28 December, 2009

The fatted liver.

One of my (many and manifold) weaknesses is an everlasting willingness to be seduced by foie gras. And in France, this is definitely the season for either duck or goose foie gras. I am lucky enough to know someone who makes his own foie gras from geese and ducks raised on kitchen peelings and whatever they find in his field. But supermarkets across France are stocked with this delicacy (in a range of diferent levels of quality and price). Beyond France, foie gras is considered a food of the elite as it is after all a luxury dish, but within France, at Christmas and New Year, it is a fixed, nearly standard feature on the table of the average Joe.

Outside of France, there has been momentum, off and on, to ban foie gras. Indeed, it is banned in some countries altogether, such as Turkey and Israel. You may perhaps remember the two year ban in Chicago. As Alex Koppelman of Salon.com rather acerbically writes:

It's undoubtedly true that some farms use inhumane methods, like caging the birds in tiny, individual cages that cause them pain and distress, but when foie gras is produced the right way (the way Hudson Valley does it, for instance) it's simply not torture. It's just a process through which humans take advantage of the duck's natural biology, which is very well suited to the kind of force-feeding involved in producing these fatty livers.
If you oppose foie gras, even if the only thing you've ever done about it is to make a dinner companion feel guilty, and you still eat conventionally raised meat, you're a raging hypocrite and a silly one at that. The eggs you ate for breakfast, the cheese that came on top, and the bacon on the side, all of it is produced using methods more torturous than the ones employed on a good foie gras farm. Animals on a typical farm these days are confined in spaces so small they can't turn around, much less do any of the things they'd normally do in nature. And in order to keep them at least somewhat healthy and functional despite those conditions, which tend to make them stressed and unhappy, their bodies are altered to keep them from harming themselves and their fellow animals -- chickens have their beaks trimmed, pigs and cows get their tails docked.
If you would like to find out more about this, you might be interested in the new Mark Caro book "TheFoie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight." (Mark Caro is the columnist whose article resulted in the Chicago ban).

Enough of the world, back to the kitchen. If you know and appreciate the stuff, and can get your hands on some nice foie gras, I urge you to try this terrine, which I adapted from an Elle à Table recipe I scrounged up the day before a big dinner. Here's why: it is made well in advance, is so easy and relatively fast to prepare, looks impressive and tastes even better. The fruit harmonizes (yes, harmonizes!) with the foie gras to perfection. The only disadvantage I can think of, assuming you like foie gras and have no allergy to nuts, is that it's never inexpensive. The only special equipment you'll need is a terrine dish (about 12 cm in length should do); this is a glazed baking dish with straight sides.

Terrine de Foie Gras aux Fruits Secs/Fruit-Studded Foie Gras Terrine

Serves six.

250 g foie gras mi-cuit (i.e. not raw, but rather ready to serve)
4 dried figs, (the hard stem bit cut and discarded) chopped
1 tablespoon cranberries (or raisins)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (or pistachios)
20 g butter
2 tablespoons Banyuls, sherry or Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons white Port, or Pineau de Charentes, or a dessert wine such as Sauternes
a pinch or two of Cayenne pepper
fresh ground pepper and salt to taste

Place a large piece of plastic wrap into the terrine dish; this will allow you to easily remove the terrine for slicing later. Break or cut the foie gras roughly into pieces, place in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat, add the chopped dried fruit and nuts and stir. Add the vinegar, stir again, then add the Port and cayenne pepper. The kitchen will suddenly reek of vinegar fumes. Don't despair. Grind pepper into the pan and add a light sprinkle of salt.

Once the vinegar and Port have evaporated leaving only the butter, remove the pan from the heat. This should take about five minutes. Allow the fruit mixture to cool a bit before adding it to the foie gras in the mixing bowl. Gently mix the two, then pile the combination into the terrine dish, pressing down to push out any air pockets underneath. Completely cover the top with the plastic wrap and allow to rest, refrigerated, for at least one night.

When ready to serve, pull the ends of the plastic wrap gently to dislodge then remove the terrine from its dish. Slice with a knife that has been previously warmed in hot water. Serve with toasted French bread slices and a spoonful of thick, vanillla-scented fig conserves.

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