Read an Excerpt
Cooking a duck or a goose in today’s world is an act of expression. It is a way to find that forgotten feast we Americans once enjoyed, to free ourselves from the Tyranny of the Chicken and shake our fists at the notion that fat is our enemy. Mastering these birds will make you a more competent carnivore. It will help you regain the skills we once had in our kitchens, and it will give you the knowledge needed to tackle more challenging morsels, such as giblets and wings and rendered fat. Cooking a duck or goose—a whole bird, from bill to feet—is real cooking. True, honest cooking.
Like pork, these birds offer an array of flavors and textures depending on which cut you choose. But unlike almost every other animal we normally consider food, ducks and geese offer a diversity of breeds and species that even a novice can detect at the table. The flavor of a Pekin duck is as far from that of a goose as a skinless chicken breast is from a rib eye. And that is just a domestic example. Throw in the world of wild ducks and geese and your experiences multiply tenfold: a roasted green-winged teal bears little resemblance to an eider, a goose, or even a cinnamon teal. The common mallard can taste markedly different depending on whether it had been eating corn, acorns, rice, or fish.
Waterfowl has a rich human history, as well. Tamed first by the ancient Egyptians, geese are one of humankind’s oldest domesticated animals. Ducks, which arrived in the barnyard later, have nevertheless been domesticated for thousands of years and arose independently in two parts of the world before they spread to the rest of the globe. Cultures as far-flung as Mexico, Persia, and China have been cooking ducks and geese for more than three millennia, and nearly every cuisine in the world has found a place for duck at the table.
Perfectly cooked duck breast has the meatiness of a steak with an additional cloak of fatty, crispy skin. In fact, it is better to associate duck with beef than with other poultry: think of the breast meat as a steak and the rest of the bird as the brisket. But it is the skin that most distinguishes duck in the kitchen. Crispy duck skin is one of the greatest pleasures of the dining table. It is the reason that Peking duck has persisted as a Chinese classic for nearly seven hundred years. And crispy skin is what separates confit, a French method of lightly curing duck legs or wings and then slowly cooking them in their own fat, from any another piece of braised meat. Confit is so meaty, silky, and crispy that it has become many a chef’s “death bed” meal.
I am not alone in feeling this passionate about waterfowl. Duck is experiencing a renaissance in restaurant kitchens across the continent. Seared duck breast or duck confit has become a common sight on menus. And just as with the pork revolution of the past decade, diners well outside of the nation’s culinary capitals of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago are finding evidence of the trend: crispy duck tongues in Kansas City; duck skin cracklins in Toronto; duck consommé in Minneapolis; foie gras foam in Sacramento; duck legs, braised and pulled like carnitas, tucked into tacos in Austin. Diners are excited about duck. It has become the new pork.
But this renaissance need not be the province of the professionals. Restaurant cooks are not wizards. With the possible exception of Peking duck, they are not cooking duck in mystical ways that require years of apprenticeship to master. Cooking a duck properly is not rocket science, though it does require some specialized knowledge. This book’s primary goal is to give you that knowledge.
I can hear some of you. You’re thinking about the ducks you’ve eaten in the past, and the image you’ve conjured up is not good. Chances are the first word that popped into your head was some variant of greasy, dry, or livery. And I am certain that either you or someone you know has his or her Great Goose Disaster story. These tales of woe typically begin with visions of a Victorian Christmas and end with gallons of grease—often igniting into fireballs—dry, unhappy meat, and a lifetime of disappointment. “Oh, I tried goose once. Let me tell you about the time . . .” Even hunters who often shoot scores of ducks in a season share this fear of fowl and banish their ducks to the sausage heap.
This need not be so. With a few exceptions, the recipes in this book can be done with no special equipment from ingredients you can buy in an average supermarket. Yes, I have included a few high-wire recipes, but that is just to show you the range of dishes you can create with these remarkable animals.
In the pages that follow, you will learn how to break down a duck or goose into legs, breasts, and wings, a process not terribly different from how you handle a chicken. The hunters among you will find out how to hang, pluck, and eviscerate their birds. Throughout this book, you will discover the fundamentals of duck and goose cookery: how to cook a duck breast properly, and how to cook duck legs so that they are tender, yet still have crispy skin. I will walk you through the culinary jazz of making sausages and other charcuterie and stocks, teach you how to render duck and goose fat from both domestic and wild birds, and describe how to cook with that fat as well as with duck eggs, which may look like chicken eggs but are not.
Once you learn my method for braising duck legs, you can use it to cook not only my other braised waterfowl recipes but also to perfect your own creations. Master the task of searing a duck breast medium-rare with crispy skin and you will never be far from a memorable meal: even paired with a store-bought sauce and tater tots, a perfectly cooked duck breast never fails to impress. And after you make a few batches of sausage using my techniques, you will find yourself making links in your own personal style. Charcuterie is an addictive culinary art.
Of special importance to me is the section on giblets. Properly cooked, giblets can taste every bit as wondrous as the rest of the duck. But there is the rub: for many, “properly cooked” is an impossibility. The recipes in this book will disabuse you of that idea, and they will help you make full use of a duck’s so-called fifth quarter, even if is only in gravy, sausage, or a homemade “duck burger.”
But before you can cook, you must first catch your duck, be it in the market or the marsh. Thankfully, this is no longer the ordeal it once was. Ten years ago, you would be lucky to find a frozen whole duck in your supermarket. Now those same markets are starting to sell breasts and legs separately and stock fresh whole ducks at the meat counter. Farmers’ markets are increasingly offering carefully raised heritage breeds, and duck eggs are no longer a rare item. What’s more, if you have an Asian market near you, you will never want for duck: Asians eat the majority of all ducks raised worldwide, and for many Chinese and Southeast Asians, duck is more common than chicken.
It is my hope that if you glean nothing else from this book, you will come away with a heaping slice of confidence in the kitchen. Waterfowl are endlessly fascinating, endlessly diverse in their forms and flavors. Get yourself some duck breasts, with a nice layer of fat and skin. Sear them in a pan until the skin crisps like a cracker and the meat is as lovely as a medium-rare rib eye. Flavor it with nothing more than sea salt, pepper, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Taste it. Savor it. You will see. A perfect duck breast is a revelation, a life-changing event. There will be no turning back. Ready to begin?
Serves 2 to 4, depending on the duck
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes to 1 hour
This is an easier way to roast a duck that does not involve cutting off the breast midstream. It is a European method that results in a thoroughly cooked bird with no pink breast meat. You start the duck in a low oven and finish on high to crisp the skin. This method works with domesticated ducks and very fatty wild ones.
1 domesticated duck, or 2 very fat wild ducks
1 lemon, halved
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 sprigs sage, rosemary, flat-leaf parsley, or thyme, or a mixture
Preheat the oven to 300°F. To ensure crisp skin, pierce the skin all over with a clean needle or the tip of a sharp knife, positioning the tool at an angle so that you are piercing just the skin and not the meat. Another option that works very well comes from chef Eddy Leroux of Restaurant Daniel in New York City: score the skin of the whole duck with a sharp knife in the same sort of crosshatch pattern you would use if you were cooking just the breast. Leroux’s method looks odd but results in a crispier skin. Whichever you choose, opening up the skin helps render the fat underneath, making it crispier.
Rub the duck all over with the cut sides of the lemon. Use both halves to coat it thoroughly. Put the spent halves inside the cavity. Liberally salt the bird; use a little more salt than you think you need. Stuff the cavity with the herbs.
Put the duck in a cast-iron frying pan or other heavy, ovenproof pan and roast for 45 minutes. If you are roasting small wild ducks (wigeon, teal, wood duck, or the like), roast for 30 minutes. Check the fat accumulating in the pan and pour some off as you go. Save this fat to cook with later.
Remove the pan from the oven and turn the heat up to 500°F. When it reaches this temperature, roast for 5 to 15 minutes longer. Small birds such as teal or wigeon will need only 5 minutes, and large birds such as Muscovy or Rouen will need the full 15 minutes; a mallard will need 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let the bird rest before carving or serving. You’ll only need 5 minutes resting time for small birds, 10 minutes for other ducks. Carve as directed on page 32.
A Word on Salt
All salts are not alike. For this book, I use Morton’s kosher salt, the kind that comes in the big blue box. The other common household brand, Diamond Crystal, is ground finer than Morton’s. This means that if you are a Diamond Crystal user, you will need less salt than what I call for in my recipes. This is why in my salami, baking, and curing recipes, I also provide salt (and curing salt) measures by weight in addition to volume.
I prefer to use bulk sea salt in my kitchen—I make my own from the Pacific Ocean—and I also use a variety of finishing salts, such as French fleur de sel, sel gris, flaked salt, and smoked salt. The best place to get your hands on quality salts is The Meadow, which has shops in Portland, Oregon, and in New York City. They sell online at www.atthemeadow.com.