Monday, May 14, 2012

Mother's Day Roast Duck

During the week you may have noticed that I cook relatively light, simply fare. On weekends, I step it up a bit. On special occasions and holidays - well, I try to pull out all the stops. Whenever I have one of these special feasts, upon its conclusion, I like to reflect on the merits of the cooking. The kids are in bed, the guests have left, and I will pour a small tumbler of fine Canadian whiskey and take a comfortable seat by the hearth. At this point,I will perform a mental post-mortum of the meal. There are only two outcomes as I see it: wins and defeats. For wins, the meal, in taste, texture and optics, turned out how I anticipated it to. Really, this is the sign of any good cook, i.e. the food tasted exactly how it was envisioned...or at least a very close facsimile thereof. Sometimes, a win is accidental. Perhaps the meal didn't go as hoped, but through a happy accident it went in another, equally excellent direction.
Then there are the defeats. I'm not looking for perfection, but if the food wasn't within a certain margin of error for me, than I will chalk it up as a learning experience..and a defeat.

I hate to say it, but in my heart of hearts, my Mother's day dinner was a defeat. My guests didn't think so; the plates came back clean (and I don't own a dog). But the meal, or at least parts thereof, did not turn out close enough to my vision. The meal was roast duck with duck demiglace and several accompanying sides. Needless to say, the garnitures were satisfactory. I made a celeriac remoulade - predictably delicious. I also made mash potatoes for which I replaced the usual butter with rendered duck fat. Dare you ask if that was delicious? Of course it was. The green salad was right on point. The problem was with the duck. First let me tell you about the demiglace - perhaps the one highlight of the night that prevented my confidence from completely disintegrating like dandelions in a gale.

Duck Demiglace

This amazing little elixir tastes magical, but really, the only tricky requirement is that you have a good amount of time set a side to produce it. I had two relatively large ducks at my disposal. I broke them down to leg quarters, breasts and carcasses (no small feat, I've never actually broken down a duck and they definitely have a different anatomy than chickens!). I took the carcasses, which included necks and wings and got them on a cookie sheet along with three or four star anise, six or so juniper berries, some peppercorns, one or two cloves and a good whack of salt.  I roasted them in a 350F oven for about an hour. The fat will render and you'll have some beautifully browned duck bits (the house will smell like heaven). Next, I took them out of the oven and got them into my superfluously large stock pot. (The rendered fat can be filtered and set aside for other uses - don't ever throw away duck fat!)In the pot should be one whole onion, skin on, three or four whole garlic cloves, skin on, a carrot or two, cleaned and split, a bunch of fresh thyme, bay leaves, a few peppercorns and enough cold, clean water to cover all the bones. Do not salt this! It is going to reduce and there is still residual salt from the bone roasting. I cooked this concoction, at a bare simmer for about eight hours. You can do this overnight for which an electric slow cooker would be very effective - but if you can sleep soundly knowing the gas is on, put it on the lowest simmer burner overnight (I take no responsibility if you burn your house down). After the eight hours, I strained all the solids out of the stock, and then got it into a clean sauce pan and then put it on a gentle simmer. Do your skimming at this point as the stock begins to reduce. Because a lot of the fat and scum was rendered out in the roasting process, you don't have to skim as much as if starting from raw. Anyway, I reduced this liquid (which stared out as a good four or five litres), down to a single cup. The amount of flavour packed into that dark, and slightly viscous potion was amazing. You don't want the thickness of gravy or a glaze, but there needs to be a bit of 'gravity' to it---like a nice rich jus. Once you've got it down to this level of reduction, you shouldn't even need to add salt. Get it in the fridge until you need it (it will set solid because of the rich gelatin in it. A little heat and it will loosen up again, perfect in a gravy boat along with the duck). 

Roast Duck

Then there is the duck itself. Like I said, I had two whole ducks, for which I isolated the leg quarters and the breasts. Here's the thing about ducks: they're not easy to roast. The breast will dry out before the leg is tender. A very young duck, perhaps during a crisp autumn evening may be roasted, albeit very slowly and with the understanding that you will be eating well-done duck breast. It acceptable to overlook this fact if you are enjoying the quaint rusticity of a whole roast wild fowl. On the other hand, the problem can be easily remedied by simply separating the breast from the leg. Cook the leg longer in a low oven and then pan sear the breasts. Time it so that the cooking of each conclude relatively simultaneously. Even better, confit the legs. In theory, this sounds excellent. I figured I get an A for effort in knowing all this. However, I pulled the legs out of the oven too early and whilst pan-searing the breasts, my daughters got into an all out brawl over who grandma loves best, which necessitated some officiating on my part - the duck breasts payed the price for this distraction. I don't tend to blame my kids for cooking mishaps, but..oh hell, of course I blame the kids for cooking mishaps - who doesn't?  In any event, the duck legs were about 15 minutes away from complete tenderness and the duck breasts were about six minutes too far gone. In other words, a wee bit tough; higher than average levels of mastication required. It seemed a lot of effort, for what appeared to me, a mediocre pay off. Nevertheless, like I said the guests ate with gusto - my mother-in-law, who's duck is usually overcooked anyway, proclaimed it as delicious. My own mother, savaged her plate like she hadn't eaten in days (and perhaps she hadn't) and my dear wife, mother of my children, had two helpings.

I brooded silently, staring into my wine glass trying to understand what when wrong. Such is my pain. A lesson learned - duck is a fickle beast that requires a deft touch. Next time, I'll let the kids fight it out and save my Solomonal insight for the birds in the oven.

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