I don’t know what happened to me the night before — some drink combination, or a particularly handsome man looking at me in a certain way — but I woke up last Sunday with nerves of steel. I could do anything, I suddenly realized. Why hadn’t I ever seen it before? Buoyed by this superlative confidence, I sent out a text to a few choice friends: “In search of duck bacon today. If I succeed, we will have dinner. Wish me luck.” And I ventured out into Brooklyn.
It’s laughable how easy it was. I should have known. It shouldn’t have surprised me that duck bacon in Brooklyn is literally sold on the sidewalk. But, there it was, in the heart of the paltriest, most pitiable farmer’s market I’ve ever seen. Six tents, crammed on the length of one sidewalk, offering very little in produce (no duh, it’s January in New York, but STILL. Very depressing). I walked up and down the block twice, looking for the duck salesman the internet had said might be there, before I finally saw why I hadn’t seen him the first two times: he was just some dude, youngish with a hipster beard, sitting atop a cooler, behind a hand-painted sign that simply said, “DUCKS.”
“I need some duck bacon?” I ventured. “You’ve come to the right place,” he replied. It was a very mundane conversation, considering the months and effort that had gone into my first forays in duck-bacon-purchasing. How could it be this easy? “How much do you need?” he asked. “How much do you got?” I shot back, feeling like a rebel. And, just like that, three plastic-wrapped packs of duck bacon were dropped on a table in front of me. I handed him some cash, he handed me the bacon, and I strolled off. Easy as that. I giggled nervously to myself, clutching the plastic bag to my chest and anxiously eyeing a trendy hipster couple pushing their kid in a stroller, lest they think they could make a grab and run.
Flushed with confidence, I ventured down the block to a butcher shop, one of those old-timey ones with sawdust on the floor and meat hanging from the windows. I asked the girl behind the counter if they had any duck, and she strolled into the back of the building, where she spent the next ten minutes. I had never purchased a whole bird before — not even so much as a whole chicken — so I was extremely nervous. Why was it taking so long? Was she chasing it around the backyard and chopping its head off? Would I have to chop its head off?! (Most of my knowledge of how whole duck is served comes from the Chinese dinner scene in A Christmas Story.)
Finally, she returned with what looked just like a thinner, longer chicken (thankfully headless) in a bag. Pleased, I paid for it and moved on to the next store: an extremely crunchy, organic market down the street. By this point, I was lugging around over $40 in duck, so I felt both an extreme sense of self-satisfaction, and also sore arms. Sure, I could have returned home, dropped off the duck, and gotten the same ingredients at my shitty corner C-Town grocery store for half the price, but A) you’re always told to “respect the ingredient” and if I was going to be serving $40 worth of duck, I was going to get the best, most organic ingredients, sore arms and long lines be damned, and B) I really, really, really hate everyone and everything about C-Town. It’s unspeakably horrendous, and I hope they go out of business tomorrow, if not sooner.
Dead duck. Only slightly terrifying.
But I managed to lug home all my ingredients on the subway, which was no small feat considering the hefty duck in my arms. Before moving to New York, I was nervous about looking like a fool as I carted exotic meats and seafood on the subway for this project. Now, after a few months here, I know everyone is too busy pretending not to notice the homeless guy screaming at the advertisement to even care about the kid carrying some chicken or whatever. I’m still not quite used to the idea that the more crowded a city is, the more invisible you become.
I knew this recipe would take at least five hours, so I got to work immediately upon returning home. For dinner I would be serving Gwyneth’s famous Duck Ragu, as well as a Classic Chopped Salad, which I chose because A) it’s easy and B) it has duck bacon in it, and I wanted a whole feast of duck to celebrate my triumph, damnit!
Sorry to get all Gwyneth on you, but this really is the best stuff ever.
The ragu, you should know, begins with a story about the time Gwyneth was given a cooking lesson from Jamie Oliver for her birthday. Of course. Even Jamie Oliver is nothing but a paid servant to Gwyneth Paltrow. She regales us with a description of the wonderful duck ragu he prepared with her, and then tells us that this recipe is her version of it. NOOOOOO. We want Jamie’s version! No one ever gives ME a cooking lesson from Jamie Oliver. 😦
Step one is to roast a whole duck. So I preheated the oven, and nervously removed the dead bird from its bag. I opened the “cavity” and removed the little bag of innards and immediately discarded them because, come on, guys, that’s disgusting. I then rubbed the outside of the bird with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then rubbed down the INSIDE, which was horrifying, just stroking the inner ribs of a dead animal. Oh god, it was the worst and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
I inserted the dead thing in the oven, where it would sit for two hours as I rotated it every half-hour. It pretty much immediately started to smell like the greatest thing ever. Also smelling like the greatest thing ever (gooooood segue): the diced duck bacon I was sauteeing in a pot on the stove. Once it had crisped up, I dumped in a whole pile of diced carrots, celery, garlic, and onions, and sprinkled some spices all over the mess but I don’t remember what spices those were so SORRY. It smelled ridiculous, though, and only kept getting better. Those simmered for about 20 minutes, before everything was nice and tender, and then I dumped in two big cans of whole peeled tomatoes, a little bit of water, and some Italian red wine. Gwyneth DEMANDS Italian wine, and my parents had given me a bottle of Italian red for Christmas, so I uncorked that baby and poured a little into the mix. And oh my god did it smell perfect after that point.
Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Sadly, it wasn’t even 4 pm, and we had a long way to go before dinner. But I also had this freshly opened bottle of wine on the counter, so why not taste a little of it? Next thing I know, I’ve watched nearly two hours of the first season of the Real World while the sauce was simmering on the stove, I had finished practically an entire bottle of wine by myself, and found myself afternoon-drunk, with a whole roast duck that still needed carving. I’d imagine this is exactly how it goes for Gwyneth at home when she makes this recipe.
Uhhhhh, now what?
I stared at the dead, juicy bird, and turned it over three times, trying to figure out where to start. I grabbed what I thought was our sharpest knife, flipped the duck over once more, and ran the knife along the center. The knife scraped horribly against bone, and nothing happened. So I grabbed a fork in my left hand and rethought my strategy, choosing instead to just shred the thing to pieces wherever I could find soft meat (Gwyneth does tell me to shred it, anyway). This took nearly half an hour of painstaking labor, but by the end I felt reasonably confident that all the usable meat had been extracted from the bird and added to the simmering pot of sauce on the stove. Well, probably half the usable meat; the other half went directly into my mouth without ever touching the ragu. Feeling drunk and confident, I also strained the rendered fat from the bottom of the pan into a Tupperware container and stored it in the freezer to use in a later recipe, JUST LIKE THE NATIVE AMERICANS PROBABLY DID. I’m basically a James Beard award-winning chef at this point.
Once the duck has been added to the ragu, you simply turn the heat extra low and let it simmer for anywhere from one to four hours. But I still had to make the salad, so I chopped two heads of Boston lettuce and threw it in a bowl, followed by a diced avocado, a diced tomato, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, and, of course, a heaping pile of fried duck bacon. The dressing (a separate recipe! Yes!) was pretty standard stuff: Dijon, maple syrup, red wine vinegar, canola oil, olive oil, salt and pepper.
This is what a picture of a salad looks like.
My wonderful guests arrived, bearing bottles of wine, having no idea that I was already secretly drunk (and I don’t think they did know until right now, so let’s all pat ourselves on the back for keeping that a secret). I boiled a pot of water and dumped in a huge bag of fancy, dried pappardelle, and then realized that I forgot to make the gremolata topping Gwyneth insists takes the duck ragu to “another level.” Thankfully, it’s pretty easy. Not thankfully, I was drunk, and fucked it up.
You’re supposed to just mix bread crumbs, salt, fresh parsley, and two lemons’ zest together. But I mixed it with two lemons’ JUICE. As I mixed the sludgy, mushy paste created from lemon juice and bread crumbs with my hands, I thought, “This is disgusting. She wants me to pour this crap on my beautiful ragu?” I’m just happy I double-checked the recipe, because that could have been a disaster. I tossed out the lemony paste, zested the lemons, and made the real gremolata topping.
And then it was dinner time! The ragu was pretty delicious, if I may say so, although I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t more delicious. I did cook for several hours, I spent a lot of money on various forms of duck, and the recipe began with her name-dropping a real, successful chef. It should have been mind-blowing. Instead, it was good. Sorry, everyone.
Duck ragu, as
Jamie Oliver Gwyneth Paltrow intends.
The salad, on the other hand, was goddamned delicious. I mean, the dressing is a classic, and one of my favorite combinations (Dijon, sugar, red wine vinegar, and olive oil), and then a salad with buttery Boston lettuce, avocado, Gorgonzola, and then DUCK BACON to top it off? That’s just gold right there.
I do want to say that even though the duck ragu was underwhelming (but still good!) it was definitely one of the more enjoyable cooking experiences I’ve had on this project. I mean, I butchered a duck for the first time (I’m using “butcher” here less in the sense of what actual, professional butchers do, and more in the sense of what Jack the Ripper did), and I spent an enjoyable lazy Sunday afternoon cooking and drinking and spending time with friends over a good meal.
We finished the night by watching Gus Van Sant’s new movie Restless, which, while horrible, comes with a funny story I’ll quickly relate because why not: When we first moved to Portland, the two friends I moved with, Ali and Nora, responded to a Craigslist ad requesting extras for a film shoot. They were asked to come in their Halloween costumes, and when they arrived they learned they would be extras in the new Gus Van Sant movie. They spent the day hilariously pretending they were drunk, with Nora in the background in a stupid cat mask and Ali wearing a witch’s hat standing directly behind the leads, Mia Wasikowska and Henry Hopper (Dennis Hopper’s son, who apparently wants to act now). The film languished in post-production forever, the title changed multiple times, and we more or less stopped following its ever-changing release date over the past couple years. And then Nora and I walked into a movie store in Chelsea and saw the DVD sitting upon the counter.
So we watched the movie, nervously anticipating the Halloween scene. Finally, Mia darted out of a hospital in one scene, shouting to her sister, “I’ll be home late; it’s Halloween!” and we jumped out of our seats with excitement. The two leads then approached a party, and lo and behold, for practically a minute of solid screentime directly behind the stars of the movie, there was our good friend Ali:
It was perfect. We rewound multiple times, laughed hysterically, and then fast-forwarded to find out what happened at the end of the film, because it was just a horrible, terrible movie. Don’t rent it. Restless: Terrible. Duck bacon: Fantastic. The end.