Sunday, December 13, 2009

Study in brown: Duck legs confit

I am finally in the mood for the winter holidays. After a week of near-freezing temperatures and a spell of after-hour maintenance at work, just sitting here with a glass of Bordeaux, watching the fire in the fireplace, the warm smell of the rendering duck fat spreading from the kitchen throughout the house, 8am-11pm workdays with an office pizza for dinner forgotten, gives me a wonderful sense of fullness of life.

While making duck sausages and roasting duck for Thanksgiving, I collected good three cups of duck fat for making confit. And now I'm making it.

The first time I tried confit de canard was at a friend's place in Paris. He got it in a jar from a charcuterie (sausage and cold cuts shop) next door, left it out in the kitchen till the next day to warm up, then fished the pieces of duck out of the fat and browned them briefly in a frying pan. (Thank you, P.! I didn't marry you because you were learning to play violin, and my survival instinct tells me I shouldn't be living with anyone who is learning to play violin; but your food, wine and human-computer interactions lessons influensed my life more than I realized at that time).

He also explained that it's an essential French dish, developed by farmers who used to raise ducks and geese for foie gras, and when they slautered them all in November and sold the delicious fat livers to restaurants and wealthy housholds, they were left with lots of legs, breasts, fat, and no refrigerators. So they figured that if they salt the meat and then cook and keep it in fat, it will keep in a cool cellar for a few months.

And it worked! Even in this age of refrigerators in every household, duck confit is one of the best ways to cook duck meat. The taste of the sweet gamey dark meat is fully preserved, the meat melts in your mouth, and it doesn't taste fatty at all. The first time I tried it, I was sold.

Here in California we cannot get the duck confit from a neighborhood charcuterie, we have to mail-order it (the shipping costs more than the goods, and it just doesn't feel right), or make our own. Fortunately, we can buy cheap, good, fat frozen Pekin duck legs from a Chinese grocery store.

I bought 6 large, fatty legs, and I also got a "Young duck, parts missing" for almost nothing, in case I need more fat. The "young duck" was missing a wing (and giblets! What have they done with the the giblets?!), and it gave me a fine carcass for a stock, a breast that was not large enough to serve one, so I had to cut off the thighs to supplement my dinner that night, some additional fat, and a couple of small drumsticks to add to the confit.

After trimming the legs and rendering the fat, I had four cups of fat, and almost three pounds of meat on the bone.

Confitting a duck takes a lot of time, but it's mostly the duck's time, not the cook's. Rub the duck with salt (I used 25g/1oz kosher salt and added a little coarse-ground black pepper and two bay leaves), putting more salt on the thicker parts of the legs; refrigerate, covered, till the next day; rinse and dry with paper towels; leave out for about an hour to redistribute the seasoning; place in a deep heavy pan, cover with fat, bring to a simmer, skim, and cook at a lowest simmer for about 2 hours, or until the meat falls off the bones and the fat is completely clear.

Then either cool and refrigerate for up to ten days, or remove the meat to a clean deep glass or ceramic dish, strain the fat over it, leaving all the pan juices behind (save the juices for a soup or a sauce) and covering the meat completely with the fat, let cool, cover and refrigerate for up to six months.

To serve, leave the confit at room temperature for a few hours to soften the fat, fish out the pieces that you want, brown on both sides in a hot skillet. Reuse the fat for the next confit.
Here, the duck leg confit and duck/sage sausages are served with buckwheat kasha with mushrooms, onion-balsamic marmalade from Zuni Cafe cookbook, and cornichons.

Buckwheat kasha with mushrooms
Serves 4
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp butter or ghi (clarified butter)
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup toasted buckwheat
salt, pepper

Cover the mushrooms with hot water, let sit for about 20 minutes to soften. Strain, reserving the liquid. Slice the mushrooms into large chunks.

Heat the butter or ghi in a wide saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook until the water has evaporated.

Add the buckwheat; stir to mix. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through a fine sieve and add to the pan. Add hot water to cover the grains by 1/2 inch (about 2 cups). Cover. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Taste. If the grain is not tender, carefully add a little water and cook for another 5 minutes.

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