California’s Foie Gras Ban, 6 Months Later

Sonoma Foie Gras - out of business with the stroke or a regulator's pen!Tomorrow night, I’m attending a “Speakeasy” dinner, one held at an address known only to the lucky attendees.  It invitation came complete with secret password for entry.  But unlike a prohibition-era Speakeasy, this dinner doesn’t feature illicit alcohol.  It features Foie Gras, a gourmet food ingredient turned into contraband last summer.

In July, it became illegal in California to farm, prepare, buy, sell or think about the artisanal delicacy known as Foie Gras – the liver of certain types of fattened fowl.  The ban was in response to the successful campaign by some very radical animal rights activists, the most extreme fringe even resort to hideous and violent measures against chefs who support and serve Foie Gras.  They even threatened their family members – imagine receiving photos of your kids at school along with a threatening note, and you’ll get an idea of what these chefs endured.

“But what of the fowl”, you may ask?  You see, the animal rights groups, with whom I find myself in sympathy on many issues, objected to the forced feeding – gavage, as the French call it – that is usually used to fatten the bird and their prized livers that become Foie Gras.  And to hear a description of gavage, well, it does sound quite cruel – forcing corn down a funnel and through a tube inserted into the mouth/throat of the bird in order to fatten it suddenly and quickly – resulting in a liver that is several times its pre-fattened size. 

But here’s the rub – left to fend for themselves, these birds naturally gorge every fall in preparation for their long migratory flight.  You see, they don’t stop to eat very often, sort of like our family vacations with Dad at the wheel.  

So, aside from the funnel and tube, gorging is a natural part of their birdly existence.  If you’re interested in such things, I encourage you to watch this great video by Dan Barber as he describes his visit to the award-winning Foie Gras farm in Spain, of all places, where no gavage is used at all.  It is well worth the time, as is his follow-up presentation about his failed attempt to replicate this experience back home in New York.

But even if your scorecard still comes down in favor of the animal activists, even if only slightly, I do have to wonder why they chose to do battle over such a minor part of our food chain.  Ever since Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” in the early 1900’s, we’ve yet to truly clean up the beef industry.  And you’d never eat cheap supermarket or fast food chicken again if you saw how they were raised.  And then there’s the issue of the sea lice infecting farm-raised salmon, and how they’re now spreading to the wild salmon outside the high-density farming containers.  All of which would have been far wiser bogeymen to pursue if you’re an activist whose goal is to reduce animal cruelty and improve the planet’s food supply.  (a thoughtful list of 8 foods to go after before Foie Gras appears here).

So I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s dinner, with Foie Gras served three ways.  And given the guest list, the wines are sure to be memorable, with at least one bottle of Sauternes and a domestic “ice wine” from Tudor Vineyards to provide the classic sweet-salty deliciousness that have attracted international gourmands to this classic combination.


Favorite Holiday Dessert – Marion Cunningham’s Steamed Persimmon Pudding

Click to see Marion Cunningham's cookbooks

The late Marion Cunningham is probably best known as the author of several editions of the Fanny Farmer cookbook.  Or for her years in working with James Beard, who plucked her out of obscurity when he chose her as his assistant.

I once met the preternaturally cheerful Ms. Cunningham in 1997 at a Thanksgiving-themed cooking class at San Francisco’s famed Tante Marie’s cooking school.  She led the class with Chuck Williams (of Williams Sonoma), and each dish they made was delightful, but the highlight of the meal was this dessert.

I’d never heard of steamed puddings outside of a Dickens’ tale, but I went out and bought a mold and made it the next week for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner.  It was so popular, It’s been in demand every year since then, both at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

1 Cup pureed persimmons (~ 2 large persimmons, skins removed)
2 tsp. Baking soda
8 Tbs (1 stick) butter at room temperature
1 1/2 Cups sugar
2 Eggs
1 Tbs lemon juice
2 Tbs+ rum
1 Cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. Cinnamon (I enhance with a pinch of allspice and a whisper of ground clove)
½ tsp. Salt
1 Cup broken walnuts or pecans
1 Cup+ raisins (I like to mix regular and golden) or add any coarsley-chopped dried fruit of your choice

This dessert can be started early in the morning and left to steam for as long as you remember to refill the water.  Once lifted from its bath and the top of the mold is removed, it’s not unusual for the top of the pudding to be runny – ten minutes in a hot oven should be enough time to dry it out before un-molding.

Slice the persimmons in half, from bottom to top and lay open to expose the flesh (it’s not necessary to cut through the very tough stem). Use a soup spoon to scrape the flesh from the skin, collecting the contents of both persimmons in a bowl. The flesh can be pureed by hand or using a hand blender of mixer. Then add the baking soda and set aside to stiffen and lighten in color – it’s really a very odd little chemical reaction!

Find a pot large enough to hold a 2 Qt pudding mold (About $30 – $40.  Click here to purchase).  Fill the pot with enough water to rise halfway up the sides of the mold.  (If no mold is available, two metal coffee containers covered tightly with foil will do, but only fill about ¾ full as the pudding expands a bit.)   Let the water come to a boil while you mix the pudding batter.

Grease every nook and cranny of the mold very well.  Butter is best, though cooking spray is faster.

Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar.

Add the eggs, lemon juice, and rum and beat well.  Set the mixer to its slowest speed and add the flour, cinnamon, and salt.  When well blended, add the persimmon mixture and beat until well mixed.  Remove the bowl from mixer and stir in raisins and nuts just until well distributed.

Spoon the batter into the mold, cover, and steam for at least two hours (it’s nearly impossible to over-steam!)  Remove the mold from the pot and let rest for 5 minutes (see opening note about drying in a warm oven).  Use a long, narrow blade or skewer to make sure the pudding is separate from the sides of the mold, then top the mold with the serving plate of your choosing and invert both, turning the mold upside down onto the plate. If the pudding doesn’t separate from the mold immediately, let it sit for a few minutes. Even then, some may stick to the bottom of the mold – carefully remove them whole and patch back together (the pudding is very moist).

The traditional service for this dish is with a sprig of holly stuck into the top, then flamed with more of the rum.

To flame your rum, pour a generous ounce of it into a sauce pot, and THEN put the pot over medium heat.  Swirl the rum to warm it for thirty seconds or so, then carefully light it and immediately pour the flaming rum over the pudding.  It may be difficult to see the flame in strong light, so dim the lights for the 20 seconds or so before the alcohol burns off.

Serve warm with unsweetened whipped cream, or better yet, a crème anglais.

Wine Pairing
This dessert requires a very sweet wine – look for a late-harvest or ice wine or a port (shop here for dessert wines).


Dave the Wine Merchant

Quote for the Day
Once again we come to the Holiday season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes in his or her own way, by going to the mall of their choice”
Dave Barry, American Humorist (1947 – )