The fuss about foie gras
Suburban chefs celebrate the controversial delicacy
When the city of Chicago banned foie gras in April, local foodies joked about starting up a foie gras shack on the border, the way margarine hucksters once camped on the Illinois-Wisconsin line. The ban took effect Aug. 22, and although the Niles Foie Nook has yet to materialize, plenty of suburban restaurants stand ready to serve enthusiasts with the luxurious duck liver.
Said Kent Voss, general manager of Bistro Kirkou, "I kind of thought about putting up a billboard on the Kennedy: 'The goose is loose in Lake Zurich.' "
Foie gras (translated from French as "fat liver," pronounced "FWAH-grah") is the world's most sought-after offal, the rich, smooth liver of ducks or geese that undergoes an age-old fattening process. The delicacy has sometimes been described as "meat butter." That depiction brings it down to its essence: Silky ... smooth ... unctuous ... foie gras is all about texture.
"It melts in your mouth," said chef Amaury Rosado of Aurora's Chef Amaury's Epicurean Affair.
Like butter, its flavor is subtle — nothing like the iron tang of calf's liver or funk of chicken liver. Even those who loathe those organs adore foie gras. It's made gourmands giddy for millennia.
Poised to serve Chicago foie fans — whom the Illinois Restaurant Association says bought more than $5.5 million worth of liver (some 46,000 pounds) in the past year — suburban restaurateurs nevertheless decry the ban.
"Unfortunately, Chicago has become a worldwide laughingstock among chefs," said chef Rick Tramonto. Although he's had to remove the banned delicacy from the menu at his Chicago restaurant, Tru, he plans several foie-gras preparations at Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, due to open in November in the new Westin Chicago North Shore hotel in Wheeling.
"It's a shame," said chef Roland Liccioni of Wheeling's Le Francais. "It's ridiculous." A native of southwest France, which produces most of the world's foie gras, Liccioni scoffs at the idea that production is cruel to waterfowl. "I saw. I've been there. I know what it is."
"Every chef is for the ethical treatment of animals," said Rick Jansen, owner of Tavern in Libertyville. "The better the treatment, the better the quality of the food. If I were a fowl and I had to choose between being a force-fed duck and being a battery chicken, I know which I'd choose."
He and others worry that, like no-smoking ordinances, government meddling in restaurant kitchens will spread to other municipalities and other products. Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke has already proposed an ordinance that would stop city chefs from using Crisco and many brands of margarine.
Tramonto believes that, fueled by their success in Chicago, activists are plotting their next targets: "'Now let's go after veal, next lobster,'" he speculated.
"Will it next be fatty meats? When's it going to end?" asked chef Dave Perlick of Montarra Grill in Algonquin.
Earlier this year, the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, acting on "compassion standards" written with animal-rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, reportedly stopped selling live lobsters and told a poultry supplier it wouldn't do business with the firm unless that company stopped serving a California foie-gras producer.
Yet the ban may have had an unintended effect. The controversy has inspired many people to try foie gras for the first time. Dozens of "farewell to foie" dinners led up to the final day. Two suburban restaurants, Michael in Winnetka and Bank Lane Bistro in Lake Forest, have added all-foie-gras menus. Even a retirement home, Holley Court Terrace in Oak Park, served it at a residents' cocktail party.
"It reminds me of the story of when the potato came to France," said Wheeling-based private chef and caterer Patrick Chabert, who occasionally serves foie gras at the monthly French dinners he stages in Buffalo Grove. "Nobody would eat it until (Antoine-Augustin) Parmentier planted it in a field and put guards around it."
"I definitely note more people are trying it," said Lanny Nguyen, owner of L'Anne in Wheaton. At Tavern, Jansen said his staff has fielded calls from customers so concerned that the delicacy would be available that they specified it with their reservation, particularly the foie gras brulee, an off-the-menu specialty of liver terrine under a shell of caramelized sugar.
"You wouldn't think that people out here would be into it," said Rosado. "But it sells. When I do have it on the menu, it sells out."
Prohibition in Chicago
In Chicago, restaurateurs' reaction to the foie-gras ban ranges from outrage to resigned acceptance, recalling the city's reaction to Prohibition.
A few continue to sell it in open defiance. Others, noting that the law refers only to the sale of foie gras, are trying work-arounds.
At Copperblue on Lake Shore Drive, Chef Michael Tsonton, a co-founder of Chicago Chefs for Choice, a group formed to fight this and other food prohibitions, said he'll continue to serve dishes like a foie gras terrine with grilled Michigan peach, kohlrabi puree and amaretto.
"We're not taking it off our menu," he said. "We're going to going to give it away. We might charge you for the bread that comes with it."
Still others are coping by offering sophisticated fakes. At Tru in Streeterville, owners enlisted New York chef Laurent Gras to come up with a recipe to serve in the posh eatery's new reservations-only lounge. His $16 concoction comes close, combining chicken livers, pork fatback and heavy cream, among other things, to create a mild-tasting, melt-in-your-mouth mousse that's spot-on in appearance -- cocoa gives it color -- but doesn't quite achieve the body and characteristic flavor of the real thing. If foie gras is meat butter, Tru's "faux gras" is meat whipped cream.
Acting on a Milanese memory of Chef Tony Mantuano, the Gold Coast's Spiaggia has added terrina di fegato grasso vegetariano, a fake foie terrine made of chickpeas, vin santo (a sherry-like wine), olive oil and other, undisclosed ingredients that publicists said fooled 10 restaurant staffers. Pale yellow in color and ever so slightly gritty in texture, it has the weight of real liver pate but tastes most strongly of another luxury item: truffles. Executive Chef Missy Robbins said the recipe, developed by Sous Chef Efrain Medrano, serves mainly as a fun chef's-choice "assagino," or hors d'oeuvre, and doesn't actually appear on Spiaggia's menu. The vegetable-based fake won't make vegan foie foes happy -- it contains animal products, Robbins confirmed. (At a guess: butter.)
A variety of organizations are fighting the ban, including the Illinois Restaurant Association, which has filed suit against the city, saying aldermen have overreached their authority.
"I don't think that the city council should be banning food that the USDA approved," said Colleen McShane, association president. The issue differs from other city-banned items like guns and spray paint, she said, because it doesn't address a local problem; the birds the ordinance strives to protect aren't raised in Chicago.
Some pundits have speculated that the ordinance, which Mayor Richard M. Daley has derided as "silly," reflects a flexing of aldermanic muscle more than genuine concern over birds' well-being, especially since the city council hasn't been moved to action against the Chicago Park District, which has begun spraying its lawns with a chemical meant to irritate the digestive tracks of wild geese.
Temperature is the key
to cooking foie gras
Foie gras lends itself to a myriad of preparations. It can be simply seared in slices, roasted whole, poached, pressed into chilled terrines, mixed into pates and forcemeats and more.
"It doesn't require a lot of work — like anything else that's perfect," said chef Thomas Hiestand of Atwater's in Geneva.
Temperature is key. "Foie gras is like butter," said chef Roland Liccioni of Wheeling's Le Francais. It softens at room temperature.
Noted chef Michael Lachowicz of Michael in Winnetka said that he usually works with foie gras in his restaurant's dining room, because it melts in the hot kitchen. "The fat renders. I wear double rubber gloves when I work with foie gras to keep my hands from melting it."
A whole foie gras is creamy white and made up of two lobes. Grade A foie gras weighs about 1 1/2 pounds and typically is what's available to consumers. It costs about $80 per pound.
Grade B is somewhat smaller, and most often used by the food industry for pates and mousses, while Grade C is consigned to sauces.
To prepare the liver, remove the green bile duct. Then carefully pull out the veins, trying not to break the foie gras. This is best done with the liver at room temperature.
To remove the veins from a whole lobe, Lachowicz advised, feel your way along with the back of a paring knife. Foie gras to be seared or grilled, slice it and then pull out the veins with tweezers.
"It's very important to use grade A lobes because of the veins," said chef Rick Tramonto of Tru in Chicago and the soon-to-open Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Wheeling.
Temperature plays a critical role in cooking, too. For seared foie gras, use a smoking-hot pan. "You want to get that crackly crisp crust and a moist, soft inside," Tramonto said.
Liccioni likes to cook it in cast iron, while Hiestand prefers a nonstick pan.
Cook it at too low a temperature and your expensive liver will render away to nothing. Turn off the smoke alarm and crank up the ventilator fan. It cooks in just seconds.
Said Liccioni: "You've got to watch and keep focused."
Seared Foie Gras with
12-16 ounces fresh grade A foie gras, sliced with veins removed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 large fresh red plums (such as 'Santa Rosa'), halved and pitted
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons sugar
1 cup Armagnac (French brandy)
Season the foie gras with salt and pepper, cover and chill.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Fill the cavities of the plums with 1 tablespoon each butter and sugar. Place cut-side down on a roasting pan or ovenproof skillet and roast 15 minutes or until soft. Remove the pan from the oven and place on a hot stove burner. Pour in the Armagnac to deglaze the pan, simmer till slightly thickened, scraping the crusted residue.
With a slotted spatula, remove the plums to a dish and peel off the skins. Keep the plums and sauce warm.
Heat a large, heavy skillet, preferably black cast iron, till very hot. Turn the ventilation fan above stove on high — the foie gras will smoke when it hits the pan. Cook the liver about 30 seconds on each side, just till seared, and remove to paper towels to drain.
Plate each slice of foie gras with a plum half and drizzle with the plum juices and Armagnac sauce.
Nutrition values per serving: 767 calories, 12 g fat (7 g saturated), 16 g carbohydrates, trace fiber, 10 g protein, 412 mg cholesterol, 742 mg sodium.
Chef Roland Liccioni, Le Francais, Wheeling
Foie Gras Custard
2 cups whipping cream
5 ounces cleaned fresh foie gras scraps
Salt and white pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon Sauternes wine
6 egg yolks
Heat the cream in a heavy pot until steaming; add the foie gras, remove from the heat. Puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender and strain through a fine sieve. Stir in the salt, white pepper, nutmeg and Sauternes.
In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Add a small amount of the foie gras cream into the egg yolks to warm them, then slowly whisk the yolk mixture into the foie gras cream.
Heat the oven to 175 degrees. Pour the foie gras mixture into six, 4-ounce ramekins and place the ramekins in a baking pan and fill the outer pan with hot water till it comes three-quarters of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until set, about 1 1/2 hours.
Remove from the oven and water bath and let cool to room temperature, then cover and chill. Move them as little as possible until they have chilled completely.
Nutrition values per serving: 437 calories, 44 g fat (23 g saturated), 3 g carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 6 g protein, 410 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium.
Chef Michael Lachowicz, Michael, Winnetka
Foie gras primer
Posted Wednesday, September 13, 2006
What is it? Rich, creamy, costly liver from large ducks (commonly, the Moulard, a hybrid of a female Pekin and a male Muscovy) that have been specially fattened. In Europe, geese are also raised for foie gras.
How is it produced? A practice called "gavage" accelerates the gorging and fattening waterfowl naturally do before migrating. For two to three weeks before slaughter, farm workers hand feed each bird large amounts of food, typically twice a day, by inserting a tube through its mouth. The process takes between 2 and 60 seconds. Since birds store excess fat in their livers (unlike humans, who store it throughout their bodies), the extra feeding causes the liver to swell.
Where does it come from? In the U.S., only California and New York produce foie gras. Other countries producing the delicacy include Canada, France, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The controversy: Opponents, chiefly animal-rights activists who promote vegetarianism, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals, say the force feeding harms the animals. Proponents, citing limited scientific studies, say the ducks do not suffer because their throats are designed to swallow large whole fish. Few disagree that foie-gras ducks live under more congenial conditions than commodity food animals like battery chickens and pigs (those confined to tiny cages).
Where to buy it: Prepared foie gras pates are readily available at gourmet stores. Fresh, raw foie gras is harder to find. Locally, Urban Harvest, 4 S. Vail St., Arlington Heights, usually stocks it, though it's best to call ahead at (847) 632-0860. At press time, the price was $38 per half pound. Treasure Island, 911 Ridge Road, Wilmette, also usually carries foie gras; it was $43 per pound at press time; they also advise calling ahead: (847) 256-5033. Sunset Food Mart stores, including 1451 Peterson Road, Libertyville, (847) 573-9570, will special-order, at about $50 per pound, with a few days' notice. Fresh or frozen raw foie gras can also be mail ordered from a number of sources, notably D'Artagnan Inc., (800) 327-8246, www.dartagnan.com.
What to serve with it: Sweet and fruity flavors go well with foie gras, as do slightly acid accompaniments that cut its richness. Sauternes is the classic wine pairing, though fruity Rieslings also can work.
Is it unhealthful? Surprisingly, no. In moderate quantities (all you can afford?), foie gras can be part of a balanced diet. Though high in fat, it contains a large percentage of monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, said to lower LDL and raise HDL or "good" cholesterol. One study showed that the foie-gras eaters of southwest France have the lowest rate of death from cardiovascular disease in that country, and France's rate of death from coronary heart disease overall is about a third of that of the U.S.
— Leah A. Zeldes
Where to dine on
foie gras in the suburbs
Posted Wednesday, September 13, 2006
City restaurants may be banned from serving luxury liver, but suburban eateries are poised to take up the slack. Menus and preparations change frequently, but here's a sampling of local restaurants and what they were serving foie-gras fans and curious first-timers at press time:
Adelle's, 1060 College Ave., Wheaton, (630) 784-8015. Seasonal specials like seared foie gras with a lavender-scented sea scallop and foie-gras-topped beef tenderloin.
Atwater's, Herrington Inn, 15 S. River Lane, Geneva, (630) 208-7433. Seared foie gras with braised arugula and filet mignon rolled in Earl Grey tea and topped with seared Hudson Valley foie gras.
Barrington Country Bistro, 700 W. Northwest Hwy., Barrington, (847) 842-1300. Periodic specials of foie gras terrine or seared foie gras glazed with poire Williams.
Bistro Kirkou, 500 Ela Road, Lake Zurich, (847) 438-0200. Seared Canadian foie gras with apricot and red onion chutney, white truffle infusion and house-made brioche.
Cafe Pyrenees, 1762 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 918-8850. Periodic specials such as sauteed foie gras with truffles, Madeira sauce and toasted brioche or grilled foie gras with fruit chutney and balsamic reduction.
Chef Amaury's Epicurean Affair, 481 N. Commons Drive, Aurora, (630) 375-0426. Periodic specials such as seared foie gras with pineapple puree or balsamic reduction and brioche.
D & J Bistro, 466 S. Rand Road, Lake Zurich, (847) 438-8001. Chilled foie-gras terrine with fresh fig chutney and house-made brioche and periodic specials of seared foie gras.
David's Bistro, 623 N. Wolf Road, Des Plaines, (847) 803-3233. Seared foie gras with cinnamon-caramel peach sauce and raisin toast points.
Isabella's Estiatoro, 330 W. State St., Geneva, (630) 845-8624. Foie gras "Parfait," chilled foie-gras-and-chicken-liver pate with kumquat marmalade, cornichons and toasted black pepper brioche; seared Hudson Valley foie gras with marsala and pickled red onions; and tournedos Rossini, seared foie gras over beef tenderloin with rosti potatoes.
L'Anne, 221 W. Front St., Wheaton, (630) 260-1234. Appetizer of seared foie gras in chef's seasonal preparation and entree of plum- and foie-gras-stuffed duck breast with sauteed spinach and peppercorn jus.
Le Francais, 269 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, (847) 541-7470. White Alba truffle custard with chestnut espuma, lobster ravioli and chilled foie gras on toast; foie gras-and-truffle mousse ravioli with port-wine sauce; foie-gras-filled rice crepe with fresh basil and banana water; French farm-raised ossetra caviar with roasted cauliflower emulsion, Hudson Valley foie gras "mi-cuit" in Sauternes with house-made brioche and liquid black truffle ravioli; chilled foie-gras torchon over fresh ginger vinaigrette with black summer truffle; seared foie gras with roasted plum and Armagnac sauce and Hudson Valley foie gras "napoleon," abalone mushroom "marine," mint-parsley pesto, blood orange and tangerine.
Le Titi de Paris, 1015 W. Dundee Road, Arlington Heights, (847) 506-0222. Chilled terrine of Canadian foie gras with Perigord black truffle, petite salad and rhubarb "jam" and seared foie gras with house-made herb brioche, purple-plum-and-rhubarb compote and port-wine reduction.
Le Vichyssoise, 220 W. Route 120, Lakemoor, (815) 385-8221. Chilled foie-gras terrine with brioche and celery root or beet salad.
Les Deux Autres, 462 Park Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 469-4002. Seared foie gras with caramelized apples over apple-cider caramel on brioche.
Montarra Grill, 1491 S. Randall Road, Algonquin, (847) 458-0505. "Ultimate filet," seared foie gras on filet mignon with black truffle risotto and port-wine sauce.
Niche, 14 S. Third St., Geneva, (630) 262-1000. Seared LaBelle foie gras with fresh peaches and basil-cognac duck sauce.
Retro Bistro, 1746 Golf Road, Mount Prospect, (847) 439-2424. Regular specials like wonton ravioli filled with fresh mushrooms and foie gras; seared, peppercorn-crusted foie gras with fig and raspberry puree over toasted brioche; and beef tenderloin topped with foie gras.
Tavern, 519 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 367-5755. Chilled foie gras terrine appetizer drizzled with balsamic reduction and signature "Tavern filet," filet mignon atop a block of foie gras and truffle-buttered toast.
Tramonto's Steak & Seafood (opening Nov. 7), Westin Chicago North Shore, 601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, (847) 777-6575. Appetizer foie gras torchon with orange-thyme marmalade and toasted brioche; "Turf & Turf," filet mignon and sauteed foie gras; steak toppers of bruleed foie gras torchon and whole roasted foie gras carved tableside.
Michael, 64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, (847) 441-3100. Tuesdays through Fridays and Sundays through Sept. 30: Five-course foie-gras menu of warm cheese puff filled with braised leeks and foie-gras mousse, foie-gras custard in port wine and truffle gelee, sauteed foie gras with pan-roasted scallop in sweet summer corn soup, braised orange-scented duck with roasted peach and foie-gras sauce, and warm truffle-scented brie de meiux en croute (no foie gras); $49.
Patrick Chabert at Berruti's Restaurant, 771 S. Buffalo Grove Road, Buffalo Grove; call ChicaGourmets! at (708) 383-7543. Oct. 28. Six-course dinner including duo of foie gras — au torchon and sauteed — with confit of walnuts and fresh and dried figs and petite salad; $84 with wines.
Bank Lane Bistro, 670 Bank Lane, Lake Forest, (847) 234-8802. Ongoing: Changing four-course degustation with foie gras in every course, including dessert — molten chocolate cake topped with seared foie gras; $55.
— Leah A. Zeldes