I’m probably somehow cheating by systematically selecting the more appealing-sounding recipes to prepare first from The French Laundry. It would be more equivocal if I just started on page one and worked my way through to page 326, but I’m going to allow myself a little flexibility. It’s not like I’m making the deliberately easy-seeming recipes. It’s just that usually, if given the choice amongst all the fish, fowl, and four-legged beasts, I can’t help but gravitate toward duck. That may be because we had ducks growing up on the little half-ark my father, channeling his inner-god complex, created for us.
I say half-ark because mostly we had one of everything, so we would have been SOL in truly apocalyptic times. One cow (Slobber, my bff), one horse (Smokey, my nemesis), one stork (a tale for another time), one sheep, and so on, you get the picture. Which is why it was a little odd that we had two ducks. They were the unchallenged rulers of the realm. They had the dogs, cowering in fear every time they so much as wobbled by on their webby, stumpy feet. I was a brazen little girl, insisting on mowing the lawn with my shirt off just because I had seen my dad do it a hundred times. I rode our horse bareback and explored the far-reaches of our acreage on solo missions armed only with a pair of threadbare shorts and an active imagination. This is to say, I didn’t scare easily. But I was amongst the plebian denizens frightened to the core of those scheming ducks. If I would round a corner and happen unawares upon the ducks, they would come at me clucking and pecking at my heels until I left them to their malicious devices.
Fast-forward nearly thirty years- maybe I subconsciously like to eat duck because I feel like I’m somehow getting back at those two saboteurs of my happy-go-lucky childhood. I certainly don’t hate ducks in their live state; I think they’re striking and on the smarter side as far as fowl goes. I do, however, prefer them on the plate if they’re going to be within five feet of me. Which is why I jumped at the chance to make Keller’s duck roulade. It’s basically flattened duck breasts wrapped in blanched chard leaves cooked at 190° in a water bath for 8 minutes. Sounds simple enough, no? So I thought I would measure the total time spent making the dish. It starts with a “quick sauce” of duck bones and anyone who has made one of the quick sauces from The French Laundry knows that they are anything but quick. I figured since I needed to make the sauce from duck bones it would be more economical to buy a whole duck for the affair. I’d use the breasts for the roulade, the carcass for the sauce, and reserve the legs for a confit preparation along with the fat I could render from the bird. It turned out to be a wise choice, however I felt a little like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York going all meat-cleaver on my duck carcass. There was duck blood sputtering all over the kitchen and I was really happy Bentley Danger was tucked safely in his crib for a nap, because who wants their two-year-old to liken them to Bill the Butcher?
I’ve broken down plenty of fowl carcasses in my life, but never quite so meticulously as with this duck. It was imperative that my breasts remain as large and intact as possible in order to maximize them for the roulade, so I took great care extracting them from the frame (upon rereading the previous sentence, I suppose one might read it with dirtier thoughts than I intended. Oops!). Keller wants the remaining bones 2” long in order to extract as much possible flavor for the quick stock, so I had to somehow cleave very carefully. I don’t know about you, but it is all but impossible for me to bring a cleaver down on anything and not close my eyes as its making contact. Not sure if it’s some cobweb in my mind from a horror flick gone awry, or just a natural instinct, but I’d be curious if it’s the same for you. I wonder if it’s the same thing as trying to sneeze with your eyes open, perhaps.
About the time I was carefully extracting my luscious breasts, I started fantasizing about who I would have to dinner along with Thomas Keller. It’s a far-flung goal of mine to cook for him, but who best to fill the remaining seats? I decided to go ahead and put together a dream-team of my all-time-favorite living idols, cooking and otherwise. So that’s Thomas Keller, Jeffrey Steingarten (there would have to be an amuse bouche of grubs or beetles or something to satisfy him), Christopher Walken, and David Lebovitz. I could waltz with Walken, test my latest gelato on Lebovitz, quake in my boots for what Steingarten would say of the meal, and bask in the sheer genius of Keller all night long. I actually think it would be a well-blended set, and I don’t think they’ve all been in the same room at once before, so I would give them something to bond over. I would LOVE to hear your ultimate dinner party if you’d care to share in the comments. Make sure they’re living folks- that way there’s a remote chance it will actually happen!
After the starting the sauce, I got down to trimming up the duck breasts so they’d fit symmetrically within the chard leaves. It was a sad sight trimming off all the perfectly good meat, but I’ve reserved it for another use, so all is well with the world. Rolling the breasts in the leaves was trickier than it sounded, but in the end I got perfect little roll-ups that rested in the refrigerator while the sous vide machine heated up to temperature. Keller actually calls for immersing the roulades wrapped in plastic into a pot of water kept at 190°, but I have a sous vide machine, so why not use it?
Meanwhile I got a chance to play with the chemical properties of corn by extracting corn water from the cob, then heating it and watching it quickly thicken from the natural cornstarch present. The creamy corn that is a part of this recipe is a relatively simple vegetable dish that I will repeat often since it was beyond pleasurable. The morel topper made with what eventually became duck sauce, however, is what pushed me over the edge to try this dish. Morels are nearing the end of their season here in Washington, and they are my favorite mushroom by far. This is perhaps the best showcase of their meaty, woodsy qualities I’ve prepared this season. From top to bottom, this dish is a MUST-TRY if you are even remotely a Keller-phile such as myself. Nothing is overly-daunting, and the ratio of accomplishment to time spent is quite high for a recipe from The French Laundry.