This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
It struck me as a sliced off lingering slivers of lovely red meat from the bones of the duck that I was doing something both very ancient and also very similar to the dreaded pink slime. Hear me out on this- pink slime's defenders talk about how it let's them use the whole carcass of an animal, which is an admirably thrifty concept. Of course it's been demented by desire for "low-fat" products, so the perfectly good little bits have to be mangled and treated like garbage in order to get the lean meat from it.
I wasn't concerned about fat or sinew. In fact, the fat was exactly what I wanted, but I'd take the rest too. The duck, along with the old lard breed pigs and dual-purpose cattle breeds, is an animal of the old farmstead, where farms had a level of diversity and self-sufficiency I don't see very often today. The duck, like a lard-breed pig such as the mangalita, provides a complete meal. On the foot, it is crafty and resourceful, able to defend itself and survive where modern breast-bloated birds (also in pursuit of the inferior lean meat) flounder. In the kitchen, it's an all-purpose culinary wonder. At the slaughterhouse, it's an anachronism, banished by many because those feathers that are so useful in life are difficult to pluck. Some farms I called have had to stop selling them for this reason. It's a shame, because really, duck is about a million times better than any other poultry except maybe goose, another hard to find old farm animal.
Home cooks also seem to be a bit intimadated by ducks. Some make the mistake of treating them like the more common chicken, which causes some problems. An average duck is more active than an average chicken, so the meat can be a bit tough if just roasted. Also, the fat, which is truly one of the best things about a duck, can turn into a problem if not treated properly. It's also just not chicken, it's meat is a bit like beef. You really don't want to overcook the nice juicy steak-like breast. Just roast the average pastured duck the way you might roast a chicken and you end up with overcooked breasts, tough legs, and a pan full of fat that you don't know what to do with. So I taught a class for Chicago Meatshare that showed how to do it right (or at least better than average) with a duck from Paulie's Pasture, a local farmer I sometimes order from.
The right thing to do, in my opinon, is to divide and conquer, yielding ingredients that will last dozens of very good meals. Luckily, you pretty much can break down a duck like you can a chicken (I learned how to do this mostly from Youtube to be honest). I did, into breasts (careful to keep the skin on), legs, wings, and carcass. Here is where it is different- this duck has globs of fat, particularly around the neck, but really everywhere. Those precious bits of fat I trimmed and put in a pot on low, starting a dry fat render. Usually I use my crock pot for that, but I wanted it to be ready sooner this time. Duck fat is like liquid gold, yellow like olive oil with probably the most appealing flavor of any animal fat besides butter. I wanted as much fat as possible. The bits of leftover solids in the pot are cracklings, I saved those for later too.
And then I did what pink slime tries so hard to do, but fails to, something that people have been doing for many millenia. Perhaps it was among the first types of food processing. In archaology it's called "bone grease processing" and appears to have become very popular during the upper paleolithic as a way to obtain as much precious fat as possible. I stripped little bits of meat from the carcass, my homemade "pink slime" after breaking down into the basic parts, reserving those to use later. Then I broke the carcass up and covered it with water in my crockpot, leaving it on low to make broth. In ancient times they smashed the bones, creating tell-tale fragments, in order to get as much of the inner bone fat as possible. The broth itself has plenty of great stuff and I reduce it and put it into ice cube trays. But you should also get a second smaller yield of duck fat from that, which you can seperate with a fat seperator or simply by cooling it in the fridge where it will collect on the top. That fat is a bit less pure so I use it soon for cooking everything from omelettes to vegetables.
I've been experimenting lately with flavor schemes. I have several that I use in my kitchen. The main principle I use is savory/sweet/acidic. I use all three elements in every dish, often adding spicy to the mix. Some ingredients have several elements. The main ones I used here are:
Northern: Hen of the Woods Mushroom/Birch Syrup/Cider/Lingonberries/Mustard
Asian-ish: Tamari/Fish Sauce(I used Red Boat)/Rice Vinegar/Sambel Oelek (garlic chili paste)
French-ish: Stock or Broth/Mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot)/Cider
The skin-on breasts were the first thing I cooked. Because, well, they are impressive, tasty, and quick. All you really have to do is season with a bit of salt and pepper, cross-hatch the skin with a knife, and place in a medium-hot pan, without any oil, skin side down. The skin renders and produces more than enough cooking fat for the breasts and many other things. That's all the fat I needed for cooking for the rest of the night. I wanted the breasts nice and rare because honestly, it's just damn delicious that way. I did medium-high for 7 minutes, low for three minutes, flipped, then cooked on low for an additional 4 minutes. Then I let them rest in the pan for a bit while I softened the frozen lingonberries in a pan. In another pan I cooked some hen of the woods mushrooms in some of the leftover duck fat. I also glazed the breast with a bit of some sour cherry mustard I had. I sliced and garnished with thyme. I wanted this dish to reflect the flavors of autumn and northern forests.
The next dish was a bit more pedestrian, but no less delicious. I simply took some leftover haiga rice and fried it in the duck fat with the little bits of meat and egg, adding my "Asian-ish" elements to make a delicious fried rice.
The main failure was that I browned than braised the legs with the "French-ish" flavors, random autumn vegetables (sweet potato, celeriac, blue potato), and some homemade stock I had for an hour in a dutch oven...which was really not enough time to make the legs tender, but they were still OK. If I had more time, I would have done a confit or a rilette. Luckily, I did save the wings, which I browned and braised overnight in a crock pot and they came out really nicely, especially with a nice mustard cranberry glaze and the leftover vegetables.
I broke down the duck fifteen days ago and I am actually sitting down eating another meal from this same duck this evening, a ramen I made with the duck broth cubes, the Asian-ish flavor palette, and some over-salted pastured pork a friend gave me, garnished with carrot and seaweed. If you ever over-salt something you can sometimes save it by making a soup or other brothy dish out of it, which is one reason I don't pre-salt my broth before storing it. I used these 100% buckwheat noodles, which are pretty amazingly easy to cook, particularly compared to regular buckwheat soba, which turns to glue if you look the wrong way while it's boiling. I also have used the broth in risotto (also added some duck cracklings to that) and congee, which uses leftover rice in a broth that I flavor with the Asian-ish flavor palette. Overall, I probably got 20-30 meals out of one duck. I can't wait to cook one again!
Thanks for the photos Erik! Also, I couldn't have done the class without Tom, my "sous chef", and all my awesome attendees!
Hungary is one of my favorite travel destinations, partially because of the pork. The Hungarian Mangalica breed is a wooly fatty beast that makes one hell of a sausage. Some Americans have imported the breed, but the Hungarians really know how to make a spicy sausage right. Also delicious in Hungary is the incredible goose liver! And duck! Hungary has some delicious meat, and with the Forint pretty low, eating well (and paleo!) is affordable. I suggest Cafe Kor, where I ate absolutely the best silky tender goose liver with sour cherries. Besides that Hungary is a beautiful country with a culture that is fairly exotic to most Americans.
Didn't eat the bread or the onions...eeeewww
I digress, because the reason I was reminded of all this was that one of my favorite Hungarian food blogs just posted about the winter Mangalica festival. Of course there is a comment from someone who admits that while this pork is delicious, they don't want to eat much because "I look at my Hungarian neighbours - don't want to be like them, diabetes and high blood pressure and..." I just saw another comment like this recently- someone was saying how they are vegan because their Polish family suffers from so many health problems because they eat meat.
Hmm, which do you think is the problem: a food we have been eating for millions of years without a problem (meat) or the absurd amount of sugary desserts and alcohol that many Central and Eastern Europeans consume? These were my nemesis as I traveled through these countries. In Hungary most people were drinking shots of a fairly heavy brandy called Palinka alongside their sausages. Next to the sausage stand was a stand selling cakes and doughnuts and another selling FRIED bread doused with cheese. Yeah, it has to be the meat's fault.