Monday, April 9, 2012

Cooking The Whole Quack

Duck Ragu
I stopped by Ottamenelli and Sons in the West Village of New York City last week to buy a whole duck.  The white haired, old-timer butcher with his blood stained apron asked if I wanted him to cut it up.  No, I replied, I liked to do that sort of thing myself.  Looking me up and down in my springtime asparagus green skirt and cream cardigan I can understand why his eyebrows raised.  I was not dressed the part of home butcher.  “You must have some sharp knives,” the old timer said.  You bet I do, I shot back.  The old-timer smiled.  “Beware a woman with sharp knives,” he said to the man in line next to me, and handed over the duck. 

I like my knives, without them I wouldn’t have much use for a whole duck.  If I just bought the breasts and I’d get one dinner for a couple people.  Throw in the legs and I might have confit or the base for a rich ragu.  Give me the whole bird and I have visions of days of meals to come- seared duck breasts one night, molten braised legs another, fat trimmings rendered and reserved for roasted potatoes, and the flavor packed carcass just waiting to form the base of my next poultry stock.

Back home with the duck, out came the knives and off came the breasts.  Seared to a perfect medium rare I wasn’t interested in serving the breasts plain.  Instead, I sliced them paper thin and placed the duck on a bed of Vietnamese rice noodles with roasted peanuts, cilantro, lime, and mint with a sauce of tamarind, chilies, and fish sauce. 

Duck Breast with Vietnamese Vermicelli Salad
Next I went to work on the fat.  I cut as much of the skin and attached thick layer of fat as I could off the carcass and put in in a pot over medium low heat.  After about 30 minutes with barely any attention paid, the fat had melted away.  I strained that off and added to the reserved drippings from the duck breasts.  Purple potatoes were cubed and roasted with a healthy dose of the melted fat.  The rest went in a jar and into the refrigerator to be used in weeks to come.

Several days later it was time for the legs.  Onion, garlic, carrot and celery went in the clay pot with some fresh rosemary and a couple of bay leaves.  Reduced red wine, diced canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and the legs rounded out the sauce.  A couple of hours later I pulled the once tough now achingly tender meat off the bone and mixed it back into the pot.  Tossed with freshly cooked pasta it was a meal fit for a king, or at least four hungry adults.

As for the carcass, it is in the freezer in a large bag marked “duck bones” waiting to be defrosted some lazy Saturday when I feel like putting a pot on to simmer. 

One week.  One duck.  Many meals had and more still to come.  I might finish the old-timer’s sentence for him: Beware a woman with sharp knives, a whole duck is no match for her in the kitchen. 

Duck Ragu
Time: 2 hours
Yield: 4 servings

2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion
1 carrot
2 celery stalks
3 garlic cloves
2 T. minced rosemary leaves
2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
2 duck legs
2 cups diced canned tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 lb. linguine
Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a heavy pot over a medium flame.  Dice onion, peel and dice carrot, and dice celery.  Add the vegetables to the pot.  Saute for about ten minutes until softened.  Crush garlic and add to vegetables along with rosemary and bay leaves.  Saute for another two minutes.  Add wine and bring to a simmer.  Reduce wine by half.  Meanwhile season duck legs with salt and pepper.  Add tomatoes, duck legs, and chicken stock to the pot.  Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium low.  Put a lid on the pot and let simmer for 1.5 hours stirring occasionally, until duck meat is tender enough to fall off the bone.  Remove duck legs from the sauce.  Remove skin and any visible fat and discard.  Remove meat from bones and shred.  Before adding the meat back to the sauce use a small ladle to skim off any fat that has pooled on the surface.  Stir the meat back into the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Discard bay leaves.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until just shy of al dente.  Add the pasta to the sauce with a bit of the pasta water.  Let pasta finish cooking in the sauce.  Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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