 1980s and 90s, when studies on the adverse effects of trans fats first started changing minds.

Now lard is starting to creep back into pie crusts, as cooks and bakers across the country shed processed products like Crisco in favor of the all natural. Still, lard can be difficult to find. I don’t use it often in my own cooking, but when I do, I buy it from the Flying Pigs Farm stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. Flying Pigs Farm offers rendered leaf lard, lovely and delicate and perfect for baking flaky pie crusts. Since it’s a coveted item that sells out quickly, you can get on the farm’s mailing list for updates when they plan to sell the lard (Fridays and Saturdays at Union Square, and Saturdays at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn).

It’s hard to believe at this point that yet another fat could make its way onto the scene–and become a fad, at that–but so it has. Over the past few years, duck fat has risen from modest obscurity (as a necessary ingredient in duck confit, if nothing else), to a trendy restaurant mainstay.

Fat in general is enjoying a resurgence, as people begin to realize that non-fat doesn’t always equal healthy, and that the amount and quality of what you eat is often just as important as its caloric value. You cannot consume the same amount of duck fat as you do olive oil without threatening heart disease, and that’s one reason why it gets mislabeled as unhealthy, but it doesn’t have to be (have you read the government’s new nutritional guidelines? Simply put: Less is more!).

Of course, in winter it’s harder for me to deny myself the fried and fatty comfort foods I love; in the absence of fresh fruits, the full harvest of vegetables, and lighter, seafood fare that’s prevalent the rest of the year long, it can get tough in winter to regulate our fat intake. But how many other fats and oils do you regularly find printed as an ingredient on your menu? When your chicken is pan fried in peanut oil, the method isn’t listed, but just try to find a gastropub in the city that doesn’t list duck fat as a vital “ingredient” of its fries! I suspect its pub prevalence is an Old English tradition born from the origin of the word duce, meaning “diver” or “duck,” that makes duck fat a gastropub mainstay, but just last week Sam Sifton gave my British buddies over at Fat Radish a shout-out for their “exceptional” (and as the name promises) fatty, quacky, fries.

April Bloomfield’s duck fat fries at the Breslin are some of my favorites, thick cut and meltingly soft. As the French have known for centuries, potatoes and duck fat go together like pie and ice cream. This winter I even tried frying my famous latkes in duck fat (not for veggies!), which gave them just an extra touch of richness. I bought a one-pound tub of fat last fall from the New Amsterdam Market for a bargain price, and have kept it in my freezer alongside pints of my Concord grape sorbet for those meals I think deserve an extra punch of flavor.

Slathered on a chicken before roasting, duck fat crisps and browns the skin; garlic confit, meanwhile, could grace even a summer salad with delicacy. By and large, though, duck fat seems to me a winter ingredient. When I think of duck fat I think of slow-braised meats and savory roasted root vegetables, food that is best eaten when the thermometer has dropped below 32 (after all, unlike many fats we use, duck fat is an animal product). This winter, I’ve had a harder time than usual resisting duck fat’s siren call, as week after week of snow and slush has kept me home-bound and hibernating. When I pore through recipes for warming winter foods, it’s one ingredient that keeps reappearing, an inspirational base from which I can develop an entire menu.

It’s probably unfair to give Bloomfield all of the credit for popularizing rich, meat-centric cuisine in this city, but she certainly deserves some of it. I’ll never forget the whole roasted pig served to Mr. Mix and his friends at the Breslin last year at his birthday party–neither, I’m sure, will anyone else there who witnessed it! Though I was a big fan of the John Dory (and am delighted that it’s now been resuscitated as the John Dory Oyster Bar), I think Bloomfield’s always at her best when she’s working with simple, hearty fare. I adored her gnudi and rabbit at the Spotted Pig, and have enjoyed almost everything I’ve tried at the Breslin…crispy ears and pig snout not included!

But when the crowds are too dense, I’m happy to know that I can curl up at home and fry up a batch of my own thick cut fries in sizzling, decadent duck fat. In my duck fat fantasy, instead of a studio in the West Village, I am in an artist’s garret in Paris, frying my potatoes over a single electric hotplate as the snow falls on Montmartre outside my window. With a glass of Bordeaux, a warm Taleggio and the winds swirling white outside, it could almost be true.

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