Fusion on the fly
"Fusion" cookery - the creative blending of mixed international flavors that were never intended to go together - might seem oh, so '90s, but the concept still appeals to me.
Provided it works, of course. I can imagine some pretty bad fusion dishes - Southern-fried catfish wrapped in puff pastry and sauced with a jalapeño velouté, let's say; or maybe moo shu foie gras over wild rice. But at its best, using a little common sense to choose compatible ingredients and flavors, "fusing" disparate cuisines can yield new dishes that are not merely delicious but exciting.
The other night, in a mood to try something novel but limited by what was in the larder, I flashed on the idea of a dinner dish that would paint the flavors of Vietnam and Thailand on a canvas drawn more from Italy than France: Pasta with duck breast and a luscious but relatively low-fat cream sauce scented with Southeast Asian flavors.
I pulled out a fresh boneless duck breast (from California's Grimaud Farms by way of Whole Foods), a box of fettuccine, what was left of a short carton of heavy cream, and a selection of aromatics including garlic, ginger, hot red pepper flakes, saffron and gently anise-scented "five spice." I pan-seared the duck, discarded its fatty skin and cut the lean meat into bite-size pieces, then quickly fashioned a simple sauce with chicken broth and the aromatics, thickened with cornstarch and finished with just a splash of heavy cream. The duck and the sauce and the pasta came together to make a mighty appealing dish.
It would be easy to vary this recipe to fit your tastes or what's in your pantry ... chicken breasts should work in place of duck, for example. Or alter the aromatics. Lemongrass would be excellent. So would fresh cilantro, or nam pla (Thai fish sauce). If you try it, or a variation, please let me know how it goes.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 boneless duck breast, skin on, 12-16 ounces (roughly 1/3 kilo)
1. Pan-sear the duck breast, using the procedures outlined in the FoodLetter editions of Jan. 15, 2004 and Feb. 3, 2005: Season the duck breast with salt and pepper and put it skin-side down in a dry skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until the skin starts to crackle and give off its fat; then turn heat to medium low and continue cooking for 15 to 20 minutes, pouring off the fat occasionally (reserve it for future use) and turning the breast once or twice.
2. While the duck is cooking, peel and mince the garlic and ginger and put them in a small bowl with a healthy dash of dried red-pepper flakes. Measure out the broth and stir in the saffron, turmeric and "five spice."
3. When the duck is warmed through - don't worry if it's still quite rare, as it will cook further before serving (and slightly rare duck is delicious, anyway) - remove it from the skillet. Carefully cut off and discard the skin. Cut the remaining portion into bite-size pieces and reserve.
4. Start the pasta cooking in a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook it according to label instructions or until al dente, typically 7 to 10 minutes for fettuccine.
5. While the pasta cooks, remove all but about 1 tablespoon of the remaining duck fat from the skillet. In the remaining fat, cook the minced garlic and ginger and red-pepper flakes until the vegetables are soft and aromatic. Put in the duck pieces and stir once or twice; then add the broth with its flavorings, bring to a simmer, and reduce heat to very low.
6. When the pasta is almost ready, dissolve the cornstarch in a little warm water and stir it into the simmering broth, stirring constantly until it thickens. Add the heavy cream and stir until it's incorporated. The result is a reasonably close approximation of a serious cream sauce, with only a fraction of the fat and calories.
7. Drain the pasta thoroughly, then put it into the pan with the sauce and duck meat and stir until the pasta is evenly coated. Turn it into warm bowls and serve with your choice of green vegetable or salad and, if you like, crusty bread.
WINE MATCH: The earthy, dark duck meat and the rich, creamy sauce with its blend of aromatic flavors make this a wine-friendly dish, well matched with a variety of wines including both whites (Riesling would be an obvious candidate) and reds (from Burgundy/Pinot Noir to Northern Italian reds to the Rhone Valley). I was pleasantly surprised to find that it stood up well to a hearty California red, Concannon 2003 Central Coast Petite Sirah.
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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006
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