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Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”

 

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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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What joys there are in strawberries, the first fruits of summer! Fancy dishes: strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream, strawberry tarts. And plain ones: a bowl of berries with sugar and lemon juice, or with cream. The local strawberries have been going strong this season, leading me to try a few new-to-me preparations with them.

I found two fine simple ones in the Fruits volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Each book in this series is an eclectic treasure trove of recipes, reprinted with permission, from everything from classic to all-but-forgotten sources. More than 100 are cited in this volume, for instance. I’d never heard of either of the sources for my two new recipes.

 

Strawberries with Vinegar

Vinegar: odd ingredient for a dessert, I thought. The more so because the recipe comes from a book called The Cuisine of Venice (authors Hedy Giusti-Lanham and Andrea Dodi) and I’d never found another Venetian dish like it. The recipe’s explanations intrigued me, starting with the odd first step in the simple procedure: Put unwashed strawberries in a bowl and pour on wine to cover. I did that, using a cup of white wine and a pint of berries, for a half recipe to serve two.
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After five minutes I was to pour off the wine and discard it: It was there only to wash the berries. The recipe said washing with water dilutes their taste and makes them watery – not a problem I’ve ever been aware of. Still, there was some wine in my refrigerator that had been open for several days already, so “wasting” wine that way wasn’t too painful.

For serving, I divided the berries over two little bowls and added a teaspoon of distilled white vinegar to each, plus a sprinkling of powdered sugar. The recipe assured me that I wouldn’t be able to taste the vinegar; it would be overpowered by the berries, and its acidity would enhance their flavor and increase their sweetness.
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And in fact, that was exactly the case. The berries were delicious. The cookies you see accompanying the bowls of this hitherto-unknown Venetian preparation are traditional “esse” cookies from the island of Burano, a souvenir of my recent Venice trip.

 

Strawberries in Liqueur

This recipe, originally published in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, caught my eye because I happen to have all three of the liqueurs in the ingredient list – Armagnac, Curaçao, and kirsch. It’s another very simple preparation, and again I was halving the recipe to serve two.
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I hulled, washed (in water, this time!), and patted dry a pint of strawberries and mixed them in a bowl with half a tablespoon of sugar. Over them I poured a scant tablespoon of Armagnac and a scant tablespoon of Curaçao, then covered the bowl and refrigerated it for an hour..
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Next I whipped ¼ cup of heavy cream with about a teaspoon of sugar and added a scant tablespoon of kirsch. I gently folded that into the berries and returned the bowl to the refrigerator for another hour.

This was wonderful. When I transferred the berries to serving bowls, the liqueur had softened the cream into a luscious sauce, which coated the strawberries and blended yet another lovely, subtly spiced flavor to that of the chilled, fragrant fruit. Ambrosia!
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This dish goes into my repertory for as long as strawberry season and my supply of the three brandies lasts.

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During the week in Venice that Tom and I are just back from, we indulged in so much seafood that we could almost feel gills beginning to form on our necks. Most fish and shellfish from the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon are so unlike anything we get at home that every meal was an adventure. Here are highlights.

 

Antipasti at Giorgione

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Friends who live part of every year in Venice took us to this simple family-run trattoria in their neighborhood. We started with granseola, a kind of spider crab, and cicale di mare, mantis shrimp. Both were simply boiled, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Neither flavor resembles those of our blue claw crabs or shrimps of any size, but both were delicious.
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Main courses at
Al Covo

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This is a handsome, chef-owned, Slow Food member restaurant with a mission to “research, appreciate, defend and propose” the products of the territory around the Venetian lagoon. We ate there with our Venetian friends also, who patronize it often.
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My main course, above, was breaded and fried sarde “de alba” (“dawn” sardines: a name for fish caught first thing in the morning and cooked that same day) and canoce (another local name for mantis shrimp).
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These are the two halves of Tom’s main course, a fritto misto dell’Adriatico. It was served that way, in sequence, apparently so that none of the fried things would get cold. They were sole (smaller and sweeter than any variety we get here), anchovies, scallops, squid, shrimp, monkfish, polenta, and several vegetables. Enough food for a hungry boy scout troop..

 

Dinner at Ai Barbicani

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On our first visit to Venice, many years ago, we had two very pleasant dinners at this little restaurant in the city’s medieval section. We were delighted this year to find it still in business, warm, charming, and even better than we remembered. They presented us with welcoming glasses of Prosecco and good-night glasses of grappa.
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We each had this most unusual antipasto of marinated raw seafood. There were shrimps in raspberry sauce; anchovies in vinegar and currants; thin, thin strips of cuttlefish mantle, and nuggets of monkfish. Fascinating flavors and textures, very attractively presented.
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Then we had an extravaganza of mixed grilled seafood: There were two big sweet-fleshed scampi, two even bigger mazzancolle (king prawns), a large sole, a small salmon steak, and chunks of coda di rospo (the ubiquitous monkfish), all perfectly grilled and amazingly fresh and moist. Even the platter on which they were served was almost a work of art.
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Dinner at Osteria da Fiore

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This entire trip to Venice was a gift to ourselves for our 50th wedding anniversary, and on the day itself we dined luxuriously at this Michelin one-starred restaurant. It had what for us is an ideal combination of elegant French ambience and service with the best of lightly modernized traditional Venetian cooking. We adored it.

Our first courses were spaghetti with tartufi di mare (Venus clams) and agnolotti filled with fresh peas in a sauce of astice (spiny lobster) with fresh ginger – the latter a particularly intriguing exotic note.
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Small soft-shell crabs from the Venetian lagoon – moleche in Italian, moeche in Veneziano – are available only briefly in spring and fall. Delighted to find we were there just before the end of the season, we both chose them for our main course. Perfectly deep-fried, they were the best dish we ate in the entire trip.
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We also had our best wine of the trip at Fiore, which Tom talks about in his blog. All in all, a great celebratory trip and a wonderful meal for an important anniversary.

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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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Whenever I cook duck legs for dinner, Tom and I remark that we should have them more often. These small, neat packets of succulence are far easier to prepare – and have a higher proportion of meat to bone and fat – than a whole duck. Legs aren’t always available in stores, however, so on our occasional day trips out to eastern Long Island I always try to get some from a poultry farm that we patronize.

That part of Long Island has long been famous for raising Pekin ducks. Back in the 1930s it’s said that there were as many as 90 duck farms in the area. One that I remember fondly from family summer vacations in my youth was this one, known to all and sundry as The Big Duck.
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This 30-foot long, 20-foot high creature was originally the duck farm’s retail store. Now a tourist center and gift shop, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Back now to my kitchen, where I looked through my books for something luscious to do with a pair of my recently acquired legs. I found it in an unexpected place: Venetian Cooking, by H.F. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo. The authors frankly say “in the Venetian diet poultry comes a bad third after seafood and meat,” but they provide a handful of recipes for it, including one for Anatra in Umido, braised duckling. (Maybe, since ducks are waterfowl, Venetians think of them as feathered fish?)

Italian duck breeds being much less fatty than Pekins, I did have to scrape some fat from my legs, but they didn’t have the gobs and layers of it that other parts of a duck’s anatomy have. I suppose that’s because legs do all the work in the water, which keeps them muscular, while the rest of the body just floats along on top, fat keeping it warm.
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As often is the case, I was scaling down a recipe for a whole cut-up duck, so my faithful knife man did the initial job of chopping two stalks of celery, a third of a large onion, and a third of a carrot. While he was doing that, I heated a flameproof casserole and lightly browned the legs in butter and olive oil.
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The legs came out to a plate and the vegetables went in, to cook gently over low heat.
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When the onions were translucent, I stirred in salt, pepper, and just a little liquid – 4 teaspoons of tomato sauce and 2½ tablespoons of water – returned the legs to the pot, and brought the liquid to a simmer.
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From this point on, all the dish requires is patience: It took two hours of simmering, but the result was well worth the time. The legs were fork-tender and luscious, and the nubbly sauce was a rich melange of vegetable flavors. Crisp sautéed potatoes and good Italian frozen peas made excellent foils for both meat and sauce.
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“Rich” and “luscious” are unquestionably overworked words in the food vocabulary, but they’re unavoidably accurate to describe a fine duck dish like this one.

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