Duck for all seasons

Los Angeles Times

As someone who cooks by the calendar, I’ve always wondered why strawberries and corn on the cob are socially acceptable any time of year while duck is usually perceived as food for fall and winter. It’s a great ingredient naturally available in any month, and yet it’s trapped in a season-warp.

Maybe when the only duck to be had was wild there was a reason to hold off on cooking it until hunting season. But ever since Pekin ducks were introduced into this country from China in 1873, domesticated birds have always been sold from July through June.

I’m prejudiced because I’m not a chicken eater, but to me there’s no better poultry for summer meals. It’s more dramatic than turkey, more stylish than Cornish hens and more versatile than either. You can grill it, you can bake it, you can smoke it — you could even it raw if you dared tartare. Even better, it goes with most everything in season right now: peaches and corn, basil and tomatoes, new potatoes and summer squash.

If one thing has kept this overlooked dark meat from becoming the bird in every pot, it’s the whole thing. Ducks have always been sold giblets and all, and slaving over a hot grill with an entire five-pounder does not exactly inspire smiles on a summer night. Duck’s reputation for being half meat, half fat has also given it a don’t touch, don’t cook aura.

Once a duck has been cut down to size, though, it’s a different dinner. More and more, just the breasts or the legs are available in markets. Not only does that mean much of the fat is out of the picture. But it also means duck has become tantalizingly easy to cook, and fast — the breasts take less than 10 minutes.

Duck is much more interesting to play with than chicken; you can do things to it you wouldn’t try with a boneless, skinless breast. It also has a wow factor: You expect to find it in restaurants, but duck is just not considered home cooking. And any dinner party guest presented with a crunchy roasted leg or juicy grilled breast is not going to go home bored to Perdue.

The leftovers are also more inspiring than turkey or chicken, or even beef or pork — so much so that I sometimes cook extra just so we can have duck burritos or curry or salad the next day, and the day after. A duck quesadilla with mango, jalapenos and Brie is a many-splendored argument for recycling.

More and more, duck is sold in forms even those longtime masters the Chinese and the French never dreamed of. In some markets, and always online (at sites like, you can buy duck confit, smoked duck, duck sausage, duck prosciutto and even duck bacon.

Confit is actually what has started to move duck out of fall and winter exile and onto menus year round. Just about any restaurant worth its Breton sea salt serves the whole leg now on a bed of greens, or with roasted potatoes. Chefs buy the confit or make it from scratch, and what originated as a way of preserving meat through the winter makes a hot-weather lunch possible.
Once all those legs were being carved off for confit, duck producers had breasts to spare. Magret, the big, gamy fillet from the moulard ducks raised for foie gras as well as confit, is everywhere lately in high-end stores. But even mainstream producers like Maple Leaf Farms are making confit and selling breasts.

Some duck dealers also sell Muscovy breasts and legs, but to me the best variety is good old Pekin, also known as Long Island duck (even though most of the birds are now raised far from New York State, in Indiana). The meat is less stringy and gamy; it’s succulent and just chewy enough. And even though it’s milder than Muscovy or magret, no one would ever say it tastes like chicken.
According to the Duckling Council (naturally this bird has a trade group), American consumption of duck is rising in general but sales of parts alone are the real growth industry: they’re up from 5 percent in 1993 to 30 to 40 percent today.

And those parts are not just parts. The breasts and the legs have a dusky flavor even though they are actually lean — the flesh is not marbled; all the fat is in or under the skin. Even that melts away before you slice into a piece. Cut the skin off and the breast has less calories and inherent fat than chicken, its promoters promise.

As fast as the breasts cook, they are actually trickier to handle than the legs. Overcooking will give you a nice sandal, while undercooking will leave you with tough-to-cut fatty skin. Sauteing or broiling renders the fat and crisps the skin perfectly. But if you want to grill, I’ve learned it’s best to score the skin in a fine crosshatch pattern, then marinate it in soy sauce for flavor and appetizing color before tossing the breasts onto the fire.

In about eight minutes, the meat will still be bright red-rare. Letting it rest on a rimmed cutting board for about five minutes before you slice it leaves it just right.

With the legs, the secret is low and slow. You want the meat to soften as the fat cooks away, leaving the skin crisp. My standard tenderizing procedure for summer is borrowed from Madeleine Kamman, who in “In Madeleine’s Kitchen” suggests roasting the legs under a coating of Dijon mustard and bread crumbs. The crust keeps in the juices while the meat turns succulent.

I added a sprinkling of herbes de Provence because they’re so complementary to the meat, and substituted Japanese panko for my usual Progresso crumbs, and came up with something that never fails to dazzle dinner guests. The meat gets almost confit-tender while the skin is as crusty as fried chicken (or, as my consort says, as Shake ‘N Bake).

The legs can just be seasoned and stuck in an oven at 325 degrees for an hour and a half, with no fussiness. But a trick I borrowed from a cookbook from Bay Wolf in Oakland makes a huge difference: After the legs have cooked dry for an hour, I pour something liquid around them and let them cook another half hour. The meat gets super-tender while the skin crisps from the combination roasting and braising.

I’ve tried everything from the pinot noir in the cookbook to vermouth to a tomatillo salsa with pumpkin seeds and gotten great results to serve plain. But when I want to make meat for tacos, I use beer spiked with chipotle chilies; the cooking liquid can then be used to moisten the meat after it’s shredded and before it’s folded into fresh corn tortillas with salsa and queso fresco, plus radishes and scallions for flavor and crunch.

Duck legs roasted and braised with wine are almost as good as confit, and they can be served the same way: on mesclun or in a creamy potato salad sharpened with capers, cornichons and a bed of frisee.

To me, duck responds best to savory flavors; I’ve never understood why it has to be turned to meat candy with orange sauce or raspberry jam. But summer fruit with a savory side is different. Peach chutney spiced with lots of fresh ginger makes a pungent partner for grilled duck.

If duck in summer still seems odd, just consider that but cooks in some of the hottest places in the world have always relied on it in the hottest months. And they make it as hot as they can stand. In New Orleans, duck is a staple in spicy gumbo and jambalaya and etouffee, for instance, while in Thailand it’s eaten in incendiary curries with green or red sauces. Hot food does cool you off. And duck stands up to the heat better than strawberries do to the cold.


Total time: 45 minutes.
Servings: 4
2 medium peaches
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 fresh jalapenos, seeded and minced
2 snall shallots, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup raisins
1/3 cup sugar
8 duck breasts
1 cup soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Add peaches and blanch 30 seconds. Cool and slide or pare skins off. Cut flesh into medium dice and place in clean nonreactive saucepan.
2. Add vinegar, lime juice, ginger, jalapenos, shallots, allspice, cloves and raisins and mix well. Stir in sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt to taste and set aside.
3. Using a sharp knife, carve off any excess fat and skin from duck breasts, then score skin in a fine crosshatch pattern, without cutting into flesh. Lay skin side in soy sauce in shallow dish and marinate 30 minutes.
4. Heat a grill until very hot. Season breasts with pepper and lay skin side down on grill. Cook 3 minutes, then turn slightly to leave a grill mark on skin. Cook 1 minute, then flip over and cook 3 to 4 minutes longer, until done to taste. Transfer to a cutting board with a rim to rest for 5 minutes longer.
5. Serve breasts whole or sliced, with warm chutney on the side.

Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Servings: 2 to 4
Note: This is loosely adapted from Madeleine Kamman’s “In Madeleine’s Ktichen.”
4 duck legs
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 tablespoons panko or other dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter
Mesclun or other greens (optional)
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Rub duck legs all over with herbes de Provence. Season well with salt and pepper to taste. Spread mustard over skin side of each to coat thinly. Lay legs into shallow baking dish with space in between each. Sprinkle evenly with panko or bread crumbs and drizzle evenly with melted butter.
3. Roast 1 1/2 hours, or until meat is very tender and coating is crisp. Serve on bed of greens if desired.

Total time: 2 hours
Servings: 4
4 duck legs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Oil for baking dish
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup dry white wine or vermouth wine
1 pound fingerling (or baby Yukon Gold) potatoes, scrubbed
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 shallots, peeled and minced
6 cornichons, finely diced
1 teaspoon drained capers
2 tablespoons chopped chives, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 large bunch frisee, washed, dried and torn or cut into bite-size pieces
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Season duck legs well on both sides and lay into oiled baking dish. Sprinkle with thyme and arrange garlic cloves around them. Roast 1 hour. Pour wine carefully around legs, avoiding skin. Cook 30 minutes longer, until meat is very tender. Set aside to cool slightly.
2. While duck cooks, bring large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add potatoes and bay leaf, reduce heat and simmer until just tender, about 25 minutes. Drain well.
3. While potatoes cook, whisk together mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, shallots, cornichons, capers and herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Thinly slice potatoes on the diagonal and place in large bowl. Pour dressing over and toss until coated. Shred duck meat with two forks into large chunks and add to bowl (discard skin if it’s too tough). Toss again. Taste and adjust seasoning. Arrange on frisee, sprinkle with a good handul of chopped chives and serve slightly warm.

Total time: 2 hours
Servings: 4 to 6
4 duck legs
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Oil for baking dish
3 to 4 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, finely chopped
1 bottle dark beer, room temperature
2 large ripe tomatoes, finely diced
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 to 2 cups grated queso fresco or Monterey Jack
1 small bunch radishes, washed, trimmed and cut into julienne
1 bunch scallions, green part only, finely chopped
12 to 16 fresh corn tortillas (or hard taco shells)
Quartered limes
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine cumin and oregano and rub onto duck legs on both sides. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange legs in single layer in oiled shallow baking dish. Roast 1 hour. Combine 2 chipotles and beer and carefully pour over and around legs. Roast 30 minutes longer, until meat is very tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then shred meat and skin with two forks (discard any skin that is too tough). Pour 1 or 2 tablespoons of the pan juices over the meat, just enough to moisten, and toss to mix. Keep warm.
2. Combine tomatoes, cilantro and remaining chipotles (to taste) in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Combine radishes and scallions and set aside.
3. Heat tortillas one at a time in nonstick skillet or on griddle until warm and pliable. Lay out on serving plate and top one half with a little cheese, then a little duck, then a little salsa and finally with radish-scallion mixture. Fold over and serve at once, with limes to squeeze over filling.