For a change, try your luck with duck

Duck breast with wilted spinach and shallots and baby red skin potatoes. BY JACK CLEMONS
May 18, 2011

I recently noticed I had fallen into a deep dinner rut. Each visit to the grocery filled our freezer with the same main course choices we’d purchased the week before: lean beef, boneless pork, lots of chicken and occasionally veal. Trips to the seafood market added shrimp, crab and salmon, but our menus felt repetitive. Even though I take advantage of seasonal produce to round out our meals, my entrée selections had become too familiar. Time for a change, time to expand my choices, time for a visit to Hickman’s Meat Market.

Pekin – highest fat-to-meat ratio, mild flavor, often labeled Long Island duckling

Muscovy – smaller and leaner than Pekin, deeply flavored, native to South America

Moulard – cross between Pekin and Muscovy, grain fed to fatten its liver for fois gras, breast usually sold separately as magret

The cozy shop reminded me of my childhood trips to Charlie the Butcher, where my brothers and I were always given a slice of bologna to nibble while Mom placed her order. At Hickman’s you’re often greeted by Bill himself; he can’t seem to resist the opportunity to find out what you’re interested in cooking and give you pointers on how to do it well. In fact, I learned enough to fill several columns, which I’ll share over the next few weeks.

I decided to avoid foods I could easily find in the supermarket (albeit not of the same quality) and look into Hickman’s specialty items. They pride themselves on sourcing only the best available products from suppliers around the country. You may be in for sticker shock if you don’t heed the hand-lettered sign explaining that insistence on the highest quality drives prices higher than those you may find elsewhere. Bill Hickman is very proud of his reputation for being picky.

As we browsed the cases, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to buy rabbit (serving Thumper for dinner?) and Bill suggested we might find goat too gamey, so we selected boneless duck breasts. I love duck but it’s typically something I would order in a restaurant, especially traditional Peking duck or time-consuming duck confit. And, like many people, I was wary of duck’s fatty reputation.

While duck may be considered a white meat, the flesh is dark red (unlike chicken or turkey) because ducks are far more active than their feathered relatives. Using their muscles introduces more oxygen and blood supply, hence the redder color. And, because ducks are waterfowl, you’ll find a thick layer of fat between the skin and meat, to keep the birds buoyant and insulated from cold temperatures.

When roasting a duck, you’ll want to dissolve that generous layer of fat, leaving behind tender meat covered with crisp skin. To accomplish this, pierce the duck skin all over with the point of a sharp knife or skewer, going only into the fat, not into the flesh. Before setting the duck in the roasting pan, pour boiling water over it to start softening the fat, which will then melt into the roasting pan once it’s in the oven.

Whether roasting a whole duck (or two, since there’s not much meat: a single duck will feed about four people) or grilling a duck breast, the distinctive, rich flavor is well suited to fruity sauces and strong spices. For our foray into duck, we followed Bill Hickman’s advice and purchased a single boneless duck breast for the two of us to share. Unlike frozen packages of duck wrapped in plastic, this one was fresh and supple. As he taped butcher paper around the duck breast, he outlined instructions on how I should cook it.

That evening we dusted it with spices, grilled it in a skillet and drizzled the slices with reduced pan drippings. As advertised, the fat had vanished and the crunchy skin fell away from the rich-tasting meat. I’ve included a recipe for duck breasts with a fruity orange sauce, an easier dish to assemble than the classic duck a l’orange. When you’re ready to try roasting a duck, try this simple version served with cherry sauce. Of course, you may prefer to check with Bill Hickman to see if he’ll share some of his secrets.

Skillet Duck Breasts
1 C orange juice
1 T honey
1/4 C sherry vinegar
1 C dry red wine
2 T herbes de Provence
1/2 t pepper
1/4 t salt
2 whole boneless duck breasts

Combine the orange juice, honey and vinegar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the wine, herbes de Provence, half the salt and pepper. Return to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Cover and set aside to keep warm. Prick the skin on the duck breasts (to release the fat while cooking) and rub with salt and pepper. Place the breasts in a large cold skillet, skin side down. Cook at medium high for about 5 minutes. The skin should be browned and the fat rendered. Turn and cook until medium rare, about 3 or 4 minutes. Allow to rest for at least 5 or 10 minutes before slicing.

Roast Duckling
1 5-lb duck
salt & pepper, to taste
1 quartered lemon
1 quartered shallot
2 C boiling water

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Rinse the duck thoroughly, inside and out. Remove any excess fat from the neck and body cavities and pat dry with a paper towel. Pierce the skin of the duck all over with a skewer or a thin knife, creating a grid of one-inch squares. Rub salt and pepper into the skin of the duck; shake salt and pepper inside the cavity. Stuff lemon and shallot quarters in the cavity. Place the duck on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side up. Pour boiling water over the duck and place pan in the oven. Roast the duck until no fat remains and the skin is crispy and brown (2 1/2 to 3 hours). Baste the duck with pan juices every 30 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and transfer duck onto a carving board; allow to rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Cherry Sauce
1 C chicken stock
1 C port wine
thyme sprig
10 cherries, pitted and halved
1 T butter

Combine the stock, wine, cherries and thyme in a saucepan. Simmer until reduced by half. Discard thyme sprig, add butter and heat until thickened.

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