Roasted Duck

Sometimes I like to think of cutesy-esque headers for each blog post. Roasted duck does not need a cute title. It’s just perfection. Simple, pure perfection.

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I first had duck about two years ago at a Roanoke restaurant called Lucky. Specifically, it was duck leg confit. I remember we visited the restaurant sometime near winter, which means some cold weather in Southwest Virginia. And it was raining, which only added to that bone-chilling effect. Something warm was in order, something cozy. Lucky (which I’ve found has garnered some kind of reputation as a hipster joint, which couldn’t be further from the truth) prides itself on offering French comfort food in a gastropub-type environment. I had always wanted to try duck, but I was wary of all that fat. I’m the kind that carves fat off of my meat (after it’s cooked, of course, because not even I’m immune to the flavors some fat can impart during cooking). But, I decided to go for the duck that night because it just sounded, well, comforting.

That night started a love affair with duck. Roasted duck. Duck fat. Duck confit. It doesn’t matter the style, I’m in love. To me, duck trumps all other meat. It trumps pork. I know that’s blasphemy to meat eaters, but I’ll take a good piece of duck over the best bacon you could find.

And it’s all because of that fatty skin. What made me avoid duck for so long turned out to be the best part.

It wasn’t until recently that I was able to roast duck at home. Because I eschew meat unless it’s raised locally and humanely, duck was off the list for a home-cooked meal. But a local farm from which I get our chickens started raising duck for meat, and I was among the first in line to buy one. Now, it’s not cheap. It’s a treat (which, let’s face it, really should be the norm when it comes to meat in general). It’s a glorious, succulent, sinfully crispy-skinned treat.

To roast duck, I stick with this recipe. But I stop short of glazing it. The first time I tried out this recipe, I actually had the glaze made as suggested. It was simmering on the stove, and my husband had a taste of it. And he made a terrible face. While I argued with him that the glaze was pretty tasty, the glaze burned. It was a sign, and my husband kept me from making a big mistake by trying to cover up the simplicity of a salted duck. So, the moral of the story is: the first time you roast duck, just go with simple. If you feel it needs something more than salt, go for the glaze the next time around. But this first time, just keep it simple.

Then hold on to your mother effin’ hats, because that first bite will be pure euphoria.

Yes, the recipe seems a bit labor intensive, but it’s really not. It really all boils down to scoring the skin/fat, roasting, flipping a few times, and pricking the skin at every flip to allow all that fatty goodness to drip down into the pan to collect later. It’s worth it, trust me. It’s all worth it in the end.

And yes, you should snip off the extra fat and render it as suggested. First of all, it’s super simple; just let the extra fat simmer in some water to render. Added to the fat that collects from pricking the roasting bird, you’ll end up with a good cup or so of fat, which keeps in the refrigerator for months and makes roasted vegetables (especially potatoes) insanely delicious. And it makes for some great cornbread.

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The recipe, I think, is pretty self-explanatory. There’s no need to elaborate, but do keep an eye on your duck to ensure you don’t roast it too long and end up drying out the meat. Once that skin becomes a gloriously golden, crispy, bubbling mass of glory, it’s time. The meat itself should be incredibly tender and cut like butter. Don’t doubt your instincts when it comes to roasting; cooking times are subjective and dependent upon the oven type, the size of the bird, etc., so don’t assume four hours of roasting is going to be the rule. Also? The fresher the bird in general, the less roasting time is required. Just something to keep in mind.

As far as sides go, this doesn’t need much other than some roasted potatoes and a simple salad. It’s the perfect fall meal, so as the weather cools, forget the hot chocolate, and go for the roasted duck.

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Ramblings around Roanoke: Firefly Fare

So I’ve debated how to break down a post about my recent culinary mini-adventures in Roanoke. Thanks to my recent freelance assignment, I’ve had the fortune of traveling to the Star City to try out a few new places/meet a few new faces. I’ve wanted to cover each because I think they deserve their fair share of praise for incorporating local and sustainable foods into their “practices.”

Since I’m already long-winded enough, I decided to break each adventure down into separate posts. So, first up: Firefly Fare.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Parkhurst, owner and chef of Firefly, for my assignment. And yeah, I had to do some important research into what the restaurant serves, right? Even if that means a 35-minute drive, which probably negated the sustainability endeavor (hint hint, New River Valley; we seriously need some restaurants that are similarly minded and all about local, but that’s a bone I’ll pick later).

Stepping off my soapbox…Firefly Fare has some outstanding, quick food that Chris sources from farmers at the Roanoke City Market and other local vendors. As with establishments that highlight regional fare, the menu changes somewhat depending on what’s available (to get an idea of what’s frequently available, go here). To stay competitive price-wise with fellow vendors in the renovated Roanoke City Market Building, Chris focuses on vegetarian meals (the meat that is on the menu, thank god, is local as well; sometimes seafood is available via Local Seafood Delivery).

I went with the Indonesian tofu bowl the day I made my visit, fully intending to eat half and save the rest for lunch the next day. I kinda ended up scarfing down the entire bowl, which was full of mixed rice, veggies, tofu, and an amazing sauce that I now wake up most mornings craving. I’m not sure what spices were utilized (I thought about forcing Chris to give up his recipe, but I’m not really trained in such tactics–or any tactics for that matter–so it was a lost cause from the start), but they were perfection with a bit of heat. The meal was an amalgam of everything I love in a properly sauced/spiced dish: sweet, savory, spicy.

I don’t eat tofu on a regular basis because some people can’t get it right, and that includes me (not that I’m an expert cook by any stretch of the imagination). But the tofu (my, what big chunks of it there were!) at Firefly was meaty with a spot-on texture. By that I mean it was substantial; not dry, not soggy, but just right. I ended up going back to order a side of grilled corn/white beans for my husband to try later. I’m told they were a great side dish; unfortunately, I didn’t get to try any of it.

I was happy to see quite a line forming at Firefly the day I went, mostly businessmen. The price for my sizeable tofu bowl was $9, which I think is totally reasonable. Then again, I like to think I have my priorities in line. I’m much more willing to spend money on a place that features locally sourced foods. Quite frankly, the number of people who bitch to me about the price of local foods when I say I choose to eat that way while carrying around their iPhones and plunking down the same amount on a processed, inedible burger and greasy, limp fries just galls me. I have nothing against iPhones and am looking into getting one myself (I do have lots of things against processed foods, obviously). But I’m also aware of the price of my health, and foods sourced by local farmers who employ humane and environmentally conscious methods are important to my lifestyle. Plus? Eating locally sourced foods makes a direct impact on the local economy. It’s simple math. Plus plus? Local, fresh food just tastes better.

Roanokers are lucky to have myriad choices for local foods and the amount of time in which they are served. For the more leisurely meals, there’s obviously River and Rail, Lucky, and Local Roots (more on the latter two later; and if there are others, send a girl a suggestion!). But there’s also the quicker option in Firefly Fare, which has been open for about nine months. Not that Firefly can’t do leisurely, either. Dinner is served almost everyday (check out the Facebook site for a listing of hours, keywords: Firefly Fare). And yes, they serve beer and wine, with some lovely outdoor seating/waiter service available for those dwindling days of summer. Firefly also features a juice bar, which takes full advantage of local produce in season (unfortunately, the juicer was broken the day I was there, but I’m using that as an excuse to make another trip soon).   

I hope Firefly Fare is here to stay. The food is (gasp) healthy but still feels decadent and richly flavored. It has the mark of a chef who is doing what he set out to do: providing quick, fresh food that highlights what regional farmers and producers have to offer. If you’re going out during your lunch break for a quick bite to eat, I’d strongly recommend skipping the usual and giving Firefly a shot. I’m willing to bet you’ll leave completely sated but still feel good about what you ate. Plus, you’ll help support small farmers who bust their ass to do what they do everyday, to make a living not to get rich but because they have a passion for truly good food. You can thank them for their efforts by supporting a place like Firefly Fare. And if someone could shake Chris down to get the recipe for that sauce used in the Indonesian tofu bowl, consider a few rounds of juice on me.

A Night at River and Rail

I’ve been thinking for days how to start this post. There was the elitist dribble (“I’ve been lucky enough to eat at many great restaurants across the globe”). There was the exuberant and hyperbolic (“This was the best meal ever,” though this was all I could manage to say afterwards and is true). Then, I realized the only thing I could say to get to the core of the matter is this: This is damned good food. This is a damned good chef.

I’m referring to River and Rail in Roanoke and its executive chef, Aaron Deal. I had the fortune to interview Chef Deal just hours prior to my dinner there. The interview was part of a freelance assignment that will hopefully be published in October, an angle that I’ll save for then and will instead focus on our eating experience here (the article will definitely not be a restaurant review, so this post is purely from a personal perspective, hello alliteration).

Just to forewarn you, there are no pictures here. To be honest, I was too immersed in the food experience to bother with photos. Besides, I couldn’t do visual justice to what was hitting our table.

The restaurant and its staff were warm and inviting from the start. Located in the former Lipes Pharmacy (and dangerously close to a local cupcakery and ice cream shop), I was smitten from the get-go as I set down for my afternoon interview and heard Johnny Cash being played. That’s a great way to get right to the heart of a Southern girl. There was no pretension here, and Deal tried to be humble as I gushed about my longstanding admiration of chefs (or he was scared, one of the two). When I explained I wasn’t able to try his food before meeting with him, his parting words were, “That may have been better. You may not want to talk to me after you try it.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

I’m not a food critic. I can’t ramble about “mouthfeel” (which, by the way, sounds just disgusting) or use other such nonsensical adjectives with a straight face. And maybe that’s for the best because what struck me the most about eating at River and Rail was its total accessibility. I mean that, aside from the restaurant set up to be open and airy, aside from the fact that Chef Deal was visible at all times in a cooking/staging area that was smaller than my galley kitchen (holy crap, how does that work, because I get tripped up if even one more person is in my kitchen, but there were three guys back there at River and Rail), aside from the fact that Deal was gracious enough to come talk to us during our meal, aside from a wait staff and a general manager who seemed genuinely excited to be a part of River and Rail, aside from all of that: the food was accessible. There were no frills here, no unnecessary garnishes. There were no long narratives on the menu of what I may choose to eat, no here’s-some-meat-but-look-at-all-these-sauces-and-sides-and-fancy-words-because-we-don’t-trust-the-meat-on-its-own-to-be-good-enough descriptions.

No, this was food that was allowed to shine on its own because the quality offered here is stellar (the restaurant makes a point of sourcing its ingredients locally).

We started with a pickled vegetable pot served simply in a Ball jar (R&R uses a combo of hot and cold pour-over methods and packs the jar full of cucumbers, carrots, etc.) and were treated to a chicken liver mousse served with crusty grilled bread and pickled onions. I know what you’re thinking: “Did you say treated to chicken liver mousse?” Yes, yes I did. I was skeptical, too. I remember years ago having fried chicken livers; I remember the metallic taste. But you know what happened? I ended up eating this stuff (served in a Weck-style jar and topped with duck fat; have I mentioned my love of duck fat lately you guys?) straight up and by the forkful. I was following that up with pickled beets, something I’ve never enjoyed before. It was then that I realized Deal was onto something good here: if he could take two ingredients I would normally eschew and make me fall in love with them, he was doing something amazing.

Next up was a summer squash soup served with more crusty, rustic bread topped with goat cheese and thin slices of (good god, be still my heart) magnificently cured country ham. My husband went with a warm nectarine/tomato/cornbread crouton salad topped with a pesto-style wonderment. It was at this point that I leaned toward my husband and said, “What I’m about to say hinges on the main course, but this could be better than Husk.” I whispered this, like it was some sacrilege. After all, Husk has garnered attention (and deservedly so) as the prime example of the resurrection of Southern food. Charleston in general has become some Southern fantasyland for the more northerly inclined. Its chef, Sean Brock, is popping up in Vogue, on No Reservations, taking curious journalists on Southern food road trips (Men’s Health). How the hell could something in Roanoke possibly compete?

When I took the first bite of my entree (trout over Carolina grits, topped with a smoky shrimp remoulade), and when I took the second bite of my husband’s entree (a pork rack featuring pork belly), I had my answer: Because it just could. Because at its helm is a chef who, to put it bluntly (earmuffs, kids), gives a shit. That’s not to say others don’t. But he and the owners have gone out of their way to create a restaurant that gets to the root of what true Southern food is about: using good, local ingredients and cooking to highlight the natural flavors. Nothing was masked here, nothing hidden under myriad sauces or overbearing seasoning. The presentation was simple, nothing to detract from the natural beauty of pork belly glistening with glorious fat. (What more do you need on a plate?) The portions were generous, which I appreciated. As a girl raised in the South and an endurance runner, I like to eat. The last thing I want is some cutesy plate with a dollop of food on it. I need a substantial meal, and boy did we get just that.

Because then came the dessert.

At some restaurants, dessert could be an afterthought. At River and Rail? It was just what dessert was always meant to be: the perfect ending to the perfect meal. I opted for the blackberry cobbler (because I never turn down cobbler), while my husband chose a vanilla cake garnered with nectarines, hazelnuts, and a peach frozen yogurt. And then came a third dessert: banana pudding topped with a jalapeno sorbet. This was definitely not your grandmother’s banana pudding. This was the perfect pairing of fruit and a cool, cool heat. Chilis/peppers and fruit are not an uncommon pairing in food (though it seems to appear more in ethnic cuisine such as Thai), but why it’s never been applied to banana pudding is now beyond me. Like chicken and waffles or PB&J, it was just the perfect marriage of flavors. I think my husband got about two spoonfuls of the pudding because I got really greedy. Also, I was personally thrilled that not one dessert was overly sweet. Nothing was swimming in sugar: it was all about enhancing the natural sweetness of the ingredients used.

The crazy part? The restaurant has been open for only about six weeks. You would expect some hiccups, some struggle. It’s difficult for any new establishment to be this amazing pretty much right out of the gate, and we did hit a bit of a speed bump in the form of having to wait a while for my husband’s cocktail, but once the ball got rolling, it was nonstop stunners.

So how do I sum all of this up? By urging you to go try it out for yourselves. Go make those reservations, go support a restaurant that strives to support your local farmers and producers. Go watch Chef Deal in action, and do it now, because once word spreads further, you can mark my words that he’ll be the new face of Southern cuisine. For my part, I’ve decided to run the notoriously hilly Blue Ridge Marathon in the spring just to reward myself with the River and Rail burger at the end. I just hope I can find some room at the bar by then.

Update: Thanks to the folks at Polished Pig Media, now you can get a visual of the restaurant! (Photo courtesy of The River and Rail.)