Monday, February 11, 2013

South-west French menu frangourou style

As my family's from south-west France, I grew up with all the delicious things that characterise its culinary traditions--such as ducks, geese, herbs, garlic, corn, nuts--and the other day I decided to make a dinner which reflected those things but with added frangourou touches, and of course, sourced as much as possible from the garden and pantry. It would be built around a centrepiece of duck breasts done Gascon style, pan fried with a delicious pepper and Armagnac sauce.
Once upon a time, we used to keep Muscovy ducks here too in our New England fastness, and made confit and duck ham and cassoulet and so on frequently; but David got sick of keeping them--ducks are messy creatures, they breed prolifically so we were getting swamped with regiments of ducks that eventually had to be dispatched, plucked and prepared--not the most enjoyable of jobs. Plus the kids--and ourselves--got sick of the taste.
These days, as it's many years since we kept ducks, we're not sick of the taste any more and enjoy it when we have it on occasion. I've discovered that one of our local butchers( the same one we sourced the wild rabbit from) also sells duck breasts, two to a pack, that are considerably cheaper than you can buy them in the supermarkets. They're from Australian-bred free range ducks,delicious, very tender, with a good coating of the rich fatty skin that gives duck its particular flavour. (And lest you think it can't be good for you, let me just quote this statistic I read once:France has the lowest rate of heart disease in the OECD--and south west France, which eats so much duck and goose fat, has the lowest rate in France!)
So here's the menu:
Entrée: Herb and garlic soup
Ingredients: handful chopped lettuce, half-handful chopped sorrel, chopped herbs according to taste--I made a mix of lots of different ones we have in the garden, including sage, tarragon, thyme, garlic chives and chives; three or four large sliced garlic cloves, plus an extra one to put in at last minute. Stock, a little butter or olive oil, splash white wine.
Fry the 3-4 sliced garlic cloves, add the herbs, lettuce, sorrel. Stir. Add a little salt and pepper. Add splash of wine, stock. Cook for about 20 minutes, add last garlic clove(sliced or chopped) in last few minutes. Optional: Serve with slice of home-made bread fried in the duck fat, or in olive oil.
Main: Meat: Gascon-style duck breasts in pepper and Armagnac sauce(you can substitute cognac or brandy for the Armagnac if you don't have any)
Score the duck breast skin in a criss-cross pattern; push in peppercorns(green is best) into some of the score marks, rub with a bit of salt. If you have duck fat to cook these in, so much the better--if not use olive oil. Fry the breasts skin side down first, on a not-too hot stove, till the skin is golden(about 10 minutes), then turn and cook on the other side, about 5-6 mins depending on thickness. Duck should not be overcooked but should be still pink and juicy inside. In last minute or so, pour out most of the fat from the pan(keep to use for cooking chips, croutons, vegs and the like, it's delicious and keeps well in the fridge). Splash in the Armagnac into the pan, swirl around, then serve the breasts warm.
Main: vegetables: Fresh fennel stewed with thyme, fresh  sweet corn with tarragon. The latter is a frangourou touch-in south west France, though maize meal and flour is used a lot in cooking, sweet corn is unknown--and people never eat corn on the cob, that is considered food for the ducks, geese and pigs! But our gorgeous garden sweet corn would make those prejudices vanish, I'm sure!
For the fennel, simply chop it up in small pieces, fry briefly in some olive oil, add salt, pepper, good lot of thyme and one bay leaf. Add water to just cover, simmer till fennel is soft. For the corn, boil cobs till done(only 1 minute or so), then scrape all the corn off the cobs, swirl in a bit of butter, salt, and chopped tarragon.
Dessert: Hazelnut quatre-quarts(a simple butter cake), with coffee cream, decorated with pralined almonds and crystallised violets from Toulouse(the latter optional of course!)
Quatre-quarts is a plain simple butter cake, a classic French family cake. It's called quatre quarts, or four quarters, because it's made up of four equal parts of eggs, butter, sugar and flour. Only in this case I replaced half the flour with hazelnut meal. You need either 4 small eggs or three medium ones, 150 g melted unsalted butter, 150 g castor sugar, 150 g self raising flour(or in this case 75 g SR flour and 75 g hazelnut meal) . Beat the whole eggs together, adding sugar, till light and frothy. Fold in the melted butter alternatively with the flour/meal mixture. When completely mixed in, pour into a greased round cake tin. Cook in a 180 degree C oven(350 F) for 35 mins. Top and sides should be nicely golden brown. Cool cake on rack then when quite cold spread with whipped cream flavoured with some sweet coffee. Meanwhile, while cake was cooling, I'd also made some pralined almonds, using slivered almonds, caramelised in a pan with sugar and a tiny bit water, till they are golden brown, crunchy and delicious(they need to be completely cooled down before putting on the cream.) The finishing touch was the speciality that I always bring back whenever I visit the beautiful ancient city, Toulouse, that was my home as a young child--crystallised violets. But of course you can use whatever you like or simply leave with the pralined almond and coffee cream top.
Bon appétit--or bon apetís, as it's said in Occitan, the old language of the Toulouse region!

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