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Duck For Winter Meals

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I'm a little puzzled why folks don't eat duck more often. It's not hard to find. It's affordable. It tastes great. But it is a tad tricky to cook, but only a tad. Winter is a great time of year to dig out a recipe for duck and give it a try.

Although the hunting crowd will bring home the occasional mallard, nearly all of the duck we consume comes from a breed known as the Pekin duck. These snowy white birds are bred for their meat in the tens of millions. Many ordinary grocery stores carry them year-round.

The meat of the duck comes from the breast (dividable into halves) and from the leg and thigh.  Part of the duck's DNA dictates that they grow a thick layer of fat around the breast meat, and this is the tricky part of cooking.

Ducks can be cooked either whole or cut up.  Whole recipes include simple roast duck ideas and the famous Chinese dish, Peking Duck.  If you can roast a chicken or a turkey, you'll have no trouble with a duck.  Same idea, with this exception:  you always have to deal with that layer of fat on the duck's breast.  The standard procedure is to score the fat in a diagonal crisscross manner, taking care not to cut the meat underneath.   You also can poke little holes in all the other fatty parts of the bird.  This of course will help render the fat, which you should accumulate in your roasting pan (to use later).

Here's some other techniques for roasting the duck.  You'll want to stuff the cavity of the duck, and recipes commonly call for oranges, lemons, onions, shallots, or garlic cloves.  (Don't try to eat the stuffing.)  You will want to truss up those legs and wings and tuck away all the floppy skin.  And you will want to concoct a glaze to brush on the skin to give it a brilliant finish. (That glaze doesn't necessarily impact the flavor, it merely is decorative.)

Roasting the duck should be a long slow process in a 350° oven. The process can be divided into three phases: 60 minutes breast side up; 40 minutes breast side down; 60 minutes breast side up, with glaze on the entire duck.

A lot of people want to work with the duck breast alone, and this will require just a little finesse.  Two things to consider:  you have to deal with that fat layer; and the breast meat will shrink violently if you just throw it into a piping hot skillet.

The solutions are to carefully score the fat layer, season both sides with salt and pepper, and then place the breast skin side down in a cold skillet with no oil.  Gently and gradually bring up the heat, allowing the fat to render.  This helps to give a beautiful crispy texture to the skin.   After most of the fat is gone, flip the breast over and cook the meat side for four minutes.  Finish in a 350° oven for a few minutes more. And be sure to let that breast rest before serving and slicing.

Aside from roasting, duck also does well in a stew. Cassoulet dominates this category and is worthy of an entire show. One of my oldest favorite recipes came from the famous French chef Pierre Franey, who I worked with in television. It's called duck stewed in red wine and thyme, and it couldn't be easier.

For all stew recipes you'll be cutting up the duck in one form or another.  There's plenty of videos on YouTube to help you master this step.  One thing all of the good recipes have in common is getting rid of that fat, either by cutting it off or rendering it in a skillet.  After that it's a matter of adding vegetable and seasonings, choosing an agreeable cooking liquid, and once again going low and slow with your cooking.

Here are several recipes we found to get you on your way. The first is from "Cuisine Rapide" by the legendary French chef Pierre Franey, with who I worked on his companion TV show.

Duck Braised in Red Wine and Thyme

                                 

Ingredients

2 ducks, 4 pounds each

salt and pepper to taste

2 tbs corn oil

1/2 pound mushrooms

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 tsp minced garlic

2 cups dry red wine

1 tbs tomato paste

1 bay leaf

4 sprigs fresh thyme

3 sprigs parsley

2 tbs cornstarch

1/2 cup chicken broth

Process

1.  Cut up the ducks.  Cut off the duck legs, and then cut the joint between the leg and thigh so it will lay flat.  Cut away the fat over the breast, then cut out the breast meat.  Cut off the wings then trim the wing tips.  Detach at the center joint.  Season all the pieces with salt and pepper.

2.  Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, then add the duck pieces skin side down.  Cook for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned and the fat is rendered.  Turn the duck pieces and cook for an additional 5 minutes.

3.  Pour off the fat and return the duck to the skillet.  Add the mushrooms, onion and garlic.  Cook in the residual fat, stirring and turning the pieces for about 3 minutes.

Add the wine, tomato paste, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, salt and pepper.  Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.

4.  Remove the duck and keep warm.  Skim the pan sauce of as much fat as you can.  Bring the liquid to a boil.  Create a slurry with a bit of the liquid and the cornstarch, then add back into the sauce.  Stir as it thickens.  Return the duck pieces to the sauce, bring to a brief boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Discard the bay leaf, and serve the duck.

Pan-Seared Duck Breast with Orange Sauce

From Serious Eats website

Ingredients

4 duck breasts

kosher salt

1/2 cup dry white wine

11 1/2 cups chicken broth (combined with t tbs powdered gelatin)

4 tbs butter

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tsp grated orange zest

pepper to taste

Process

1. With a sharp knife, gently score duck breast skin in a tight crosshatch pattern, keeping the scores 1/8 inch apart. If you prefer a little fat left on the breasts after cooking, just barely score the skin; to render more fat, score more deeply, taking care not to expose the flesh.

2.  Season duck breasts with salt, heavily on the skin side and lightly on the flesh side.

3.  Place duck breasts, skin side down, in a large, cold sauté pan. Place pan over low to medium-low heat. To keep the edges from curling up, press duck breasts down with the help of a smaller sauté pan. After about 5 minutes, the fat should begin to gently bubble. If the fat is either silent or spitting, adjust heat accordingly. Maintain the gentle bubble of fat, pouring out excess rendered fat throughout the cooking process, until much of the fat has rendered, skin is golden brown, and duck's internal temperature is 125°F (52°C), about 15 minutes.

4.  Increase heat to medium and further brown skin if needed, about 1 minute, before flipping and cooking on the flesh side. For medium-rare meat, cook until breast registers 130°F (54°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 to 2 minutes. Continue cooking until duck registers 140°F (60°C) for medium or 155°F (68°F) for well-done. Remove duck from pan and set aside to rest.

5.  Over high heat, deglaze sauté pan with white wine. Scrape up any brown bits stuck to pan and let wine reduce until pan is almost dry and only 1 to 2 tablespoons remain, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and let reduce by half, until sauce is sticky and rich, about 2 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and swirl in butter until melted and evenly incorporated. Season sauce with orange juice and zest, salt, and black pepper. Serve with duck breast.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.