The days of duck as a daunting dish to prepare or rarefied menu item are disappearing. Whether sold in specialty meat shops or sourced in the local supermarket freezer, duck can be found in droves around the Sacramento area. Duck-hunting season begins Oct. 19 and stretches through Jan. 26, as flocks of waterfowl fatten from eating in the region’s rice fields.
You’ll find no greater champion of duck’s culinary wonders than Hank Shaw. He’s the Orangevale resident and avid outdoorsman behind Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which in May won the James Beard Award for best food blog. Shaw’s now the author of “Duck, Duck, Goose: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Waterfowl, Both Farmed and Wild” (Ten Speed Press, $14.99, 240 pages), which was released Tuesday.
The book details duck in all its dimensions, including the basics of breaking down a whole bird. There also are plucking tips and recipes that use all duck meat including the giblets.
“They’re the pigs of the air,” Shaw said. “They’ve got the perfect combination of fat and meat, they take to curing very well, and different parts of the animal have different textures and flavors, like pork.”
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That’s to say, the same ol’ chicken can’t compare to the diversity of duck. In the right hands, these waterfowl can produce a wide range of recipes that are game for high-heat cooking and slow-and-low approaches, meant for rendering that prized duck fat.
Chefs are increasingly taking note.
“What I’ve seen from traveling over the last few years is excitement about ducks and geese with the chefs of the world,” said Shaw, who’s received book endorsements from the superstar chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud and television personality Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.” “It’s no longer weird to see duck on the menu of a third-tier restaurant. You can get duck tacos all over town. You can get duck confit in the suburbs and not blink an eye anymore.”
Shaw’s worked out many of the recipes over the years, using hunted ducks and geese along with those sourced from stores and online outlets. The Internet home of D’Artagnan, a New Jersey company which supplies top-rated New York City restaurants with gourmet meats, remains a favorite source for whole ducks and parts.
His book’s recipes — including a Korean-styled duck bulgogi, duck jägerschnitzel à la Germany, and a Greek-flavored, pan-roasted goose breast with a kick of ouzo liquor — showcase an international flair. The classics are also presented in detail, including duck confit and Peking duck, the Chinese dish meant to showcase the crispy goodness of duck skin while paired with hoisin sauce and small pancakes.
Duck still has yet to become a go-to meat for many home cooks. Certain breeds of duck can produce strong, gamey flavors, and without proper technique, the meat can end up either dry or too greasy from its fat not being managed properly. The good news: Duck is easier to find then ever, and with a little practice can become one of your most in-demand dishes.
“For the first time in 50 years it’s available in supermarkets, and the impetus is because of the excitement in the restaurant world,” Shaw said. “It’s easy to find duck in Sacramento, and most supermarkets will have frozen whole ducks.”
For those who are wary of duck or haven’t cooked it much, Shaw recommends starting by mastering a seared duck breast. As detailed in the book, the goal is to balance the duck’s fat to produce medium-rare meat and a crispy skin. Crosshatching the skin with a knife will help render the fat and contribute to the outer crispiness.
“For me it’s about the crispy skin, the fat mostly rendered out and the meat exactly how you like your beef,” Shaw said. “It’s like a steak wearing a hat made of bacon. That’s the gateway, what transforms duck haters into duck lovers.”
Temperature plays a key role in achieving that delectable pan-seared duck breast. Shaw suggests starting with a cold pan, which gives the fat more time to render. Also, listen for a hearty sizzle as the duck breast cooks, skin side down, in the pan.
“The sizzling should sound like bacon, and everyone knows what that sounds like,” Shaw said. “You don’t want an inferno, and not just popping.”
“Duck, Duck, Goose” also presents three ways to create duck confit, a signature dish in which duck legs are cured and then cooked in their own fat. Shaw includes a classic method that takes three to five hours of cooking time, as well as a slow-cooker approach that can also produce tasty results with a mix of duck fat and olive oil. Shaw also shares an “easy confit” recipe that takes just 10 minutes of prep time and two hours of cooking the duck or goose legs.
“It’s not confit but it’s close, and it’s super easy,” Shaw said. “You take the duck legs, put them in a pan and score the legs and salt them well. You put them skin-side-up in a casserole dish that almost fits (them), and put them in the oven until the skin gets crispy. That’s all it is.”
As with pigs, parts that might otherwise get thrown away can be turned into tasty duck treats. “Duck, Duck, Goose” features a chapter titled “Extras,” which includes recipes for duck heart tartare, duck liver ravioli and corned gizzards.
Shaw also offers a recipe for crispy duck tongues, which can be tucked into a taco like the waterfowl equivalent of tacos de lengua.
The recipe calls for 1 pound of duck or goose tongues, an amount that could take a hunter half the season to cull. An easier option is to stop by an Asian supermarket, where duck tongue can be found for as little as $1.99 per pound. The tongue recipe is on the difficult side and requires close attention to temperature as it cooks in a sous vide water oven (or other vacuum-sealed method), and then fried carefully.
Shaw insists that the end product is downright delicious.
“They’re crispy, they’re fatty, they’re savory and they’re cheap,” Shaw said. “In a restaurant they could be served as a bar snack for free. They’re a great protein, but you have to know how to cook them. You can’t just stick them in the fryer.”
Through all this duck dialogue, the irony is that Shaw will miss much of the Northern California duck-hunting season. Instead of tracking down northern pintail ducks in camouflage gear, he’ll spend the better part of the next few months crisscrossing the United States on a book tour.
Shaw will appear in Sacramento on Dec. 2, hosting a duck dinner at Mulvaney’s B&L. He’s also set to read from “Duck, Duck, Goose” and provide “ducky treats” Dec. 3 at the Avid Reader in Davis, and lead a cooking demonstration Dec. 17 at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op.
It’s all part of Shaw sharing the gospel of duck and geese.
“It’s a meat people get in restaurants, but they see it in the market and don’t know the first thing about what to do with it,” Shaw said. “The main purpose of the book is to demystify the process. People need to realize it’s not as hard as they think it is.”
Confit salad with frisée
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice or sherry vinegar
3/4 cup duck fat, warmed
1 pound confit duck or goose legs
4 to 6 cups loosely packed chopped frisée or other bitter green
Tangerine sections or pomegranate seeds, for garnish
To make the vinaigrette, in a blender, combine the mustard, shallot, salt, sugar, and lemon juice, cover, and buzz on high speed to combine.
Turn the speed to low, remove the lid, and slowly pour in the duck fat. Re-cover, turn the speed to high and blend for 30 seconds.
Pick all of the meat and skin off the duck legs and shred it coarsely. Toss with a little of the vinaigrette.
In a large bowl, combine half of the duck and all of the frisée, and toss to combine.
Taste and adjust with more vinaigrette, toss well, then top with the remaining confit.
(The remaining vinaigrette will keep in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
Garnish with the tangerine sections and serve.
Pour a white wine or a dry rosé at the table.
Duck breast with morels and ramps
1 1/2 to 2 pounds duck breasts
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 to 12 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, or 1 ounce dried morel mushrooms
2 cups hot water, if using dried morels
4 cups duck stock or chicken stock
1 cup farro or barley
4 ounces ramp bulbs or pearl onions, halved lengthwise
1/2 cup Madeira, Marsala or dry sherry
1 cup fresh or thawed shelled peas
Remove the duck breasts from the refrigerator, salt them well and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
If using dried morels, put them in a small bowl and pour in the hot water. Place a second bowl or small plate on the mushrooms to keep them submerged. Set the mushrooms aside.
In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil over high heat. Add the farro and a pinch of salt, adjust the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes until tender. Drain the farro, reserving 1/2 cup of the stock. Set the farro and stock aside separately.
Pat the duck breasts dry and pan sear. Lightly score the skin side of the duck breasts without cutting into the meat. Lay the breasts skin side down in a large frying pan and turn the heat to high. When the breasts begin to sound like frying bacon, adjust the heat downward to keep it at a nice sizzle.
Cook it this way for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the skin is golden brown. Turn the breasts over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Now you’ll notice that there is a thick side and a thin side to each duck breast. Stand up the breasts with the thick side down to “kiss” this side for a minute or so.
When the breasts are cooked, set them on a cutting board skin side up and let them rest, tented with aluminum foil, while you cook the morels and ramps.
If you are using dried morels, remove them from the water, squeeze them dry with your hands, and chop them coarsely. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan in which you seared the breasts into a small heatproof bowl and reserve. Return the pan to medium-high heat and lay the ramps, cut side down, in the pan. As the edges of their layers caramelize, the ramps (or pearl onions) will start to lift up.
Press them down a bit with a spatula as they cook. Once the cut side of the ramps has nicely browned, after about 90 seconds, mix in the morels and turn the heat to high. Fresh morels will begin to give up their water in a minute or two. Let most of the liquid boil away. If you are using reconstituted dried morels, no liquid will be released. Add the Madeira and the reserved stock, bring to a boil, and boil furiously.
When the liquid has reduced by half, stir in the peas and cook for 2 minutes. Add the reserved farro and toss to combine. Add a little of the reserved duck fat to taste, and season with pepper.
To serve, slice the duck breasts and arrange on individual plates with the morels and ramps alongside. Serve at once.