Despite growing up around livestock (my family raised dairy goats, chickens, ducks, pigs, sheep and rabbits at various times), I’ve never had much to do with the process of turning a live animal into food. I’m not particularly bothered by the idea of eating animals, as long as they are raised well and killed humanely. All of our food comes from other living things, whether plant or animal. However, it’s a little different when you’ve met the animal you are going to eat, and even more so when you are present at, or responsible for, its death.
Jon and I have been buying more and more of our meat locally, and currently have pork, beef and lamb in our freezer from Skagit and Snohomish County farmers. We haven’t yet found a good source for chickens or ducks, but we’re working on it. But the more we buy whole animals straight from the farm, the more we realize how little we know about actual slaughter and butchering practices, and how to get the most from an animal. I don’t picture us raising animals for meat (not on our current property, anyway), but I really feel that knowing our meat from the ground up makes us better cooks.
Hence Duckfest, a workshop designed for just this sort of situation. We spent the first weekend of 2010 on Shaw Island in Puget Sound, learning to slaughter, butcher and cook ducks. The class was put on by chef and farmer Neal Foley, aka Podchef, and by chef, teacher and author Kate Hill, who graciously came out from her farm and cooking school in Gascony to demonstrate cassoulet and confit making. I love her book (sadly out of print at the moment), and I’ve been wanting to visit her school for a long time, so this was a wonderful opportunity – a taste of France just a few miles from our house!
The workshop lasted three days. We ate a vast amount of amazing food and took far too many pictures, so to spare my patient readers I’ll be writing it up in three installments. Here is day one (Cassoulet):
On the first day, we got up far too early. It was New Year’s Day, and I had a potato chip hangover, but we made it to the ferry dock in Anacortes with plenty of time to spare. The wind was howling down Rosario Strait, and the ferry ride was unusually alarming, as the boat wallowed from side to side and sudden crashes emanated from the lower decks. We (and our car) made it to Shaw Island intact, however, and were met by Podchef himself (henceforth referred to as Neal, as that is his actual name). We deposited our bags at the monastery guesthouse and proceeded on to lunch at Neal’s farm with most of the other attendees.
This was the view from the house. Not bad, hm? The first day it was storming and there were whitecaps across the bay, but the rest of the weekend it was gorgeous and smooth. A wonderful place.
This was the lunch: rabbit terrine and pate, red onion jam, quince membrillo, homemade baguette and buttermilk crackers (only the BEST CRACKERS EVER), cheese (both homemade and storebought), extremely fine pickles, and a very nice dry rose wine. Between all this and the bottles of Lillet that started things off, we were all pretty relaxed. We went out to meet the ducks, then took a break to wander around the island before reconvening for our first cooking lesson.
That afternoon, Kate made cassoulet, one of her specialties. The beans (gorgeous, enormous cannellinis, graciously donated by Steve at Rancho Gordo) had been set to soak earlier. She put them on to cook, just covering them with water. Carrots and celery went into the pot, along with plenty of thyme and a few pieces of fresh pork rind, plus a sprinkle of the secret cassoulet seasoning, epices Rabelais.
Neal had killed some ducks a few days before, so we would have confit for the cassoulet. He had also made two kinds of sausages from his pigs: Toulouse sausage, which is a simple ground pork sausage, and pork rind sausage, which is made from chopped pig skin and fat and turns out to be one of the most delicious things on the planet.
When the beans were done, a few strips of pork rind went into the bottom of the two cassoles. Some beans went in, then a layer of confit pieces. More beans, then whole sausages. Then still more beans on top, and the bean broth added until it came up just to the edge of the bowl.
By the way, you may have heard that a cassoulet should have breadcrumbs on top. Don’t do it! Kate emphasized that you want a crispy crust on top from the beans themselves. As the cassoulet bakes, you will be breaking the crust and pushing it back into the liquid several times. If you put breadcrumbs on top but then push them in, you will end up with a cassoulet full of breadcrumbs. So just say no!
While the cassoulet quietly did its thing in the oven, we had a little snack to tide us over. Kate had brought tins of freshly packed foie gras from one of her local producers in Gascony, and we did a taste-testing of duck liver terrine, goose liver terrine, rillettes, and foie gras-stuffed duck hearts. The popular vote went to the rillettes, followed by the goose liver, which seemed to be a touch sweeter than the duck. There was Champagne to go with the foie gras, and then the pan of oysters came out.
Kate picked these up from Jon Rowley on her way up from Seattle. It was a nice selection from our usual oyster source, Taylor Shellfish, including Olympias, Kumamotos, Pacific extra-smalls, and Virginicas. We ate quite a few oysters (the dog got some, too), then Neal produced a bottle of Laphroaig and we had to eat a few more splashed with the Scotch.
By the time the cassoulet was done we weren’t as hungry as we might have wished, but we applied ourselves.
The two cassoles were brought to the table, crusty brown on top and blazingly hot. With a fresh green salad and plenty of wine, we stuffed ourselves silly.
Some people even had room for dessert. Unluckily (or luckily) for me, it was a gorgeous Paris-Brest covered with almonds, so I had to plead allergic and stick to coffee and Armagnac. It was lovely.
Stay tuned for Day Two of Duckfest, where we learn how to kill, pluck and butcher ducks. If you just can’t wait, you can check out all my pictures from the weekend on my Flickr account.