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The gift of a holiday goose

By Cathy Barrow,

No matter how busy I am during the holidays, I embrace the opportunity to spend lots of time in the kitchen — and that’s not just because I’m into project cooking.

Sometime in late October, the siren call (honk?) of the goose began. A reminder from my dairy delivery service to place holiday orders included goose among the ham and turkey options. At the Bethesda Central Farm Market, a vendor offered goose.

A casual conversation with Pam Ginsberg, butcher at Wagshal’s Market in Spring Valley, brought more goose talk: “Wagshal’s sells around 200 geese every year — sometimes two to the same customer,” she said. “One for Christmas and another for New Year’s Eve.”

Goose became traditional Christmas fare because the birds are plumpest in late fall and early winter, having fattened themselves on the last of the pasture, any corn that remains in the fields after harvest and other foraged feed. They put on weight naturally at this time of year, in preparation for migration, as well as a thick layer of fat to insulate against cold.

Drought has pushed grain prices higher in the past two years, and that has made raising turkeys a more expensive endeavor. At Virginia’s Leaping Waters Farm in Alleghany Springs, Alec Bradford made the switch from raising turkeys to geese, but even with grain-free eating habits, a goose costs a lot to raise and is difficult to prep (its feathers are nearly impossible to pluck).

Bradford processed just over 600 geese in 2012, selling the majority to his community-supported agriculture (CSA) members and other home cooks. “I’ll absolutely do it again,” he says. “Geese are much easier to raise than turkeys.” 

I’ve cooked goose before, but it’s been at least 20 years. That particular goose — roasted to a burnished mahogany and presented on a fancy platter — was more impressive to behold than to eat.

So when I noticed recipes extolling the benefit of deconstructing a turkey, I began to wonder how that might work for a goose. Cooking one is an investment: Plan to spend anywhere from $100 to $150 for an eight- to 14-pound bird. What you do with it ought to be memorable. And fruitful.

Relying on a skill learned at a workshop last year in Gascony, France, I decided to break down the bird and cook it slowly, extracting additional delicacies along the way. When a goose is braised in this fashion, it yields exceptionally tender leg confit and moist breast meat that slices beautifully. Aromatics and root vegetables add a rich, sweet, sharp series of tastes with each bite.

Considerable knife work is involved. But those delicacies justify the effort: rillettes, fashioned from trimmed bits and pieces of meat; stock, made from a roasted carcass, gizzard and neck; pâté, smooth and rich from the liver, flavored with a heady liqueur; rendered fat, which transforms simply roasted potatoes into a glorious side dish; and cracklings for snacking.

If you’re intrigued but not up to the challenge, at least two Washington restaurants will be serving goose this holiday season. Scott Drewno, executive chef at the Source, plans to serve whole goose, Peking-style, family style. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, chef Adam Sobel at Bourbon Steak is preparing Asian-inspired goose in house-made steamed buns.

Barrow blogs at MrsWheelbarrow.com.

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Recipes: Braised Goose With Root Vegetables and Parsley Gremolata

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