Now - the more someone says to me "you can't do that", the more likely I am to do it. You only live once, right? Ok, not in that reckless, teenage rage against everything way. But, with a clear and level-head - 'smart/controlled rebellion' (so, maybe pretty much negating the concept altogether). And maybe only when it comes to a 'safe arena' - like food.
But, when California decided to proceed with putting into effect a law banning production and sale of foie gras in the state, in response to a vocal minority that fought to impose their ideals on everyone else - I cheered those who stood up to oppose it, as well as exploring and exploiting legal loopholes. It's true that I love and am a bit addicted to foie, but beyond that, it's the principle of the irrational few (why bother with scientific investigation when you can rely on rhetoric?) essentially bullying others by restricting them from activities they disagree with, that I oppose. I won't get onto my soapbox again about food politics here, but suffice it to say that I was then all the more determined to continue to foie (yes, just used it as a verb).
As luck would have it, an out of state gourmet goods store was recently offering a steep discount across all of their products - including foie gras - and I jumped on the chance to place an order for beautiful lobes of Hudson Valley, Grade A, perfection personified, foie.
At first I didn't even think they would ship it - and fully anticipated that apologetic email notifying me that they are unable to fulfill my order. But to my pleasant surprise - the discount worked, the order went through, and I got the most gorgeous liver ever - two full pounds of it - a few days later. It was foodgasm at first sight.
Since I pessimistically didn't think it would actually deliver, I didn't plan very well as to what I would do with it. Once it arrived I knew I only had a matter of days, maybe a week - before it would spoil, or the equally unattractive alternative, that I would have to freeze it (destroying its luscious texture). As someone who barely ever even makes spaghetti nowadays, I felt like I was in no condition to prepare the foie myself - I didn't trust myself to experiment with such a pristine (and expensive) ingredient.
After an effort to enlist pro help on short notice didn't pull through - I realized it was time to, as my friend Ms Sassy loves to say, go "balls out" and learn to make it myself - precisely because I didn't think I could.
Another friend, Sinosoul had suggested making torchon, and I realized that if I was going to do this, let's go all the way - no wimping out. It was going to be the Thomas Keller recipe or nothing. I decided on the Foie Gras Terrine recipe, since I like the foie a little lighter in texture. But, since the recipe only called for 1.25lbs of foie, and I had 2lbs on my hands - I decided to play, and have it three ways.
#1: Seared. I love the pure texture of foie, barely cooked in the pan - the better to enjoy its gorgeous natural fatty, buttery smooth consistency. Several recipes suggested dusting pieces with flour first, and this was effective in forming a nice crust that counterbalanced nicely the fattiness of the foie. I think the universe was sending a sign that I needed to get on this foie project - as that weekend was the Epicure Imports gourmet warehouse sale, so I was able to stock up on a bunch of fantastic toppings for the foie - white truffle salt, truffle 'pearls'/caviar, and fig preserves. I was in heaven, tasting foie again in the sanctity of my 'special occasions only' kitchen. Though, the next time I do this I will remember to allow for thicker cut slices, higher heat and less time on the pan.
#2: Torchon (via Terrine recipe): the Thomas Keller recipe for Foie Gras Terrine was a four day process. Day 1 was the easiest: just unwrap the foie and soak it in milk, overnight in an airtight container in the fridge, to draw out any blood in the lobe.
Torchon Day 2: Deveining. Aka my least favorite part. You basically have to break apart the large and small parts of the liver, then alternately cut with a knife (dipped in boiling water to allow cleaner cuts) / pick with your bare fingers, a network of veins going through the lobes, pulling them out to ensure the smoothest, vein-free torchon. The liver was less soft and pliable than expected - I thought it would be closer to the texture of oysters, just firmer - but perhaps due to the high fat content, it was more like slick silly putty. Maybe I should have let it get down to room temperature a bit more first, but I also didn't want the thing to melt...Anyways, it wasn't fun digging through trying to locate and remove veins. And it was heart-breaking to hack through the formerly beautiful lobe so that you end up with 'broken' chunks while you devein. This is the way it's supposed to be though, and the recipe says that like play-dough, you can reshape and reform the pieces later.
Next: press the foie into a dish, to about 1/4 to one inch thick layer, then marinate with a blend of salts and sugar (2 tsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp pink salt, 1/4 tsp fresh ground white pepper, 1/4 tsp sugar). The pink salt needs to be the kind with nitrates in it, specifically to cure the foie. Apparently this salt is pretty hard to find - so I would recommend for those wanting to attempt this at home - to make sure you try to buy the salt, ideally from the same place you're buying the foie - before you start. I ended up, like many others, using Himalayan salt - the only 'pink' (colored at least) salt in my local stores - which only had a small placebo effect making me feel like I had tried to follow this step as best as I could. Actual impact on the foie itself is dubious. Anyways, you take half that salt + sugar blend, sprinkle on top of the liver then press into it. Then flip the foie and repeat on the other side with the remaining marinating mix. After pressing, the foie looked more like pate...and I wasn't sure at all at this point if I was doing this right or completely ruining it. But all I could do was keep going. Following instructions, I pressed a piece of plastic wrap directly against the foie, then enclosed the entire container in more plastic before resting it in the fridge for 24 hours. I had made it through Day 2 ok, I
Torchon Day 3: This was the day I sort of dreaded, from a pure read-through of the recipe. There were many steps, some of which involved some cooking skill. At any one of these steps I could completely kill the whole thing. First I had to lift the foie out of the glass dish, then roll it into a log using parchment paper (and plastic wrap), to form a 'loaf' about 6" long and 3.5" wide. The recipe asked for parchment paper, but I read that many cooks recommended plastic wrap. I started with plastic, which helped form the log without foie getting everywhere - but found that I really needed the paper (I used repurposed the butcher paper Sur La Table used to wrap the gear I bought for this), which I wrapped around the log over the plastic. The paper was stiffer, so helpful in properly giving shape and helping compact the foie down so that it forms a tight log, essential to making a smooth torchon that won't break apart. I also liked doing both plastic and paper, so that the paper won't absorb some of the foie. You roll the paper while twisting the ends (so that it looks like a candy wrapper) to turn it into a log while pushing all the foie down as tightly as you can.
Removing the paper and plastic, I then put the log onto cheesecloth and rolled it up the same way, enfolding the foie while twisting the ends of the cheesecloth to compress the foie.
Then I wrapped twine around each end of the cheesecloth, winding it about 1/4" into the foie, to help compact it down (apparently if you do it tight enough, you'll see foie forced up through the cheesecloth). Twine then had to be tied at 3 places down the length of the foie log, evenly spaced. Then came the moment of truth: I had to poach the log quickly, then put it in an ice bath. I think this is when I finally decided to YouTube the process to make sure I was doing it right. I was excited to find this amazing video (below) by Sean Collins, that was basically showing the Thomas Keller recipe step by step, but sped up and put to a fantastic jazz soundtrack - so that you can get quick visual confirmation of how the process should look (without the drudgery of slow building, bad-pun-ridden instructional food shows on TV). I wish ALL gourmet recipes came with videos like his - I would definitely cook a lot more.
I prepared the wide pot of (organic) chicken broth (enough to cover the foie), brought to a simmer; and an ice bath as chase. So - a few deep breaths - and I plunged my beloved foie into the simmering stock. Because Thomas Keller said so. 90 seconds, and I quicky retrieved it...
After cooling, it was time to compact the log once again (because fat was lost during the poaching process). I rolled it in a cotton dish towel ("torchon" is French for dish towel - this step is where the foie dish gets its name from!), compressing as I went, the same way as before, by twisting the ends of the towel, then tying with twine.
Torchon Day 4: This was the day of reckoning - did I make or break My Precious?! I cut the log down, unwrapped it - then proceeded with the most heart-breaking step yet - to "scrape off and discard the outer layer" which has oxidized and turned gray overnight (as it should - but no one seemed to have accounted for the fact that it is nearly impossible to work while you are blinded by a solid waterfall of tears...I was incredibly sad to have to throw away any amount of foie, oxidized or not!!).
Some embarassingly bad knife work - but all that matters is that it didn't break apart - considering it's my first time making this thing! At this point in the Thomas Keller Foie Gras Terrine recipe, you're supposed to move on to the next step cutting sections up and pushing it through a tamis (drum sieve) - but I decided to take one section aside and enjoy it as torchon.
I had been inspired by the beauty of Mezze's presentation of foie torchon, and wanted to do something similar for mine. Thankfully, Gelsons carries edible flowers, and I still had some truffle pearls from Epicure Imports. So I assembled with those plus some fig preserves on the side, and some black and white truffle salts on top.
Here's a close-up shot. The torchon turned out pretty spot on in consistency, I think, but there were a few cracks where the log wasn't compacted enough. That's where the flowers came in handy as decoys, distracting from the cracks. As I had splurged on the foie and lots of other required equipment, I had to cut back on a few that I deemed not absolutely critical - like the metal ring to shape the torchon. And I realized I oversalted... But, all in all, I kind of loved the flaws in the torchon - it says, "I made this". On my own. It's not perfect but I'm proud that I tried, and it turned out pretty well.
Torchon to Terrine: I still had the majority of that log left - so getting back to the original Terrine recipe, I prepared an ice bath, put a metal bowl (ok, a saucepan as I didn't have a metal bowl) in it, then pushed the 2" sections of torchon through the tamis (drum sieve) with a plastic spatula. This process helps filter out any veins I missed in Day 2. (The metal bowl helps keep the pressed foie cold while you work with the remainder of it)
Then, the step whose description I love: to lighten the consistency of the foie, beat it for a few minutes with a sturdy spoon until it achieves the "texture of buttercream frosting". You're supposed to then transfer this creamy deliciousness into a pastry bag without a tip, to pipe into 6 oz glass crocks. I skimped on the pastry bag, and just spooned the foie 'buttercream' directly into mason jars. It filled three beautiful jars.
For best results, serve the foie the same day - I had mine with a brioche loaf from the closest bakery, some fresh figs, and a bottle of Sauternes. And almost died from sheer bliss. For a moment, I understood The Joy of Cooking. It probably tastes better because of the journey, and the sense of accomplishment from having gone through it. Still not gonna have time to do it regulary - but on special occasions, and especially for foie - I say, it's worth it. (For the other jars, I poured rendered duck fat over it to form a 'seal', upon refrigeration, that will keep it fresh for two weeks.)
And the next time I have the good fortune to afford / have access to foie, would I, could I, do this again? The next time something seems too daunting and that meek voice of doubt starts to peek out again to ask if I really can pull out what it takes to step up to the task? Emphatically, unequivocally: Yes, I can.
1.25lbs Grade A foie gras
Milk (a gallon will be more than enough)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pink salt (for curing)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
8 cups chicken stock, veal stock or water
1/2 cup rendered duck fat (jar of Rougie duck fat from Sur La Table is $11.95; you can also get a tub from Farmshop) or clarified butter melted and cooled to room temperature
[Toppings can be whatever you want - you can't go wrong with anything in the truffle or fig families]
Tamis (drum sieve - I got mine from Sur La Table for $39.95)
Large airtight containers
6 oz glass mason jars (available for $3.95 each from Sur La Table)
Metal bowl/metal saucepan
Cotton dish towel
Plastic wrap (I used Glad Press N Seal)
Dish for ice bath