Monday, December 6, 2010

When a Guy Gives You a Duck That Was in the Air That Morning, You Cook it Up and Eat It

I had the extreme fortune of traveling to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River over Thanksgiving. Included in this trip:
  • Outfitting in new winter gear (just in time) via Farm King, a store full of Carhartt and the like, luxuriously empty on Black Friday when I went. (What am I doing in the city?)

  • Eating a delicious huarache (a big huge disk of masa topped with good things I wrote about here) in a curious and unexpected Mexican restaurant, one of a few, in a small midwestern town of less than 10,000, which were all attached to pretty well stocked Mexican groceries, on par with what can be found in Chicago.

  • The obligatory Thanksgiving feast, complete with traditions such as corn pudding, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We brined a turkey for a few days and roasted it, of course--and had a couple extra breasts in the brine that we rolled and smoked a couple days later over what could be one of the greatest backyard, creekside, all-year-long firepits I've known. When the breasts were finishing up, we grilled a huge bone-in ribeye, I'm talking a couple of inches thick, and roasted some vegetables in foil as well. Where'd we get the vegetables? We got them the night before when dining at a place in Peoria, IL, called June, where the chef (a guy by the name of Josh Adams who is more enthusiastic about farms and farmers and vegetables than the oxyclean guy is about soap) came out to chat and wouldn't let us leave without a big bag full of crazy vegetables for us to cook. Ahh, the benefits of being in the industry. Oh, and did I mention this bonfire took place around 33 degrees or so? Fire warm. Carhartt, too.

  • Whiskey at 8am Thanksgiving morning in a small bar full of smoke on said Mississippi River. Tastes good. Too good. Too easy. So we left after one and went to a friend's cabin on the river. This man, a science teacher, is also quite the hunter/fisherman/maker of bloody marys. Stories were exchanged in the taxidermy-filled cabin, cigars blazing, deer sausage on the cutting board and in the belly. Toasty from the wood burning stove (and booze, I suppose), we decided to go out on the river on his boat. It was that good kind of really cold that I like so much walking along Lake Michigan in the winter--no one else around, really biting and invigorating and cleansing. We spotted a few bald eagles, so much larger than the back of any dollar bill has ever led me to believe; a woodpecker (also really huge) whose breed, I was told is that of the Woody Woodpecker; and a few ducks here and there hiding from the hunters. Back in the cabin, I asked how a city guy who might be interested in tasting one of the ducks he shot that morning might be able to acquire one. Thankfully, instead of handing me a shotgun (yeah, I grew up in Colorado, but no, I never learned to hunt), he took me outside and pulled out a duck he had shot that morning before our arrival. It was a diver duck, he told me, and as such had very small parts. He easily plucked the feathers and removed two tiny breast for me. The legs on these guys were really scrawny and do not lend themselves to cooking very well, nor did the organs--but the breasts, he told me, were strongly flavored. "Livery" was the term he used. I licked my lips and thanked him. Seeing how it was Thanksgiving, I held off cooking the duck that day. But when the time came a couple days later, I got a pan hot with some butter and fried those two breasts, getting a nice dark sear on one side, flipping them, and spoon-basting with butter. They came off nice and medium-rare. I gave them a rest, then sliced. Delicious. Strong. Ducky. Just as a heritage breed turkey tastes like turkey, as opposed the the tastes-like-chicken-bred broad breasted white, this duck, flying in the midwest just days earlier tasted like duck is supposed to taste. I recommend it. Just be sure to remove any shot left in it.

All in all, it was the kind of trip that makes a city dweller wonder what he's doing in the city. But I suppose proximity to this sort of thing is, for now, good enough. I know a guy here who is out hunting before showing up to work in the absolute middle of Chicago at 5pm (to be clear, he is hunting in rural Illinois; working in Chicago). That lovely winter isolation can be had out on the lake during the coldest times. And sometimes, sometimes the city skyline on a blustery, wintry night can be as stunning a a sky rich with glowing stars. And where else am I going to be able to wake up to Metropolis, eat at Anteprima or Schwa, drink at the Hop Leaf, shop at Reckless and Myopic, create with crazy-haired guys, and see that noisy Hanukkah truck driving all over the city, all in the same week?