I got a somewhat unusual Christmas present from my best friend's husband. Some dead ducks. Rob is a hunter and so he gave me four frozen ducks and a goose for Christmas. 

Now coincidentally I had been already contemplating my weekend cooking project. I was in the mood for pasta and ragu and had planned on making a pork ragu. Change of plans — duck ragu. I went home, left two of the ducks out to thaw, and threw the rest in the freezer. 

The recipe below is a combination of things from a few recipes I researched. Keep in mind that I had two wild ducks versus domestically raised ones, so they were smaller. I also had hoped to shred the meat, but ended up having to dice it. I did the stovetop steps in my cast iron skillet, but after deglazing the pan I transferred everything over to my slow cooker. The coffee adds depth of flavor. Overall though, an excellent meal in which I kept wanting to eat more but had to stop or else hit that "I feel sick" point from overeating!

Duck ragu 
- this recipe includes curing the duck overnight

2 ducks or 4 duck breasts
1/2 c kosher salt
1 T fresh thyme
1/2 t ground black pepper
5-6 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced

1 T olive oil
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 1/2 c dry red wine
2 14oz cans of tomatoes, chopped
1 t thyme
1 t rosemary
1 bay leaf
1/2 c of dark, brewed coffee

Day before:  If using whole ducks, cut off the breasts and the legs and set aside. Use the rest of the carcasses for stock.  In a small bowl, mix the salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic. Use the salt mixture to coat the breasts and legs all over. Set on a plate, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Next day: Remove the duck from the refrigerator and rinse off the salt mixture. Dry with paper towels and then set aside until the duck reaches room temperature. Use the time to chop your veggies.

Heat a large pan to high and add olive oil. (Note: Because I was keeping the duck skin on, I found it unnecessary to add oil — it's fatty enough.) Take the duck pieces and sear them in the hot pan on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the duck and set aside. If there is excessive oil in the pan, remove it, leaving enough to saute the veggies.

Toss in the carrots, celery, and onion. Stir and cook until the veggies are tender. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom and sides. Turn the heat down to low. Add in tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. Return the duck to the pan and simmer everything for 2-6 hours.

Before serving, remove the duck pieces and shred or dice, then return the duck to the sauce. Remove the bay leaf and throw in the coffee. Stir until blended.

Serve with a hearty pasta and good Parmesan cheese. I used campanelle because I couldn't find a good, fresh pappardelle.

Even though Yang's Noodles has had great reviews for some time, my first experience with them was in a roundabout way. Chef Don Dickonson works there and he wanted to bring some of the offal dishes he had learned there to Have an Offal Day last year. The two dishes he brought were a Chinese beef tendon dish and another with pork stomach. Of Offal Day 3, these were among the most popular and unique dishes served.

But Yang's isn't exactly nearby to me and so it's never been convenient for me. Last week I asked my foodie Chinese friend where she wanted to go expecting her to pick one of the newly opened restaurants. Instead, she picked Yang's Noodles, a place and my other Chinese friends go to often. 

It was actually funny because I arrived first and said "hello" to owner Yang. He remembered me from offal day and we had a quick chat. Finally my friend arrived and he was surprised we were together as he recognized her as one of his regulars.

Turn's out Rui's desire for Yang's Noodles was because a Lamb Clay Pot had just been added to the menu and she had a craving for it. We ordered that, the beef roll, and the seasoned, shredded potato.

Rui's craving stems from the cold weather. Her clay pot dish is something she associates with winter like we do with stews. It's really what I'd consider a soup filled with thin slices of lamb and sour cabbage. The sour tang of the dish made me think that it would be a favorite among Filipinos who also love that sour flavor in savory dishes. 

Yang brought out something extra for us. A dipping sauce. Rui took the slices of lamb out of the soup, dipped them in the sauce, and then ate them  - separately from the soup. She said it was like getting two dishes from one. 

The Chinese Beef Roll was a bit of surprise for me because it looked like a Western dish. It resembled a crepe filled with the thin slices of beef, cucumbers, and a leafy green. I really enjoyed it and we put the sauce on the beef roll as well. There was the soft, tender crepe with crunch from the cucumber sticks and the saltiness of the beef.

The seasoned, shredded potato was also a surprise only because my Western expectations were in contrast from the Chinese reality. I was picturing in my mind a hot, shredded potato cake but what we got was a bowl of cold shredded potatoes. It was lightly spiced and vinagery; it was a nice, cold contrast to our other dishes. 

Yang's is located on Stockton Blvd, about 1/2 mile south of Fruitridge Rd. 

Oftentimes restaurant managers are so busy running their restaurant that you don't get to have time for a good conversation. But when you get the chance, it can be very informative. Such was the case this week when I went to check out Seasons 52's new winter menu.

all to ourselves!

After a bit of holiday shopping at Arden Fair Mall my BFF and I stopped in for dinner. I had met Managing Partner Andrew Byers before and discussed that the dining room lighting was not really conducive to good food pictures and so this night he and his Service Manager, Patrick Volner, set us up to dine in the Sonoma Room, one of the two private dining rooms they use for group bookings. We had the whole dining room to ourselves and we loved it.  Should  you need to book a private room, both the Sonoma and Napa rooms come fully set with A/V capability should you need media.

The last time I wrote at length about Seasons 52 was when they first opened in 2013. At that time the menu items had a 475 calorie limit which was accomplished by using whole ingredients and healthier cooking techniques such as grilling and steaming. This might have inadvertently created an assumption that it was a diet restaurant instead of a healthier fine dining one.

Almost a year ago they decided to allow for higher calorie items. "We wanted to offer some items for people who were not concerned about calories and wanted to indulge a little bit more," said Byers. "We wanted to make sure that we had something for everyone and not just guests looking for a healthy eating place. The majority of the menu is still under 475 calories and the items that are over are not over by much. We still pay strict attention to how we prepare those items and not to over indulge in the recipe making."

highly recommend the Brussels sprouts

A good example would be something like the Lobster Pappardelle on the winter menu. While it's over 700 calories, that's considerably lower than a 1000+ version you might find at a competitor restaurant because Seasons is taking steps to create an indulgent dish, but on the healthier side with less fat. 

The menu keeps changing as well. Normally Nantucket bay scallops and Dungeness crab would have been added by now, but due to prolonged closures of their respective fisheries, these items are on hold until available. 

Sacramento is luckier than other Seasons 52 locations because we are in such a great climate area where we have seasonal produce all year long. I did have to ask why the Nantucket scallops then. Byers explained that sometimes they do like to ship in the best quality items that will draw customers in that are familiar with them. In the case of the Nantucket scallops, one of the few items flown in to Sacramento, their reputation is so good that they are prized by scallop fans.

We are also blessed by being in wine country. The Sacramento Seasons is the only location that has wine on tap, direct from the winery. As Volner explained, this is how the wine is intended to be tasted, without having been exposed to air. There are two wines on tap at a time. Currently they were a Matchbook Chardonnay and a Crusher Petit Syrah, which my BFF enjoyed immensely.

We started with an amuse bouche tasting of the Butternut Squash Soup. It was creamy with a distinct caramel flavor.

My BFF chose the Beef Short Ribs which come with cheddar grits and horseradish crema. It was wonderfully succulent and was made even better by their excellent caramelized Brussels sprouts side dish. It paired well with the Petit Syrah.  

I chose the New York Strip Steak. This is always on the menu, but how they prepare it (sides, topping) changes with the seasons. Currently it has soy garlic marinade, charcoal roasted vegetables, Yukon mash, and a 15-year aged balsamic drizzle. Byers explained that often a restaurant will say X ounce steak only for you to trim off an ounce or two in fat and gristle. This NY Strip was 13 ounces of meat because they trim it down to a 13 ounce size. It was perfectly cooked to medium rare and the accompaniments meant that I didn't need to use any salt or pepper.

During the course of the meal we had been served by Bryan. When I asked how long Bryan had been with Seasons he surprised me with his answer — since it opened and he transferred from the Seasons in Miami! Turns out it is very easy to transfer among Darden restaurants and Bryan had been in the mood for a change. He was happy to sing the praises of the Seasons group, saying that he's worked at several restaurants but stays and loves Seasons because the management is so good. He mentioned that they take care to hire quality staff with great personalities and that is what makes service so great for guests.

Finally it was time for the Mini Indulgences, an assortment of mini parfaits. Guests can choose one or more and the small size is meant to allow them a way to indulge their sweet tooth without an excess of calories. I questioned why, if they were upping some calorie counts now, they didn't have a few full size desserts. Byers said, "People have enjoyed getting to choose their own dessert as opposed to having to get one large dessert and share with others. We find that it allows people to get exactly what they want and the possibility of sampling more than one dessert, not having to choose just one thing."

If you are in the Arden area and looking for fine dining, then check out Seasons 52.