A well-raised duck offers the dark, succulent meat that gourmands adore, and the pleasures of game without having to shoot something. Everyone I know loves duck, so why don't we see it more often?
Oh, it just came to me: It's the fat.
As we became a nation of skinless-boneless-chicken-breast eaters, as all the flavor was drained out of commercially raised pork in the fat-phobic decades that preceded the anti-carb movement, as even our beloved American hamburgers turned dry and dull with the move to extra-lean ground beef (do not even get me started on turkey burgers!)...well, what was a duck to do? With all that dark, dense meat enrobed in noble fat, encased in gorgeous yellow skin, there was no way the duck could pass itself off as "the other white meat," or pretend in any way to be lean cuisine.
A duck must be a duck, and it's a shame we can't accept it for what it is. Fortunately, more and more people are now doing that. Perhaps the ultimate acceptance of canard-comme-canard is to face its fattiness full on, and that means confit de canard--duck legs cooked in duck fat. When I say cooked, I mean poached, immersed, completely submerged in rendered duck fat. This does not mean you have to eat a bowl of duck fat, though it's tempting.
Making a confit of fatty meat--usually duck, goose, or pork--is actually an ancient means of preserving meat. The meat was first salted quite heavily, then cooked slowly in fat, and finally sealed in jars, completely covered in fat. With the salt preventing bacteria growth, and the fat protecting the meat from air-borne contaminants, the confit would keep for months.
Following the counsel of Madeleine Kamman in In Madeleine's Kitchen I make a confit of duck legs that focuses more on flavor than preservation, though even this less salty version will keep for at least a couple of weeks.
Here in the Twin Cities, we're lucky to have a great, reliable source for nice meaty duck legs from Au Bon Canard, a foie gras and duck producer in southwestern Minnesota. We find Au Bon Canard products at Clancey's Meats and Fish, a local treasure run by Kristin Tombers. Clancey's doesn't seem to have a website--Kristin, why don't you have website? Clancey's is located in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis, 4307 Upton Avenue South, 612-926-0222. If you haven't yet aquired a supply of duck fat for making confit, Kristin and crew can set you up with that. If you want to try confit without making your own, you can buy Clancey's' house-made version, and I'm sure you'll be very happy.
Once you have the fat, though, making duck confit is simple. And you get to keep the fat, which is the best thing ever for sautéeing potatoes. It keeps indefinitely in the freezer, and even gets better with age, as it acquires the flavors of the successive confits you cook in it.
One of the things that makes Madeleine's confit (and hence, yours and mine) the best you'll ever taste is the spice mix, quatre-épices, which flavors it. This will make enough for many confits, and is good with other duck, game, or pork preparations:
Quatre-épices a la Madeleine
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/8 tsp ground cloves
Just mix it all up and keep in a tightly closed jar in a dark place. A little goes a long way. (Yes, the name means "four spices," and it contains six spices; I have no explanation for this.)
Now to make the confit:
4 meaty duck legs, thigh and drumstick together--if you have gizzards, hearts, wings, or necks, use those, too; the giblets and shreddy meat are great on a dinner salad
Fat to cover, about four cups (it needn't be absolutely submerged as it cooks; the legs do tend to float somewhat, and you can turn them a couple of times in the cooking)
salt and pepper
garlic, eight to ten cloves, peeled and left whole
a couple of bay leaves
fresh thyme, optional
A day before you make the confit, you must salt and spice it: Dry the legs with paper towels, then salt them. I don't use a particular amount of salt. What I do is, salt them once as you would season any kind of meat prior to cooking, but don't be mean with the salt, season them well. Now do that again, and then once more. Do that on both sides. Add a generous grind of black pepper, then just a judicious sprinkling of the spice mixture, both sides. The legs shouldn't be coated with the spices, just nicely speckled.
Cover them and place them in the fridge overnight, or for a couple of days, even. Prior to cooking, drain off any accumulated juices, and dry the legs with paper towels.
Heat your oven to 275 F. Arrange the legs in a single layer in a casserole or heavy pot large enough to hold legs and fat, without the fat coming right to the brim (I use our seven-quart Le Creuset dutch oven). Spread the garlic cloves around, and the bay leaves and thyme if you're using it. Cover the duck with the fat, but, as I say, don't worry if the legs broach the surface a bit--they will shrink with cooking, and also give off their own fat to add to the reservoir.
Cook for two to three hours, covered, turning the legs once or twice during that time. I look for the fat to be clear and bubbling at the end--it will cloud as juices come off the duck. Those juices will settle at the bottom of the pan, and you'll want to save them--they're a bit salty, but absolutely delicious.
Let the duck cool in the fat. You can use it the same day, or store it for a couple of weeks. Prior to cooking, dig the duck out of the fat and let it sit at room temp for excess fat to melt off. Then what I like to do is either fry or broil it to crisp the skin and warm the meat through.
Here's one preparation we made at Bide-A-Wee, our tiny, rustic Wisconsin cabin:
We browned the legs in the dutch oven, took them out and removed all but a tablespoon or two of fat, added some chopped onion and garlic, then some of the mixed sauerkraut of cabbage, beets, and carrots I made in the fall, rinsed, drained, squeezed dry. A little of that delicious fond saved from the bottom of the confit pan, and just a splash of water. That all simmered very gently atop the woodstove. Just before serving we added back the duck to warm, and some fingerling potatoes we had boiled separately. It made for a very pleasant table.
A couple of weeks later we were back at the cabin over Christmas, and we brought out the other two legs from the same batch of confit. This time we served it with a mixed mash of market and garden vegetables--carrots, parsnips, potatoes, celery root. Those were all peeled, cut up and boiled until tender but not falling apart. After browning the confit I left a bit of fat in the pan, sautéed a chopped leek and a couple cloves of chopped garlic in that, added the vegetables and a ladle of reserved veg-cooking liquid, and mashed it with a fork. Serve the duck right on top of the mash.
That wine, a Graves from Vieux Chateau Gaubert, 2000, was fantastic. It had been sitting around in our basement for at least a couple of years, I think. Red Graves wines are not the first thing I think of when I think of Bordeaux, but they're often very good, and a good value.
Really cuts through all that yummy ducky fat.
Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw