Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Let's Talk Duck.

There are many types of ducks out there, all of which are cute, many of which are tasty.  But not all ducks are equal in the kitchen.  So let's get our ducks in a row.

This is the Mallard.  He is most often seen quacking around in ponds.  We don't usually eat him, unless we hunt him ourselves in the wild.  Most wild ducks descend from the Mallard.

This is a Pekin duck.  He is a very domesticated descendant of the Mallard.  He is most often seen on farms and hawking car insurance.  Pekin ducks are usually seen in Chinese cuisine.  They are also what you are likely to find frozen in most large, chain grocery stores for relatively inexpensive prices (though high quality Pekin can be quite pricey).  Though he looks plump and juicy, you won't get as much meat off of him as you think you will.  Pekin duck is ideal for very slow roasting: it has a lot of fat content throughout the meat that takes time to work its way out.  The meat is paler and it is the mildest tasting duck, which to me translates as the blandest.  It's often served with rich sauces.  Some people think it's more forgiving in the kitchen, but I find it easily become too greasy and I'd rather take a risk for a better outcome.

This handsome fellow is the exotic Muscovy duck, hailing originally from the Americas.  Doesn't he look like a bit like our other big bird, the turkey?  He is much more distantly related to the Mallard than other ducks we see.  Muscovy ducks are considered the gamiest tasting of all ducks; their meat is dark, lean, and often compared to beef.  It is the hardest duck to find for eating and you will pay the price.  I have yet to eat a Muscovy for this very reason.

This is the Moulard duck.  The mule of the duck world, he is a cross between a female Pekin duck and a male Muscovy.  This is a man-made creation (their, uh, interesting anatomy necessitates this) and the Moulard is infertile.  This is the duck that is used in most restaurants of the French persuasion.  It is my favorite eating duck.  The meat is relatively dark and lean, but it has a lovely, rich fat layer along the outside.  It is gamey, but not overwhelmingly so.

Often on restaurant menus, you will see "Duck Magret".  This very specifically refers to the breast meat of Moulard ducks that were used to produce foie gras (as most Moulard ducks are).  As ducks are more docile and take up less room than geese, they are now more commonly used for foie gras production.  This fattens the ducks up quite a bit, producing large, meaty animals.  So, yes, that means that if you've ordered duck in a restaurant, you've likely eaten a result of the foie gras practice, even if you turned away from the pate in objection.

Duck magret is usually found in butchers and specialty shops.  It is worth seeking out.  If a recipe calls for duck magret, you can't simply substitute Pekin to achieve the same results.  The dish might work enough, but it won't be as good.  Expect to pay $10-13 per pound for duck magret.  A one pound breast easily feeds two people.

Now on to the cooking!

As promised I will re-visit the Martha Stewart recipe I used for Valentine's Day, found here.  But first, let's go over some duck basics.
  1. Score the fat.  You want to use a sharp knife to cut about halfway through the fat in a diamond pattern.  This will help render the fat out of the breast and create a delicious, crisp exterior.  Be careful not to cut all the way down to the flesh.
  2. Render the fat.  In my experience, duck magret does best when started on the stove top.  That direct heat renders the fat most efficiently and successfully.  Now, you aren't trying to melt all of the fat away.  Rather, your goal is to reduce the fat, fully cook what remains, and create a crisp skin.
  3. Don't you dare overcook that duck.  Duck is not chicken!  Many people freak out and think that because you completely cook chicken and duck is poulty any little tinge of pink in duck is going to kill them.  No!  Don't think that!  Duck should not be cooked above medium (it's considered red meat, so treat it as such).  Some people like it quite rare.  I myself prefer it to hover right around medium-rare.  Look at the photo above (it does have some pomegranate sauce over it that gives it a slightly pinker tinge, but not much).  The meat is a solid rich pink.  It is evenly cooked all the way through, just enough to eliminate that sort of translucent rawness that would remain if it were a bit more rare.  Cooked like this, the duck will be tender and flavorful.
On to Martha's recipe:
  • She says to marinate the duck at least a half hour.   I marinated mine a full day.  While duck magret is delicious in its own, marinading it for 24 hours made it so outstanding.  The flavors permeated every bite without overwhelming.  It was floral in the best way and complemented the meat so perfectly.  This will be my go to duck recipe from now on.
  • Martha used ground fennel.  I had fennel seeds, so I chopped them and used that and it worked well.
  • I didn't have coriander, so I left that out.  I think I put just a tiny sprinkle of dried thyme because I felt guilty.
  • It's not listed in the ingredients, but the directions call for dried lavender.  It sounds weird, but it was so good.  Find dried lavender!  If you absolutely can't find it, use some herbes de provence, which usually has some, (and make a note to buy a bag of lavender at the farmers' market this year).  I think I used a rounded half teaspoon for just under two pounds of meat and I chopped it up a bit first.
  • I didn't mix the spices together first.  I put the spices on first, then covered them with salt.  I think this worked well to lock the flavor in?  Also, I know this seems like a lot of salt, but do it.
  • I zested the orange onto the meat, then just pressed who sprigs of thyme on top, then covered with plastic wrap.  The sprigs were removed before cooking.  The thyme flavor wasn't too noticeable, (though it was there).  While you could pick the leaves off the thyme and mix it with the zest, I quite liked the thyme taking a back seat here and I don't think I would have liked the texture of the leaves left on the meat.  I might try it next time, though.
  • I used a cast iron skillet to cook the duck.  It worked beautifully and my pan was so well seasoned after.  A heavy stainless steel pan would work fine, but I feel like cast iron exists for this recipe.
  • I cooked my duck on the stove top for a solid 15 minutes.  It could have gone a few more if you like a slightly thinner fat layer.  This fat is really tasty, though.  It absorbed the marinade flavors so well.
  • Woah, Martha!  Four minutes in the oven?  I left mine in for 8.  Many people would want to go 10 or 12.
  • Do let your duck rest before slicing.
  • SAVE THE FAT!  Seriously.  There will be a major pool of melted duck fat left in your pan.  Put it in a jar and put it in your fridge.  You might want to run it through a strainer to get any larger chunks of debris out, otherwise it will just sink to the bottom.  This fat is so flavorful, you will want to use it in everything.  Definitely try frying some potatoes and using it in a dressing for a warm frisee salad.
There.  Now you know just about everything I know about duck.  Promise to use this knowledge only for good.

Happy quacking!

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