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Duck Fat and Politics
Words about growing, preparing, and eating food, and the politics that affect how we do these things
Updated: 3 min 42 sec ago
When mẹ, my mother-in-law, pronounces this dish, it sounds like “awe” with a ‘dz’ prefix (like we hear in 'adze'), so it sounds like “dzawe” to my non-Vietnamese ears. She’s been making it forever, and though we’ve asked her several times to show us how to make it, it was only after my wife and I went to Vermont’s first fermentation festival that I pressed her to share her way of making it. Like many things she cooks, mẹ says it’s easy and that it can be prepared in a number of ways. Once I get the hang of a dish, this perspective is great, but it’s difficult to learn a new dish when most questions are answered by, “It doesn’t matter,” or “You can do whatever you want.” On the other hand, such ease with substituting or changing ingredients shows how comfortable and familiar some people are with dishes (rather than recipes) that are close to them; they see infinite variety in secondary ingredients, which keeps the same dish interesting year after year.
So many fermented recipes follow a similar pattern, and dua is another. Using mustard greens, which are a thick ribbed and heavy-fleshed leaf, dua differs in just a few ways. First, the washed leaves are separated and laid out to dry and wilt a little. Mẹ recommends an overnight wilting period but in the hot sun it might be only a few hours. Next, the leaves are cut into smaller pieces to make them easier to eat when they’re done fermenting, but they can be left whole, especially if you plan to cook the dua with pork, which is a favorite way to cook it. When I’m making sauerkraut I use the pretty standard ratio of 3 tablespoons salt for 5 pounds cabbage, but dua differs a little in that there’s not a lot of water to pull out through osmosis, so a brine is typically used. To make the brine, I bring water to a boil, add salt, and let it cool to room temperature. A few tablespoons of kosher or sea salt in a few quarts of water is a pretty good ratio – the brine should taste salty. Put all the wilted greens into a big glass or ceramic bowl or crock, and cover with the brine. I put a plate on top to keep all the greens submerged, and a water-filled bowl on top of the plate. A sliced onion is a pretty standard addition, and mẹ sometimes adds garlic, chili peppers, or ginger.
The important thing is to keep the greens submerged because the fermentation occurs in anaerobic conditions and exposure to air can cause less beneficial molds to form on the dua. When mẹ makes it she frequently skims a layer of mold off the top of the brine; I prevent that by keeping a plate and bowl on top, ensuring that the mustard greens stay submerged. And, of course, when you begin, make sure all your containers are clean – I rinse everything in very hot water, and if a container has been used for something that’s left residue of some kind, I first rinse it with boiling water.
When fermenting things the first few times my confidence sometimes wavered and it seemed beyond my reach. But I thought about our early human history as a refrigerator-less species, and figured that I could figure it out (with the help of a few books and conversations with friends.) So I hope you'll give it a try; ferment something and eat like most people did in those years people lived without electricity. Here’s my simple 1,2,3 to make dua, Vietnamese fermented mustard greens:
1. Wash a big heap of mustard greens and spread the separated leaves out to wilt, overnight. Cut into smaller pieces, if desired.
2. Bring a pot of water to boil and add salt. Stir to dissolve and let cool. Use three or four tablespoons of kosher, sea, or other non-iodized salt in the pot. It should taste salty but doesn’t have to pucker your eyeballs.
3. The next day, put the wilted greens into a big pickle jar, ceramic crock, or glass bowl. Cover with brine.
4. Put a plate on top. Put something on top of the plate to keep it weighted down.
5. Let sit for a week or so. Dua will turn pale and yellowish. When done, drain off brine, and store in fridge, covered.
6. Eat with rice, as a cool accompaniment to spicy foods, or by itself.
There are many times when broth is the best medicine. With a nagging sore throat, I came home at lunch and remembered a small pot of chicken stock in the back of the fridge. A quick sniff confirmed it was still good, so I put it on the stove to warm up and melt those little bits of congealed fat that now glisten on the surface.The bones and leftovers from a roasted chicken make the best stock, much more flavorful than stock made from a whole, uncooked bird. Even a little seven-week broiler that's been well picked over at dinner can make a few bowls of delicious broth for the next day. To make it, I always break up the bones and carcass with a big cleaver, chopping everything so all the flavor can be drawn from the marrow by the slow gurgle of stock-making. An onion at least, and if I have carrots and celery, all the better. A bay leaf or two, a few cloves, thyme, pepper, and just a little salt. I bring it to a boil, skim the scum, and gurgle it slowly, usually overnight. With the lid barely cracked and the simmer low, my night time dreams are sometimes interrupted by smells of stock. Morning come, I call it done.
We sometimes look too far for cures to our daily ailments, but this small batch of broth saved me, revived my tired throat and strengthened my bones and blood. A pinch of mineral-rich sea salt, the pullings of new sourdough crust torn and dropped like dumplings. Hot soup slurped, my sore throat soothed.
And spring. Even here in this rented Vermont house with clod-covered nails, gravel and clay out the backdoor, I scratched today on the earth and dropped seeds into it, chard, kale, cilantro, romaine, with the hope and certainty of sunlight, warmth, and rain.
This burst of warmth brings so many woodland flowers into bloom, and on a sweet hike today we saw trout lilies and bloodroot, and many others whose names I don’t know but whose color brightens the damp forest floor in these early days of sunlight.
Last week I saw the excellent documentary Chasing Ice by James Balog, who’s tracked glacial retreat using time lapsed photography to show the staggering loss of some of Earth’s most significant glaciers in mere years, photographic certainty of massive climate change. I left the film feeling really cynical because even among the people who recognize the central importance of climate change, few of us are doing anything about it. Sure, we might buy our lettuce at the co-op, or carry canvas bags, but every morning in this small town of 6500, I’m in a crush of traffic as all of us who know that climate change may fundamentally alter life on Earth drive our kids to school, pick them up, drive them to tennis or swimming or soccer practice, ad nauseum. We want fuel-efficient cars so we can continue to drive as wantonly as we do, with no impediment to our routines. “If only those climate-change deniers recognized that they’re wrong!” we think, as we wait for the red light to change. We’re hoping for a big policy that will make the difference for us, but it’s not going to happen. Reversing climate change is not like banning DDT.
The Clean Water Act did a good job of curtailing point source pollution (the kind that comes, for the most part, from a single point, like a factory), but we’ve learned in the intervening decades that non-point source pollution (the kind that comes from everywhere – your lawn, your neighbor’s cows, the runoff from a parking lot) is just as malign, and its ubiquity makes it even harder to regulate or reduce. So, while Lake Erie’s water quality improved when some of the biggest polluters were forced to clean up their discharges into the lake, many of our nation’s other rivers and lakes have continued to deteriorate. And you and I are the non-point sources of increased carbon dioxide emissions, and it’s not until you and I and many, many others change our own habits that complement and strengthen any hoped-for policies that we should expect to see atmospheric C02 decrease.
So here I am with my sourdough bread, glad that I’ve nurtured wild yeasts in my starter. I wrote in my last post, after thinking about what a sour ferment is, that if food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do. Working with a live culture necessitates that we pay closer attention to the thing we’re making. For me, this doesn’t mean I have to drop everything when I’m making a loaf of bread, but the usual four cups (or whatever) of flour a recipe calls for may not reflect how the starter is absorbing the new ingredients.
I’ve used a Zojirushi bread machine for three years and didn’t utilize its versatility until I started making sourdough. Lately, I’ve sometimes stretched rising times to twelve hours or more, incubating those wild yeasts in a warm, stable environment. Other times I’ll knead the bread for thirty or forty minutes and in that time the bread turns into a sponge-like batter and I have to add another two cups of flour to the mash. I continue to experiment with times and ratios, and my kids have complained a lot more this year as their peanut butter sandwiches are sometimes made on bread sour enough to be traded for an Atomic Warhead. Other times a loaf comes crashing down after rising to zeppelin heights, or remains gummy no matter how long it’s worked. Bread is alchemical, and making it without commercial yeast lets me appreciate the long history of nurturing food cultures that shared knowledge and starters and cultures when there were no stores to provide for us.