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Duck: A Wine-Friendly Bird

With a little time and know-how, you can cook up a delectable meal with duck, a most wine-friendly bird.

Duck can be intimidating. Hands-on foodies who like to fire up the Wolf gas range on weekends to cook Julia Child’s Veal Prince Orloff have been known to make restaurant reservations when a craving for duck strikes.

The challenge lies in the thick layer of fat under the duck’s skin—a gift from Mother Nature that helps the duck when it swims but must be rendered out before the bird is fit to eat. Rendering the fat can take a bit of time, which poses a double threat: overcooking the lean breast meat and/or undercooking the legs and thighs.

Such is the duck’s reputation as a tricky bird that home cooks don’t attempt to prepare this succulent, wine-friendly meat as often as they might like. That’s a shame, says David Page, chef and co-owner with his wife, Barbara Shinn, of Home Restaurant in New York City and Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, Long Island. “Learning how to sauté a duck breast is so easy,” he says, “yet so intimidating for some people.” He likens the process to cooking a chicken breast, once you get the hang of it. “Duck has a fat layer,” he says, but that is as much a blessing as a curse. “They’re self-basting,” he explains. “That’s the wonderful thing about duck; 95 percent of the fat is rendered by cooking and at the same time you are able to baste the duck with some of that.”

And now is the time to try; buying and preparing duck has never been so accessible or worry-free. “The duck people have gotten hip to” consumers’ apprehensions about cooking duck, “and they’re selling duck parts,” says James Peterson, the acclaimed cookbook author who devoted an entire book to duck delicacies (The Duck Cookbook, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003).

Indeed, in recent years, duck producers have begun to sell duck as they do chicken, in packages of legs or breasts, often frozen, enabling cooks to avoid the overcooked breast/undercooked leg syndrome without having to cut up the raw duck themselves. And the rise of Internet sales of specialty foods has made duck easy to find when the local supermarket doesn’t routinely stock it.

The most widely available duck in the U.S. is the Pekin or Long Island duck, a descendent of the domesticated ducks of China. The Pekin is prized for its tender meat and sweet to mild flavor. Chris Manning, chef at Étoile, the restaurant at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California, also appreciates the breed’s dependable proportions: “It’s a very consistent size. The Pekin duck is the one I choose to cook with.”

Page agrees. A native of Wisconsin who came east by way of California, he can’t praise the local Long Island product enough. “It’s incredibly sweet and succulent. It cuts like butter and has an incredible fat-to-lean ratio, which is important in duck.” He allows, though, that some “find it a blander-tasting duck—which I find hard to believe.”

Those who deem the Long Island/Pekin duck too mild might prefer the Muscovy duck, a type native to South America that has become increasingly popular (and available) in the U.S. Much leaner and thinner-skinned than the Pekin (it doesn’t swim as much as other breeds), the Muscovy duck is known for its meaty, strong, some say musky, flavor.

Then there’s the Mullard, also known as the Moulard, a hybrid of the Pekin and the Muscovy breeds. Its large, steak-like breast is often compared to well-aged beef. Peterson is a fan of the Mullard because he says it has “a more wild flavor without being aggressive.” The Mullard shouldn’t be confused with the Mallard, the commonly known wild duck (which is itself occasionally domesticated). Wild mallards bagged by hunters tend to be tougher than domesticated birds.

Whatever the breed, duck needs a wine with a bit of acidity to counter its richness. It’s a red meat, which doesn’t preclude white wines, of course, but does call for a wine with some power; medium- to full-bodied wines work well. The earthy, gamy quality of duck calls for wines with a bit of earthiness. And if you’re going to serve it with a fruit sauce (a frequent accompaniment—think duck à l’orange, or duck aux cerises, with cherries), the wine should be fruity and have hints of sweetness.

The classic match is Pinot Noir. “It seems to be the wine that duck loves,” says Manning, noting that the velvety smooth palate of a Pinot is a perfect match for the rich texture of the meat. If the duck is served with a fruit sauce (Manning opts for huckleberry sauce on his menu) the dark fruit aromas and flavors of the wine will pair nicely with those of the sauce. For Asian-inspired or spicy duck preparations, he suggests Domaine Chandon’s sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé. He also pairs duck with the winery’s Pinot Meunier, which he describes as a sister grape to Pinot Noir that, while not classically considered a “noble” grape but rather a blending variety, turns out to be a good drinking wine on its own.

Peterson, too, likes Pinot Noir with his duck, but prefers Burgundy. “Burgundy has a mushroomy, moldy quality that goes well especially with the mullard’s gaminess,” he explains. “And I do like the acidity of Burgundy to cut the richness” of the duck.

Page represents another school of thought on duck-wine pairings, particularly Pekin/Long Island duck: Long Island Merlot. “The wines we produce here are elegant. They have great structure and good tannin; they have great balance,” he explains. “They have fruit, but they’re not fruit bombs. The acidity we find in our Merlot here is so lovely and so integrated with the wine, so when you pair it with something that is rich like duck, it’s ethereal.”

First, however, the duck must be cooked, and that, as noted earlier, can be intimidating. But there are almost as many duck-cooking tricks as there are chefs. Manning, who grew up hunting and eating wild duck in Montana, stands by the first step that he learned back then: brining. “Brining helps with the rendering process; you get a golden render and nice, crispy skin,” he says. The brine, which for Manning consists of water, citrus juices, sugar, herbs and spices, helps the meat stay moist and imparts additional flavor. He brines his duck for three days.

If you don’t want to bother with brining, no worries. There are plenty of other duck-cooking strategies. Chief among these is to take advantage of the availability of duck parts.

The breast is quicker and easier to prepare than the rest of the duck. Job one is to score the skin all over with a knife or pierce it with a fork; the classic crosshatch scoring will produce an attractive pattern. Peterson advises letting the knife penetrate the skin and fat, but not the meat. The scored breast should then be sautéed in a pan over medium to medium-high heat, skin-side down, to render the fat, for eight to 10 minutes for the Pekin duck and 12 to 18 minutes for the Mullard, he says. Then he turns the breast and continues cooking for one to two minutes or until the meat offers some resistance when you touch it. Like many duck aficionados, he likes the breast medium rare. If you like it well done, cook it a bit longer.

Alternatively, once you render the fat, you can finish the duck breast in the oven. But if you opt for the oven, Page warns, you still have to render the fat in a pan on the stovetop. If you want to save the rendered fat for another use, carefully pour or spoon it out of the pan into another container after five minutes of rendering. After that, you can save more of the rendered fat as long as it doesn’t burn. (The fat might, indeed, burn during the rendering time, but the duck will be fine.) Some cooks like to fry the cooked duck in a little rendered fat to ensure a crispy skin.

Duck breasts are also available skinless and boneless, a form that allows you to skip the rendering, but a disappointment to those who think the crispy skin is the best part. These can be pan-seared over medium-high heat for two to three minutes per side.

Duck legs can be cooked in a variety of ways, but because they are tougher than the breast, they must be cooked longer. Peterson suggests a few different methods: braising or stewing in liquid (typically browning it first on the stove and then finishing it there or in the oven); slow-roasting (in the oven, with pricked-skin-side up, so that the rendered fat drips down and bastes the meat as it cooks); or confit (cooking it submerged in its own fat, in which case you need a supply of rendered duck fat).

If you have your heart set on a whole roast duck, there are tricks for that, too. It’s important to trim as much fat as you can from the cavities and then to allow enough time to render the fat. “There’s so much fat involved in a whole duck,” says Page. He offers another trick: simmering the duck in water for five to seven minutes to render some of the fat. Then he roasts it for about two hours, pricking the skin and lowering the oven temperature 20 minutes into the roasting time and then basting it with wine two-thirds of the way through. Peterson opts for the rotation method. He trims and scores the duck, then roasts it, breast up, for an hour, then back up for another hour, and then breast up again for two more hours, all to keep the meat moist while the fat renders.

When a duck craving strikes, there’s no reason to, er, duck. With so many techniques and products to ease your way, duck isn’t so intimidating after all.

Duck Leg Stew with Wild Mushrooms
This recipe is from The Duck Cookbook by James Peterson (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2003). Slow-cooked stews are perfect for duck legs, says Peterson; if you buy whole duckling, cut it up and cook the duck breast alone. He recommends saving the legs in your freezer until you have enough for a stew such as this. He adds that when he wrote the book, Mullard duck thighs weren’t available. The author likes them better than the Pekin duck, but recommends trimming the fat—not removing it completely, but cutting it so that it’s a thinner layer. Mullard thighs also take longer to cook.

12 duck legs, including both thighs and drumsticks
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 medium onions, peeled and
chopped coarsely
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
2 cups red wine
1 bouquet garni (3 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried, 1 imported bay leaf, and 1 bunch parsley or parsley stems, tied together with kitchen twine or wrapped in cheesecloth)
Salt and pepper, to taste
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups duck or chicken stock
1½ pounds assorted wild or cultivated mushrooms such as chanterelles, morels, porcini and hedgehog, rinsed and patted dry
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Put the duck legs into a large nonreactive bowl and add the garlic, onions, carrot, red wine and bouquet garni. Let the duck marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Strain the duck legs and reserve the liquid and the vegetables separately. Reserve the bouquet garni, too. Pat the legs dry—wipe off any clinging vegetables that would burn—and season them on both sides with salt and pepper.

In one or two skillets over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter and brown the legs on both sides, 6 to 8 minutes on each side. (The duck legs should fit into the pan in a single layer; work in batches if you only have one small pan.) Transfer the legs to a platter, pour the cooked butter out of the skillet, and add 2 more tablespoons of the butter and the vegetables from the marinade. Stir the vegetables over medium heat until they smell fragrant and the onions turn translucent, about 12 minutes. Put the legs back in the skillet (at this point the legs don’t have to stay in a single layer), pour the marinade liquid and the broth or water over all, and nestle in the reserved bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover the skillet and cook over low heat (or in a 325°F oven), for 2 hours (if you are using mallard thighs, cook for 3 hours). After 1 hour of cooking, gently shift the legs that were in the bottom of the skillet to the top.

Gently remove the duck legs from the skillet with a skimmer or slotted spoon and transfer them to a plate. Cover the legs with aluminum foil to keep them from darkening. Strain the braising liquid into a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer, discarding the vegetables. Put the pan slightly off center on the heat source so it only bubbles up on one side, and use a spoon or small ladle to scoop off any fat or scum that floats to the surface on the other side. Wash the skillet used to braise the legs and put the legs back in.

When the braising liquid has cooked down to half, pour it over the duck legs, cover, and reheat the legs over low heat for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shortly before you’re read to serve, sauté the wild mushrooms in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over high heat for about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.

Serve each person one or two duck legs in a heated soup plate with the braising liquid spooned over the mushrooms and parsley on top. Serves 6 as an entrée, 12 as a light meal.

Wine recommendation: A Côte de Nuits, or another earthy, spicy Pinot Noir.


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