Monday, November 15, 2010

Roasted Duck

French lentil and duck salad with walnut vinaigrette
No, not literally, or in the Spanish Inquisition sense. That would just be mean. There's no rack involved here, unless you mean the one in my oven. Then you're thinking in the right direction.The one I'm thinking in goes like this: one duck, three days, three meals.

If you're a good Scottish-English-Irish girl like me, your family's traditional Sunday-night meat of choice was probably one of two things: roast beef (either bloody or shoe-leather, depending on their persuasion) or roast chicken (either bloody or shoe-leather, depending on their belief in salmonella). On holidays, it might extend to turkey or ham. Goose, if you were going to get really old-fashioned. But duck? It was just too....French.

To this day, duck is still a bit of a novelty for me. Confit de canard has the same exotic, luscious ring as mascarpone or caviar. To go to our favourite local bistro and eat confit with frites is still unfailingly romantic and cosily exotic for me and my partner Alexis. Well, exotic to me. For Alex, duck is as prosaic as roast chicken is for us Brits. You see, Alexis is (as his lovely, exotic name might suggest)...French. You can imagine why my parents were so confused when their supposedly-straight daughter started dating someone named Alexis—they were thinking the positively girlish Ah-lex-iss, and not the pleasingly Gallic Ah-lex-ee. Ah, parents.

Alexis has made me think about duck (among much else) in a new light. Perhaps it didn't have to be a special bistro meal only prepared by chefs in toques. Maybe it was just as easy, and just as right for Sunday night, as the roast chicken I plunk in its tin without much forethought. Maybe I should make it at home. Maybe I should make it tonight. So I did.

Besides being French and altogether wonderful, Alexis gets boyfriend-of-the-year award for the experience we had on Friday night, which I'll write about here in a bit. I'm normally not remotely interested in celebrities—Colin Firth being a notable exception—but this opportunity I couldn't pass up: dinner with the inimitable and gorgeous goddess of my culinary dreams, Nigella Lawson.  We didn't have duck on Friday night, but getting a copy of her new book Kitchen (signed to me, from Nigella—swoon!) made me want to have a go at it. Duck is one of those things that Nigella incorporates into her repertoire of everyday dishes so effortlessly, despite her uber-Britishness. The proximity to France I'm sure helps, but her general gustatory gusto probably has more to do with it. And so off to Nigella's How to Eat I went to learn from the best about how to tackle my duck.

One reason I love Nigella's soft and crisp roast duck recipe is the fact that it isn't a recipe at all, but a story of broken ovens, wrong sized pots, freezer packs, and dinner with friends. My kind of recipe. I am an English PhD student, after all—the narrative gets me every time. I am luckily not a cook who gets nervous when the directions are loosey-goosey and the times are tentative. But for those of you who are, I'll tell the story of how to stretch a duck—to three meals, each feeding between 2 and 6 people—in a slightly more formal format to assuage any cooking nerves you might have. It makes me feel very hausfrau to be giving directions on how to make one lonely bird feed my little family for three days, but it also makes me feel lovely and responsible. My duck, up in duck heaven, cannot say that it was not enjoyed—again and again.

Day 1

My duck, I'm sad to admit, was frozen. No, I didn't traipse down to The Healthy Butcher or the St. Lawrence Market to purchase myself a free-range organic duck. No, I got it on sale at the local Metro. What can I say—I wanted to be frugal for my first (and possibly doomed) try at roasting a duck? Much of Day 1 was spent defrosting the duck in a sink of cold water. When it was pliable once more, I cut off the flap of skin that covers the opening with my kitchen scissors, cut it into tiny pieces with the same, and rendered the fat over low heat (3, on my electric stove). When the skin has shrunk to almost nothing and there's lots of fat in the pan, strain the fat into a heatproof container and leave to cool before storing in the fridge. The leftover crunchy skin bits are called gribenes, and they are delicious sprinkled with sea salt. With the fat cooling in the fridge and my belly full of crispy duck skin, Day 1 was a success.

Day 2

Now we get to the Kafka recipe. Luckily Kafkaesque in this sense doesn't mean labyrinthine, torturous, and crazy-making, but rather refers to cookbook author Barbara Kafka, from whom Nigella gets her recipe. Actually, this part was pretty easy, but do it in the morning of the day that you want to roast your duck so that the production seems lazy and pleasing rather than fraught.

Put the duck in a big pasta pot. Cover with water. Add salt—a couple of teaspoons of flaky sea salt should do it. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer (again, 3 on my electric stove), and cook for 40 minutes. Leave a window open if you don't want to permeate your whole apartment with the smell of duck. (I don’t have a window in my kitchen, so my roommate is hibernating with her door closed until the smell wears off). Skim off and discard the foam. Transfer the duck to a roasting tin (mine was foil—recyclable!), wipe dry with paper towel, and put in the fridge to cool.

Don't throw out the poaching liquid! Pour it into a couple of smaller containers and cool. I stuck mine outside, partially covered. Skim the cooled and hardened fat off the top and put in the container with your rendered fat from last night. Put the poaching liquid in the fridge.

About an hour before you're ready to eat, crank the oven to 450˚. Put a good heaping tablespoonful of the duck fat into a roasting tin and put in the oven to heat on the bottom rack. Dice a couple of red potatoes and season with lots of sea salt, pepper, and dried rosemary. Take your duck out of the fridge and season with salt and pepper. Put it in the oven on a rack that's close to the top. Take out your roasting pan of spitting fat, chuck in the potatoes and give them a toss to coat, and put back in the oven under the duck. Set the timer for 15 minutes. Stir the potatoes. Do this twice more, taking both the potatoes and the duck out of the oven after 45 minutes. Both the duck skin and the potatoes should be darkly golden and crisp. During the last 15 minutes, boil some water. When you take the duck and potatoes out of the oven, chuck in some frozen baby peas, and boil for a scant 3 minutes while the duck rests and the potatoes cool down a bit. If you can carve the duck (I can't), serve it in slices with the peas (buttered if you like) and potatoes. If you can't, do what I do and cut the duck into quarters with your trusty kitchen scissors. Eat rapturously, and with many napkins.

Once you've recovered from your post-prandial bloat and worries of developing gout, remove the remainder of the cooled meat from the other half of the duck (if you're just two eaters, like my roommate and I), and reserve in the fridge. Strain any duck fat that's collected in the bottom of the tin—I didn't have much, as I rendered most of it last night and in the poaching, but you may have a fatter duck than I—into your growing container of fat. Chuck the bones into the same pot that you used to poach the duck in earlier, and pour back in the poaching liquid you've had waiting in the fridge. Simmer uncovered for 2 hours.

In another, smaller, pot, cook some French lentils (lentils du Puy), about ½ c., with 1 c. of water, a couple of sprigs of thyme and a couple of bay leaves, and three or so peeled but unchopped garlic cloves. Simmer over medium heat until tender but still with bite; depending on how old your lentils are, this will take from 25-45 minutes. Drain off any extra water and fish out the thyme stalks and bay leaves. Cool and store in the fridge.

Strain your duck stock back into the containers you had your poaching liquid in. It will have reduced by quite a bit, but there should still be lots. Keep one in the fridge for tomorrow. Freeze another, when it has cooled, in a Ziploc bag for another use. Perhaps I'll make risotto and sauté the onions in my leftover duck fat?

Day 3

Get out the container you use to take your lunch to work or school with you. Do one up for someone you love, as they will appreciate it immensely. Line them with those mixed spicy baby greens you get from a packet—frisee, radicchio, arugula, spinach. Top with a good 1/3 c. of your lentils, making sure to get a clove of garlic. Shred some of your reserved duck meat and lay over top. Drizzle with walnut oil and red wine vinegar and season with salt and pepper; if you want to get a little more involved, shake together in a mason jar 1 tsp. French dijon mustard, 1 tbsp. walnut oil, 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar, and a few drops of soy sauce and pour over your salads. Close the lid and wait impatiently for the lunch bell to ring so you can eat your French lentil and duck salad.

When you get home from work or school, heat your fridge-cold duck stock over medium-high heat on the stove. Julienne a couple of inches of fresh ginger, and slice up as many cloves of garlic as you think is reasonable—in my world, this is at least 6—and add to the stock. Shred the rest of your reserved duck meat, sliver some green onions, white and green parts, finely slice a couple of cups of bok choy, and open a packet or two of slippery white udon noodles. When the stock is boiling, add the noodles, greens, and duck. Cook just until everything is heated through, and top with the sliced green onions and glistening dots of chilli-sesame oil, or a sprinkling of schichmi togarashi, that aromatic Japanese spice blend of pepper, sesame seeds and orange peel.  Your gingery-hot duck soup is ready to eat.

You've still got lots of duck fat left in the fridge from the rendering, the poaching, and the roasting, so what do you do with it? Make more duck fat potatoes. Pop popcorn in it. Use it to sauté the mire-poix for soups, stew, and risottos. What I think I'll do, taking a page out of Jennifer McLagan's book Fat, is replace the lard or shortening in a good biscuit recipe with duck fat and eat those with my soup. This one, from The Joy of Cooking, is very basic, and quite good.

So, there you have it—how to stretch a duck. Ready to give it a go?


  1. I have a soft spot for duck. My great-grandmother used to make it with sauerkraut for Christmas Day dinner, but I really learned to love it when I live in Montreal. Every neighbourhood resto had either a good duck breast or duck confit on its menu, and I miss that ability to have it anytime, just as casually as a burger, here in Toronto.

    And honestly, is there anything better than potatoes roasted in duck fat? Possibly, but it's stiff competition...

    Looking forward to more of your cooking adventures here at Heart and Salt (and thanks for adding a name/URL comment option!).

  2. I wish that duck was more common here. I really only ever have the option of ordering it if we go to Le Select, which is a special occasion thing. I've also had good confit at Merlot, but that's a bit of a hike, as it's way out near Royal York station. What I really should do is buy a bunch of legs and some fat and confit them in the slow cooker and put them up for the winter. Sadly, I don't really have the storage space for that, so it'll have to wait until I move.

    Like you, I found that my "everyday" blog was becoming more and more food focused, and that was what got me really excited about photographing and writing, so it's nice to have relaunched my blogging adventures in a food-focused way. Now I just need a better camera...