Some dishes just call for a crowd. I'm thinking here of layer cakes stacked six inches high, of flakey pastries hot from the oven, of soufflés puffed and golden--dishes just too extravagant, too involved, for a weeknight dinner with only one or two at the table. These are dishes meant to be shared, dishes whose goodness you wouldn't feel right keeping all to yourself, dishes that call for an occasion. The trouble is I always find myself with more dishes like this than occasions on which to make them. And so have my friends, apparently, since we've started making occasions out of these dishes instead of waiting for the right ones to just come along.
Take, for instance, dinner on Saturday night. A hunter friend of a couple of friends of mine had bequeathed to them a neatly butchered venison neck months ago, and we had talked a lot then about getting together for dinner and tackling it. But birthdays came and went, and the neck remained in the dark recesses of their freezer. Recently, though, quite possibly when we were all a little tipsy, we decided that enough was enough. We had to cook this thing. It'd be a shame for it to go to waste. So, finally, just this past weekend, we made an occasion of it. Our friends did the hard work of de-boning, trussing, browning, and braising. Octavian and I brought over side dishes and something sweet. We opened some bottles of wine. It was a great night. A venison neck roast, if you're curious, is kind of like brisket. After a few hours of gentle cooking, it has the same tender, fall-apart qualities. (If you're lucky enough to find yourself with a neck roast but don't know what to do with it, you might want to peek around here.)
But I have to admit, in encouraging this dinner to happen, I had another motive. There was something else that I'd been waiting to make, and I was confident that that neck roast would provide for the occasion. Remember that disastrous dinner a while back--the one with the saltine panna cottas? Well, not all was lost that night. We may have overcooked the duck, but we at least managed to render and save some fat. It was my one consolation, and I was determined to make the most of it. Hence, the potatoes at our venison dinner--Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard.
These potatoes almost call for an occasion all their own. They nearly stole the show on Saturday, anyway. There's no doubt that they're an indulgence--sliced paper-thin and slicked in plenty of butter and duck fat, they pretty well fry where they touch the pan. Crisp, burnished edges five or six layers deep. Creamy and soft beneath an equally burnished lid. They are something to behold and savour. And made for the right occasion and shared with your friends, what's the harm?
Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard
Adapted from Louis Gadby via Epicurious
Note: About the duck fat. The fat I had was rendered from six duck breasts and was just enough for the dish. There's lots of discussion about how best to do it here. You can also purchase rendered duck fat from a reputable source like D'Artagnan. Duck fat gives the potatoes a savouriness that you just don't get with butter. However, classic Pommes Anna calls just for butter, so I'm sure that you could do without--it would just be a bit of a different dish. Make ahead. This is a dish probably best eaten still warm from the oven. I, however, got away with making it earlier in the day and reheating it. I turned the potatoes out of the skillet as instructed but lined the plate with a piece of parchment. I then transferred the potatoes with the parchment onto a cooling rack. Reheated at a gentle 300°F for about 20 minutes, the exterior re-crisped while the insides remained moist and tender.
45 g / 3-4 tablespoons duck fat
70 g / 5 tablespoons butter
Coarse sea salt
3 lb Yukon gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 400°F.
Melt the fat and butter in a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat. Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl. Do not wipe the skillet.
Peel the potatoes and cut crosswise with a mandoline into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Add the potatoes to the bowl with the butter and duck fat--in stages if necessary--and toss to coat. Arrange about a quarter of the potatoes in the skillet in a layer of overlapping concentric circles, starting from the centre and working your way outwards. Season the layer generously with salt and pepper. Make three more layers in the same manner, seasoning each layer as you go. You may end up with five or even six layers, depending on how closely you arrange your potatoes--that's okay.
Cook potatoes over moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Take care--towards the end of cooking, the fat at the edges tends to bubble and fly with some vigour. Press down on potatoes with a wide spatula, then cover surface with parchment paper, and cover skillet with foil.
Bake until outside edge is golden brown and potatoes in center are tender when pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes. Let stand, covered, at room temperature 5 minutes, then carefully loosen edge with a heatproof flexible spatula. Invert a plate with a rim over skillet. Using pot holders and holding plate and skillet together firmly, invert skillet. Remove skillet and sprinkle potato cake with parsley and garlic.