Tender Ducky, You’re The One

We didn’t used to serve much duck on Our Long Table. See, one of the owners of said table laboured for years under the misapprehension that ducks were like swans in that they mate for life. Graphically disabused of that romantic notion (in an incident best forgotten), David is making up for lost time, and duck is now a frequent dinner guest.

Until very recently, we’ve been taking the safe route and making duck confit. Before the days of sous-vide cookery, confit made certain demands of the cook: enough duck fat to cover the legs, careful attention while it burbled away in the oven around the 200’F mark for several hours, and patience to allow the confit to cool and cure in its fat. These constraints also acted as guardrails: if you stayed within them, you were guaranteed some pretty great eating. Real duck confit is rich and savoury.

Fast forward to the sous-vide era. Now, any yahoo (yours truly included) with a plastic bag and a couple of tablespoons of duck fat can poach a duck leg in its own juices for an arbitrary length of time and produce something ranging from wet Kleenex to decent duck confit. Still, even the decent stuff is time-consuming, and the skin ends up so gelatinized and fragile that it’s difficult to coax it into crackly, brown crust.

Lately, we’ve been using a new-to-us method that gets duck legs to the table in under two hours, and with succulent flesh and brilliantly crispy skin. It’s also endlessly adaptable. We learned it from Mark Bittman, who calls it “crisp-braised duck.” Our favourite variation uses shallots and dried apricots, which turn plump, tender and sweet-sour during braising.

Crisp-Braised Duck Legs with Shallots and Apricots

2 duck legs, trimmed of excess fat.
½ cup dried apricots (about 8)
6 shallots, quartered through the stem end
½ pound carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
3 fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 cup dry vermouth or unoaked white wine
2 cups unsalted chicken stock, preferably homemade
Chopped fresh chives for garnish

Serves 2 but doubles easily. Adapted from: Mark Bittman. “The Best Recipes in the World.”

Pre-heat your oven to 375’F convection (preferred, as it will help keep the skin crispy) or 400’F conventional. Season the duck legs generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them skin-side down in a cold, oven-safe skillet with a heavy base, and put this on the stove over medium heat. Brown the skin side for about 20 minutes, or until the skin releases easily from the pan with a nudge from your spatula and reveals itself to be a rich golden brown. Don’t rush: your patience in this step will be amply rewarded.

Turn the legs over and brown the meat side for about two minutes. Remove them to a plate, pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of fat, and add the shallots, carrots, bay leaf and thyme. Increase the heat to medium-high, season moderately with salt and pepper, and brown the veggies for about 5 minutes, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a flat-headed spatula.

Add the vermouth or wine to the pan and boil it for a minute to evaporate the alcohol and concentrate the flavour. Then add the apricots and 2/3 of the chicken stock and bring the mixture to a boil.

Nestle the duck legs in the pan. Add the remaining chicken stock if space permits: the liquid should come no more than halfway up the side of the duck.

Put the pan in the oven, uncovered, and roast for 30 minutes before dropping the temperature to 325’F (convection) or 350’F (conventional). The duck should take another 30 minutes. At that point, you can either serve immediately or turn the oven off and let in hang out there for another 20 minutes or so. Serve with the starch of your choice (bread, egg noodles, couscous, fregola or even chick peas would be nice) and garnished with chopped chives.

We served this atop spaetzle glazed with the pan juices and surrounded with the braised vegetables and apricots. David liked this so much that he asked for it for his birthday dinner, which is five months away.

Have fun making this with other flavour combinations:

  • Prunes or sautéed apple wedges in place of apricots
  • Orange segments and green olives
  • Artichoke hearts and a bit of chopped anchovy and tomato paste in the sauce

Oh: and if you’re in the Southern Ontario area, consider getting your duck from our friends at King Cole. They raise top-quality birds.

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