Eat (well) when you’re hungry
My family has never had any trouble with eating well. Even when I was teeny-tiny they lugged me along to smart restaurants (and probably hid me under the table to concentrate on choosing the perfect wine). The first time they tried magret de canard I was too little even to chew, so the chef sent out a delicate vegetable puree under a shiny silver dome just for me. Later he whisked me away for a tour of the kitchen. Hopefully my one-year-old self was suitably appreciative.
It became a staple on our French holidays, pan-seared duck breast with a thick layer of crisp skin. Akin to really good roast pork with crackling, magret is made from ducks fattened specially for foie gras. For unashamed carnivores: juicy, salty, so so savoury. Worlds away from a bland and dusty chicken breast.
Our French neighbours (duck farmers!) would serve the fat pink slices piled on top of dark smoky lentils. My mother would fry potatoes and garlic in more duck fat, serve a token green vegetable to avoid heart attacks. We had it so often that at seven years old I declared to my teacher, proudly and pretentiously, that my favourite protein was magret de canard.
I have always eaten well, though not necessarily just when I was hungry. But recently, after a cliched sunset walk along the Seine, I found myself, ravenous, in an old favourite bar. (Claudio’s bar, we call it. Claudio introduced me to the grumpy owner, a cigarette permanently stuck to his lip. Claudio was eyed up by the owner’s wife, encouraged to meet their daughter.) They serve good red wine and proper red meat with a grumpy frown.
Starving, we both plumped for the magret with chips. When our plates arrived we didn’t speak for a while, just grinned and attacked. A whole duck breast each: better than a tender steak, closer to venison with its deep colourful flavour. The perfect French paradox: food that seems to be rich and decadent, yet is so simple and satisfying that you do not need to eat too much. You have just enough, with a little red wine of course, and supposedly you live a long and happy life.
When we were able to make sentences again, we carried on our conversation about the basics of happiness. In the end, between bites of duck and baguette, we came up with seven bare essentials. Seven simple pleasures that make me disproportionately happy. Seven splendid truths.
The first of which is this: Eat when you are hungry. Eat well. Eat something prepared and chosen with care. Whether it is just bread and cheese or a home-cooked supper, to be able to satisfy your hunger is a joy and a luxury. Because three times a day you have the chance to be delighted and nourished, as long as you choose to pay attention to your senses.
Because happiness is constructed from those small moments which make up a patchwork of contentment.
Magret de canard with lemony-herb bulghur wheat and tomato fennel salad
You do need to buy proper magret de canard for the full effect. Can be found in any French supermarket. This is a lighter version of the traditional stout French dish: the bulghur wheat provides a simple background with a citrus bite and soaks up the meat juices very nicely. To do it properly – as long as you have time for a nap afterwards – serve the sliced duck breasts on top of Puy lentils or next to a stack of sauteed potatoes fried in duck fat.
2 large magret de canard (fattened duck breasts)
sea salt and pepper
250g bulghur wheat
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
2 spring onions, finely sliced
lots of chopped fresh herbs
1/2 bulb fennel
Cook the magret:
First, gently press the meat to check its texture, to understand what it feels like when it is completely raw. Now heat a large heavy-bottomed frying pan on a very high heat.
Score the fat skin with a sharp knife in criss cross lines about an inch apart. Rub about a teaspoon of sea salt per duck breast into the skin. When the pan is very hot, lay the duck skin side down. The fat and the salt will stop it from sticking. Sprinkle some more salt and pepper over the meaty side.
Cook until very brown and crispy: about 8-10 minutes, pouring off the fat as you go. If it seems to be browning too quickly, turn the heat down to medium.
Some duck fat will start to collect in the pan. To avoid it burning and creating a nasty taste, tip it out every few minutes into a non-meltable container.In this way you actually remove most of the fat, rendering the meat healthier. Leave the duck fat to cool and use later for making roast potatoes or croutons.
Turn the duck breasts over and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Push gently with tongs to check for doneness. If you like your meat pink, the meat needs to have a little bounce. The same sensation as when you push the fleshy part at the base of your thumb. Well-done meat will have no bounce.
Turn over onto the skin side and sizzle for another 2 minutes, then take the pan off the heat, put on a lid and abandon for 10 minutes. it will become nice and tender while resting. Slice into diagonal strips 1/2cm thick.
Make the salads:
While the duck is resting, stir 250ml boiling water into the bulghur wheat. Leave for 5 minutes to absorb all the water. Stir in the juice and zest of half a lemon, spring onions, olive oil and lots of pepper and salt and chopped herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly.
Slice the tomatoes thinly and arrange on a plate. Slice the fennel even thinner: use a vegetable peeler or a mandoline to get wafer-thin strips. Pile it on top of the tomatoes and drizzle with olive oil and more lemon or your favourite dressing.
Tip the bulghur wheat onto a big platter and arrange the magret slices neatly on top. Serve with the tomato and fennel alongside.