March 15, 2013

Everything was Ducky in Jimmy's Back Room

Over the weekend, I had the enviable honor of being a judge for Duck-Off 2013, a Food Systems Network NYC fundraiser held at Jimmy’s No.43, in the East Village. FSNYC is a membership-based non-profit that works to change our food system in a way that will allow universal access to nourishing, affordable food. It’s a subject I feel strongly about. I’m lucky to be able to shop at the greenmarket and eat the best, most nutritious foods daily, and I want everyone to be able to do that.

Since FSNYC raises its entire operating budget on its own, the organization has to get creative; this event was a perfect example of how it does that.

So the idea was that contestants had to wow us with their creative preparation of some beautiful ducks generously donated by Matt Igoe of Hudson Valley Duck Farm.

There were too many great entries to list, so I’m highlighting a few of my favorites here. Keep an eye on FSNYC’s webpage and Facebook page for full recipes, which will be posted soon.

Winners Andrew Gumpel, left, and Micah Mowrey

Micah Mowrey and Andrew Gumpel from Gramercy Tavern walked away with the judges’ first place award for their impeccably constructed Duck Pastrami with Sunchoke’s & Aji Dulce Pepper Jam. It was a little like awarding first to LeBron James amid a cast of NCAA hopefuls, though, so you’ll just have to go to Gramercy Tavern to learn more about what these talented young chefs can do.

Jamie Saurman's duck legs doing their thing.
All the judges loved the flavor combinations of Jamie Saurman’s Cumin-Coriander Duck Leg Confit. It’s no wonder, since his inspiration was his wife Hemali, whose family in Mumbai has been mixing small-batch spices for 75 years.  Using his favorite slow-cooking method, Jamie flavored his duck legs with curry leaves, freshly ground cumin seeds and a turbo-charged coriander powder to highlight the natural savory flavor of the duck. Then he used rendered duck fat and bacon fat to confit his Hudson Valley Farm duck legs in a 250-degree oven.

Hemali, spice muse, and Jamie
 “I love to submerge things in their own fat, or borrow even tastier fat from other sources and slowly cook them,” says Jamie, a Johnson & Wales grad who is preparing to open his own restaurant and brewery in Brooklyn. (The intriguing part of his business plan: DIY beer brewing for restaurant guests.)

 It was the combination of the shredded confit, green mung beans (cooked in a pressure cooker with garlic, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves), fresh pomegranate seeds and crispy lentil papadum that made the dish so alluring. As judges, our only quibble with this delicious dish was that it was hard to scoop up these disparate and truly complementary flavors into one bite amid the scrum of the duck-off. Jamie placed second, after the Gramercy team.

Duck Confit Tart and proud maker, Laura Luciano.
Everyone knew that besides the Gramercy guys, the contender to beat was Laura Luciano, winner of the recent cassoulet cook-off at Jimmy’s No. 43 and a scarily talented cook and blogger from the East End of Long Island.

The confit's close-up.

Sure enough, her Duck Confit Tart did well, taking third place from the judges for its beautiful and complex combination of pâte brisée, brie, and a very duck-y confit mixture. She made and baked her tart shell the night before. The first layer onto the pastry was a slathering of triple-cream brie, which Laura puréed in a food processor with the rind on. For the duck layer, Laura brined and then confit-ed her duck legs in duck fat, roughly chopped them and mixed them with caramelized onions (deglazed with vermouth and cognac) and some fennel and Bosc pears that had been roasted with thyme. She also threw in some garlic confit salvaged from the duck confit-ing process.

 French-Mex? Duck Burrito Pie

Adrian “The Cook-off King of Queens” Ashby describes his Duck Burrito Pie as a cross between a Mexican burrito and an English shepherd’s pie; to me it evoked the tortilla casseroles and tamale pies of my Southern California childhood. Adrian didn't place in the competition in part because judges felt that in a duck-off, the duck had to be front and center, not one note among many.

Still, the dish was appealing and addictive, the way a great chicken pot pie or bowl of mac & cheese is. The layered casserole starts with wall-to-wall overlapping tortillas on the bottom, then a layer of room temperature shredded cheese to act as a binder. Rice (any kind will do, says Adrian) and sofrito form the next strata. Adrian makes his sofrito by sautéing garlic, onion, green peppers, cilantro, and tomato paste in olive oil over medium heat until the onions are transparent.  Other layers involve beans, jalapeno, and the duck meat, which he shredded and seasoned. I couldn’t keep track of the exact ordering of all these layers, but they repeat and add up to something that would be great around a campfire or to feed to a hungry horde of teenagers.

I can’t end the post without a shout-out to Jimmy Carbone, whose generosity is as wide as his craft beer list at Jimmy’s No. 43. He’s a huge supporter of sustainable farming and local purveyors, who always know they have a room for their events in his handy and well-used Back Room—thanks, Jimmy!

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