Sacramento Part 1: The Duck Off

Here’s a quick recap: Two weeks ago Paul C. (keeper of  Xesla Research Organisation) invited me along to attend the Annual Duck Off competition in Sacramento between the two time James Beard nominee Hank Shaw and Grange Restaurant’s very talented Chef Tuohy. Diners would be served courses from both, which we would then vote for our favorites. We went, we ate, we hunted.  It was an amazing weekend and I feel lucky to have been invited.  Paul, thank you.  Paul has also written about his experiences about our first day, which you can check out here.

The competition took place the same day we flew into California.  After checking in, eating an amazing lunch and then taking a short siesta, Paul and I made our way down to the Grange to partake in a copious amount of  mouth-watering duck.

If you haven’t already seen Hank’s post about the event, I suggest hitting his site first.  I’m going to be talking about each dish with the assumption that you already know the outcome.  Some of the dishes were resounding successes.  Others just missed the mark, and I’ll be heavily quoting Mr. Shaw’s thoughts here and there to give you the other side of the dinner.  The biggest thing to take away from the event has already been summed up perfectly by Hank.

Any of you out there who watch “Top Chef” or similar shows and armchair chef the whole thing — “Oh! Don’t use cilantro there! See? I knew he’d braise that beef! — you need to check yourself. I consider myself a good cook, better than most home cooks even. But this was HARD. Hard physically, mentally and, to some extent, even emotionally.

Keep all of that in mind as you read.  My hat is off to Mr. Shaw for accomplishing a complex dinner for the public that I wouldn’t be able to pull off… pretty much ever, even in my wildest dreams.

First up: the amuse bouches.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Tuohy’s Little egg stuffed with duck liver mousse and yuzu gelee

These are the notes that I took during the dinner: The yuzu is very delicate, a successful dish, wonderful texture, light, refreshing.

Paul and I loved the flavor and texture of Touhy’s first plate.  The live mousse had a luscious mouth-feel and a dynamite flavor. Sadly, my yuzu gelee had melted completely by the time it was placed in front of me.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Shaw’s Duck tartare with olives, capers, roasted peppers and garlic

This little ruby of duck meat is Hanks’s amuse, and my notes on it were: Nice flavors, big chunks of duck, a little chewy and not as delicate a texture one might expect from a tartare, very bold.

Hank was aware of the chewiness before he even sent the amuses out.  I’ll let him explain what happened.

I make this at home by slicing duck hearts and breast meat into tiny cubes — a brunoise, to be very French. Ever try this with six pounds of raw duck? It’s impossible, unless your knife is as sharp as lightning and you have several hours. I didn’t have several hours. So I chopped it as best I could, but I knew that the texture was wrong.

That explains the texture of the tartare.  The flavors were big and authoritative without overshadowing the flavor of the duck. I can imagine that when given more time this would be a real treat.

Then, the first courses showed up.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Tuohy’s duck consomme with foie gras dumpling, matsutake mushroom and radish sprouts

My notes: Very cold, the foie dumpling was a nice burst of sweet and savory, but the dumpling itself was a little undercooked and chewy. Properly seasoned consomme.

It was tough having to pick a favorite between the two.  We ended up voting for Chef Tuohy’s consomme because it was seasoned and a little warmer than Hank’s dish.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Shaw’s duck liver tortelloni made from duck eggs in a rich duck broth

My notes on this course: Very cold, perfectly cooked tender pasta, needs salt.

Again, an explanation of the dish from Mr. Shaw.

As I spoke with diners and friends, I learned of my last disaster: I’d forgotten to salt my consomme! I almost threw up when I realized that. Do you know how many times I’ve heard Tom Colicchio on Top Chef say some cheftestant had underseasoned his food? How many times I shouted at the TV (oh yes, people, I was one of those armchair chefs, too!) that the cook was stupid for not tasting his food? Well folks, it happened to me. That dish was beautiful, perfect, a triumph. Destroyed because I forgot to toss some salt in it. I was devastated. Still am, really.

When Paul and I talked with Hank after the competition had ended, we mentioned that this course had been a little on the cold side.  It turns out that there was nothing that Hank could have done about the heat.  The broth had left his hands at the proper temperature.  It was then up to the wait staff to get them to us in time.  Paul had reasoned that the broth might have been properly seasoned but due to cooling off so much that the needed seasoning was missing.  It’s well known that you really need to almost over-salt colder dishes like terrines and their ilk to counter this effect.  Let this be a reminder to you Monday morning chefs: It’s not even remotely as easy as you think it is.

Before we could finish off the consummes, the next course appeared.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Tuohy’s duck confit with pickled daikon and mango salad with shiso and a quince syrup

My notes: Daikon and mango salad adds a nice bit of brightness. Confit is excellent, wonderful mouth feel.  Crispy shards of duck skin are always appreciated.  Wish the portion was bigger. Perfectly executed dish.

Chef Tuohy knocked this one out of the park.  I forced myself to eat this as slowly as possible to savor every bite. It was the best dish the good chef put out during the competition.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Shaw’s duck leg stuffed with duck and pork loganiza sausage and bitter greens

My notes: This didn’t seem to work.  Muted flavors. Sausage is dry. Greens were unique and fresh.  I’d like to see this made again.

When Hank explained what had happened to his dish, my heart sank.  I’ll let him paint the picture.

My boned-out legs needed to be cooked sous vide, but no immersion circulator is large enough to hold 57 legs. So we decided to seal the rolled up legs in cryovac bags and cook them in a hot box at about 180 degrees, or 32 degrees warmer than I’d planned to cook them.

That temperature difference killed me. The legs fell to pieces. Ruined. All the fat rendered out of the sausage, as I had feared. I was screwed. But with only a few hours to go before service, there was nothing we could do. It tasted OK, if a little crumbly and undersalted. So I decided to serve it with a little Trapani fleur de sel  and a splash of sherry vinegar. Longaniza is supposed to be vinegary, anyway.

You’ve gotta give Hank and crew props for trying to switch techniques so close to game time.  It’s a real shame that McGyverying the duck legs didn’t pan out, because the original recipe undoubtedly produces mouth-watering results.

Finally, the main courses were served.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Touhy’s spice scented duck breast with sweet potato, baby bok choy and persimmon

My notes: The duck breast was wonderfully charred on the outside, but a little chewy. Good flavor combinations.  The puree is light and expertly prepared.

Paul and I both greatly enjoyed this plate.  The breast meat was a smidge on the chewy side, but nothing too terrible.  Chef Touhy could easily add this dish to his menu and I’m sure it would sell very well. I actually mentioned a desire for a second serving of both main courses.  You’ll see why here shortly.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Hank’s duck breast roulade with swiss chard, celery root puree, chanterelles and rue

Wow.  Speaking of knocking one out of the park, Hank obliterated it. Best dish of the night right here.  My notes are as follows: Duck is perfectly cooked and seasoned. Celery puree was light and flavorful, chanterelles were excellent.

Talking with Hank later, he mentioned that this dish was inspired by Thomas Keller.  I think Keller would be rather proud to have such a magnificent plate attributed to him.  Hank also mentioned that there was a significant amount of duck fat in the celery root puree, which would explain how luxurious it tasted.  Take notes people: duck fat makes everything better.

Even though we were fairly stuffed at this point, dessert was served.  It would be a crime to not mention it.

Photo by Holly Heyser

Pastry chef Elaine Baker made a killer mincemeat strudel with a calvados hard sauce and apple-foie butter.  The whole dessert was heavenly, and the hard sauce-the white, ice cream like cream in the middle-will probably be something that I dream about eventually.  A perfect ending to a perfect evening.

When all of the votes were counted, Chef Touhy was crowned the winner, but Hank’s main course ended up making a serious impact on the dinners.  Sacramento Bee food columnist Rick Kushman gave Hank the win for the roulade and consomme courses, with a slight edge overall going to Chef Tuohy.

Again, what an amazing event to attend.  I’m already considering making the trip to next year’s showdown.

On Monday, part two.

Sacramento, you’re stealing my heart

If you’re coming here via a link concerning my recent McRib recipe over at Saveur.com, hello!  Thanks for stopping by.  It was a fun little article, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I get to make upgraded recipes for more fast food items.

Some folks have given me a bit of stick for wasting good pork belly on a McRib clone. That’s understandable actually.  If you’re of the same mindset, I beg that you look at the post in a different light: I meant it to be a culinary oddity, done in a light-hearted effort. It’s all in good fun.

Sacramento Art

I’m sorry for the lack of a real update this week.  As mentioned previously, my friend Paul C. (keeper of  Xesla Research Organisation) invited me along to attend the Annual Duck Off competition in Sacramento between the two time James Beard nominee Hank Shaw and Grange Restaurant’s very talented Chef Tuohy.

Fowl Mouth Dinner

Join us for the second annual duck cook-off! Farm-to-table dining will soar to new heights when Grange Restaurant & Bar’s celebrated Executive Chef Michael Tuohy and popular food writer Hank Shaw combine culinary forces in a “Fowl Mouth” duck dinner.

Both Shaw and Tuohy will create their own version of the same four courses, each served side by side on one plate. Two awards will be presented at the end of the night; one Critic’s Choice award by Sac Bee Food Critic Rick Kushman, and one Diners’ Choice award, voted by patrons. The prix fixe four-course menu is $55 (plus tax and gratuity) with a portion of the proceeds benefiting California Waterfowl Association.

I’m waiting to post a full course by course update next week, but let it be known now that Paul and I had a wonderful evening dining on expertly prepared food.  Hank and Chef Tuohy truly know how to coax the very best flavors out of our fine web-footed friends.  Thank you both for the experience.

Before I head off to Yountville for the evening, I wanted to mention a little place that blew me away.  La Bonne Soupe Cafe at 920 8th St. in downtown Sacramento.

Photo by Lawrence R.

A one man show, La Bonne is seriously something special. Chef Pont takes his time with each order, carefully preparing the soup, the sandwiches and the desserts in front of a captivated audience.  Well, maybe captivated isn’t the proper term.  The wait can be lengthy.  Paul and I stood in line for about 45 minutes before we were able to order, and we lost track of how many people ended up leaving in frustration.  Those who left were missing out.  Every thing we ate was perfect.  And I mean that: perfect.  The freshly made bread for the sandwiches was amazing.

Photo by Chan N.

Have you ever had an expertly made baguette?  One who’s crust is so crunchy that it ends up tearing apart the roof of your mouth with every bite?  Yeah, this bread was just like that.

Photo by Chan N.

The onion soup was easily the best I’ve ever had.  Light, peppery and packed with flavor.

Photo courtesy of WQED

I can’t praise the food enough.  If you’re ever even remotely close to La Bonne, go and wait.  You’ll thank me later.

Warm Salt Cod, Little Gem, and Tomato

This may sound similar to the preceding Anchovy, Little Gem, and Tomato salad, but it is fundamentally different.  We salt our own cod, which has not been dried, so it is firm but has not developed that peculiarly nature that is ideal for other dishes.  This is a dish you have to start a week in advance.

I’m ecstatic to mention that thanks to my friend Paul C. over at Xesla Research Organisation, I’m getting the chance to fly to Sacramento and partake in the Nov. 11 rematch of last year’s “Iron Chef Duck” cooking competition between Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange restaurant and the awesome Hank Shaw.  Paul won Hank’s contest with a down-right mouth-watering entry of smoked duck confit and was kind enough to ask me along.  How could I possibly say no?  Paul, I owe you one.

As Mr. Henderson mentions above, this recipe does ring familiar for me.  Three years ago (Wow, it’s been that long?) I made the Anchovy, Little Gem and Tomato recipe as a salad for a group of my friends.  As someone that has made and eaten both salads, I agree with Mr. Henderson’s assessment.  That recipe is lighter fare, meant to be nothing more than a simple starter salad.  This one is a bit more, and one could enjoy it for lunch or even a light dinner and be quite happy.

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I started off by taking the fillets of cod that had been salted earlier and rinsed them clean of a layer of salt before letting them soak in a bowl of clean water overnight to rehydrate them

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The next day I sliced two tomatoes in twain, gave them a light coating of olive oil before a quick seasoning of salt and pepper. Into the oven they went to roast a little while. The roasting removes some of the water from the tomatoes which in turn softens the flesh while concentrating their flavor and sweetness.

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After a bit the tomatoes were properly roasted. I removed them from the pan…

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…and added a healthy amount of aioli. The powerful emulsion was mixed with the leftover oily tomato juice. This would end up being the dressing for the salad.

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Now that the salted cod had re-hydrated and desalinated, it needed to be cooked. Mr. Henderson asks that the fillets be cut into 1-inch cubes.

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The cubes were added to a pan of clean, simmering water for about five minutes.

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All of the previously mentioned ingredients, plus the lettuce and a handful of chopped curly parsley, were placed in a bowl and tossed carefully to combine.

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And here’s the final product. It was a huge shock when the first bite of salted cod ended up not being salty at all. Instead it sported a sort of muted fish flavor that was really soothing and enjoyable. The aioli based dressing added a slight bite while the roasted tomatoes rounded things out with their sweet acidity. This is an excellent salad that only people with serious issues with fish would balk at. Actually, I think I’ll be making this again for lunch next week.

One down, forty three to go.