The Art of Slow Food: Duck à la Marlena

It was perhaps a bit extravagant. Certainly it brings new meaning to the term and culinary movement of “slow food.”

Setting out to make a 9-day duck dish isn’t your everyday undertaking. It seems something fit for a holiday, and in our rushed and harried world, perhaps not even then. Overnight marks the upper limit of what most cooks would be willing to invest in a dish, perhaps a day or two if it’s largely unattended (as with a good artisan levain bread). Nine days?!? Please.

Supper_Club_coverThis folly of a fowl first nested in my head as I read the latest offering from Marlena de Blasi, an American expat residing now for more than twenty years in Italy. I discovered her memoirs whilst living in England, and was immediately smitten by their gilded prose, the old fashioned sensibilities, her attunement to the sensuality of life, and the glorious descriptions of the regional food of her adopted country. Last May, in a million-to-one twist of fate, I met Marlena at an iconic Left Bank café in Paris. (Read “A Paris Encounter: Meeting de Blasi“), a meeting that launched a correspondence and subsequently blossoming friendship. She promised to send me her soon-to-be-released work, The Thursday Night Umbrian Supper Club, and true to her word, a few weeks later it arrived from overseas.

The ‘Supper Club’ is an ongoing celebration of a simpler, regional life that is gradually disappearing. It is the story of friendship forged between five women over a ritual of Thursday night suppers in a rustic building with an open fire. Cooking and eating together, it is a weaving of the histories that have shaped them, with Marlena dancing between confidant, friend, and the outsider even after two decades in Italy. It is also a tale of unpretentious Italian fare sourced close to home or foraged wild, making do with whatever is to hand and in season—and the bonding of hearts that food can create, especially as de Blasi draws each woman forward to share her gifts, recipes and secrets. 

Toward the end of the book, Marlena entwines the recipe for a nine-day duck with the story of her friend, Gilda, who has enquired about and wants to make the dish. As ingredients and method unfolded throughout the chapter, I thought, I must prepare and eat this, jotting down scribbled notes as I turned pages. Not only do I adore duck but the cook in me—French-trained and decidedly a do-it-by-hand, old fashioned soul—was utterly intrigued by anything that required even longer to make than my weeklong duck confit, a perennial favorite I undertake each autumn. Add to this the promise in dialogue between Marlena and Gilda that the dish would be so tender it could be eaten with a spoon, bathed in a beguilingly complex sauce, well, nothing further need be said.

Upon finishing ‘Supper Club’, I posted a review on Amazon (a lengthier outline of what I wrote above) and then wrote to ‘Chou’ (as Marlena insists I call her) saying, “I swear to you, I am going to make that duck.”

Flash forward a couple of months. Recently returning from the 35th Hawaii International Film Festival, the helm of which is steered by my dear mate, as the colors, scents, and crisp days of November on the California coast again enfolded me, I decided it was time to undertake le canard. The dish would be a festive meal for the approaching holidays—though given the date of my return home and the nine days of its preparation meant that it wouldn’t be ready for Thanksgiving dinner. No matter. It would be a private celebration, post-festival, for my beloved and I.

I have enough affinity for Marlena’s palette (she is the author of remarkable cookbooks on regional Italian food) that I was willing to plunge in, confident that the result would be worth the investment, both in time and money (a pricey duck, multiple bottles of wine, etc.). She has a fondness for combinations of salty and sweet, and perhaps equally for savory and sweet; this dish was clearly the latter. Bring on the duck. A free range, organic, never frozen one, thank you. Make it two, actually. 

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Day 1: allspice berries, thyme, duck breasts

Julia Childs once quipped, “Noncooks think it’s silly to invest two hours’ work in two minutes’ enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, well, so is the ballet.” I couldn’t agree more. Admittedly, I confess to a deep enjoyment of the gathering and shopping, washing, chopping, prepping, simmering, etcetera. You enjoy it or you don’t, and I say it is the mark of a real cook to be in the first camp rather than the latter.

Still, can anything possibly be worth a nine-day preparation and wait? I endeavored to relinquish my expectations and simply enjoy the process for itself—which, after the first seven days of curing in salt and herbs, is mostly a repeated braising in different wines interspersed with overnight resting. A few additions and then reductions of the sauce. Nothing about the actual method or ingredients is beyond the reach of a basic home cook.

As Marlena says, it wants for time rather than trouble—a mandate that, to me, seems the very essence of ‘slow food’, offering a much needed antidote to our rushed life and fast, anonymous fare. I would offer that something built slowly and deliberately embodies the best notion of artisan, a term so watered down and misapplied in the food world—applied without irony or shame to Safeway bread and Starbucks sandwiches, for example—that it is rapidly losing its meaning.

When the autumn moon waxed full and then began to wane, I would content myself in sitting down at last to savor something on which time had been lavished in a quiet ritual of good taste. Perhaps a nice glass of rosé Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace alongside—the holidays are arriving, after all (not that one ever needs an excuse for good bubbly in a crystal flute). 

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Day 8: reducing the sauce

When I am not pushing a pen and stringing words together, my life tends to revolve around the kitchen; certainly it’s the heart of our home, my everyday atelier for nourishing body and soul. I’m often haunted by the longing for a quieter, simpler time and slower pace, where my days are interwoven with a deep sense of place and the beauty of nature. While I cannot change the world, I make deliberate choices that allow me to spend time in the kitchen, cooking something gently on the oven, and eventually placing a fragrant dish of ‘slow food’ on the table as a modest celebration of life.

Too, I firmly believe that when we invest time into food, choosing the freshest, finest ingredients we can buy and treating those with care and love, the fare we create is something even more than artisan. It becomes deeply nourishing for body and soul. Healing, even.

Soul Artists know that a nourishing life doesn’t merely happen of its own accord, it is cultivated and tended. Such a life entails deliberate actions in our busy, profane world. One has to make time for the little rituals that sustain us on a deep level, like cooking a good meal for ourselves and beloved(s), food that consoles and comforts. Or a walk outdoors amid the falling, withered leaves, warmly bundled up with senses cast wide, celebrating the polysensory experience of inhabiting the moment, delighting in what it offers. Everything is connected.

To what in life will we give the gift of time, attention and care..? And how do we feed the Soul of the World?

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Of course, my slow-cooked dish doesn’t taste the way Marlena’s does in Umbria. Instead it is the result of where I dwell, the local duck and fresh thyme, different shallots and pancetta than in Italy, New World wine versus Old World, and my own hands with their innate sense of how things should be measured and taste. Interpretations and improvisations, moods and weather. The outcome is as much a product of this foggy stretch of coastline as of my own intentions and heart while I tended the slow process, scattering blessings over it like seasonings, silent prayers into the rising steam. 

“Oh my god,” swooned my mate, taking the first bite when we finally sat down to eat the long awaited dish, a pair of golden beeswax tapers on the table flickering against the darkness of the chilly night beyond the windows. 

Served in a white French bowl and bathed in the dark ruby sauce, crowned by pancetta and shallots with which it was initially cooked, the drunken duck breast was both rustic and elegant. As promised by Marlena and Gilda in the book, it was meltingly tender, the complex juices both savory and sweet. Rich, oh yes.

This is the kind of cuisine worth eating slowly, savoring with eyes closed, and lingering unhurriedly at the table. Indeed to rush through a meal that has taken nine days to emerge from the kitchen would be disgraceful. The winey duck was just what I hoped it would be: a ‘slow food’ celebration of life, a perfect prelude to the approaching year end holidays.

Duck breast, shallots, pancetta, and a wine dark sauce

Duck breast, shallots, pancetta, and a wine dark sauce in candlelight

“It was worth every bite,” I wrote to Chou a few days afterward.

“My sincere appreciation to that duck,” she responded. “It makes me miss Gilda. I will tell you about her someday.”

Chou has recently invited me to her home in Italy to cook and bake together, an utterly delicious opportunity. Who knows, perhaps she will indeed tell me about her friend when we visit, sipping a glass of local wine or strolling a bustling market; I would welcome that from such a gifted storyteller. For now I am content with the duck, and grateful that souls like Marlena remain in the world, ones who feel that a 9-day investment in supper isn’t absurd but worthwhile. Necessary, even.

Mirroring her comment, I offer countless blessings of thanks to the dear bird, for all the other ingredients involved, along with the unknown hands that tended, gathered and delivered them into my reach. Is it not our role as conscious human beings to honor the people, places and things that enrich our lives, to appreciate and acknowledge their effect upon us? Surely it is. May I move through my days with a spirit of honoring, praise, and gratitude as I gather, cook, write, and offer what I may to the world in return.

Candles flickering in the window against the dark night, let the holidays begin. Slowly. Unhurriedly. Perhaps simmered softly with good wine, and definitely steeped in savory gratitude. 

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For those who may find the idea of this leisurely dish appealing and worth a try, below find the basic outline that I have lifted and compiled from the pages of Gilda’s story in The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club. I have converted from metric to US measurements, but exact quantities for some ingredients (such as spices) were not given, and in such instances I have used my own judgement and intuition (as with the reserved shallots and pancetta). What follows is simply the method, devoid of story and Marlena’s inimitable style with language and flair. (Apologies, Chou.)


9-day Duck à la Marlena

Ingredients:

4 duck breasts, rinsed, dried, and skin scored

bunch of fresh thyme

1 ½ T (25g) coarse sea salt (minimum; you may need more for 4 breasts)

25 white peppercorns, ground

25 allspice berries, crushed

½ dozen shallots, diced (I confess to using a dozen, an error in my notes, to good effect)

3.5 oz (100g) thick slice pancetta, coarsely diced

½ bottle (2 cups/475ml) Sauvignon Blanc or dry white wine

3 cups (700ml) good red wine

1 ½ T unsalted butter, room temperature

2 teaspoons flour

1 T dark brown sugar

¼ cup (60g) red currant preserves (often difficult to find in the States; opt for a red fruit blend, or sour cherry)

4 cloves, crushed to a paste

2 teaspoons genuine balsamic vinegar

½ cup dry Marsala

fresh parsley, 1 teaspoon

 

Method:

Day 1:

Leaving the main layer of fat intact, trim any loose bits of fat from the duck breasts and reserve for later (a week from now) in a small dish, covered (mine went ‘off’; you can freeze it to prevent rancidity, then thaw when ready to proceed). Place the breasts in a casserole or baking dish.

Strip the thyme leaves from the branches and then chop them. Sprinkle 1 ½ T (25g) coarse sea salt over the thyme, and then rub into the score marks in the fat; flip and do the same. Grind allspice and white pepper over the breasts and repeat massage. Cover the surface entirely with spices and salt. Wrap tightly in plastic and set in the fridge for a week. Each day, massage a bit more thyme and a pinch of the allspice-pepper mix into the breasts.

Day 7:

Melt the reserved fat with a spoonful of water over low heat; slowly, without stirring, allowing any crisp bits to form and fall to the bottom of the pan. Set aside.

Chop the shallots and cut the thick slices of pancetta into a coarse dice. In a large sauté pan, combine the rendered fat, crisp bits, shallots and pancetta, and cook on low heat until the shallots are translucent and the pancetta is coloured. Transfer to a deep baking dish (terracotta, preferably) with a lid.

In the sauté pan, in the film of fat that remains, over medium-high heat sear the duck breasts, fat side down, until mahogany in color, about 5 minutes. Turn and repeat on the flesh side. Transfer to the casserole with the aromatics.

Add 1/3 bottle of the white wine to the casserole; it should be enough to just float the breasts. Cover directly with parchment or baking paper, then a tight fitting lid. Place over a medium flame until the wine begins to simmer, then place in a 350F/180C oven.

At 45-minute intervals, dose with additional wine (¼ cup or less), each time turning the breasts. Give three dosings and turnings, for a total of 2 ¼ hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool thoroughly, uncovered. When at room temperature, cover with plastic and lid, then refrigerate 4-6 hours or overnight.

Day 8:

Scrape away the yellow fat (reserve it for later), and transfer the breasts to a bowl. Place the casserole over a low flame to warm the juices. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bits of shallot and pancetta, reserving them for the final dish. Add any remaining white wine along with 2 cups of red; bring to a boil and reduce by 1/3.

While the sauce reduces, work the softened butter into the flour in the palm of your hand until it forms a congealed, smooth mass (beurre manie), and then set aside.

Add another cup of red and reduce again by ¼. Add sugar, preserves, and cloves, and stir. Taste and add salt, if needed. With the sauce at a low simmer, begin adding bits of beurre manie, stirring constantly to incorporate. The sauce should begin to thicken a bit and become glossy. Off the flame, add the balsamico and stir. Add the breasts back to the warm sauce; cover and refrigerate for a day.

Day 9:

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C. Add ½ cup of dry Marsala to the pot, stir and then heat in a gentle oven for about an hour. Remove from the heat and let rest half a day.

When ready to serve, warm the reserved shallots and pancetta in a small pan, and add a small bit of parsley. Add the remaining half-cup of red wine to the casserole and reheat to warm the duck and sauce.

Place the duck breasts in wide, shallow bowls. Top them with the warmed shallot and pancetta, spoon the sauce around, and finish with a pinch of parsley.

Savor unhurriedly with eyes closed and a contented sense of gratitude. 

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