As some of you know, I’ve been experimenting with duck. I’ve made three or four ducks over the past three or four months. They’ve all been whole roasted birds. And while each has had its virtues, none has been entirely to my liking. I made another one last night, however. I did it very differently. And I think that I’ve finally figured out a method that I can really recommend.
It is a heavy modification of an Alton Brown recipe that he calls The Mighty Duck, which is an awful name that is not nearly descriptive enough, and that is far too cutesy even to write with a straight face. I call my version “roasted” duck, with quotation marks, because I don’t really have a better way to describe it. The next best name I could come up with was duck cooked two ways, which is just … pretentious.
But that’s what it is. Duck cooked two ways. I dismembered the duck, then steamed the parts until they were mostly cooked, then roasted them in cast iron to finish. The steaming allowed almost all of the fat to drain off the bird, leaving lean, moist meat. And the roasting crisped the skin. This being my first attempt, I didn’t have the timings down 100% and the meat came out just on the wrong side of overcooked. But based on my results, I’ve readjusted the timings here, and I think that this recipe will yield something that’s just fully cooked, still moist, and very flavorful. I know that lots of people like their duck slightly on the rare side. If that’s the case, you might want to steam your duck five minutes or so less than I suggest here. But meanwhile, here’s how you do it:
The Hardware (just the bits that are key, and out of the ordinary):
A 12-inch cast-iron skillet, well seasoned
A 8 quart stock pot with pasta-cooker insert (you could probably mickey-mouse a version of this with a stock pot and a folding steamer)
A sharp, heavy, 6-to-8-inch chef’s knife
A mesh strainer or sieve
1 Duck, at least 4 lbs.
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Large shallot, or small onion, finely chopped
1/2 Cup Marsala wine
2 Tbsp. brandy
1 Cup of heavily reduced stock (think demi-glacé)
2 Generous tbsp. peach or apricot Jam
1-2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Start by dismembering your duck. This is something you could have your butcher do, if you have a butcher. But it’s pretty easy to do it yourself. Flip the duck on its breast, and using your heavy knife, slice around the duck’s thighs. They won’t be as pronounced as they are on a chicken. But still, they shouldn’t be difficult to find. Keep cutting deeper into the meat, along the muscle, until you come to the thigh bone. Then use the tip of your knife to separate the thigh from the main body of the duck. The result should be a relatively large thigh-leg piece. Once you have your thigh-leg pieces removed, do the same to the wings. You could either cook the wings, or reserve them for stock. They are not the most elegant pieces of a duck. But I find them tasty. Then, once you’ve done that, use your knife to cut down each side of the duck’s spine and neck. Remove the bird’s back, and definitely reserve it for stock. Then cut down the center of the duck’s breast-bone, slicing it into two pieces. This part should take some force. Duck bones are tough. But it is not beyond the capacity of a heavy knife. Finally, use your knife to trim the ribs off of the underside of the breast (cut them off near the breast-bone, then cut along their top to separate them from the meat), and trim any excess skin and fat. The result should yield two breasts, two thighs, and two wings. It sounds like it takes a lot of effort, but with a little bit of practice, the whole process can be done in 5-10 minutes.
Once you have your pieces, wash them thoroughly in cold water, and pat them dry with paper towels. Use a fork to pierce the skin of the duck all over (this will allow the fat to drain out during steaming). Place them in a roasting pan big enough that they just barely touch each other without overlapping, and season liberally, on both sides, with salt, pepper, and dried thyme. Ducks like salt. So use a little more than you think you’ll need, and it’ll come out just right. Once you’ve done that, press foil down over the pieces (leaving them as little airspace as possible), and refrigerate for at least two hours.
At the end of the two hours, fill your stock pot with about an inch of water — enough that it almost comes up to the bottom of your pasta-cooker insert, but not quite. Then place over high-medium heat until the water comes to a boil. While you’re waiting for that, line your pasta-cooker insert with the duck pieces. You should try to stand them up around the edges if you can. And whatever you do, don’t stack them. The fat won’t drain correctly. Once you have them set up, place the insert into your stock pot, cover, turn the heat to low-medium, and allow to steam for 35 minutes.
While the duck is steaming, place your cast iron skillet into the oven, and heat to 475F. And meanwhile, make your sauce.
To make the sauce, heat a small saucepan over a medium flame, and add a tablespoon of butter. Once that has melted, add your shallot (or onion), and cook for about 5 minutes — until it has gone translucent. Add your Marsala wine and brandy, bring to a boil, and allow to cook until the liquid is reduced by half (5-10 minutes). Add your cup of stock, mix well, bring back to a boil, and allow the liquid to reduce by half once again (again, 5-10 minutes). When you have done that, strain the sauce through your sieve, and add the strained liquid back into the saucepan. Turn the heat down to low, add your jam, your balsamic vinegar, and the rest of your butter, and stir together until the jam and butter have melted. At that point, add a little bit of ginger (1/4-1/2 tsp. should do it) and a little bit of salt (less than you think you need, as the duck is already salted), and keep over a very low flame, mixing occasionally, just to keep the sauce warm.
Once your duck is steamed, open your oven, and move the pieces, skin-side down, directly into the hot cast iron pan. The pan will be *very hot*, and it will sizzle, so be careful. Close the oven, and allow your duck to roast thusly for 10-12 minutes. Then remove the pan from the oven (using your most heat-proof oven mitts). Some of the skin will want to stick to the bottom of the pan. So very carefully, scrape up and flip your duck pieces. Pour your sauce over your duck, and agitate the pan such that the duck pieces are thoroughly coated. Finally, serve in the skillet.
In my opinion, the presentation here is not quite as impressive as slicing a whole roast duck at the table. But the leanness yielded by this method, and the improved texture of the meat, more than make up for it. I would highly recommend that if you like duck at all, you give this a try.