As a rule, I'm a pretty health-conscious guy. But this time of year, I can't resist one food that's off the scales in fat grams: foie gras.
Foie gras is an unlikely delicacy to have achieved cult status in a health-conscious country like ours. Few foods are higher in cholesterol and fat. Foie gras is made by methodically overfeeding ducks and geese to pump up the size of their livers. What results is an epicure's dream and a nutritionist's nightmare: a firm, beige-colored liver that is virtually pure fat.
But what fat! Imagine the sweetest butter with a delicate liver flavor and a sweet scent, like pistachio. Imagine a texture that's as smooth as cream, as soothing as massage oil and that melts on your tongue like a snowflake. The haunting taste of even a tiny forkful of foie gras lingers in your mouth for several minutes, like a sip of dessert wine. Indeed, the recommended wine to serve with foie gras is Sauternes.
There's nothing new about foie gras. The ancient Egyptians were the first to practice the art of gavage, the force-feeding of ducks and geese to increase the size of the livers. According to Michael Ginor, co-owner of the nation's largest foie gras producer, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, there is hieroglyphic evidence that the Egyptians fattened their fowl on fresh figs. The Romans presumably learned the technique from the Egyptians and spread it throughout Europe, especially in the southwest of France.
Both geese and ducks can produce foie gras. Being water fowl, they have a greater ability than most birds to produce fat. Ducks are the preferred bird in this country, and they're rapidly gaining in France. Ducks are hardier birds and their livers hold up better under cooking. According to Ginor, the fattening period lasts 28 days, transforming a liver that normally weighs 2 ounces into a 1 1/2-pound block of pure pleasure.
As you can imagine, force-feeding has raised the eyebrows of animal rights activists, but the ducks don't seem to mind it.
"Ducks gorge themselves before migration," explains Ginor, "so we're doing something that comes naturally to them." And during the gavage process, the ducks flock freely to their feeder. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the process is not cruel is that foie gras is considered kosher. Lack of cruelty to animals is one of the primary tests that rabbis use to determine whether a food can be kosher.
When I was growing up, the foie gras you could find came in a can from France. Today, the United States has become a major foie gras producer, and the fatty livers turn up in restaurants of every stripe, from Cajun to Southwestern to Vietnamese.
For most of history, foie gras has been served chilled in terrines. This remains an excellent way to enjoy this luxury product. Fifteen years ago, the young Turks of nouvelle cuisine popularized pan-fried foie gras steaks. This is the method favored by most contemporary American chefs, and it requires no small dexterity. Fry the liver for even a minute too long and you'll wind up with a skillet full of melted fat.
The easiest way to enjoy foie gras at home is in a terrine, baked and chilled, with seasonings and perhaps a little Port or Cognac. Foie gras mousses and pa^tes may contain other ingredients, so inquire or read the label before buying. One of the best producers of foie gras products is D'Artagnan, founded by George Faison and Ariane Daguin, daughter of the Gascon chef Andre Daguin.
When buying fresh foie gras, look for large, light beige livers that feel firm and softly yielding, not hard. Beware of bargains; a good quality foie gras will cost about $40 per pound. Fresh foie gras comes in vacuum-sealed packs and will keep for seven days in the refrigerator. Once opened, the shelf life is about three days.
Foie gras is sometimes sold at specialty butchers and gourmet shops, although you may need to order it ahead of time. You can buy it by mail from companies like D'Artagnon Inc., (800) 327-8246, or Hudson Valley Foie Gras, (914) 292-2500.
Figure on 1/4 pound fresh foie gras per serving; you'll lose about 25% as it cooks. Thus, a 1 1/2-pound liver will serve 6 as an appetizer, 3 to 4 as a main course.
PAN-FRIED FOIE GRAS WITH PEARS AND PORT
1 1/2 pounds fresh foie gras
Freshly ground black pepper
2 very ripe pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup Port wine
Here's a quick and easy way to prepare foie gras, using pears for a touch of sweetness.
Soak foie gras in ice water 15 minutes. (This firms up liver for handling.) Gently separate liver into 2 lobes, holding liver with dish towel to keep it from slipping. Using sharp knife, cut each lobe widthwise, on the diagonal, into 1/2-inch slices. Using tweezers or needle nose pliers, gently pull out any large veins. Lightly score each piece on both sides with tip of knife to make crosshatch pattern. Arrange slices on sheet of wax paper and refrigerate until ready to cook.
Choose 1 or 2 heavy skillets just large enough to hold all slices. Right before serving, heat pan over high heat until it smokes. Generously season liver slices with salt and pepper. (You don't need to add any butter or oil; foie gras is fatty enough by itself.)
Gently place slices in pan and sear 30 seconds or until crusty and brown on bottom. Turn foie gras with spatula and sear other side 15 to 20 seconds. Do not overcook or you'll wind up with a puddle of fat. Transfer foie gras to plates or platter and keep warm.
Add pears to pan and saute until tender, 1 minute. Add vinegar and Port and boil until thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. scraping bottom of pan with whisk to dissolve congealed juices. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over foie gras. Serve at once.
Makes 6 appetizer servings or 4 servings as light entree.
Each appetizer serving contains about:
174 calories; 168 mg sodium; 438 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 0.78 gram fiber.