Picking The Perfect Foie Gras

Foie gras, it's not the liver of your childhood nightmares, but an ancient gourmet that is becoming more common in the United States.

It's not the liver of your childhood nightmares. Foie gras, literally "fat liver" in French, referring to the specially fattened livers of ducks and geese, has often been placed in the pantheon of the world's finest foods, in the heady company of caviar and truffles. The buttery taste and texture of foie gras can linger with resonating richness but, as with other gourmet delicacies, the choices and prices can be bewildering to the neophyte gastronomic adventurer. Once the rarest of delicacies dating back to ancient times where Egyptians can be seen in bas-relief in tombs fattening geese and decadent Roman banquets starred whole livers that were flamboyantly carved at table side, foie gras can now be readily found beyond the menus of the finest restaurants.

Although caviar and truffles are harvested from nature, foie gras must be developed by helping a duck or goose cultivate a large, firm liver. The Perigord region of France is particularly noted for producing the world's finest foie gras and one of its regional producers, the Rougie Company, is generally considered to be the finest producer of foie gras but not the only purveyor. In America, companies like Sonoma in California and Michel Ginor of Hudson Valley also produce foie gras.

Migratory birds naturally stuff themselves with food in preparation for their arduous seasonal journeys. It is not unusual for a goose or duck to cram food for an entire month before taking flight. To obtain foie gras, usually from birds about five years of age, handlers treat geese and ducks differently. A duck, often the specially-bred sterile Mulard duck, is force-fed twice a day for two weeks with a mixture of lightly cooked and seasoned corn meal that is carefully balanced to mix with the bird's natural chemicals. Force-feeding a goose is a more delicate process and involves three feedings a day for three weeks.

This force-feeding process is called "gavage" and dates back to ancient Egyptian times. The gavage can seem cruel and industry officials are often called on to defend the practice to animal rights activists as a natural process that the birds are used to. It's a labor-intensive procedure subject to the tiniest of variables that can affect the quality of the foie gras--hence the equally fattened prices.

Once the fattened raw liver is obtained, the organ must be cleaned and deveined, unless the foie gras is to be used in a hot preparation, where deveining is unnecessary. If preparing raw foie gras, allow it to sit for twenty minutes at room temperature and separate the liver into two lobes. In general, start with the smaller transverse vein on each lobe and work towards the main vein running vertically through the liver. Remove any stray bloody spots. Once the raw liver is prepared it is a versatile meal; it can be baked, poached, roasted or sauteed in any manner of preparation. Expect to pay between $40 and $70 for a whole 1 1/2-pound liver.

Foie Gras can be graded A, B and C. The top grade is A, with a silky smooth and buttery consistency. Grade B is softer and darker and Grade C is a meatier foie gras that is often used in stuffings and sauces.

Of course, foie gras can be purchased already prepared and there are many choices. The extremely delicate goose foie gras is considered the gold standard of gourmet foie gras. Duck foie gras carries a more rustic flavor, although it is favored by many over the goose foie gras. The goose foie gras is typically more expensive. The highest quality of foie gras is the fattiest, the sweetest tasting and the most expensive.

Foie gras can also be purchased in block form in plastic mold, metal box or jar. These can cost anywhere from $5 to $6 an ounce to almost $20 an ounce, depending on the recipe used in preparation and the vagaries of the popularity of the goose foie gras. In the ultimate democratization of this ancient delicacy foie gras can now be bought frozen and microwaveable. Thaw the package under running water and prepare it in the microwave. Some gastronomic heretics even serve barbecues foie gras or deep-fried foie gras, foie gras tacos or substitute the sweet, fattened liver for pepperoni on pizzas.

Ready-to-eat foie gras can be refrigerated up to three months and frozen for six months. Fresh foie gras can be refrigerated for three weeks with a rapidly decline in fortune as it is stored.

The best way to eat foie gras, however, is with small bites and a favorite wine (champagne is often the choice of beverage with foie gras but sweet wines like Sauternes or Monbazillac, dry wines like Montrachet or Graves, and red wines like Madiran or Cahors are also fine). As an appetizer between 40 and 70 grams is considered appropriate or when served as a main course an entree of twice that makes a rich meal. To do foie gras up properly, slice the liver with a thin, toothless knife and place it on a slice of French Bread (rest the foie gras on the spread, do not spread it down). Clean the knife in hot water after each slice and wipe it clean.

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