Your goose is cooked

Goose livers the size of breadbaskets: A step-by-step look at expert foie gras preparation.


Marjorie Leet Ford
April 13, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

"Coookeeng ees about more than receeps
and technique."

These were the opening words of chef
Laurent Manrique, speaking at the
Tante Marie Cooking School in San
Francisco's North Beach. "Coookeeng ees
about emotion."

When he announced, "Today I prepare a
receep of foie gras" -- voil`! --
two emotions rose up in the classroom.
Sighs of
pleasure came from the students
preparing to be professional chefs, in
their starched white chef's coats and
black-and-white checkered pants.
From a couple of the lay students
(Pacific Heights types in fabulous
sweaters) came voluble shudders. They
apparently hadn't checked the
menu. To many, foie gras is cruelty to
animals.
But
professional chefs use their bare hands
to drain rabbits' blood for
soup. They study the workings of a cow's
four stomachs with a view
toward biting into tripe. Without a
blink of guilt, they drop living,
life-loving lobsters to their death in
boiling cauldrons. Real cooks
have hard hearts.

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To the two women who weren't so sure
they could handle foie
gras, the chef beamed a smile that
seemed to say, "I respect your right
to your opinion." All of us, including
the two skeptics, laughed.

"Force-feeding is really a wrong word,"
Manrique, executive
chef at the city's acclaimed Campton
Place restaurant, said gently. "The
geese see the food we offer them and run
after us. They say, 'Give me
more!'" He didn't go into detail on how
the keepers insert wire
cage-like gadgets into the goose's
throat, to enable it to consume an
unnatural quantity of figs, prunes and
milk-soaked bread. The
important thing to Manrique is that the
goose has a heavenly
life.

"People think of foie gras as French.
But in fact it is
Egyptian. A man called Apicius, the
chef of Julius Caesar, invented it.
He noticed the geese were dying because
they were eating too much. He
opened the goose to find huge -- here
Manrique used his hands to show enormous
-- livers.

"There was no refrigeration, of course.
So the Egyptians made
confit, cooking the liver slowly in fat
from duck and keeping it in
tight containers all winter," he
explained, adding a little more
pantomime. "The best foie gras they
preserve in confit. The not-so-good?
Heat and
eat." Over the centuries, a system of
grading has developed: A, B
and C. C is the smallest. The biggest is
the most luxurious.

The French found that the best goose for
foie gras came from
crossing the Barbary ("Bair-bair-eeee")
male with the Peking female.
Different countries favor different
"races" of geese, and different ways
of removing the liver. Some slit open
the goose immediately after the
kill to nab the liver while it's still
hot, and plunge it into ice. That
way it will resist temperature changes
and won't melt. As we were to
find out, the foie gras is so fat it
might as well be pure butter.

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Manrique showed how pliable a goose
liver is by fitting a
whole one into a tureen as neatly as you
would fit bread dough into a
loaf pan. He slid the tureen into the
oven for slow cooking. "You don't
need seasonings. It tastes good just as
it comes from the goose." You
pat on some salt and pepper, but either
for baking or pan frying, you
definitely do not want to use butter:
"The fois gras is fat enough." When he
overheard a whisper from the classroom
-- the word "cholesterol" was just
audible -- he
chuckled. "In all food, it is fat that
brings out the flavor. If you are
cooking low-fat, you are cooking in an
hospital."

Before moving on to show us his favorite
recipe, he said,
"The old chefs choked the foie gras in
bichamel and biarnaise.
But don't
do it! And whatever you do, no cream!
Simplicity is the best. A great
natural ingredient should be enjoyed for
itself."

The foie gras he'd chosen for his
favorite recipe must have
been Grade A, because it was huge. It's
almost impossible to believe
that a creature only the size of a goose
could produce such a gigantic
liver. Think of a chicken liver. It
doesn't fill a serving spoon. That
goose's liver was hefty enough to fill a
medium-size cast-iron skillet,
a pink mound of plumpness. Manrique
smiled affectionately at the pan. "I
like a cast-iron skillet." The way he
said it conjured love in me for
all cast-iron skillets.

His recipe included a big handful of
special white grapes
from the Pyrenees, some peeled and some
not ("as the skeen of the grape
add flavor to the wine, so eet ees wiss
zee sauce"), some baby capers
("nonpareil"), two handfuls of chopped,
fresh porcini mushrooms, a
shallot or two, minced fine, and a big
splash of sweet sauterne.

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"First I cotay reesay." What?
My brain went through a snarl of effort,
but luckily Tante Marie's
proprietor, Mary Risley, saved the day.
Without quite making it obvious that she
didn't understand "cotay reesay," she
asked a few questions. When she figured
out what he meant, she
didn't translate but said, "Did
everybody learn that? When you go to
apply for a job, you say we learned to
cauterize the meat."

Sizzle! Steam! What a reaction when he
eased the foie gras
into the hot skillet. "You touch it the
meeneemum of time. Turn only
once." The assistant rushed to hand him
some tongs. He looked at those
forceps with horror. "The enemy of
French cooking."

"Why do you say that?" Mary asked from
the back of the room.

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"You know why? Because cooking is
feeling. Your hands are
your best tools. When you need others,
choose them to be an extension of
your own hands. When you poke with a
fork, you feel, through the
instrument, how the skin resists. And
then, the degree of firmness or
softness inside comes through the fork
to your fingers."

Since the
point of cauterizing was to seal the
juices into the meat, he couldn't
prick the delicate membrane with a fork.
The next-best thing,
for feeling, was a spatula. He slid it
under for one quick turn. "The
meeneemum of handling," he reminded.

Tossing in the shallots, grapes,
capers and mushrooms, he let them brown
a moment in the fat of foie
gras. When he splashed sauterne into the
skillet to release a hissing
cloud, he used a spatula to get at the
"jzhoot." "The what?" asked Mary,
from the back. "The jzhoot. You know.
The brown bits at the bottom of
the pan. What is the English word for
that?"
She thought awhile. "We call that 'the
brown bits at the bottom of the
pan.'"

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Slipping the cast-iron skillet into the
oven, he said, "No
need to baste. Usually basting is the
essential action that will make
the meat taste good -- but foie gras has
so much fat it needs no basting."
As the foie gras cooked slowly in the
oven, Manrique took questions: How often
does he baste meats or chickens? Every
five minutes. What nationality are the
best chefs? "Not the
French! They know everything. Very
difficult. Myself, I find the Latin
Americans make the best cooks. I think
it's because they grow up with
someone at home in the house, and always
the smell of things cooking.
They have deep love for food."

The professional cookery students had
more urgent questions. "What do you ask
a job applicant on an interview?"

"I usually ask, 'What did you have for
dinner last night?'"

That amazed everyone, even Mary. "Why
that?"

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"Because I find that what is most
important to find out is a
cook's feelings for food. You see, the
most vital quality is passion.
Because in cuisine there are many
tensions. It is hot in the
kitchen. If you don't have passion, you
burn out."

When the skillet came out of the oven,
he tipped the handle
to show off the juicy brown wonder of it
all. "I like to present it just
like this, in the skillet."

The assistant had a stack of small
plates and a sharp knife.
She dispensed slices the size of gold
coins plus a spoonful of sauce,
with a couple of grapes and capers and a
chunk or two of porcini on each
plate. And oh, those brown bits. Specks
of buttery crust from the foie
gras membrane blended with the sweetness
of the sauterne, with the tang
of those grapes cooked in it. The juicy
fresh porcini tasted
even richer next to the zip of the baby
capers. The foie gras itself was
so creamy it gave the teeth only a hint
of resistance.

Each of us got only two little pieces.
Each of us could have
eaten the whole skilletful. The woman
who'd whispered about cholesterol
smacked her lips, and Manrique gave her
a
wicked smile. We were all like those
geese, who would die for the
pleasure of eating.

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Marjorie Leet Ford

Marjorie Leet Ford has produced National Public Radio programs that won the Peabody Award. Her novel, "Diary of an American Au Pair," will be published next spring by St. Martin's Press in New York and Chatto & Windus in London.

MORE FROM Marjorie Leet Ford

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