Wednesday, November 10, 2010


“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae [sic] on our hands.”
- Douglas Adams (British writer, 1952-2001)

            Today is the Feast of St. Martin.  To those living in the US, this probably means nothing, except for another 2 weeks to Thanksgiving.  For Europeans, there are different customs across countries, ranging from communal singing to gifts to special pastries, and like any good European tradition, wine[1]
            Even in the States, my husband insists on celebrating St. Martin’s Day.  He is an atheist’s atheist, but if you give him an excuse to eat duck, and he’ll believe in anyone or anything, including St. Martin.  Having no religious upbringing, I had no idea who this Martin guy was.  Unfortunately, I had to ask.  My mistake.  I now receive a lecture on St. Martin every year.  To spare you the lecture from my husband, I will summarize. If you are not in the mood for a history lesson, feel free to skip this part.
St. Martin of Tours was a former Roman soldier that converted himself to a monk.  And as a good monk, he was a modest man.  One day, the pope says, “Hey, you’re our next bishop.”  The ever-so-humble St. Martin was not too keen on this, and according to legend, he hides in a barn full of geese and ducks to avoid being detected by the pope’s guards.  There’s a bit of a dispute as to what happened next.  Catholics claim that that God inspired the fowls honk and quack, so Martin would become bishop.  Protestants claim that the Devil inspired the fowls honk and quack, so Martin would become bishop.  No matter which story you follow, the conclusion is the same: Martin becomes bishop and the duck - dinner.
Roast duck doesn’t do it for me, and as I am always responsible for St. Martin’s dinner, I have to find another solution, lest I be tortured with the story of St. Martin again.   I decided I’m converting to Catholicism – confit de canard.   The stuff isn’t particularly expensive in France, where most supermarkets will carry it in tins or vacuumed packages. Unfortunately, in the US, it can only be found in a few specialty markets (= $$$$$$).  Once again, this is one of those recipes that can easily be made at home, provided you can get a cheap source of duck fat and duck legs.  You don’t even have to buy fresh legs – frozen work just fine.  As for the duck fat, if you don’t have your own supplies, most metropolitan areas have a place that sells duck fat.  It will probably be frozen, but once again, that works just as well.  Worse comes to worse, you can go on Amazon and buy rendered duck fat by the gallon.  It’s not as Costco-esque as it seems.  You will need at least 2 quarts for the confit and the rest can be either frozen for more confit, or used in cooking, whenever you need a nice fatty boost to anything (great with de Puy lentils or roasted potatoes). 
            Some of you probably have ethical concerns regarding duck, and rightfully so. Practices such as “gavage” or force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras (duck or goose liver) have started many a debate about humane treatment of animals.  I will not discuss the foie gras controversy today, but for me, the ethical treatment of livestock does matter, not only for the consumer, but also for the producer.  Good husbandry practices often mean less disease (e.g. crowding birds increases the likelihood of avian flu a.k.a. H1N1) and better quality meat.  While the USDA mandates that ducks must not be treated with hormones (but antibiotics can be used), there seems to be very little oversight with regards to living conditions.[2]  The only national retailer that seems to be concerned with duck husbandry has been Whole Foods.[3] While I cannot endorse any particular brand, I will say that Whole Foods is moving in the right direction. You can also ask your butcher for ethically raised duck.  And if your butcher doesn’t know of any, you shouldn’t be buying meat from him/her anyway.  Of course, you can always go local for your ducks, through Agriseek or Local Harvest, and inquire about livestock standards before purchasing. 
            Personally, I do choose to use ethically raised duck for my confit.  Yes, it is considerably more expensive, but since I eat duck about 2 times a year, I find that the expense is manageable.  I don’t necessarily see a mutual exclusivity amongst eating ethically, frugally and well (often, they are mutually supportive).  But with duck, you may need to go with your own set of “first principles." As the Rolling Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes, you might find/You get what you need.”
            And we all need to eat.
Confit de Canard
            Confit translates to “preserved” in French.  This was and still is a traditional means of preserving meat by cooking and then storing meat in fat.  The salt and the fat layer prevent oxidation and any molding.   Any reserved fat can be reused again for cooking (or future confit) in an air-tight contained in the freezer. Confit de canard will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 3 months.   It goes nicely with some boiled new potatoes and some braised de Puy lentils.  Or make cassoulet (future blog post!) and feed a small army. Confit de canard never lasts that long at our place though.  Between my daughter and husband, I’m lucky if I get any scraps.

4 – 6 duck legs
2 qt. poultry fat (duck, goose, chicken)
1/3 c. salt (non-iodized – I prefer Maldon but any good sea salt will do)
4 shallots, minced
6 thyme sprigs
2 tsp. white peppercorns, crushed
1 bay leaf, crushed
6 juniper berries
1/2 c. water
1 head of garlic, peeled

1.     Wash and dry each duck leg.  In a small bowl, place the salt.  Roll each duck leg in salt, and place in a large non-reactive (glass or ceramic) bowl.  Sprinkle with shallots, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaf, juniper berries and any remaining salt. Cover well with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
2.     Pre-heat oven to 200F degrees.  Remove legs from bowl and rinse legs briefly with water.  Clean off any remaining brine from the legs with a paper towel.
3.     In an oven-proof pot (I use a Le Creuset Dutch oven, but any wide, heavy pot will do), heat all the poultry fat until it just reaches a simmer.  Add duck legs, 1/2 c. water and garlic into the pot.  Bring to a boil, then transfer pot to oven.  Cook until meat starts to fall from the bone, about 2 to 21/2 hours.
4.     Take legs out of fat, when warm enough to handle (Warning: You are cooking in boiling fat. Take care not to burn yourself).  If you plan on eating right away, carefully blot excess fat from leg.  If the skin is not crispy enough, heat the grill/broiler function, and broil briefly, until skin crisps.
5.     If not planning on consuming immediately, remove duck legs from fat when cool enough to handle. Strain fat and discard garlic and solids.  Transfer legs to any preserving container (glass, etc.) and cover completely with melted fat.   When cool, store in refrigerator, up to 3 months, until ready to eat. 
6.     To use, take preserving jar and place in a hot water bath until the fat softens.  Take legs out of fat and remove excess oil. 

[1] St. Martin of Tours supposedly founded the Chenin Blanc grape varietal.  I’m not a religious person, but I will happily celebrate Martin’s oenological discoveries over dinner.
[2] Even if the USDA were to have more stringent husbandry regulations regarding the humane treatment of poultry, there are so few inspectors, that enforcement is almost impossible.   Industry maintains that it is in their best interest to have a healthy bird population.  Fine words from the same industry that gave us 500 million salmonella-infected eggs in August 2010.
[3] In 2003, CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey agreed to a complete overhaul of Whole Foods policies regarding the humane treatment of livestock and poultry.  Working together with a consortium of animal rights groups (including PETA), Whole Foods is trying to sell meat that is only humanely bred and raised. Whatever you may think of Mackey and libertarian political views (He's an odd bird - he's a strict vegan), he has addressed an issue long neglected by any other national grocer.

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