Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Favorite foods. foie gras. (Part 2).

I first tasted foie gras when I was fourteen years old. We were in a dim little restaurant in Seattle, the Hunt Club at the Hotel Sorrento. I have not been there in years, but it is the site of one of my most favorite culinary discoveries. The foie gras was pan-seared, drizzled with some kind of sauce, placed on a bed of some sort of vegetable - or perhaps fruit, I can't really remember. What I remember is that sensation of biting into that luscious forkful of melting (to put it indelicately) liver. Because that is exactly what it is, liver. Duck (or goose) liver. I had eaten liver before. And I had been a huge fan of duck (or goose, or pork) pâté since I was five years old (another story). But this...this was a totally new sensation. It was the beginning of a profound obsession that continues to this day.

Foie gras (it sounds so much nicer in French, but then, pretty much everything does) is the fattened liver of a duck (or goose) that has been forcibly fed so much food that their livers become hugely engorged, full of delicious...fat. I don't eat it very often because it is a) expensive, b) bad for you, and c) part of the pleasure is when it only comes rarely. If I ate it all the time I would die of boredom before I would die of a heart attack. The chef at one of my favorite restaurants once suggested that he might be persuaded to do an all-foie gras menu; it would probably kill me.

The perfect way to serve foie gras, for me, is pan-seared just long enough so that a delicate crust forms, which crunches lightly between the teeth as you bite into it, and the fat inside begins to melt, but not so long that all the fat melts away. It should practically erupt in your mouth, melt away on the tongue. Usually the foie gras is served with a fruit sauce, or a wine reduction, or a gastrique, something acidic to cut the rich fattiness of the liver, underscore the unctuous texture of it. Once, at Lampreia, I had it served on a bed of sautéed spinach, the tenderest baby leaves imaginable, which mingled with the flavors of the seared liver. It was incredible.

Another way to serve foie gras is in a terrine, cold, or rather, at room temperature (to bring out the flavor). Whole lobes of foie gras are packed into a mold and baked in a bain-marie, usually flavored with sauternes or madeira or some other wine. The foie gras is sliced and served with little pieces of toast, perhaps some sort of fruit, fresh or poached, or little bits of wine-flavored aspic. As an accompaniment, a glass of sauternes perfectly offsets the cool, smooth, silky texture of the foie gras. I love the mix of sensations in my mouth, the crunch of toast, the golden sweetness of wine, the pure taste of foie gras.

In all my years of eating foie gras, I have come across the occasional slightly mediocre one, a foie gras that has perhaps not formed enough of a crust, or has languished on the plate too long and cooled, becoming every so slightly congealed (a frequent hazard in restaurants with overly forceful air conditioning). The best was at Montrachet, in New York City, some years ago. My mother could not conceal her horror when the plate was set before me; it was the biggest piece of foie gras I had ever eaten, a fat, perfect slice the size of a baby's hand. I think it was on a bed of apples and other fall root vegetables, but I am ashamed to say that all I remember is the feel of foie gras on my tongue, that melting sensation...

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