MONTREAL — I once roasted a whole duck with an orange and Cointreau glaze and a stuffing of clementines, rosemary and shallots. Sounds divine, doesn’t it?
It wasn’t. That canard à la clementine lives in my repertoire of kitchen disasters as a stringy, overcooked bird swimming in fat. By the time the legs were cooked enough to come away from the bone, the breast meat had toughened up and dried out and the glaze was black.
But duck is tasty and — as I’ve since learned — easy to cook if you separate the legs from the breasts. It takes well to myriad flavours, from apple and juniper to soy and ginger. In fact, boneless duck breast is as quick and easy to pan-sear as steak. And eaten without the skin, the meat is as lean as chicken or turkey.
Duck rillette, duck legs confit and magret de canard are all perennial favourites on restaurant menus. Duck is also becoming increasingly available at the butcher’s and in the supermarket, where it comes in the form of boneless breasts; already-cooked duck leg confit; whole duck; duck stock for soups and sauces; duck sausage and sliced smoked duck.
Brome Lake Ducks, which has been raising the Peking breed of duck in Knowlton in the Eastern Townships since 1912, is known across North America for its juicy, flavourful meat. The company now raises more than 2.2 million ducks every year.
On a much smaller scale, the co-operative La Ferme Morgan in the lower Laurentians has built a reputation among restaurant chefs and duck aficionados for its organic Muscovy ducks, which are prized for their large breasts, low-fat meat and exquisite flavour.
Montreal chef Nancy Hinton, who is busy cooking up a series of duck-themed dinners at her rustic restaurant À la table des jardins sauvages in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, says cooking duck isn’t as complicated as most people think.
“I recommend separating the legs from the breast and cooking them apart,” she says. “The breasts benefit from quick cooking at high heat on the stovetop while the legs are best braised at low temperatures for long periods.”
Duck has a reputation for being fatty. And it’s true that in the cooking, lots of fat accumulates in the pan and needs to be spooned out to avoid smoking and burning. But Hinton says duck fat is mostly concentrated in the layer right under the skin and readily melts away during cooking, leaving behind tender, lean meat.
“The meat naturally bastes itself,” she said, “and then you collect the delicious duck fat for all kinds of other dishes.”
Indeed, duck fat is a treasure to chefs. They use it for roasting or frying potatoes, to make homemade croutons, for searing and sautéing. In addition to its dense, savoury flavour, duck fat has been touted for its nutritional benefits. It is higher than other animal fats in beneficial unsaturated fats and closer in composition to olive oil. (Duck fat contains 62 per cent unsaturated fat compared to butter, with 51 per cent saturated fat.)
Hinton says pan-seared duck breasts are easiest of all. The secrets, she says:
Score the skin to help the heat penetrate the meat and to allow the fat to escape while cooking.
Sear the meat skin side down in a preheated ungreased pan over medium high heat for a minute or two, just until lightly coloured. Then, to reduce smoking and splattering, reduce heat to medium and continue cooking for another 6 to 10 minutes or until rare to medium rare.
Be careful not to overcook. Duck meat is best served pink. An average-sized 500-gram duck breast should take no more than 10 to 12 minutes to cook in all. The internal temperature should read 125 degrees F for rare or 130 degrees F for medium rare.
Spoon off excess rendered fat during cooking and before making pan sauces.
Allow meat to rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing, to prevent juices from escaping.
As it turns out, there’s even a secret to roasting whole duck successfully. According to Sophie Marchand at La Ferme Morgan, it is long, slow cooking.
With her help, I think I may have finally overcome my decades-long terror of roast duck.
Following Marchand’s advice, I generously seasoned a whole 3-kilogram Muscovy duck, inside and out, with nothing more than salt and freshly ground black pepper. In the morning, I popped it in the oven in a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid and roasted it at a lazy 200 degrees F for five hours.
An hour before the end of cooking, I opened the lid and added a handful of fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs, one chopped carrot and one chopped onion, a drizzle of maple syrup and a splash of soy sauce, along with a cut-up orange, peel and all, then covered it again and put it back in the oven.
To crisp the skin, I raised the heat to 400 degrees, uncovered the pot and continued cooking the duck for another 15 minutes.
Our duck dinner that night was moist and tender and perfectly delicious.
Muscovy duck from La Ferme Morgan is available at the farm store, at 92 Morgan Rd. in Weir. Or phone or email to place orders, which are delivered weekly to three Montreal-area drop-off points, including Co-op La Maison Verte in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. For information or to place an order, go to www.fermemorgan.com or phone 819-687-2434.
Nancy Hinton’s duck-themed dinners at À la table des jardins sauvages in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, 45 minutes east of Montreal, continue over the next two weekends, ending Feb. 3. For information or to reserve, go to www.jardinssauvages.com or phone 450-588-5125.
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Pan-Seared Duck Supreme
Chef Nancy Hinton especially loves the pairing of herbs and fruit to balance the rich flavour of duck. Her favourite is elderberries and elderflower, which she forages herself in summertime. But she also loves raspberry and pink peppercorns, blackberries and juniper or apple and rosemary.
This recipe calls for supremes, which are duck breasts with the skin left on and the wings attached. Boneless duck breasts (the skin left on) would also do. Feel free to play with the fruit and herb mixes.
2 duck breast supremes or boneless duck breasts (about 1 lb / 500 g each)
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter or extra-virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black peppercorns
1/3 cup honey wine or hard apple cider
2 cups duck stock or chicken broth
1 cup peeled, chopped apple
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon butter
Score the skin on each duck breast in a cross-hatch pattern, being careful not to cut through all the way to the meat. Cut away the attached filets and reserve for another use. Trim excess fat, if necessary.
To make the sauce: In a medium sauce pot over medium-low heat, cook shallots in butter or oil until lightly browned. Add thyme, pepper and honey wine or cider, stirring to deglaze. Cook over medium-high heat until reduced by half. Add stock and apple. Simmer over low heat for at least 20 minutes, allowing to reduce slowly. Add rosemary and continue to simmer for another five minutes. Strain through a sieve and set aside. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, with no extra fat, then add duck breasts, skin side down. Sear for a couple of minutes, until nicely browned.
Turn heat down to medium or medium-low and continue to cook for 8 to 10 minutes, pouring off excess rendered fat a few times during the cooking. Flip and cook for 2 or 3 more minutes until meat is medium-rare. Remove from heat, cover loosely with aluminum foil and allow to rest in a low oven for 10 minutes before slicing.
Meanwhile, clean sauté pan and pour in sauce. Bring to a simmer, adjusting seasoning if necessary. Swirl in butter, stirring until melted.
Slice duck breast thinly against the grain of the meat. Serve with sauce.
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Duck jerky is Nancy Hinton’s riff on beef jerky. It is salty-sweet and slightly chewy, perfect as a snack or sliced into salads or sandwiches.
1 pound (450 g) duck filets or one duck breast (fat and skin removed and sliced into six 1.5-cm-thick strips)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Pinch each of freshly ground black pepper, smoked paprika and Montreal steak spice
1 teaspoon each of ground cumin, dried thyme and oregano
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Toss duck with remaining ingredients. Refrigerate overnight. Pat dry and roast on a rack placed over a baking sheet in a 200 degree F oven for 2 hours or until dry and chewy, but still moist enough to slice.