If the hottest part of summer is the dog days, the first few weeks of fall are my duck days. There is no better way to spend a cool foggy day than in the kitchen, and I can imagine no better companion for that than one of those billed birds, or maybe two or three.
This might surprise some people. Duck suffers from a difficult reputation, at least culinarily. Too many sweet-and-sour duck a l’oranges at indifferent restaurants. Too many attempts at roasting a duck at home that ended up stringy and greasy.
But this is a fault of the cook, not of the bird. Give me a duck, and I’ll give you a meal. Give me several, and we can invite friends. In fact, I did this just the other day. Three ducks turned into four courses for 10 people. And all without the benefit of fuzzy accounting.
There are two main problems with ducks. First, the legs and the breast meat are so radically different. The breast meat is tender and, to my taste, perfect when cooked to about medium-rare. The legs are the opposite, stringy and full of tendons that need to be well cooked before they soften.
This is one reason roast duck is so often disappointing: If you get the breasts right, the legs are going to be downright inedible. But if you cook to the legs, you’ll wind up with a dried-out breast.
The other problem with ducks is that they contain a remarkable amount of fat, most of it located just under the skin. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up with a spattering mess in the oven and a dinner that’s dripping in grease.
The most delicious solution to both these problems is to look at a duck not as a single piece of meat, but as a collection of parts, the sum of which is much greater than the whole. This involves a little work and a bit of time, but hey, it’s a fall weekend, what else do you have to do?
First, you catch your duck. The best place to find them is at Asian markets. For some reason, fresh duckling that is an $8-a-pound luxury at a Western grocery sells for less than $2 a pound in an Asian one. Best of all, the ducks will usually come with their heads and feet attached (why this is a good thing, I’ll explain later).
If you’re not up for the full deal, many Asian markets also sell fresh duck legs. What they do with the breasts, I don’t know, but I’ve got a suspicion they will probably be appearing soon at a fancy restaurant near you.
Nothing goes to waste
The next step is to separate it into its respective parts. Take the breast filets from the carcass. Do this by cutting down the length of the breast right next to the central “keel” bone. Gently pull away the breast meat, scraping along the ribs with a sharp knife whenever the meat sticks. Score the breasts lightly on the skin side, cutting through the skin but not to the meat. This will help drain away the fat during cooking. Season with salt, pepper and some minced rosemary, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Cut off the legs and peel away the skin and any visible fat. Start the legs braising, then cut the skin and fat into rough 2-inch squares and place them in a saucepan.
Remove as much skin and fat as possible from the rest of the carcass and add it to the saucepan too. The neck is particularly rich in fat, one reason it’s good to shop at an Asian market.
What is left will be primarily bones. Put them in a roasting pan with a couple of carrots and an onion and roast at 400 to 450 degrees until everything is well browned, about an hour. After roasting, put everything in a stockpot, add enough water to cover and set it to simmer for the rest of the afternoon to make a good strong broth. Don’t forget to add the feet, which are rich in gelatin and will add body to the liquid.
What about the fat? Now we’re getting to the good part. Add about half a cup of water to the saucepan and set it over medium heat. Shortly after it comes to a simmer, you will begin to hear a sputtering. At that point, the water will have evaporated, and all that will be left in the pan is pure fat and the skin that’s cooking in it.
Let the fat continue to cook until the bits of skin are well-browned and crisp. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon, sprinkle with fine salt and drain on some paper towels. These are like duck chicharrones (you might call them “quacklings”).
Cool the fat and decant it into a large jar. You may be amazed at how much fat results from this process. With just three ducks, I ended up with a full quart of duck fat. Be sure you use a really large jar. This is one of the sublime cooking fats -- duck is to southern France what bacon is to Georgia.
Now the work is done. The rest of the meal is mainly garnish.
One duck, several courses
Serve the broth first, perhaps with some tiny boiled turnips. Then come the stewed legs, served on polenta or lightly buttered pasta.
Grill the breasts, skin-side first for about 12 to 14 minutes, then on the meaty side for another six to eight. Slice them crosswise, cutting them on the bias to show as much of the meat as possible and serve the slices around the outside of the platter with some kind of braised bitter greens (maybe the turnip tops?) in the center.
Finally, toss the duck cracklings with a variety of sturdy lettuces and dress the whole thing with red wine vinegar and just a little olive oil.
I’m thinking a big California Chardonnay for the broth (one of the few foods it pairs really well with), a Zinfandel or Barbera for the ragu and then a Pinot Noir or Barolo for the breast and to linger with over the salad. For dessert, anything more than sorbet or fresh fruit would be overkill.
Forget paradise, just give me a fall day with a duck.