In his 2003 autobiography “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,” Jacques Pépin relates an anecdote about stopping by a duck farm during a mushroom-picking outing with his friend Jean-Claude and Jean-Claude’s daughters. The little girls select a live duck for dinner, money exchanges hands, Jean-Claude wrings the duck’s neck, and the four of them are run off the property for their cruelty. “[E]ven in a rural area,” Pépin awesomely understates, “my attitude toward farm animals caused some misunderstandings with the neighbors.”
I still don’t get what that farmer thought was going to happen to those ducks if she didn’t expect them to wind up as dinner. That outcome seemed pretty obvious – a couple of French dudes in a pickup on the way back from mushrooming? Don’t kid yourself, lady – those ducks weren’t going to be anyone’s pets.
Duck is inherently festive and restaurant-y. Think Peking duck, canard à l’orange, caneton à la presse. I think that’s because people don’t like to cook it at home. To the uninitiated, duck can seem like a huge production. Whereas a roast chicken is universally comprehensible and manageable – season with salt, tuck a lemon and some herbs in the cavity, and throw it into the oven for an hour – duck presents multiple challenges. First, there’s the fat. Roasting a whole duck generates huge quantities of fat, which smokes up the oven like crazy, and if you don’t separate the skin from the breast before roasting, great pockets of jelllyish fat can cling to the meat, which is kind of gross. Second, there’s the doneness problem. Chicken legs and thighs do take longer to cook than the breast, but not much, and you can roast the chicken whole without sacrificing the quality of either. In contrast, it’s virtually impossible to roast a whole duck and end up with a medium-rare breast and properly cooked legs. Duck legs are fairly rich in connective tissue and require fairly long, slow cooking or they seem sinewy and tough; duck breast, other than the fatty layer of skin, are lean and tender, and long cooking not only toughens them but makes them taste livery. And third, duck seems super expensive considering the yield. With the exception of magret from force-fed ducks, the breast is skimpy relative to the bird’s overall size. A five pound duck really only yields enough meat to feed two or three people.
The solution? Break it down. Even though few things are better looking than a whole mahogany-glazed roast duck straight out of the oven, a broken-down duck tastes better and offers more cooking options. You can roast, braise, or confit the legs; cure the breasts as “pastrami,” score the skin and grill them, or cook sous vide; make stock from the generous frame; reduce the skin to fat and crackling. You’ll find that you can use every part of the duck – when I broke mine down, all that was left were a couple of pieces of sinew holding the tenders to the breasts. And even those got thrown into the stockpot. You should have no waste at all.
Thanks to Andrew Little of Sheppard Mansion B&B for the inspiration – I saw the photo of this duck preparation on his Facebook page and initially thought he’d scraped the fat from the skin and re-rolled it around the breast, until he told me it was cabbage.
In this preparation. the skinned duck breasts are rolled in blanched savoy cabbage leaves and cooked at a controlled temperature sous vide for a uniform medium rare doneness. Or actually, just past medium rare – the breasts are an even pink throughout. To form the cylinders of duck, I used Activa GM transglutaminase to bind the duck to itself; otherwise, the natural shape is flat and oblong. You can skip this part of the exercise and just wrap the breasts as they are. Don’t fold the duck into a cylinder and wrap it in savoy if you don’t have transglutaminase, though, because it won’t hold together. Just wrap them in their natural shape.
4 duck breasts (from 2 ducks), skinned and deboned
salt and pepper
2 tsp transglutaminase Activa GM
4 large leaves savoy cabbage, washed well (make a few extra for good measure)
Place a large stockpot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Blanch the savoy leaves. Remove with a skimmer and drain on clean kitchen towels. Blot off as much water as possible.
Place four pieces of plastic cling film on a clean surface. Each one should be large enough to accommodate the duck and be rolled over several times.
If using Activa, sprinkle on the inside (tender side) of the duck breast and roll to form cylinders. Season the outside of the cylinders with salt and pepper, on both sides. Otherwise, just place each duck breast in a savoy leaf, running perpendicular to the center vein, and roll tightly. Place in the cling film and roll it tightly, twisting off the ends to form little packages.
Place in vacuum bags and seal. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, place the cylinders in double-zip freezer bags, three or four to a bag, and partially lower the bag into a large stockpot full of water to displace as much air as possible. Seal the bag tightly. You can double-bag if you’re worried about leakage.
Cook in an immersion circulator at 140F/60C for 25 minutes. Alternatively, bring a large pot of water to a simmer on the stovetop and turn off the heat. Add the bagged breasts and cover the pot. Leave off heat for about 15 minutes (note: this varies from 12-20 minutes based on thickness). Remove from the water bath.
Slice the rolls, still wrapped in plastic (to facilitate clean slicing). Remove the plastic and serve with your accompaniment of choice. In the picture below, the rolls are plated on Puy lentils in a golden turnip and butter puree, accompanied by a reduction of white wine and duck stock enriched with butter, and powdered duck crackling. Yeah, a little rich, but the duck breast is lean.
Duck liver pâté:
1/2 lb duck livers (about two), veins removed
1 small onion, minced
1 leek (white only), julienned
several sprigs thyme
1 tbsp cognac
3 tbsp dry white wine
salt and pepper
3 oz butter (3/4 stick. or 6 tbsp)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
Sweet onion confit:
1/2 c caramelized onion from this recipe
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
For the onion confit – combine the caramelized onion and sherry vinegar in a small saucepot. Bring to a simmer and stir until the vinegar is fully incorporated into the onion. Set aside.
Place a sauté pan over medium low heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the onions and leeks and sweat with the thyme until tender. Add the duck livers and cook, turning frequently, until the livers are warm throughout but not cooked hard. Do not brown. Add the cognac and wine and continue to sauté until the alcohol cooks off. Cool somewhat and transfer to a vitaprep or blender.
Blend the pâté ingredients. Add the butter in chunks and continue to blend until smooth. If you are inclined, pass through a tamis or sieve for a smooth texture. Chill.
Serve on toasted pain de campagne with a quenelle of onion confit.
This is where duck fat comes from. A standard-sized duck yields about a quart of duck fat (if you count the legs). The resulting crispy skin, or crackling, is a delicious fatty addition to salads and a nice garnish for poached or roasted meat.
For novelty, you can turn the crackling into powder. You need maltodextrin, specifically one formulated for a very low bulk density like N-Zorbit from National Starch or Malto from the Texturas line. If you use the stuff from the health food store, which I don’t recommend, you’re going to get a heavy, sweet, starchy product.
skin from 2 ducks (except for the leg quarters)
To render the fat from the skin, prick the fatty side of the duck skin all over with a fork. Place in roasting pan a 300F/150C oven. Roast until the skin is crisp and golden, and most of the fat has rendered. Pour off the fat and reserve.
Cut the skin into smaller (1″) pieces. Freeze in a ziploc bag until ready to use; then roast in a pan in a 375F/190C oven until crisp and deep golden brown.
If you want to make really pretty, thin, crispy duck skin chips, first turn the skin fat-side up and scrape off as much fat as possible, in an even layer. Use that fat for rendering as described above. Trim the skin into rectangles or squares and place on a silpat-lined sheet pan. Season with salt and cover with another silpat and another sheet pan. Bake until the skin is crisp, flat, and golden brown (usually about 20-30 minutes depending on the thickness of the residual fat). Drain on paper towels.
Powdered duck crackling:
1 oz (28 g) duck crackling, roasted as specified above
12 g tapioca maltodextrin (N-Zorbit or similar), plus extra (you may need up to 40 g total).
Blitz the duck crackling in a food processor until ground to an oily powder. Incorporate half the maltodextrin in the food processor, scraping down the bowl if necessary. It probably will resemble a thick paste. Don’t panic. Scrape it down and add more maltodextrin and blitz again. If the powder and fat are at all moist, add more maltodextrin and blitz again. Repeat until necessary for a powder. Store tightly sealed (with a dessicant packet if available).
Duck stock is pure gold. Once you’ve made stock, re-use the bones for remouillage (literally, re-wetting) and reduce that to glace. You’ll be able to add ducky goodness and body to your sauces.
5 lbs duck bones (from 2 ducks)
One leek, washed well to remove all dirt and grit and roughly chopped
One medium onion, peeled and halved
2 carrots, scraped and cubed
2 stalks celery, diced
1 star anise
1 large or two small bay leaves
About 4-6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together
6-8 black peppercorns
Place the bones in a large stockpot. Cover with filtered water, making sure there remains enough room for vegetables. Bring to a simmer. Be sure not to let the stock boil as agitation makes the stock more cloudy. As scum rises to the surface, skim it off with a spoon into a small bowl and discard. Simmer in this manner for about 20 minutes.
Add the vegetables and aromatics and add additional water to cover if necessary. Return to the simmer and skim additional foam or scum. Simmer, partially covered, for about five or six hours. Longer simmering won’t necessarily hurt, but you don’t enjoy that much additional benefit. Add water if necessary.
Strain through a chinois or a fine sieve, lined with cheesecloth if possible. Cool quickly; I generally use a bain marie filled with ice, but you can make an ice bath by stopping up your sink and fill it with ice and cold water about 1/3 the height of your container, place the container in the sink, and stir continuously until the contents are cool.
To store, ladle into freezer-safe containers, perhaps 3-4 cups each, and freeze. A layer of solid fat usually rises to the surface. Remove the fat before using the stock, and set aside.
Note: To pressure cook, throw everything into the pressure cooker with about 8 quarts of filtered water. Cover tightly and pressure cook for 30 minutes (at 15 psi; don’t include the time it takes to get to 15 psi or to cool down).
After straining the stock, return the bones to the pot and cover again with cold water. Bring to a simmer and skim additional foam or scum. Continue to simmer, partially covered, for at least six hours and up to twelve.
Strain through a chinois or a fine sieve, lined with cheesecloth if possible. Return to a clean pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce slowly, watching as the stock approaches the level of a heavy syrup once about an inch or less is left in the pan. Pour the stock into a small shallow pan and refrigerate to cool. When the glace has cooled, it should be quite solid. I generally cut the glace into cubes and freeze on a sheet pan before storing in a bag.