In this day of Food Network stars and celebrity chefs, one culinary icon (BAM!) has been singing the praises of the pig for nearly as long as he’s been mugging for the camera: “Pork fat rules, baby”.
Apparently, the man has never been to a Duck Off.
On a cool Autumn evening this past November a unique culinary experience was brewing at Grange Restaurant,a culinary first for Sacramento, to my knowledge: Northern California’s first-ever Duck Off. The five-course, prix fixe dinner benefitting the California Waterfowl Association, was preceded by an Iron Chef style competition between Grange executive chef Michael Tuohy and food writer Hank Shaw. The cook-off was judged by a veritable who’s-who of Sacramento Foodie Glitterati, including Darrel Corti and Rick Kushman. The resulting menu for that evening was a collaboration of the best dishes of both competitors, accompanied by a pre-selected flight of wines to pair with each course.
Course One was a housemade duck charcuterie platter, a striking composition of 4 duck delicacies against a clean white pallette. Duck prosciutto, duck rillette, duck torchon and duck sausage stuffed in the neck—-maybe they should come up with a better name for that one? The wine pairng was a lovely Domaine Carneros 2005 Brut.
The Best of Plate award went to the torchon, ethereal in both taste and texture, it was like buttah, only bettah. The brut was fantastic, dry, clean and fresh, it cleansed the palate and readied it for each successive bite.
Course Two was a salade of warm duck confit, field lettuces and pickled French prunes, dressed with a duck fat vinaigrette with the lightest touch of tarragon. This course may have been my favorite of the evening. The contrast of the warm confit, the crunch of the greens, the delicately balanced vinaigrette, along with a smattering of the pickled prunes (I could eat a jar of those), the dish was a symphony of flavor and textures. The accompanying wine, a 2008 Tablas Creek Rose, was as fresh and vibrant as the salad itself.
Course Three was a house-made tagliatelle (made with duck eggs, natch!), perfectly al dente and topped with a duck sugo, paired with a 2005 Pavi Dolcetto. The main event was next, the Duck Cassoulet.
What could be better on a cool autumn evening that a fragrant au gratin of beans, duck confit, duck sausage and pork belly (score one for pork fat!)? The Rancho Gordo beans were nicely spiced and firm of texture, the duck leg meat falling properly off the bone, the pork belly lending a smoky note, the crunch of a light crumb topping adding a nice contrast of texture. The wine (ah, the WINE) was a Napa label, B Cellars and their Blend 24. Nice structure, bold, intense yet smooth, it had the backbone to stand up against the rich flavors of the cassoulet—fantastic.
Dessert? Groan! Well of course, duty calls.
Before ‘all vegetable shortening’, before Marie Callendar’s, before the American Heart Association, cooks the world-over maintained a preference for their pie crust fat of choice, one that produced the lightest, flakiest base for their seasonal fillings. That fat was lard, folks. Our final course at Grange that evening pays homage to the bakers of the past in the form of a Pear tart with a duck fat crust.
The crust was sturdy yet flakey, the perfect foil for the poached pear, blueberry sauce, and layer of unidentified sweet creamy goodness lying beneath the fruity layers above. A tangy dollop of sweetened creme fraiche along with a sip of the 2007 Essencia Orange Muscat, it was a sweet conclusion to our five-course duck repast.
Beyond the food, the kitchen did an excellent job pacing the courses. We felt neither rushed, nor did we linger too long in between each dish. Our server James provided an attentive, yet not cloying presence throughout our entire evening, leaving us feeling well taken care of, but in a totally unobtrusive manner.
So the next time you hear the blustery “Pork fat rules” blaring from the plasma, I suggest your offer up a suggestion for one certain celebrity chef: “Hey Emeril, Duck Off!”