For last season's edition of Novel Food, I chose a story set in France during World War II as my inspiration. This season, we're still in France, but we've gone back further, to World War I, and the story is told from the German perspective. My inspiration for the Winter 2008 edition of Novel Food comes from All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.
All Quiet on the Western Front is thought of as a war novel, not a food novel, but food is a definite and recurring theme in Remarque's most famous work. The opening scene takes place at the mess hall. There's an impromptu feast prepared under shellfire. And there is one of the greatest non-romantic love scenes in literature: the roast goose.
The story is narrated by Paul Bäumer, age nineteen, who enlists in the German Army with a group of schoolmates. His closest friend is Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed Kat, a former cobbler with an uncanny ability to forage for food and make a decent meal, no matter how poor the army rations are. One day, when Paul and Kat are out on wiring fatigue (laying barbed wire), they hear the cackle of geese coming from a shed. Later that night, they sneak out, kill a goose, and roast it for supper.
"We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.
We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common - now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.
It takes a long time to roast a goose, even when it is young and fat. So we take turns. One bastes it while the other lies down and sleeps. A grand smell gradually fills the hut."
Once the goose is cooked, the two have a quiet feast:
"In the middle of the room shines the brown goose. We take out our collapsible forks and our pocket-knives and each cuts off a leg. With it we have army bread dipped in gravy. We eat slowly and with gusto.
"How does it taste, Kat?"
"Good! And yours?"
I love this scene because the image is so simple, yet so powerful. Remarque invokes the primal fears of death and darkness, but Paul and Kat are safe, if only for a brief while, warded by warmth, food, and companionship. I decided that I definitely wanted to roast a goose for Novel Food.
Procuring a goose proved to be a bigger challenge than I expected. None of my usual haunts carried geese. A venture into Chinatown proved unsuccessful. I did learn that Savenor's carries geese, but I balked upon hearing their price per pound.* It was almost enough to make me set out with a bow and arrow with the aim of shooting my own. (I know a spot on the bank of the Charles that is frequented by a gaggle of geese.)
Almost, mind you. I can report that no geese on the Charles were harmed in the production of this post, and I have not jeopardized my fitness to pass the bar with any charges for possession of a deadly weapon. I ultimately decided that the spirit of the dish was more important than literal adherence to the form, and so I elected to roast a duck instead.
Ducks and geese belong to the same family. Geese are much larger, and the meat is a little coarser, but both are entirely dark meat, and both are insulated by a generous layer of fat. They can be cooked using the same method, and so I chose to prepare a duck as I would a goose.
Given that the inspiration for this meal was a goose roasted on a makeshift spit over a fire, I decided to keep it relatively simple, stuffing the duck with a mixture of chopped apples and prunes, and seasoning it with plain coarse salt. I served the duck with pan gravy, red cabbage, and boiled potatoes, in keeping with the vaguely German theme of the meal.
Tom and Kitty joined me for dinner. It was a welcome respite from the hell of finals week.
Roast Duck with Apple-Prune Stuffing
I roasted a duck that weighed approximately five pounds. According to The Joy of Cooking, the cooking time is fifteen to twenty minutes per pound, plus half an hour if the duck is stuffed, so my duck should have been cooked after two hours and ten minutes. However, I don't own a meat thermometer, and two hours seemed a little short to me, so my duck actually spent closer to three hours in the oven. I'll let you (or your meat thermometer) decide on your exact cooking time.
(Recipe not for one, unless you're roasting a very small duck, or you really like leftovers.)
Preheat the oven to 450F.
Start with the stuffing: Take three or four apples (depending on the size of your duck), peel them, core them, and cube them. Mix in a bowl with a handful of prunes, a sprinkling of salt, and a splash of apple brandy if you feel like it.
Next, check the cavity of your duck for neck and giblets. Set these aside for making stock and/or giblets in cream sauce (mmm). Pat the duck dry inside and out with paper towels. Use a skewer or a small sharp knife to prick the duck lightly all over. This allows the fat to render out, which makes for crispy duck and lots of leftover duck fat for other recipes. Don't season it with salt yet. (If you salt the duck at the beginning of cooking, the dripping fat tends to wash away the salt, leaving you with bland duck and very salty drippings.)
Stuff the duck. Secure the opening of the cavity with a toothpick, if necessary. Place on a rack in a roasting tray.
Turn the oven down to 325F, and put the roasting tray in the oven.
After one hour passes, pull out the roasting tray. Pour off the fat (the clear liquid) that has collected in the bottom of the pan. (Don't discard it! You can use it to cook potatoes that are a thing of glory.) Prick the duck all over again, and return it to the oven. Resist the urge to peek in on it every few minutes or so. Have a snack if the smell is making you too hungry.
After another hour has passed, pour off the fat that has collected in the bottom of the pan, prick the duck all over again, and now season it with salt. Put the duck back in the oven.
If your duck looks as though it's not browning quickly enough, bump up the heat to 400F. Cook for another half-hour or so. When you (or your meat thermometer) judge the duck to be done, remove it from the oven and let it rest on a cutting board for fifteen to twenty minutes.
Pour off most of the fat that has collected at the bottom of the pan. Scrape the remaining fat and drippings (the brown liquid and the crusty brown bits) into a small saucepan. Add a splash of cheap red wine, and whisk the mixture over medium heat until the alcohol boils off and you have a thin gravy. Season with salt if necessary.
Carve the duck and serve with gravy and stuffing on the side. Red cabbage and boiled potatoes are good accompaniments.
*Let's just say that it would have been more expensive than buying the fixings for a full lobster dinner.