By Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely 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.
INGREDIENTS 8 duck legs (about 5½ pounds) 4 tablespoons 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)
DIRECTIONS 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.