June ABODE: Your Kitchen


(Photo by beyondtheflavor.com)

In the United States, duck has been a traditional autumn and early winter food because that is the appropriate time to pull it from the sky with a gun and some luck. The happy hunter would enjoy an animal robed in fat from easy summer eating.

In late fall, the birds have finished rearing their young and are moving to warmer regions for the winter. A duck’s fat keeps it buoyant and warm throughout a cold winter on cold water; naturally, fat content peaks in fall after summertime plenty. Remember the hunter in the duck blind, earflaps down and rifle poised? Any ducks brought home in autumn would have been plucked and scalded, some fat trimmed off (see “Use the whole bird,” right), roasted and eaten, organs transformed into a pâté, or terrine, stock made from the bones, and any leftover meat would have been preserved in fat (confit) or added to other savory bits for sausage making.

Use the whole bird
Locally grown duck may seem expensive when considered by the pound, but consider the work that goes into each bird, and perspective is restored. Poultry growers feed, water, and rotate their birds daily. Thanks to an on-farm poultry processing exemption available in Virginia, many small- to medium-scale growers process their own birds, literally dedicating the birds to our tables.

If the innards are still in the duck, keep them for stock (neck, see below) or to stockpile (for foie gras or terrine).

Shave the bird of some of its fat—but leave a little for self-basting and crisping. Keep the trimmed fat for rendering.

Rub sea salt and citrus rind on the outside of the bird. Roast on a rack at 400 degrees; turn down the temperature when the bird goes in.

To render duck fat for later use: Drizzle liquid in the bottom of the roasting pan (wine, cognac, broth or water) so that the dripping fat doesn’t burn. Cube the shaved fat, and drop into the roasting pan. When the skin is crisp, the duck is done; transfer to a platter to rest for up to 30 minutes. Pour the rendered fat into a ramekin or ovenproof bowl. Fat can be strained or rendered again to remove savory bits; cook gets to eat them.

Keep the bones! If greasy, roast them again to caramelize the fat, then make broth. Great for dressing Asian noodles, as a rich braising liquid for greens, or for making dirty rice or gumbo or jambalaya.

If you’re not a hunter, the season for duck is now, because the birds hit the pasture in Central Virginia in spring, and are ready for the table by early summer. Ducks? Here? I thought we only had chickens…

The concept of pastured poultry and backyard chickens seems to be sweeping the country—and ducks can fit into our modern world as well. Indeed, many producers of pastured chicken also keep other birds for meat and eggs, including quail, guinea hen, turkeys, geese, bantam chickens, and ducks.

Loosely described, the current model for producing pastured poultry was made famous by Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley. They use low lying, portable enclosures that corral and protect the birds while offering them a fresh patch of pasture each day. Recently some growers in Central Virginia are raising ducks for eggs and for meat, and learning that they too have an important role to play on an integrated, intensively managed farm.

If you are accustomed to purchasing and preparing free-range chicken, expanding your repertoire to include duck will be a welcome stretch. The birds commingle just fine (or so the over-the-fence wisdom dictates). Chickens resemble a triangle, point down, when hunting and pecking; ducks are slender and diagonally upright when waddling around, with a high breast and lots of momentum. Once the bird is dressed (or undressed), it poses distinct but similar challenges for culinary preparation.

Ducks are swathed in a layer of fat just beneath their skin; it is thickest on their breast, which serves to insulate them in cold water and keep them bobbing along on the surface. Chickens have hardly any visible fat, with most of it residing in the skin, which is very easy to remove. But when animals and birds are raised on high quality feed, and forage for bugs and grass and trace minerals, their fat is something to be celebrated, not condemned.

Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is an educator and advocate for local and regional food production in Central Virginia. She received chef’s training in New York and currently works in Farm Services and Distribution at the Local Food Hub.