Monday, August 17, 2009

Duck, Deconstructed

We eat pretty well out at Bide-A-Wee, especially considering that we have no kitchen to speak of--no sink, no refrigerator, no appliances of any sort as there is no electricity to run them. Well, we have an oven, but it has to be preheated for about three hours before it's ready to use. In the cold months we simmer and braise very merrily atop our woodstove, Haggis. At any time of year I'm happy to grill over hardwood coals--last winter I actually built a fire and grilled steaks in the midst of a wind-chill advisory.

In the warm months our main heat sources are the campfire/grill and a two-burner Coleman propane stove. Pretty basic equipment, but still there's not much you can't cook very creditably with it. For weekend trips we tend to keep things fairly simple--a steak and veg on the grill, potatoes in the coals, or even a made-ahead stew or hearty soup that we just have to heat up.

When we have a few more days to slow down and relax, it's often a pleasure to cook out of doors, and prepare things a little more elaborate. So on our last Bide-A-Wee vacation we brought along a duck. The breasts and thighs were grilled and napped in that unchaste berry sauce described in the previous post.

The carcass and neck, with all the fat and skin removed, were chopped up and browned well in our dutch oven. Then I added a variety of aromatic vegetables--leek, fennel stalks, carrot, onion, garlic--stirred those around with the duck bits for a while, added some thyme and black pepper, covered it all with water and let it simmer for a couple of hours. That provided the basis for my berry sauce, as well as a rich element in a South Shore fish chowder I prepared a couple of days later. I had enough left over to add to a cassoulet that I made at home in Saint Paul, using duck confit that I prepared at Bide-A-Wee.

Drumsticks, wings, heart and gizzard, liberally salted, peppered, tossed with thyme and a few cloves of garlic. At home I would have used the
quatres-épices confit spice , Madeleine Kamman's recipe. I had some b-b-q spice rub at the cabin, quite a similar thing, in fact. With a little piment d'espelette, it worked fine.

To make confit you need fat, lots of fat. Fortunately, ducks come with lots of fat. You obtain rendered fat by cutting the fatty duck skin into strips, about a half-inch wide by two or three inches long. Put those in a pan, cover the duck skin with water and bring it to a boil. Simmer medium briskly until all the water boils off. At that point most of the fat will have rendered out of the skin. Watch carefully as the duck skin turns a nice golden brown. At that point you've gotten out all the fat you're going to get.

Fish the cracklings out with a fork, and drain them on a paper towel. With just a little salt, these become one of the best things you could put beside an aperitif, a glass of scotch or a martini, assuming they survive until happy hour. At our house they often mysteriously disappear well before dinner time.

The duck legs and wings sat in their seasoning overnight, and I dried them with paper towels just before cooking. At home I'm usually making confit with four drumstick-and-thigh portions, and I use a big casserole or dutch oven. With the smaller batch I made at Bide-A-Wee I just put the drumsticks and wings right into the pan in which I rendered the fat, and when I was finished cooking a couple of racks of spareribs, I put the confit pot on the grate, under the lid, to cook slowly as the coals died down. I turned the duck once or twice while it cooked, slowly turning tender and unctuous in the bubbling fat.

I find it both enjoyable and satisfying to spend an afternoon that way, with lots of pots on the fire, making a lot from a little, anticipating the fine eating that will be my reward. Nothing went to waste. Instead of "Duck, Deconstructed," I could have titled this "Everything but the Quack".

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

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