A common literary trope today is the story of two or more women (and occasionally men) from different time periods who are somehow linked together through a particular location. Usually the character from the present finds some kind of artifact from the past and decides to look for clues as to what it's all about. The story then shifts to the past where the reader learns the story of what happened. Usually the character from the present needs to deal with the mess of her current life and finding out these clues gives her focus and purpose.
The Address by Fiona Davis fits this formula nicely. The story takes place in one of New York's most famous residences, The Dakota. The story shifts between a young English girl who leaves her job as a hotel maid to help manage the newly-built Dakota building, and an interior designer in the 1980s who is a recovering alcoholic trying to salvage her life and career by taking a commission to redecorate a friend's Dakota apartment.
I was hoping the book might provide some descriptions of fine dining in NYC in the 1880s (or even the 1980s), but like every other book I have read in 2018, it failed to bring me any direct inspiration. I imagined chapters that would feature dinner parties at the Dakota or meals eaten at Delmonico's. To my dismay, this book decided not to put any focus on what the characters were eating. I have learned some authors don't think food is important. What is wrong with them?
I decided to do some research once again and see what was commonly on fine dining menus from 1884-1886 (the years the historical parts of the book took place). I found the New York Public Library has an archive of menus from clubs, restaurants, and private parties from almost every era. I looked for common elements throughout the different menus offered.
The food on the menus was rarely anything interesting or unique. The most most frequent dishes were roast meats and fish along with vegetable accompaniments, all made to sound fancier by writing them in French. I had to run some of the options through a translator. I often found once I was beyond the French name, I was looking at an ordinary dish. I'm sure many of these fine cuts of meat were considered fancy enough as they were. The average American most likely couldn't afford the kinds of cuts of meat offered in high-end restaurants. There were also more adventurous cuts that tend to be overlooked by Americans today such as rabbit, offal, and terrapin. At first I thought I would not have to work very hard to create the kind of meal the characters in The Address might have eaten at a dinner party. I could cook a leg of lamb and a side of peas and call it a day.*
After reading way too many menus, I began to notice that timbale was a popular method for presenting food. I saw meat themed timbales (or should I say timbali?) and vegetable timbales, but the one that caught my eye was one called Timbale Ris Milanese. Ris Milanese? Would that be like risotto milanese, the arborio rice dish flavored with saffron? What if I made a molded risotto and filled it with a delicious meat filling? How about a duck ragu`? Duck, including duck timbale, was featured regularly on the retro menus.
My usual brain mushing ensued as I came up with how I would do this. I made a basic risotto, but without the onions (for the sake of texture). I flavored it with wine and saffron. I mixed it with eggs and parmesan, molded it into a baking dish, and filled it with a duck ragu´
I made the ragu´ with store-bought duck leg confit (even though I had to bite the bullet and pay $12 per leg). I started with slow-cooked some onions. I layered that with mushrooms and garlic. I add some Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste for a deeper, richer, and more intense flavor. Finally I added brandy to give it a kick. I simmered it all together and nestled it in with the rice.
I didn't want to waste the skin, so took the skin off and made cracklings in the microwave to sprinkle over the finished product and the greens beneath it.
I had a little bit of an issue getting the top and bottom out in one piece when I sliced it, but it didn't look too bad.
How did it taste? The duck ragu` was delicious (although the brandy taste was a bit strong). I want to use the recipe again. Maybe the next time I make duck ragu` pasta, I will use this recipe instead of my previous one. I think the rice coating made a nice presentation, but made the dish unnecessarily starchy and heavy. It tasted fine, but it was a bit too filling. I think Kevin might disagree. He loves his starches and he loves risotto, and I think he probably would have eaten a cake made entirely of risotto. (Maybe I should make the dish again as is and eat the duck myself and have him eat the rice?)
Risotto Timbale with Duck Confit Ragu`
- 2 Tbl olive oil
- 2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 5 cups chicken stock
- 1 pinch saffron
- 2 Tbl butter
- 2 cups arborio rice
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
- 2 cloves of garlic minced
- 1 Tbl tomato paste
- 2 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
- 3 duck confit legs,** skin removed and meat shredded
- 1/2 cup brandy
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- Salt to taste
Heat a large frying pan or saute` pan over medium heat and add the oil when hot. Add the onions to the pan. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes. Watch them carefully.
Place the duck skin on a paper-towel-lined plate. Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Try not to eat it all.
In a small saucepan, heat chicken stock. If it is low-sodium, add a pinch or three of salt to taste. Crush the saffron into the stock and keep it all warm on the stove, just at a simmer.
Melt butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the rice to the pot and stir to coat. Cook 2-3 minutes or until you start to smell the rice toasting. Add the white wine and stir until it is absorbed into the rice.
Keep watching and stirring those onions in other pan. Turn down the heat if they brown too quickly.
Add a ladleful of hot stock to the rice. Stir until absorbed. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Continue to add stock and stir until absorbed until you have used all the stock.
Are you keeping an eye on those onions?
Once the risotto is done, spread it out on a cookie sheet to cool.
Increase the heat to medium and add the sliced mushrooms to the pan with the onions. Cook until softened. Add a little more olive oil and the garlic letting it cook until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce and make sure the onions and mushrooms are evenly coated.
Stir in the duck pieces until well combined with the onion-mushroom mixture. Add the brandy and let it evaporate a bit.
The risotto should have cooled by now, so place it in a bowl and stir in the eggs and parmesan.
Pour the risotto into the prepared pan. The rice should cover the bottom of the pan and go about halfway up the sides. Place the duck in the middle of the pan. Top with more rice so it is completely covered.
Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool 10 minutes and unmold carefully. Give it another 5 minutes before you cut it.
Serve over a bed of lightly dressed mixed greens and sprinkled with crumbled duck crackling (assuming you haven't eaten it all).
*And I would have eaten all the lamb and my husband would have eaten the peas and neither of us would have been satisfied.
**I might have liked a fourth leg, but duck confit is so expensive, I decided I could do with three to stay in budget.