Why a duck? (Part II)

Apr 13, 2005 at 12:00 am

When we left off last week, we’d broken down the duck (chef talk for cutting it into pieces) and were ready to turn it into several deeply flavored dishes. The best thing about what follows — it’s easy.

First, preparing the breast halves.

Heat a very heavy fry pan — (cast iron is best) on medium for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, rinse and dry the breast pieces with paper towel. Place them on a cutting board skin side up and, using a very sharp knife, score each diagonally three or four times (be careful not to cut through the fat layer under the skin), then turn the pieces 180 degrees and score diagonally again, leaving a diamond pattern.

Generously salt and pepper both pieces on both sides, and when the pan is hot, quickly brush on a light coat of olive or peanut oil, or use a spray like Pam, then carefully lay in the breasts skin side down. Don’t peek or move them at all; they’ll stick. At about 10 minutes, look under one side; when golden and lightly brown, carefully roll the pieces over. There’ll be quite a bit of cooked-out fat, so don’t splash yourself. Bad.

Cook until the duck, when pressed with a fingertip, is the same softness as the muscle at the base of your thumb when you touch thumb to forefinger. That’ll be rare, the best choice, but cook longer if you must, and know that you’re taking a big chance on drying out the meat.

Let the breasts rest on a clean cutting board for 10 minutes to redistribute the juices, then thinly slice crosswise, on the diagonal, and fan out the pieces on a serving plate. Eat, with roasted potatoes, a salad, or whatever you like.

Next, highly prized rendered duck fat.

Cover the skin and fat trimmings in your saucepan by about an inch with cold water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and slowly simmer, uncovered, until the water has evaporated and the amber-colored fat remains. Continue to simmer until the skin pieces are crisp and brown; pick them out with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. If you like pork rinds, these “cracklings” will drive you hog wild. They’re also great used instead of croutons on soup or in salad. They keep well, unrefrigerated. Set aside the rendered fat to cool.

Last, we’ll turn the leg quarters into duck confit, to my taste the best technique for tender, delicious “dark” meat.

Salt and pepper both leg/thigh pieces on the skinless side, lay one skin-side down in a non-metal bowl big enough to accommodate both, then lay the other piece skin-side up on the first. Pour in the cooled, rendered duck fat to cover the pieces by at least a half-inch, seal the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for at least 12 hours.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Pick the quarters out of the fat, wiping any clinging fat back into the bowl. Rinse the pieces under cold running water, rubbing off the salt and pepper, and dry with paper towels.

Spoon about half of the fat into a small, ovenproof saucepan, lay in the leg quarters side by side, snugly, then cover with the rest of the fat. If you need to add a little olive oil to cover the pieces by a half-inch, then do. Add one or two whole cloves of garlic, a sprig or two of fresh thyme, if you like it, or maybe a little tarragon or a large bay leaf, and a dozen or so whole black peppercorns. Cover the pan, put it in the oven and let it go for another 12 hours.

Remove the leg quarters from the pan, wipe off any herbs or spices, and pick the bones clean, adding them to the stockpot. Put the meat in a deep soup bowl. Strain the fat, then pour it over the pieces, covering well and completely. This will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. (The French commonly sealed the meat in crocks with its own fat, and kept it in a cool cellar for months.)

When you’re ready to use the confit, pick the meat out of the fat, warm it slightly in a dry pan, drain it briefly on paper towels, and serve it on a salad of fresh greens, as a simple side to other dishes, or in any of countless other ways to be found on the Web.

Strain the fat from the confit bowl, and save it in the refrigerator to be used for extra flavor on those roasted potatoes or in place of butter when pan-frying food.

As for that stuff in the stockpot — which I hope you’ve kept refrigerated — cover it deeply with cold water, add a roughly chopped carrot and celery stalk; a small, clean unskinned onion; a fresh tomato half; and bring to a boil. Lower the heat until it barely simmers, and let it cook uncovered all day, adding a little water as necessary. Cool, strain it into a plastic container and freeze or refrigerate. This duck stock is perfect for cooking black beans, among many other things.

Prepare your supermarket duckling this way and not only will you have used every bit of it, but you’ve turned the one thing that ruins duck for most people — the fat — into a very flavorful asset.

And don’t be afraid of all the fat. It doesn’t sink into the meat; you’ll find the confit remarkably non-greasy.

As the surrealist Chico Marx once asked, “Why a duck?” Wait until you taste it.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]