“I never cooked with foie gras in Peru,” says Ricardo Zarate. His hands are deep in flour, the pale dust spreading across counter and chef — black T-shirt, black jeans, black apron — as he forms pâte à choux dough into what will become foie gras churros in the kitchen. “Because I’m Peruvian, they’re going to think this is something else,” the chef says, smiling into his mixing bowl. Zarate’s foie gras churros are an inventive bit of dessert — imagine your favorite jelly doughnut re-created by a pastry chef from Périgord.
Zarate is not, of course, from the South of France. He’s from Lima, and he made his name in Los Angeles when he opened Mo-Chica, at first a tiny counter in La Paloma Mercado near USC, serving Peruvian food to a city that had not yet had much of it. That was 2009, and in the last half-dozen years, the chef has gone through drama enough, even in a business known for it. Zarate opened three restaurants in fairly rapid succession, then saw them close or move on without him. As the kitchen musical chairs played out, he cooked at festivals and events and consulted at restaurants, and this summer he opened a limited-run pop-up restaurant on the Westside. And through it all, he worked on his first cookbook, “The Fire of Peru: Recipes and Stories From My Peruvian Kitchen,” which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Oct. 20.
The foie gras churros aren’t in the cookbook, but they were on the menu at the pop-up for the months it was open. As Zarate tells it, they were the only reason his 9-year-old son, Gabriel, came to his father’s temporary restaurant.
The origins of the dish are neither in his Peruvian childhood nor his time working in Japanese restaurants in Peru, London and Los Angeles. Instead they can be traced to Cochon 555, the traveling ode to heritage pigs, in which high-profile chefs (including Zarate) compete in judged tasting events around the country.
“I had to do one dish that included pork, duck and foie gras together,” he says as he sears foie gras in a sauté pan. So he made bacon sugar and put duck fat in the pâte à choux dough. And when it came time to put the dish on a repeating menu, he turned the whole thing into a dessert. A foie gras doughnut, if you will.
Zarate says making the churros is easy, though maybe “not for the guy who does 500 of them a day.”
The pastry is a traditional choux dough — the same thing you use to make eclairs and cream puffs. The filling is not pure foie gras but seared pieces of the duck liver that have been blended with lucuma, a Peruvian fruit that’s also called an egg fruit; it looks kind of like an avocado, if that avocado had a bright yellow interior. (In Los Angeles, it’s easy to find — there are bags of lucuma pulp at Latin American markets — try Vallarta — in the frozen fruit section.)
Why this stuff? Because Zarate is Peruvian, and even when he’s making fancy French doughnuts, he’s still channeling his origins. Together, the fruit and the foie gras combine to form a kind of dessert pâté, almost a pastry cream, as if an old-fashioned torchon came with its bit of accompanying fruit already magically inside.
It should not surprise anyone who lived through California’s foie gras ban, which was lifted in January, that the chef decided to use it when he could. “When it was finally available again, I thought, if I’m going to do it, I want to do it as a dessert.”
Zarate drops the dough — the foie gras filling neatly sealed inside — into a pan of oil, the churros turning a deep gold. Afterward, he rolls the still-warm pastries in sugar, a layer of it having been spilled across the counter to replace the flour. Then he folds a paper bag into a makeshift bowl — the kind you’d expect to find with a half-dozen beignets inside — and places some pisco-spiked cranberry jam as a kind of dipping sauce beside it.
Your jelly doughnut just got very upscale.