Roasting Wild Ducks
Hunting duck requires great fortitude. Sitting in a cold, wet duck blind fighting boredom while waiting for a fly-over challenges steadfastness, the trigger finger frozen into a bluish hook. After such expended effort, I try not to fuck up the preparation of such magnificent, hard-won creatures in the kitchen, which includes triple-checking the birds for shotgun shrapnel, ensuring no mastication of metal at the dinner table.
Know your duck: mallard, teal, pintail and wood duck are succulent roasters. Diver ducks are best avoided, tasting only of dank arse. Fresh duck is most desirable, its quack a very recent memory. After freezing, the meat toughens and tastes more distinctly of the earthy minerality of blood and liver, powerful flavors prized primarily by the heartiest of northern European hunters. To counter the strong taste, the birds are brined in lightly salted water with brown sugar, rosemary and black peppercorns for a couple of days, leeching out blood and its gamier flavors, and sealing in deliciousness.
Ducks and geese have a thick layer of fat beneath their skin and feathers, which keeps them warm and upright on the water. Anywhere but in the kitchen, the feathers are plucked only to the down coat, and then the bird is dipped first into a hot bath of paraffin wax, and then into a cold water bath, which sets the wax. Once hardened, the paraffin is gently peeled away from the bird, taking with it the remaining feathers, revealing the duck’s satiny skin. With a very sharp paring knife, the skin is gently pierced without cutting into the flesh, which allows the fat to drain away from the roasting birds without drying their meat. Scalding water is then poured over the birds to tighten the skin, so it crisps to shades of antique mahogany. Rosemary, garlic, and Meyer lemon are tucked into the cavity of one duck, while toasted cumin seed, garlic, and quartered orange are tucked into the other.
At noon, dried pine cones are wrapped in the sad headlines of an old Sunday paper and laid amongst seasoned oak, inciting a blaze whose coals will be a few degrees cooler than Hades by late afternoon; the perfect conditions for roasting both waterfowl and upland game. The birds can be tied and hung over a fireplace to slowly turn, but in the wood oven, I’ve arranged them across an elevated iron grate near the coals. A cast iron skillet laid thick with fingerling potatoes and whole baby cipollini onions is situated underneath the birds to catch each precious drip of duck fat, slowly frying the spuds in the greasy goodness.
Simmering and bubbling in a heavy ceramic pot nestled into the fire’s ashes, the ducks’ offal and necks are submerged in a slush of wine and water laced with herbs, dried currants, orange peel, and a healthy shot of Madeira. The birds are basted religiously with this aromatic nectar, watching for the skin to crisp but not burn. Roasting for more than two hours, the ducks are finally cooked to medium rare (165 degrees). While the birds rest away from the fire, the meat is removed from the necks and chopped finely along with the offal and fruit. This gamey-sweet goodness is tossed with wild rice, the black grains of grass cooked to al dente. Bitter red and white chicories have been cleaned and torn into an ancient burl wood bowl, and laid with tiny slices of clementine orange, fragrant of California winter, and toasted hazelnuts carted home from northern Italy and pestled into pieces.
The ducks’ breasts, the rosy-reddish hue of a wild, late summer rose, are sliced thick and drizzled with the remaining basting jus, now rich and unctuous. The cork is pulled on an old Clape Cornas, long desired but heartbreakingly cork-tainted, before opening a Big Table Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley in Oregon; its dark earth, forest, and lingering brightness a fitting reflection of the duck’s long journey to our table.