The Fallingwater Chef at Home: The Celebratory Dinner
Greetings and salutations all!
Fallingwater Chef Tom Shuttlesworth here, cooking my way through another week of The Great Quarantine of 2020. Once again, I can't possibly understate the current conditions on the ground: This is very serious business and I hope that everyone is keeping safe, keeping social distance and holding strong. I know that for some, this already has been interminable, but think of the quarantine just as you would taking antibiotics -- just because the curve is flattening, or you are feeling better, doesn't mean you should stop pursuing the correct action. Finish the course!
One of the better “tags” I've come across for this particular time in history is The Great Pause. Whether one is working from home, continuing to work an essential role or is even without work, almost all of us have experienced the rapid slowdown of the tempo of life, a sudden wealth of time not often available in daily life. Without those “normal” myriad distractions, concerns and worries, I find myself more contemplative of late, pondering and pursuing cooking and restaurant ideas both new and old.
I choose to actively avoid chasing negative thoughts down their respective rabbit holes, but I have given a lot of thought to how the shutdown is not only affecting restaurants and my brother and sister chefs, but the entirety of the food supply system. Let me simply say, do support your local restaurants and pubs when they reopen; small, non-corporate, chef-driven dining platforms have and continue to be amongst the hardest hit businesses. Many will close forever and those that reemerge will need your business.
A Chef in the French Tradition
A request for a “special” dinner from Mrs. Chef Tom led me down a different path of considerations this week: an examination of what kind of chef I am, where I come from and how I perceive cooking. To me, no real, honest food nor solid and able chef can exist without firm foot in a tradition, understanding of local foods and flavor palette, specific cooking techniques or the dishes one was raised on; a chef does not come fully formed from the ether.
Like any other craftsman or craft, chefs and cooking draw upon generations of accumulated knowledge -- there are reasons why some ingredients “just go together,” and why some techniques work better than others with a given ingredient or desired end result. From my perspective, with any number of deviations and counter-arguments, the combined knowledge of all Western cooking is encapsulated in the classic French tradition, which is not to say the specific recipes as such, but all the cooking techniques and ways of manipulating basic raw foodstuffs. This is the tradition in which I was trained and have worked throughout my career.
The French, rich in their forests, farms, vineyards and waterways, had ample bounty and quality to create a formidable cuisine. But it was their written codification, organization and refinement of all things culinary that forever link the French with fine dining. And it is within that framework of local, traditional French recipes and cooking where I find the most joy, most harmony, the deepest connection to the gastronomic world, a connection that woke my latent inner chef. Simple or highly refined, hearty or light, traditional or crafted “à la minute,” ever seasonal, always elevating the base ingredients to their zenith, this seamless intertwining of technique and ingredients always sings when refracted through this French lens.
“The Cook Breathes Life into the Cooking”
As chefs, we can adapt, enrich and evolve these dishes, twist them around with molecular gastronomy, de- and re-construct recipes but that can only happen with the full understanding of the original, the ingredient pairing, flavor profiles and balance. There really are no “new” dishes, every combination has been attempted, created and recreated, and only very occasionally will something truly new emerge. Too often when out to eat or reading a menu, I am confronted by strange dishes redolent of young chefs with little regard or training in any cooking tradition, flavors disjointed and jarring, plates seemingly compositions in abstract.
I am less inclined to try the interesting sounding, looks-good-on-paper dishes than I once might have been. On the other hand, it seems traditional French food has fallen out of favor for the opposite sin: dogmatic pursuit of the classical with the end result of stodgy food. It is the cook that breathes life into cooking. The cook must constantly check and taste and understand their dish, every single time; a recipe is a guide, not a blueprint.
A Spring Celebratory Dinner
With an eye to that which we have on-hand and my thoughts clearly gravitating to the roots of my personal culinary journey, I decided on roast duck magret, local red currant sauce, red wine-braised cabbage and duck fat roasted potatoes. Not a traditional dish, as far as I know, but classic flavor pairings brought together with good technique. To me, on many levels, meat is meat and potatoes are potatoes; it is the braised cabbage and red currant sauce upon which the dish rests. The sauce is based around my own home-canned red currant jelly and homemade stock, while the cabbage, though straightforward and traditional, takes on a light backdrop of “exotic” but wine-friendly notes of cinnamon, star anise and Szechuan peppercorn as foil to the currant sauce.
I did not take specific measurements or follow any recipes for our celebratory spring dinner, so instead, this a recipe in the form of a guide that allows the cook to follow his or her own bliss.
Oven Roasted Potatoes
This is a favorite technique of mine for roasting potatoes with an end result of lovely color and texture. B-reds work great, as does adding a handful of fresh herbs and/or garlic cloves to the initial boil.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash, then cut the amount of potatoes needed to serve; split fingerlings, cut b-reds into quarters, perhaps 5-6 fingerlings, or 2-4 reds per person.
- Place potatoes and salt in pot, cover with ample amounts of water, bring to slow boil.
- When potatoes are just soft enough -- a prod with a paring knife isn't rebuffed by the potato’s rawness nor goes straight through effortlessly -- drain completely in a colander.
- Toss potatoes with duck fat, or reasonable substitute, and season.
- Place on roasting sheet and place in oven. Roast until desired color and texture achieved, stirring often.
The duck magret is the breast of a duck reared to produce foie gras; just like the duck's liver, the breast becomes large, rich and succulent through the feeding process, it is much larger than a normal duck breast. Each breast is 13-16 ounces, so each easily feeds 2-3 people depending on appetite. A regular duck breast could be substituted, as could any number of other proteins like lamb, or a pork roast, etc.
- Score the magret's fat layer, trying not to cut into the meat. Salt both sides of the breast generously, then place skin side down in a preheated pan at low to medium low.
- Allow fat to render very slowly, until the skin side has a nice, dark golden color and the fat is mainly rendered. You should need to drain off excess fat multiple times during this process, and should end up with 1/2 to a full cup. Save this fat for the potatoes and future projects.
- When you feel the breast is properly caramelized on the skin side, remove from the pan, bring the heat up to medium to medium high, return to the pan and sear the bottom/meat side.
- Remove from pan and set aside, saving any juices that exude for the sauce.
- When ready, the breast can be finished in the oven with the potatoes at 375.
- Five minutes in the oven should get you to around medium; allow meat to rest for another 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Simple Red Currant Sauce
I make batches of chicken stock from time to time, and keep on hand reduced, gelatin-thickened stock in the freezer to use for occasions like these. There really isn't much you can substitute for reduced stock, though one could attempt warming some currant jam or jelly until liquid and mounting it with butter without the addition of stock.
- Put approximately one cup of reduced stock into a small saucepan and reduce over heat by half or until very thick.
- Remove from burner and whisk in 2-3 Tbs. currant jelly, or to taste. When incorporated, whisk in 2-3 Tbs. whole butter, also to taste.
- Season with salt, perhaps a literal drop or two of quality vinegar -- this sauce should be a bit tart.
Recommended wine pairing
Enjoy as we did with a young, unrefined Cote du Rhone, or any full bodied, robust red: a nice Bordeaux or Burgundy, California cab, a temperanillo or malbec.
Enjoy and continue to stay safe!