Christmas is coming, and the geese are getting fat. And the ducks. And the rest of the poultry. And so am I. What the heck? Goose, duck and chicken fats, along with beef drippings, are no longer my secret guilty pleasures. We underground band of schmaltz lovers can now say it loud and say it proud: These politically incorrect substances make the best fries and roast potatoes known to mankind.
Admittedly, it may not be too wise to spread your golden chicken fat on rye bread for breakfast every day, but when the holidays come around it’s a velvety and seductive indulgence in which more people are sharing. In the United Kingdom, sales of duck and goose, as well as duck and goose fat, in the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s are booming this year. The danger is that once you’ve had your festive roasties cooked this way, it’s hard to go back to the no-fat, no-salt, no-taste versions. But hey, let’s not worry about that till Jan. 1.
Duck fat draws crowds
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A recent visit to the terrific Duckfat sandwich shop in Portland, Maine, was proof, if any be needed, of the irresistible lure of French fries triple-cooked in the eponymous duck fat. Cones of fries were flying out the kitchen. They could barely keep up with the demand for the Belgian-style fries made with local potatoes, along with the duck-fat-fried Brussels sprouts with maple bacon, apple, mustard vinaigrette and croutons and their version of poutine, with the fries topped with cheese curds, duck gravy and fresh chives.
Francophiles hardly need telling that the defining taste of southwest France is through the medium of duck and goose fat, rather than butter or olive oil. The famous French food writer Curnonsky described the regional food as “without butter and without reproach.” Potatoes Sarladaises — diced waxy potatoes fried until crispy in duck or goose fat, sometimes sprinkled with finely chopped shallots, garlic or parsley — are to be found on nearly every menu in the Périgord. Cassoulet derives much of its unctuous richness from a generous helping of fat, but its use is found throughout northern Europe.
Goose and duck fat both add luscious depth and aroma to red cabbage slowly cooked with apples, brown sugar and cider vinegar. You can also use it to roast vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and butternut squash, or to fry potato pancakes (add some grated celeriac for extra aniseed interest).
As with meat, it is the fat that gives the bird its flavor. In addition, the French Paradox, discovered in the 1990s, showed that the people of southwest France, where the food is awash with duck and goose fat, had the lowest rates of heart disease in France. The explanation is complex, as Jennifer McLagan describes in her deliciously celebratory book “Fat,” but essentially poultry fats are mainly monounsaturated and contain oleic acid, which is known to have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.
Goose fat also has an interesting history in the Anglo-Saxon world. Dorothy Harley, in “Food in England,” chronicled its use as a hand cream for dairymaids, as a hot poultice to rub on your chest to treat colds and bronchitis, and as a waterproofing agent for leather goods. She also noted it was “used in east winds or snow, to anoint the udders of cows to prevent chapping.”
So now you know what to do with any leftover fat when roasting a bird. That’s right: Make another batch of roast potatoes.
Braised Red Cabbage With Apple
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/4 cup goose or duck fat
1 onion, chopped
1 medium red cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)
2 apples, cored, peeled and cut into chunks or rings
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup sherry vinegar (or cider or red wine vinegar)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt the goose fat in a heavy casserole over medium heat, then add the onion and cook until soft but not brown.
2. Add the cabbage and stir so it is coated with the fat. The cabbage will reduce considerably as it wilts. Add the apple.
3. Add the sugar and vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and leave to cook over very low heat for several hours, stirring from time to time.
4. Taste and add more vinegar or sugar depending on whether you think the cabbage is too sweet or too sharp. It may depend on the type of apple you use, as well as personal taste — it may, of course, be just right, in which case all you have to do is eat with a hearty meat dish such as venison, sausages, oxtail stew, roast pork or, indeed, roast goose (in which case don’t forget to save the fat and begin the cycle all over again!).