Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Foie Gras 101

Once upon a time, on a wonderful trip to France, Jason and I ate foie gras every single day.  It might get old after a while, but I can't say since I've only done it for 14 days straight.  The foie gras preparation I am talking about is cold -- either au torchon (foie gras cylinder shaped with a towel) or en terrine (packed in a mold).  Surprisingly, I don't care for seared foie gras, but luckily the kind I like seems much more prevalent in France.

If you love foie gras as much as we do, inevitably you'll start wondering if you can prepare your drug of choice yourself.  What can be better on a Christmas eve than sitting by the fire, drinking Sauternes, and eating silky foie gras with black currant jam on toasted brioche.  This fantasy of mine also includes sleeping kids and some other activities that I am not allowed to discuss on this family-friendly blog.  

Luckily, preparing foie gras at home requires more guts than cooking skills.  Anyone can do it as long as you can get control of your nerves during a few stages of the process.  Here is everything you ever wanted to know about foie gras and were afraid to ask followed by an illustrated guide to foie gras en terrine.

How do I choose a foie gras?
We rarely get a choice in the US of duck vs. goose foie gras.  For example, I've only seen duck foie gras at Boston butcher shops.  The only real choice you'll be making is Grade A or Grade B.  Grade A is more expensive and has fewer veins.  That's the grade you want.  If you've ever tried to devein a foie gras, you'll know that it's worth every penny.  Choose the livers that are light pink orange in color.  If they are grey, they've been oxidized and should be avoided.

How much does it cost?
Foie Gras is not cheap.  Grade A sells for about $60/Lb in Boston.  Luckily, you don't have to buy the whole liver.  You can buy as much or as little as you want.  Another good thing is that even people who love foie gras, eat it in small quantities.  Last time I bought a pound, it made 8 generous first course portions.  That's $7.5/portion, which definitely beats $18-20 you'd pay in a restaurant.  

How much foie gras should I buy?
The minimum I'd buy for a terrine preparation is 1/2 Lb.  Any less than that and it will be hard to find a small enough ramekin to cook your foie.  If you want to make au torchon preparation, you'd need 1-1.5 lb.  I strongly recommend the terrine preparation for beginners since less things can go wrong and you can make a smaller quantity.

Is it more important to remove the veins or to keep the foie gras intact?
It is crucial that you remove *all* the veins.  Otherwise your foie gras will taste like grizzly butter.  When you consult the recipes, they'll make it sound like you pull a bit, the big vein comes out, you reshape the foie gras and that's all there is to it.  No. No. No.  The reality is way messier than that.  The veins keep going and going, and you need to keep digging and digging.  That's when the panic sets in.  Stick to your guns even if you feel like you are butchering a $100 object and breaking it up into smithereens.  If your foie gras looks like it was blown up by a dynamite, relax.  Chances are you are doing it correctly.  Keep in mind that foie gras is pliable like butter.  You can always smoosh it back together, not necessarily to reconstruct it's original shape -- in that sense it's kind of like Humpty Dumpty -- but to make it a single unit again.

Foie is not really cooked, it's barely warmed.  Is that safe to eat?
The most trusted source for foie gras au torchon in the US is Thomas Keller (at least it seems this way from what I found on the web).  He tells you to cook the foie gras cylinder for 90 seconds, then plunge into ice water.  Most terrine recipes will tell you to cook to appallingly low temperature, like 90-100F and I think even that is too high.  I prefer to leave mine practically cold inside.  Essentially this is Keller's preparation but using a ramekin instead of a towel to shape.  That's when you might start having questions about the safety of this preparation.  Isn't foie gras a poultry product?  Sure, we eat duck breasts medium-rare, but they are a solid muscle allowing us to kill most of the bacteria during sear (bacteria are normally only found on the outside).  The foie gras is another story.  After all the deveining and reshaping, the outside and inside get all mixed up.  In that sense it's more similar to a burger.  Talking to a butcher at Savenor's shed some light on why foie gras is not as dangerous as you'd think.  It's mostly fat, and bacteria don't like growing in fat.  Fat is actually used for preservation in some preparations, like confit.  So the baddies that make cooking chicken for 90 seconds a bit risky, don't normally inhabit foie gras.  The reason you heat it up is to soften it and help you mold it into shape; it's not to make it safe to eat.   To make foie gras safe by FDA standards, you'd have to ruin it.

Foie Gras En Terrine
After playing with foie gras a few times, I settled on this preparation as the easiest, yummiest, most reliable, and best storing.  This uses a combination of techniques from Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, Michael Ruhlman's blog, Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and François-Xavier's blog,  A huge thanks to all of them for sharing their craft and bringing so much joy to my holiday table.

Foie Gras En Terrine
Start this project at least 4 days before you plan to serve your foie gras and up to 2 weeks ahead.  

At least 1/2 Lb Grade A foie gras (more is fine)
Kosher salt
Milk for soaking

Special equipment
  1. Deep ramekins, or glass jars -- I prefer to use lots of small containers about 1 cup each.  This way I only break the fat seal on one jar at a time, making the rest of foie gras last better.  
  2. Instant read thermometer 
  3. Sous-vide set up -- don't worry if you don't have one, you can improvise with a large pot of water as long as you have a thermometer.
  4. Kitchen Scale -- nice to have, but not strictly necessary
Warming up the foie gras to soften it will help tremendously with the next step of removing the veins.  You want to bring it to internal temperature of about 50F.  The fastest way to do it is to keep it in its vacuum sealed package and submerge in a bowl of 70F water.  It should be ready to work with after 30 minutes for smaller pieces (about 1/2 Lb) and after an hour for larger pieces (1+ Lb).  Be careful that the water is not too warm -- you don't want to melt the foie gras.  You can also just let it sit at room temperature, but it will take longer than a bowl of water.

Gently pry the lobes apart.  You'll see some veins.  Grab onto them and start pulling very slowly.  If you pull quickly, they'll rip.  I prefer to use my fingers instead of a knife.
Pull with one hand, while gently digging into foie gras with the other hand to liberate the veins.
If you see thin film covering the lobes, gently pull it off.
If you see any green-yellow spots, cut them out completely.  That's bile and it's bitter.  Most of your foie gras will be very broken up.  If some big chunks appear not to have any veins from inspecting the outside, gently press your fingers into those pieces in a few spots.  Chances are there are veins hiding inside.
You won't be wasting much foie gras at this point since the veins are very thin, but the terribly broken state of your precious liver will make you worry.  Don't panic.  Pat yourself on the back.  If you've survived this step, the rest will be easy peasy.
Press foie gras pieces into the bottom of a bowl.
Cover with milk (cold from the fridge).  Refrigerate overnight.  This removes leftover blood
Drain foie gras and rinse in a colander with very cold water.  Remove to a paper towel.  Pat dry very thoroughly using more paper towels working with a few pieces at  a time.

Now you need to air dry it for about an hour to make sure it's completely dry.  The easiest way to do it is to put it on a rack lined with cheese cloth or a dry paper towel to help it breath, but not fall through.  If you don't plan to cook it in an hour, place the rack in the fridge, but let it warm up to room temperature before cooking.  This helps it cook more evenly.

Set up a water bath.  I use my sous-vide supreme for this preparation.  Pour in enough hot water into the water bath to come about 1/2 inch short of the top of the ramekins or containers you plan to use.  Set the temperature to 130F and wait for the water to come to temp.  You can also do this in a large pot of 135F water with a triple layer of paper towel folded under the ramekins.  The extra 5 degrees take into account the drop in temperature as the ramekins go in.  Don't worry about maintaining perfect 130F throughout the cooking process.  It's safer to let it drop than to turn on the heat.  Just make sure it's 135F right before the ramekins go in and don't add more than 1-2 ramekins at once if using a pot.

Salt the foie gras using non-iodized salt -- in other words, not table salt.  Kosher and sea salts are iodine free.  Sprinkle evenly with 1% salt by weight.  For example, if you have 500g foie gras (after deveining), you'll need 5g salt.  If you don't have a scale, here is how to approximate this.  Check the package for the weight of your foie gras and use 1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt per pound of foie gras.  Unfortunately, I can't give you teaspoon measurements for other salts since they vary tremendously from one salt to another, but Diamond Crystal is easy to buy in most supermarkets (just not Whole Foods).  Sprinkling by eye works fine too if you are an experienced cook.  But since foie gras is outrageously expensive you might not want to take any changes with over or under-seasoning.

Press foie gras into ramekins starting with the big pieces and using little pieces to fill in the gaps.  The ramekins should be fairly full and as densely packed as possible.  Ok, so maybe not as full as the one in the picture, but almost.  I had just a smidgen more foie gras than could comfortably fit and got carried away.  Not a biggie, but a bit of fat spilled into my water bath.  Ideally, foie gras should reach 1/4 inch from the top.
Cover with parchment paper cut to fit inside the ramekins and press them firmly onto foie gras.
Cover with plastic wrap.  Place the ramekins into the water bath and cook until enough fat renders to barely cover the top of foie gras.  Don't worry about the internal temperature.  
How long this takes depends tremendously on the shape of your ramekins, how much foie gras you pack into them and how thick the walls of the ramekins are.  For 7 oz ramekins, I start checking after 10 minutes.  Be careful not to drip any water into the ramekins.  If you missed the perfect moment and your liver is starting to swim in fat, set the ramekins into an ice-bath.  Otherwise just let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to finish cooking.

Spoon out most of the fat and press firmly on the liver with the back of a spoon to compact it.  Don't throw away the fat.  You can freeze it indefinitely and then use to make duck confit and many other yummy things.  You should have enough fat left in the ramekins to just cover the liver.  Carefully wipe the top of the inside of the ramekin with a clean paper towel.

Cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate until completely cold.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 days and up to 2 weeks.

Spread on toasted brioche or bread of your choice.  Foie gras is excellent served with sweet toppings.  My favorites are black current or fig jam, vanilla poached pears, Pear and Currant Chutney from Saveur, and the same chutney prepared with quince instead of pear.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1 managed to get a 2lb whole Grade A foie a number of years ago. I cooked it every way I could think of. I seared, I made a terrine, I grilled, I torched.

Within a month I had full blow gout. I still wouldn't change a thing.