Edible Traditions: Duck
By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Katie Eberts
Muscovy ducks “have charming personalities,” says Cynda Williams. “They’re very hearty and friendly. I enjoy them.” She raises various chickens on her certified organic farm, The Clover Path Garden in Acushnet, but Muscovy is the only duck breed she’s interested in even though they grow more slowly, taking 17 to 22 weeks to be ready for slaughter, when their meat is tastiest.
Muscovies make the best mothers, she says, more responsible than Pekins. Her hens hatch six to eight ducklings at a time in a protected area, their “individual condominiums,” and Williams makes sure each hen gets a walk outside every day: lucky ducks. No industrial incubation for her, where drawers full of eggs are mechanically rotated at regular intervals until they hatch. And her male, Sir Walter Drake, who is never hostile, eats out of her hand. “A handsome fellow!”
It’s not surprising that such ducks, requiring certified organic feed and slaughterhouses, are costly to raise and sell. At this time, since the economic fallout, instead of the forty or so Williams had in the past, private customers who like their full flavor and leaner flesh are waiting for her eight Muscovies to mature.
The Muscovy breed (sometimes called musk duck), whose name has nothing to do with Moscow or musk, comes from the warm climate of South America and Mexico and is a different species from other ducks familiar to us. Large and crested, it has been widely domesticated in other parts of the world, often for cross-breeding.
Most domesticated duck are descended, by selective breeding, from the wild mallard which thrives in cool climates all over the world. The Chinese tamed this duck more than two thousand years ago, where it was highly valued and closely controlled. We know the breed as the Pekin duck. (“Peking,” the method for cooking duck by blowing air between skin and flesh and roasting it with a red lacquered glaze, dates from the late 19th century). The Pekin made its way to the United States in 1873, when nine ducks were brought here and raised on Long Island. What we know as Long Island duckling, now the most popular type and a thriving industry, is descended from those original Pekin ducks.
A brief overview of duck types and varieties is in order. Wild ducks, preferably young, are lean from the exercise of flying and swimming, so usually need moist methods of cooking such as braising or quick roasting. Domesticated ducks are usually under the age of six months, actually ducklings. The thick layer of fat under their skin needs to be rendered for the table. In England, the Norfolk and Aylesbury are favorites. In France the preferred breeds are the small but fine Nantes and the Rouen from Normandy, which is smothered at slaughter to keep the blood; for serving, the carcass is pressed to extract all its juices for the famous dish of pressed duck, caneton à la rouennaise.
In southwestern France, the Moulard is a hybrid of the Pekin and Muscovy, a “mule” duck, i.e. sterile. Males are raised for foie gras, females for meat, their legs preserved for confit (see below) and important in cassoulet, their breasts for magret, where the meat is grilled or sautéed and served rare. In the countryside one sees duck farms everywhere, like sheep in Ireland, and the duck population is overtaking that of geese. The industry is so important to the region that there is a slang word, paletot, “overcoat,” for the duck and goose carcasses from which the livers have been removed for foie gras. Country people there have long used duck or goose fat as their basic cooking fat and for spreading on bread, like lard in Eastern Europe, butter in Britain, and olive oil in the Mediterranean.
On this continent early American settlers and colonists found an abundance of wild ducks which they used for meat, eggs, and also feathers. Those they brought over on ship, if not eaten during the crossing, sometimes crossed with indigenous birds. The Mallard, Teal, Wood duck, and Widgeon were favorites, among others, but also the canvasback, which was lucky not to be hunted to extinction, like the passenger pigeon.
John James Audubon closely observed these ducks in his travels through the American wilderness in the 19th century looking for species to draw, and described them in his journals. He saw that the blue-winged Teal could be tamed easily if fed cornmeal in captivity. “So tender and savoury is its flesh,” he wrote, “that it would quickly put the merits of the widely celebrated Canvass-backed duck in the shade.” The young mallard provided “savoury morsels,” and “when old gives us eggs.” Elsewhere he observed that “the hybrids produced between the Mallard and the Muscovy Duck are of great size and afford excellent eating,” and added remarks on which breeds Mallards could be crossed with most successfully. [Excerpt from “John James Audubon, Tastes of America,” Gastronomica, Summer 2011, p.32, by this author.]
Whether wild or domesticated, whichever breeds or crossbreeds of ducks you like, here are some recipes for you to try.
Sautéed Duck Breasts with Orange Soy Marinade
This colorful dish is also delicious at room temperature as a salad.
Makes 2 servings
2 large seedless oranges
¼ cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 skin-on duck breasts, well trimmed
¼ teaspoon crushed Sichuan pepper, if desired
Dark leafy greens such as baby spinach, arugula or watercress
With a sharp paring knife, remove the peel and pith from one orange and cut out the “filet” segments; put them in a small bowl, cover and reserve.
Squeeze the other orange to measure ½ cup juice. In a shallow pan, mix the juice with the peanut oil, soy, hoisin sauce and Sichuan pepper.
If you have removed the breasts from a whole duck yourself, make sure the white tendon in the long thin tenderloin muscle on the underside is removed. Trim the fat around the edges of both pieces. With a sharp knife, score the fat layer of skin in crisscrosses not quite through to the flesh. Lay them in the marinade for 30 minutes or more, turning at least once.
Just before serving, heat a heavy sauté pan over high flame so the pan is hot.
Meanwhile, dry the duck pieces on paper towels. Without adding any oil, lay the breasts skin-side-down in the hot pan; make sure you place them in the right spots. Sear them for 5 minutes without moving to render some of the fat and brown the skin. Lower the heat and, with a spatula, turn the breasts (take care where you place them) to cook the other side. In about 10 minutes, turn them back to the other side to finish cooking, 15 minutes in all. Rare to medium-rare is what you want for this dish, but it all depends on the timing and intensity of heat.
Remove the breasts to a cutting board. Let them sit for a few minutes, then slice them thinly across on the bias to reveal the pink meat beneath the dark skin. Transfer them to hot serving plates. Garnish with the reserved orange segments and leafy greens.
This duck pâté makes a beautiful first course or party appetizer. The duck skin on top moistens and flavors everything as it cooks, much as strips of bacon or lard do on a pork pâté. Be sure to present this alongside greens and little pickled vegetables or chutney, for brightness and piquancy. You can make this ahead and freeze it, well wrapped, allowing it to thaw completely before serving.
Depending on how you serve it, this pate can serve as many as 20, or even more if you cut each slice in half
2 skin-on duck breasts
1 tablespoon butter
2 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ pound coarsely ground veal (or turkey)
¾ pound coarsely ground pork
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons green peppercorns, well drained
3 tablespoons brandy (optional)
1 egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
On a cutting board pull off the layer of fat from each of the two duck breasts. With a little prying they separate easily, but you may need to cut away some connective tissue. Set the skins aside. Lay the breast meat flat and cut them lengthwise into four or five strips ½- to ¾-inch thick.
Melt the butter in a small pan and sauté the shallot and garlic until softened; remove to a bowl to cool. In another bowl combine the veal, pork, thyme, salt, and green peppercorns. Add the brandy and egg, and scrape in the cooled shallot mixture. Using your hands mix everything together well.
Put half the ground veal and turkey mixture in a standard loaf pan (8½ x 4½ x 2½ inches). Lay half the duck strips lengthwise across the top. Repeat with the rest of the ground meat mixture and remaining duck strips. On the surface lay the two duck skins so that they meet in the middle, outer side on top; this will allow them to cover the mixture as they shrink during cooking.
Cover the loaf pan with foil and set it inside a larger baking pan to catch any juices that overflow. Pour boiling water into the larger pan to reach about halfway up the loaf pan. Cook the pâté in the preheated oven for 1 hour. Remove the foil cover and cook 45 minutes or more. It is done when the temperature reaches 170° F. (2 hours is plenty).
Take the pâté out of the oven to rest; when it is cool, insert a knife around the outside edge to free it from the pan, then turn it out. Scrape off the congealed fat and jelly but leave the skin on top. Wrap and chill to let the flavors mellow for a day or two or three before serving.
To serve, cut the chilled pate across in thin slices to show the grain. Let it come to near room temperature before serving. Garnish it with greens, cornichons, or sharp chutney.
This dish of southwestern France uses an ancient method for preserving duck or goose. It is an essential part of cassoulet, but can be used in other recipes, too. The process draws out the moisture, then seals the cooked meat in its own fat to cure and keep for weeks or even months. In the past, before modern refrigeration, this was stored in a cool corner of the kitchen or larder.
Richly flavored, the finished legs are satisfying, especially on a chilly day. If you are wary of confit for health reasons, it is the salt—not cholesterol—that is the main concern here, as the fat melts away in cooking to crisp the skin. Confit is easy to make, but takes planning ahead. Before you start, think about the containers (I use sturdy Tupperware) you will store the duck legs in, and be sure you have enough duck fat.
Makes 8 servings as whole legs or pulled apart in pieces for other uses such as cassoulet or a mixed salad
8 duck legs (about 5½ pounds)
French sea salt (kosher salt is fine if it has no additives)
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
Coarsely ground black pepper
3 to 4 whole garlic cloves
About 6 cups rendered duck fat (do not dilute with another fat)
Scatter a third of the salt in the bottom of a wide flat dish or two. Place the duck legs on top in one layer, skin side up. Scatter the rest of the salt over, then the herbs. Grate some pepper over the duck legs. Cover tightly with plastic. Refrigerate for one or two days, turning once.
Melt or soften the duck fat. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Meanwhile, rinse off the salt from the duck legs and dry them on paper towels. Lay them in one layer, skin side up, in a wide baking dish with fairly high sides. Tuck the garlic cloves between. Ladle the duck fat over to cover the legs. Cook the duck for 2 to 3 hours, until the meat is very tender, almost falling off the bone. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and let it cool.
Put a thin layer of strained duck fat in the bottom of your storage container or containers. Lay the legs on top. Strain the fat through cheesecloth to remove any bits of seasoning, and ladle it over the duck to cover the legs by an inch, if possible. Cover tightly and chill for at least one week or for several in a back corner of your refrigerator.
To finish, soften the duck legs in their fat at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 350 or 400° F. Take out the number of legs you need (cover the rest with re-melted fat) and spread them in a baking dish, skin side up, with as little fat as possible. Bake in the oven until the skin crisps and browns, about 25 minutes.
Serve the legs simply. The traditional accompaniment is potatoes peeled, sliced, and sautéed in the duck fat. Sharp greens make a fine garnish.
After cooking your confit legs, chill the remaining fat and duck juices left in the pan. Lift off the fat to separate it from the clear stock which you can use in the soup dish below (allow for its saltiness). Finely strain the fat, cover it tightly, and refreeze to use again if you wish.
Duck Soup with Wild Mushrooms
I like to save leftover bones, cooked or not, from duck, saving them until I have enough for this soup. Don’t be put off by the ingredients list, including the gingerroot. It’s just duck stock, with mushrooms added later. Admittedly, the directions are a bit vague.
If you make the confit in my duck confit recipe above, the leftover duck stock works perfectly here. Peasant cooking makes use of everything, yet this duck soup is deeply delicious and elegant enough for a holiday party.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
2 duck carcasses plus whatever leftover bones you happen to have
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
4 little inner garlic cloves
4 stems parsley
3 stems fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
6 black peppercorns
1½ ounces dried porcini mushrooms
About 12 ounces mixed fresh wild mushrooms, or a mix of cultivated and wild
2–3 tablespoons butter
3 scallions or shallots, finely chopped
¼ cup dry sherry, if desired
sea salt and pepper to taste
Put all the duck bones in a very large pot. Add fresh cold water to cover generously. Heat over low flame nearly to a bubble, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
Add all the vegetables and seasonings and simmer for 2 hours more. Let it cool. Strain the liquid through a sieve into a very large bowl and, after letting all the liquid pass through, discard the solids. Cover and chill the liquid overnight.
Lift off and discard the fat on the surface. At this point, I like to pour the stock into a fresh pot, leaving out the residue on the bottom, and reduce the liquid over high heat. Cool and chill; it will be jellied. You don’t need to skim off the very small layer of fat on top. (This makes about 8 cups; the stock can be made well ahead of time and frozen.)
Put the dried porcini in a bowl and pour boiling water over to cover, at least 1½ cups. Let it sit for 30 minutes or more, until cooled. Then strain through a fine sieve, pressing on the porcini solids with the back of a spoon; discard the porcini solids, keeping all the flavorful broth.
Meanwhile, wipe to clean the wild mushrooms and slice them as appropriate for their shape, not all just the same. Melt the butter in bottom of a large pot and sauté the mushrooms, stirring, until they give off their liquid and begin to color. Add the minced shallots/scallions and sauté briefly until softened. Add the sherry, if desired, and cook to let the alcohol evaporate. Add the strained porcini broth and duck stock. Slowly heat to let the flavors come together and bring it close to a boil. Add salt to taste (it will need a fair amount) and pepper.
To serve, ladle the soup into warm bowls. You can add thinly sliced green scallion rings on top if you wish.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits (Macmillan), was published in 1993 and her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion, 3rd edition (John Wiley & Sons), in 2003. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library, from 2000 to 2009. Beth passed away in February 2017.