Saturday, November 1, 2008

Duck confit

With the advent of the cooler weather we’re starting to think about the upcoming holidays and the family gatherings that will occur at these festive events. The centerpiece of getting the family together is always the food and drink over which stories of the past year are retold and inter- and extra-family gossip swapped. We do pretty much what other New England families do with turkey at Thanksgiving and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding at Christmas. However, we also like to have something a little unusual each year, and this year I decided to make a duck confit to serve on Christmas Eve, the party before the party.

While duck is not widely eaten around here, it is a wonderful change from commonplace poultry of chicken and turkey. Duck is a member of the Anatidae family that also includes swans and geese. While many locals hunt for wild ducks, the domesticated varieties are more commonly raised and eaten at our dinner table, or more frequently, perhaps, in a restaurant setting. Three breeds of duckling dominate the US market: Pekin, Muscovy and Moulard. These are generically referred to as “Long Island duck” as most are raised there.

The Pekin duck is the dominant breed, and, like the others, is known as a red meat bird. Simply stated, the breasts and legs are about all you get off a whole duck, so, if purchased whole, one ends up with a lot of carcass and bones, which do make a very good stock. With whole ducks you also get the subcutaneous fat which, when rendered, is fabulous to cook with, and a key ingredient in duck confit. There are whole sections of France where duck fat is the lipid of choice in cooking, and this flavorful fat impacts the food in ways unbeknownst to most of us. Try sautéing some potatoes in duck fat! You’ll love them.

Duck confit is a French dish where the duck legs, with both the leg and thigh intact, are salted for a couple of days with aromatics to draw off the majority of their natural moisture in order to preserve them. (In French, “confit” means “to preserve.”) The marinade is then wiped off, and the legs are poached slowly in rendered duck fat until meltingly tender, then preserved in a crock or glass jar under a thick layer of the fat. Under refrigeration, or in a cool larder, the legs will be good for up to 6 months.

When removed from the fat, the legs are usually placed in a sauté pan with the skin side down and the skin is crisped up before serving.

In France, confit is a traditional ingredient in cassoulet a hearty, slow cooked bean and meat casserole, and in garbure, a thick vegetable soup with cabbage and preserved meats. I plan on serving our confit where it will be the featured centerpiece in a green salad along with a piece of bruschetta and a nice glass of red wine.

Duck Confit

4 Tbl. Sea Salt
4 Each Garlic cloves, minced
1 Each Shallot, peeled & minced
6 Each Fresh thyme sprigs
1 Tbl. Pepper, coarsely ground
8 Each Duck legs with thigh attached
4 lb. Duck fat

Sprinkle the ¼ of the salt, pepper, garlic, shallot and thyme in the bottom of a large dish or plastic container. Mix the balance of the ingredients in a dish and carefully rub each piece of duck leg with the mixture before tightly packing the season duck, skin side up, in the container. Weight the duck with a plate, cover with plastic and refrigerate one to two days.

Render the duck fat by cutting it into small pieces and placing is a large saucepan with a quarter cup of water. Place on low heat and slowly bring the temperature up. The fat will begin to render and the water will sputter and evaporate when you get to 212 degrees. Cook slowly until the water is all gone, but don’t allow the fat to get over 350 degrees or it will loose its nice clarity.

When the cracklings are nice and brown, strain the fat and set the cracklings aside.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Wipe the salt and aromatics off the duck and pack the legs snugly into a large rondo or saucier with high, straight sides. Pour the rendered duck fat over the legs and place the pot, uncovered, into the oven. The legs should be completely covered with the fat. Cook slowly for 2 to 3 hours, just an occasional bubble, or until the legs are very tender when pierced with a fork and the bone can easily be pulled out.

Remove the duck legs from the oven and carefully remove the legs from the fat. Pack the cooked legs into a crock and strain the duck fat oven them. Allow to cool completely and store in the refrigerator to allow to cure. They will keep, refrigerated, for up to 6 months.

When ready to eat, remove duck legs from the fat, wiping off as much as you can. Place the legs, skin side down, in a cold skillet and place over medium high heat to crisp up the skin. Serve in a cassoulet or in a green salad.

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