They, whoever they are, call me the “parent-charmer.” I know, it sounds silly, but it’s true. And believe me, as soon as I figure out how to monetize on this gift, I’ll be rich! Maybe it’s my sense of humor or just the simple fact that I fain more interest in them than their own children do. Whatever the reason, after ten minutes with me they’re ready to sign adoption papers and write me into their wills. Which is why I never thought twice about meeting Jonathan’s mother until the day before it happened.
We’d been dating pretty intensely for about six months when out of the blue he asked me if I would be willing to meet her.
“Sure,” I said, thinking it would be a piece of cake, and I went back to my silent battle for the bigger portion of the meal we were supposed to be splitting 50/50.
Then a few days later he tells me “she’s coming through San Francisco for work and she has time to meet us for dinner.”
Suddenly it all seemed too real and heavy. Like it was actually going to happen and all the momentum we’d built hinged on this one meeting with his mom. I wasn’t sure if we could play it casual or if it would be more of an interview, but I knew this time it mattered—because I really liked Jonathan. And though I’m not a crazy chick who would ever say this out loud before reaching the one-year mark in our relationship, I thought he was “the one.” And yes, I was totally Alicia Silverstone in “The Crush” on like our second date, but just in my head…..which makes it okay, right? Anyways, with all the weight I was placing on our relationship, meeting his mother was indeed that “next level” and I was just getting comfortable on the plateau we’d climbed onto.
The plan was to meet her for the first time in a public place. Seemed natural, but then I wondered if she was the kind of mother who liked to make a scene, which meant Jonathan needed strangers to establish invisible parameters to keep our inaugural meeting from veering off the path of pleasantries into a deadly crash and burn. It’s almost as if he we were about to go bowling and he requested lanes with bumpers.
So we met for dinner on one of her random whirlwind business trips through San Francisco. She showed up at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar in Hayes Valley, which at the time was the “it” restaurant in SF thanks to Chef Jamie Lauren who’d appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef just a few months prior. Jonathan was noticeably nervous; and not because he was embarrassed or ashamed of his mother in the slightest, because from what I’ve observed, he’ll introduce her to anyone. Apparently I was different. I was his only boyfriend who’d made it this far, and he just wasn’t sure how it would all play out. I know, talk about pressure!
His mother stumbled into the restaurant dressed head-to-toe in an all black Chico’s ensemble with platinum and silver jewelry bubbling across her bosom and around her waist. Her outfit sort of clashed with mine; a black woven cashmere sweater (with hoodie) I’d chosen after trying on 32 different options the few hours before, but I wasn’t about to get caught up on that.
“Mom, are you drunk?” Jonathan asked.
“I am not,” she said with a crescendo in her voice, “why would you think that?”
Like a caterpillar struggling to shrug off its cocoon sack, she wrestled with all three of her winter layers stuck on her men’s diamond studded wristwatch. Eventually she broke free of her exoskeleton, scooted her chair in, banged against the table with an intensity that created rip curls in our water glasses.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” I murmured under my breath.
“I’m fine,” she said, “I had a few glasses of wine at my business drinks. But I’m fine.”
I wasn’t sure if she was telling us or trying to convince us. Jonathan rolled his eyes and looked at me with a smirk. I was still waiting for my presence to be acknowledged—by anyone really—but his mother especially. They didn’t really give each other a hug and a kiss when she first arrived, which was strange for me, because I always kiss my parents hello and goodbye. I figured she was a little nervous too, which made me more nervous than I already was.
“So how’s work?” she asked, looking directly across the table at Jonathan. I figured she’d ask me the same question next, so I started rehearsing answers in my head. But she and Jonathan just shot the shit as if it was a dinner for two and I was the stranger who accidentally sat down at the wrong table.
Wondering if I’d accidentally mistaken my black sweater for my cloak of invisibility, I buried my head in the menu in hope dinner would come and go and we could all pretend the night had never happened.
“Mom, this is Philip,” Jonathan finally said. I was surprised it took him so long too, because I was burning the flesh off his face with my stare.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you.” I said, and thought I’d ask her a question so we could keep the ball rolling. “What business are you in town for?” and she answered with a question of her own.
“Where you from?” she asked, cutting to the chase. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the shakedown.
“San Diego originally,” I said, smiling at the fact that the conversation was finally about me…which I think we can all agree was the point of the dinner. And before I could finish telling her about my stint in LA’s film business, she’d zeroed in on her son again, and asked him about his work. FYI, the same question he’d already spent 24 minutes answering at the start of the meal. This was no typical mother. Clearly she was still in work mode, going a mile a minute, and without the patience or time to hear me wax and wane about who I was, where I came from, what I was into, and most importantly what her son saw in me as a partner.
Put in my place, and relegated to Jonathan’s arm candy (I was still thin and dieting back then) I read the dinner menu over and over until the waiter came to break up the awkward tension. I ended up ordering the duck confit over a bed of arugula and it was fantastic. And now, whenever I think of duck confit, I remember the night I first met my mother-in-law and boy have we come a long way since! She still cuts me off midsentence when something shiny enters her field of vision, but I’ve learned it’s nothing personal and I’ve developed a thicker skin for it.
Duck Confit with Hibiscus Brandy Sauce, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Duck Fat Fried Potato Chips
For duck confit and mashed potatoes:
- 3 large russet potatoes peeled and boiled
- 1 large russet potato thinly sliced
- 2 duck confit leg and thigh pieces packed in duck fat
- small bunch of carrots peeled
- 5 tblsp unsalted butter
- ½ cup whole milk
- 2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
- salt & white pepper to taste (black pepper is fine, but you’ll see it)
For Brandy Hibiscus Sauce:
- ½ cup hibiscus jelly (can substitute black cherry preserves or jam)
- 1 tblsp sherry vinegar
- ½ cup water
- 1 tblsp dark brown sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tblsp brandy
Peel the carrots and boil them until slightly softened and then place them in a cold water bath to stop them from cooking too much. Remove them from the water and set aside.
Roughly chop the three potatoes into 1-2 inch pieces and boil them in a small to medium size saucepot until tender and you feel no resistance when you stab them with a paring knife.
For the brandy hibiscus sauce, place all the ingredients in a small sauce pot on the stovetop and turn the heat to medium-high.
Stir the contents gently and bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down and simmer the sauce for 10-15 mins until thickened. Continue with the rest of the recipe while the brandy hibiscus sauce is reducing and just turn the heat off when it’s reached the thickness of a maple syrup.
Duck confit packed in duck fat isn’t as hard to find as it used to be. Most Whole Foods, specialty markets, or artisanal butchers will carry duck confit leg and thigh combos and in some cases breasts as well, but usually just the legs and thighs. You can make your own duck confit at home, but you’ll need to give yourself another 24 hours lead time, because that’s how long the duck meat should sit in the fridge rubbed in salt and fresh herbs before you cook it for a few hours in oil. So I take the shortcut and purchase the duck confit already complete.
Gently scrape off the white duck fat (I use a small rubber spatula) and place the duck fat in a small nonstick pan over medium-high heat.
Set the duck confit aside at room temperature while you move on to making the duck fat potato chips.
While the oil is heating up, slice one of the peeled potatoes into ⅛ inch thin pieces (or thinner….like paper thin depending on how you like your potato chips) and place them in a bowl filled with cold water.
This will clean off some of the starch from the potatoes and also keep them from oxidizing and turning brown. They only need to be in the water for a few seconds but you can leave them in there for longer if you need. Remove them from the water when you’re ready and lay them out on paper towels. Place another paper towel on top and gently press down to absorb some of the moisture.
When the duck fat is so hot that it bubbles from dipping the edge of a potato slice in it, then you’re ready to make your potato chips. Carefully slide the thin slices of potato into the hot duck fat, making sure not to overcrowd the pan.
Cook the potato slices for a few minutes on each side, using tongs to flip and move them around as needed, until they’re golden brown and then remove them from the duck fat and let them dry on paper towels. If the duck fat is bubbling wildly you can turn down the heat to medium. While the chips are still hot, sprinkle them with salt. Do NOT press them with the paper towels or they’ll get soggy. Repeat this process until you’ve fried all the potato slices in duck fat and then turn off the heat.
Set the duck fat chips aside, reserve 2 tblsp of duck fat, and move on to the next step.
By now the boiled potatoes should be tender. Strain them over the sink and put them back in the saucepot on the stove over medium heat. Using a potato masher, start to puree the potatoes and let some of the residual liquid evaporate. Just when they seem to be getting dry and there’s little to no steam coming out of the pot, add the butter, milk, salt, and white pepper. Once you’ve mashed everything together and the lumps are gone, you can turn off the heat and set aside.
So you don’t have to clean more dishes, use the same saucepan you used for frying the duck fat potato chips. Over high heat, add the reserved duck fat. Once it’s good and hot (about 4 minutes of the pan was cooled) add the chopped garlic and cook for 30-60 seconds until fragrant. Then add the garlic to the mashed potatoes.
Back in the sauté pan over high heat, cook the duck confit for 5 minutes on the rough side first. Then flip the pieces over and cook the smooth skin side for 4-6 mins or until the skin is golden brown and crispy. The duck confit is already cooked all the way through from when it was “confited” (not sure if that’s a word) so you’re really just heating it up and giving it that oh so delicious crispy skin. Throw the carrots into the pan just to warm them through before plating.
- Hibiscus jelly can be a challenge to find but Zingerman’s sells it online or you can find something similar in some specialty stores.
- You can make the potatoes with fat free or low fat milk if you want to eliminate some calories but you know it’s not as good as the real stuff.
- If you’re going to make the duck confit from scratch, here’s a recipe on Epicurious.com that I found to be pretty straight forward and traditional.