The RV industry made us do it

As I mentioned yesterday, the duck project was simply the result of wanting to having something a little different for our Thanksgiving meal.  The timing is the RV industry’s fault.  Really.

See, every year the RV Industry Association holds a trade show and convention in Louisville KY, which I need to attend for business reasons.  I can only assume that the organizers chose the date and location specifically to save money, because the convention is held immediately after Thanksgiving.  The convention center is probably rock-bottom cheap at that time (who wants to have a trade show then?)  Not only are airliners crowded and airfares ridiculous, not only is the weather dismal beyond belief in Louisville that time of year, but most critically this timing means that all the participants have to interrupt a time-honored post-Thanksgiving ritual — namely, making sandwiches with cold turkey breast, mayonnaise, lettuce and bread — in order to drive or fly to Louisville so that they can attend the show starting on Monday.

Either the convention dates were picked by someone who needed an excuse to get away from their in-laws, or they’re getting a smoking deal on the Kentucky Exposition Center.  Probably both, now that I think of it.  Of course the cost is simply shifted to those of us who must attend, because we pay higher fares on the airlines in order to fly on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, not to mention inflated rates at the local hotels.

I think this will be the sixth or seventh time I’ve attended this show.  Each year I find myself dejectedly heading for the airport on Sunday when I should by all rights and dyed-in-the-wool American tradition be lounging around the living room with a remote control in one hand and a plate of leftovers in the other.  We can’t really dent all the Thanksgiving leftovers before I have to go, and it seems wrong to leave when there’s still a huge pile of yummy chow in the refrigerator.  To make things worse this year, E & E are flying to Vermont for a visit in early December, which would leave the entire burden of leftover turkey consumption on me.  I like to eat but that’s too much.  So part of the motivation to make something other than turkey was to have fewer leftovers, and we’re doing it this weekend so we have plenty of time to eat what we have before I have to go.

And now you know how, last Sunday, we found ourselves driving around Tucson in a rare Fall drizzle, looking for ducks.  The frozen kind.  (Vegetarians may wish to stop reading here, as the rest of this blog becomes graphically carnivorous.)

We found the duck at Dickman’s Meat, at 5.1 pounder.  That was the easy part.  Then came the research. Eleanor first handed over her worn old copy of The Escoffier Cookbook and challenged me to choose between one of 29 obscure French preparations for duck, including “Hot Pate of Duckling,” “Nantais Duckling With Sauerkraut,” “Moliere Duckling,” “Rouennais Duckling Wings With Truffles,” and of course the crowd favorite, “Stuffed Balls of Duckling.”  I picked out a few recipes from which Eleanor began to select compatible elements to create her own recipe.

Based on the influence of departed French chefs (Auguste, Julia, et al) and her culinary training, Eleanor originally planned to poëlé the duck.  This means she would start with a Matignon, which is a fine mince of carrots, onions, and celery hearts, with a bit of lean ham, a sprig of thyme and half a crushed bay leaf. This would be put all over the duck in a thick coating.  The enveloped duck would subsequently be richly layered with strips of bacon and buttered paper, and then — in the spirit of old French cooking — basted with the drippings, melted butter, and Madeira wine while roasting in the oven.

The “roasting rack” for the duck would be a large dice of celery, carrots, onion, and fingerling potatoes, to be eaten as a side dish.  Eleanor had also conceived a stuffing that would be a mix of veal, pork, and diced apples.

But something didn’t seem right.  We both knew (from a painful 1990’s-era duck cooking debacle) that the amount of fat in a duck is critical to the outcome.  Also, most of the Escoffier recipes called for undercooking the duck if it was whole, and that made Eleanor dig deeper for a reason why.  She consulted all of her best culinary references and kept running into hints that roast duck was tricky because the amount of fat in them varies so widely.  Wild ducks are lean and tend to dry out, while market ducks are ridiculously fatty.  We finally found a good analysis of the problem in “The New Best Recipe,” published by Cook’s Illustrated, which is sort of the Consumer Reports of food.

The article explained that since Escoffier was published (first edition in 1942), the ducks we can buy at the market have changed.  They’re fattier and — to make things even trickier — they tend to be disproportionately fat in the legs and wings, which makes roasting the bird as a whole quite difficult.  The solution according to Cook’s Illustrated is to steam the bird before roasting, which greatly reduces the amount of fat, and separate the legs so that subcutaneous fat can be more easily rendered from them.

We also discovered that the duck could be expected to reduce in weight by approximately 50% during cooking (due to the rendering of fat), which means our 5.1 pound duck (technically, a duckling) might yield as little as two or three servings.  I don’t want massive leftovers, but I’d like at least some.  Off I went to Dickman’s for a second 5.1 pound duck.  This experiment was already getting expensive.

The good news about having two ducks was that we can experiment a little.  The current plan is to prepare one duck using the poëlé technique, but instead of adding butter for basting, she’ll use only the drippings.  It also will not be stuffed.  The vegetable “roasting rack” will remain the same, except without the potatoes, as they would absorb oil and get greasy.

Duck No. 2 will follow the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation, first steamed to reduce the fat, then slow-cooked on a rotisserie.  Eleanor is thinking of putting the Matignon beneath the skin, but that’s still a work in progress.  The next step will be later today: a grocery run for ingredients.  The plan is to start cooking in earnest on Saturday.

And all this because the RVIA convention is held at the wrong time of year …



The duck

The blog has been quiet lately because we are in that rather dull period between trips, commonly referred to as “daily life.”  It’s something I do my best to avoid but occasionally it does happen. It’s really true as they say that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

This has been a period mostly for me to simply take care of business.  The Winter 2011 of Airstream Life magazine has been printed and was mailed this week, and meanwhile Spring 2012 is well underway with a lot of great articles in development.  I’m also working on a busy program of 2012 events, including Alumapalooza (June 2012), Modernism Week (February 2012), and an exciting new event to be held out west next summer.  We expect to have an announcement about that in January.

Of course, the Airstreams have not been neglected.  Before parking the Caravel in a secure off-site location, Eleanor and I replaced two more of the leaky water hoses and fixed another water leak at the tank fill.  It should be ready to go when we are.  The Safari remains in the carport, fully hooked up, cleaned up, and stocked with goodies for future “hotel” guests.

The most recent visitors, however, brought their own: Tiffani and Deke of the traveling blog “Weaselmouth.”  They were passing through last week, heading for California, and spent a night parked in front of the house.  Eleanor and I had met them at Alumapalooza last June, and I saw them again in Texas when I was picking up the Caravel, but they had never met Emma.  I’m not sure if my offer of free parking was really what enticed them here, since Tiffani did mention several times that she really wanted to meet Emma…  In any case, it was a superb visit and far too short.  We may cross paths with them again next year if we get up to Washington state, as I’ve been hoping to do.

Part of being home is a process of recovery.  We’ve proved we can live in the Airstream indefinitely but when circumstances place us back in the stationary house, we try to take full advantage of that by catching up on projects, relaxing, and saving up money.  The latter goal never works out as well as I’d like.  Living in a house is far more expensive than living “on the road” in an RV when you really factor everything in.  Being back at the house means activation of expensive projects, repairs, and tempting upgrades.

This time was no different: the house demanded a few things, and the local Tax Collector demanded the real estate taxes, and — whoosh — we were thousands of dollars poorer in an extraordinarily brief amount of time.  Worse, there was nothing tangible to show for it.  This always seems to be the pattern of home life, so after a few months we usually give up on the idea of “financial recovery” and move back into the Airstream for a reminder taste of the inexpensive alternative lifestyle it affords. Eleanor has often commented that if we hadn’t bought a house in 2007, and had simply remained in the Airstream full-timing, we’d be financially far better off, but you can’t re-make history.  And the house is something we all enjoy … in moderation.

In the interest of saving money we have resisted the call of Tucson’s many interesting restaurants, favoring meals at home.  This is no particular hardship, as anyone who has eaten Eleanor’s food can attest, and it often results in intriguing culinary experiences resulting from home experiments.  For example, last Saturday we really wanted to go out for Dim Sum, but we stayed home, collected the various ingredients we had in the house, and Eleanor whipped up “Dim Something.”  It was not what you’d call authentic but it was darned good.

This brings me to the subject of today’s essay.  You were probably wondering about the title, “The duck.” Thanksgiving is coming up soon but due to minor obligations on the calendar, we are going to celebrate it this weekend instead.  Bored with traditional turkey, after some discussion we opted to try cooking duck instead.  Or to be completely accurate, Eleanor will try preparing duck, and I will stand by as Advisor, Dishwasher, and Errand Boy as needed.

Normally I would expect this to be a minor footnote in our lives, but even today, days before the actual cooking event, it has become obvious that The Duck is going to be a formative experience.  It turns out that the culinary challenge is significant, even momentous, if you want to get it right.  There are tricky carnivorous issues of fat distribution and moisture content to confront.  Eleanor has pulled out an arsenal of references from her bookshelf and is sweating the details to the point that you’d think she was expecting the Queen of England to join us.  (I’m pretty sure that Thanksgiving is pretty low on the Queen’s list, along with Independence Day, so no danger there.)

Since things are quiet, I’m going to document The Story of The Duck this week, as it happens.  The first entry will go up tomorrow.  This is risky because we have no idea if the duck will be delicious or Daffy.  The gauntlet has been tossed down, and now she (and her two bumbling assistants) are committed to this meal.  Will we find sweet success or smoking disaster?  You’ll see.