by Donna Marie Zotter
Foie gras (pronounced fwah grah) or literally, “fat liver,” is the enlarged liver of a fattened duck or goose. But this prosaic definition belies the delicious sinfulness this magnificent food offers. Like any indulgence, every bite of foie gras is a memorable experience. No other food I know offers its silken richness and sublime taste.
The epitome of French haute cuisine and the signature of serious kitchens in America, foie gras has a lively reputation and often spawns debate as to its place among the gastronomic delicacies we covet.
To understand gavage (force feeding in French), and the way in which this process completely changes the nature of the duck and goose liver, is to understand why production has continued without interruption since ancient Egyptian Pharoahs revered the goose as a symbol of connection between man and the divine.
A standard duck or goose liver, with its reddish brown coloring and potentially bitter flavor, is transformed through a progressive force-feeding regimen in the two to four weeks before butchering. The liver expands from a few ounces to around 1 pound for ducks and as much as 2 pounds for geese during the voracious feeding on a mixture of corn and water. The result is a buff-colored, buttery, nutty meat without a trace of that classic liver-like bitterness.
Foie gras does not, however, come without controversy. Attacked by both nutritionists and animal rights activists, foie gras is best understood as its traditional, cultural and social history suggests: it is carefully produced in relatively small quantities with a price that reflects the very nature of it as a prized gastronomic indulgence.
Admittedly rich in fat, its very nutritional make-up suggests that its consumption be limited. The truth of the matter is that foie gras is two-thirds monounsaturated fat, the good kind of fat. The remaining saturated fats are tempered by the presence of oleic acid, a component of monounsaturated fat. What we all know, however, is that foie gras is purchased and consumed only on special occasions.Few realize that the production of foie gras through gavage is not an unduly cruel act to the animal. The duck’s esophagus is made of a hard surface like a fingernail, which makes the placement of the feeding tube painless. The entire feeding process lasts about 30 seconds, and is repeated 2 to 3 times a day. Those that witness the feeding process often remark of the loving, gentle nature of the feeder to the animals. Only in the rare, mass-production facilities are the tragic insensitivities reported.
Geese and ducks are very sensitive to any change or stress in their environment, and the gaveuses (reputable French women who develop the skill and knowledge to successfully produce the finest foie gras) take great care to maintain a favorable habitat for their birds. The more favorable the environment, the less stress on the bird. The less stress on the bird, the higher the quality of foie gras. The finest artisanal farms in the United States have adopted these methods, opting for low-yield, high quality foie gras, which in most cases eliminates the risk of cruelty or insensitivity to the animals.
Buying Foie Gras
Sourcing your foie gras can be difficult. Or, perhaps I should say that sourcing the finest grade and quality foie gras can be a difficult, but worthwhile gastronomic adventure. Finding a purveyor you trust that consistently obtains Grade A and top quality Grade B foie gras from France, from New York’s Hudson Valley, or any of the few artisanal producers in the United States is worth your time and the top dollar you will pay. In fact, be prepared to be generous with your resources, as some of the finest producers now command over $75 per pound for Grade A foie gras. Most fresh foie gras available in the United States is that from ducks.
Two-week vs. Four-week Production
Two styles of foie gras are produced, based on the number of weeks of feeding. Both methods produce magnificent livers, but each with different qualities. Livers from the two-week feeding process tend to have less veins, which renders these better for low temperature cooking methods, such as baking in terrines or oven-roasting.
The longer feeding process produces livers with a more pronounced vein structure. These livers can be used in any cooking method, but adapt especially well to quick, high-heat methods like pan-searing and grilling. The veins must be removed regardless of the style of liver, but especially when cooking in terrines or roasting the liver whole.
Fresh foie gras can be stored for up to a week in the standard kitchen refrigerator; colder temperatures may extend your holding time. Fresh foie gras should never be frozen, as the freezing temperature destroys its cell structure, which causes it to liquefy when cooked. Having said that, it is possible (and in my opinion preferable) to freeze the unused portion of foie gras. Care must be exercised to tightly wrap the liver in plastic, then double wrap it in waxed paper and aluminum foil. Stored that way in a freezer bag allows you to extend the life of your foie gras by about 3 months.
When exposed to air, foie gras can discolor, so it is best to keep it stored in its vacuum packaging until ready to use.
Grades of Foie Gras
Foie gras is graded A, B and C, in both styles. Grade A, which is the top quality liver, is pale, firm and must weigh over 1 pound. This liver should have no blemishes, be round, and should give slightly when touched, but never be spongy. An excellent choice for pan-searing, grilling or poaching, if you are willing to part with a substantial amount of money, this is the liver of choice. Because they render less fat, Grad A livers are often selected when making terrines, or using other low-heat cooking methods.
Grade B duck foie gras weighs less than 1 pound and tends to be softer, and less round. Because Grade B livers will render more fat, they are ideal for your quick sautes, or pan-searing. Some Grade B livers can be as good as a larger Grade A, but are appraised to the lower grade because of their size. This is where it pays to know your purveyor. He can save you money with a top quality Grade B liver.
Grade C is generally not available on the retail market, although it can be special ordered. This is your choice for emulsions, mousses and pates.
Handling and preparing foie gras is delightfully simple. Its notorious reputation for being difficult is more of lore than truth. The key to successful foie gras at every stage of its preparation is temperature. Like butter, foie gras is a fat. Too cold and it is hard and difficult to cut without breaking into shard-like pieces; too warm, and it begins to liquefy becoming too flabby and slippery to manage. Keep in mind the ambient temperature of your kitchen, your tools (including your hands), and the type of day you are working in, and success will be yours — at least insofar as handling your foie gras.
I find it best to remove the foie gras from the refrigerator and let it rest in its packaging on the counter for about 10 minutes before beginning the preparation. Once the packaging is removed, the liver is rinsed and then patted dry. French gastronomes will suggest that the livers soak in cold tap water for 2 hours in the refrigerator to remove traces of blood and make it easier to peel any remnants of the thin translucent membrane that covers each liver. In most modern productions, there is no need to remove this outer membrane.
Separate the two lobes of the foie gras by gently pulling them apart. A light, slow pressure is best, or you may crack one of the lobes in half, rather than separating it from its mate. Check the underside where the lobes were connected. Green spots are bile; if they are present, remove them with the tip of a knife and discard. Then remove any remaining fatty membrane between the two lobes and discard.
Deveining can be tricky, but again temperature is the determining factor as to whether the veins are removed intact or whether you end up with a tortured-looking lobe.
Let your foie gras sit at room temperature until soft and pliable, about one hour. Separate your lobes and find the place where the veins surface on the underside of each lobe. With a small paring knife, pry the foie gras open and follow the major veins into the liver. Remove the veins by pulling gently, using small kitchen pliers if you have them. Take care not to break up the liver too much. Scrape away any red blood spots. Rinse and then pat dry. Reshape the liver, smoothing over the vein line with your finger. Repeat with the smaller lobe.
Cutting into Medallions
For pan-searing, sauteing or grilling, there is no need to remove the veins in the foie gras. Instead, your preparation should be focused on clean, precise and thick cuts of at least inch thick. Too-thinly sliced medallions will render away quickly, rather than searing.
To slice, place the foie gras on your cutting board with the round side facing you. Using a warmed slicing knife (achieved by holding the knife blade under running warm water and drying before slicing), start at the narrow end of the liver, and cut at an angle to make a medallion at least inch thick and about 2 to 3 inches wide, depending on your need.
Unlike most meats, foie gras will not get tough if over cooked. It will, however, render itself into liquid, because it is primarily fat. Rarely cooked beyond medium-rare, when cooked by direct heat methods (pan-sear, saut or grilling), high heat is essential to guarantee a burnished seared crust before the interior is overcooked.
Traditionally, a stainless steel pan or skillet with a thick bottom (a thin pan will never work with foie gras) or the traditional cast iron skillet is heated over high heat. I prefer copper because of its extraordinary response to my orchestration of the heat. The foie gras medallions are scored in a cross hatched pattern and then placed into the very hot pan or on the grill for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes per side, depending on the size of the medallion. Once removed from the heat, immediately season with fleur de sel and serve as directed in your recipe.
At the risk of turning what is rather simplistic in terms of technique into a quagmire of uncertainty, I offer the following commentary for consideration when searing foie gras: Keep in mind that while you must use high heat to sear, caramelize and warm the foie gras through — you do not want to overly preheat your pan. All liver contains a large amount of glycogen which is a form of sugar. Like all sugars, it can burn and make the liver look black. An overheated pan can also melt the fat very rapidly out of the liver. The result is an unpleasant combination of tastes transferred to the foie gras coming from the burned sugar and the strongly oxidated fats.
As with all things at the stove, your instincts will serve you well, especially here. When in doubt, test a small or oddly-formed medallion for pan surface temperature and time for searing.
Terrines are the traditional method for slow, low-heat cooking. There is much disagreement in the United States about the internal temperature foie gras should reach in a low heat method. Cooking to 135 F, which will raise to over 140 F while the terrine rests, is a high enough temperature to kill most bacteria. The FDA requires that foie gras sold commercially be cooked to 160 F. Canned foie gras must be cooked to 212 F, which is enough reason for anyone to steer clear.
Hot foie gras and cold foie gras, such as that baked in a terrine, are as different in texture and flavor as night and day. If your preference is for hot, serve the seared medallions with sauted wild mushrooms, salad greens dressed in a walnut vinaigrette, or on top of other delectable cuts of meat.Other than stuffing whole foie gras into terrine molds, you can roast whole livers in a 425 F oven for about 20 minutes, basting it with its own fat, until caramelized on the outside, until it reaches 135 F on the inside. Foie gras la bordelaise is perhaps the most well-known version of roasted foie gras, where peeled grapes are placed around the foie gras during the last five minutes of roasting.
Boneless Quail stuffed with Poultry Quenelle, served with Sauteed Mushrooms
Filetto Tartufato (Filet Mignon with Foie Gras & Truffles)
Foie Gras Terrine with Mulled Plums & Gingered Pears
Resources and Sources
Glorious French Food by James Peterson. Copyright 2002 James Peterson (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).
The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman. Copyright 1997 Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow and Company, Inc.).
Caviar, Truffles, and Foie Gras: Recipes for Divine Indulgence by Katherine Alford. Copyright 2001 Katherine Alford (Chronicle Books LLC).
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Copyright 2001 by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press).
Photo: Kelly Cline
Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.