I hold it true, whate’er befall
I feel it when I sorrow most
Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all. (Tennyson)
In the headlines this week and particularly on the streets of Manhattan, you see memorials and photos and flowers and videos and billboards and posters of the faces of all those loved ones who died that fateful day, 10 years ago. Reflected on the waves of the Memorial pool and through the church steps and temple halls and even office buildings and school campuses – the air is pregnant with reverence and sorrow, heavy with remembrance and nostalgia, and perhaps still bitter of the lives abruptly ended and in vain. How many of our survivors think to themselves – Had I known it was her last day, I would have held her a little longer that morning or perhaps If I had known, I wouldn’t have started that heated argument with him before his flight. We regret a lot of the things we have not, did not do for those who passed away, and to a certain – it eats at us – even 10 years later. Perhaps some of us wish that we had just one more day to make amends and set things straight, before imminent death approached. Unfortunately, time travel is not a reality, and we are left to mourn our dead and face our own guilt. And what about the dead? On somber occasions like this, I often remember the scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and think about that scene where the newly-dead Emily looks down on the living town below and asks – “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”
In my tradition, death is celebrated with good food. Lots of it. We send off the dead with full bellies, and we make sure they are full in the afterlife. In many Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian homes, you’ll often find a few portraits of deceased relatives on an altar laden with fresh fruit, bowls of jasmine rice, and maybe a traditional dish of some sort. It helps us remember our dead, as we prepare their favorite dishes and present it to them. And we hope that what we do, can atone for whatever misconduct or trespass we may have inflicted on them while living, and hope for forgiveness. And while the following meal is not one of forgiveness or atonement, it is one that sure feeds the soul – living or dead, happy or mourning.
Orange and Asparagus Risotto
I was initially inspired by the David Leite recipe posted on Pioneer Woman, but have since deviated and concocted multiple variations of this dish. You can certainly substitute the duck for chicken, and leave out the wine if you don’t have any on hand. I promise my variation is every bit as good, though probably easier on your arteries. The dish is flavorful and rich, and just makes the soul feel so good. My friend Steph gifted me a bottle of deliciously fragrant blood orange infused olive oil from this farm in Arizona – it is perfect for this dish. The moment it hits the hot pan, the heat breaks down those aromatic compounds and the kitchen smells like an orange grove. If you can’t get your hands on this, opt for adding a bit more orange zest. Also, why Arborio rice? It is the ideal rice for risotto as it will not turn to mush when cooked and stirred for long periods, and retains a beautiful bite to each grain.
2 tsp blood orange olive oil
1/2 lb duck meat, trimmed of excess fat & skin on
salt & pepper
1 tbs butter
1 tbs blood orange olive oil [or 2 tbs duck fat, though would be a waste not to! ]
1 small onion, diced
1 shallot, minced
4 c chicken broth (I’ve been cheating with Better Than Bouillon – shh don’t tell any one!)
small pinch of saffron
1 c Arborio rice
2 tbs fresh orange juice
1 tsp orange zest
handful of asparagus sprigs, thinly sliced in circles & ends trimmed
romano cheese, grated
Thank you Steph for this delicious olive oil!
Begin by preheating a cast iron grill pan to a medium-high, and adding 1 tbs of olive oil to the pan. Meanwhile, pat the duck meat dry with a paper towel (to minimize sizzling/oil splashes), rub the duck meat with 1 tbs of the olive oil, and season both outside and under the skin with a healthy dash of salt and pepper. Carefully score the duck skin with a sharp knife, and place the meat skin-side down on the grill pan. Now don’t touch it! We want these beautiful score marks to appear. If the meat is browning too quickly, turn the heat down to a medium or medium-low. Once the skin has crisped and crackled, about 10 minutes, flip the meat and allow to cook through. You will know the meat is ready when your meat thermometer reads around 160*, or when the juices have run clear. Try not to overcook the meat, as dry/leathery poultry is wasted poultry. Remove from heat, and cool to a warm, but still manageable temperature. Slice the meat into portion size.
For the risotto, bring the chicken broth to a boil with a pinch of saffron, and allow to barely simmer for the duration of the risotto cooking period. Warm broth is more easily incorporated into the risotto than cold or room-temp broth.
In a large pan on medium heat, add the butter and olive oil (or just the duck fat) along with the onions and shallots. Allow to sweat until softened, then add the Arborio rice, cooking and stirring the rice until the grains are translucent.
Ladle about a cup of chicken stock into the pan, and continually stir the pan until almost all the liquid is absorbed. Repeat by adding 1-2 cups of stock at a time, and continue to stir until liquid is almost absorbed before adding more stock. Stirring is crucial to risotto making, as it helps the risotto develop its creaminess. Indulge in my nerd moment – the act of stirring releases amylopectin molecules from the rice, making it sticky and creamy. So, please stir!! This process should take about another 20 minutes or so, and toward the end of the cooking period (taste test to see if the grains are soft and no longer crunch), add the orange juice and orange zest. You can taste test, and may find that the orange flavor is too bold. Not to worry! Just add the sliced asparagus during the last 5 minutes of cooking, and it will mellow out the orange flavor.
Of course, I hope that you are also seasoning with salt as needed throughout the cooking period. The risotto is done once the grains of rice are soft and tender, but still have a bit of give to the grain. Turn off the heat, and grate about 1/2 c of romano cheese (or more/less to your preference) to the risotto. Stir so the cheese is melty and even distributed.
To serve, spoon a generous portion of risotto onto a plate and place the duck meat on top. If it is to your like, go ahead and top it off with more grated cheese and maybe some blanched asparagus tips for another serving of healthy veggies.
For the duck-lover in the family:
For the picky, no-duck eater in your family:
So this weekend, while we remember the dead and cherish those memories we had with them or mourn the memories that will never happen, why not also take a minute to heed their advice resonating from the grave. We should sing every waking moment, and praise our fortunes with every new sunrise that hits our sleepy eyelids, and every sunset that closes our day. And then we can appreciate the vitality and energy of life – every, every minute of it.