Duck confit sounds like a class act. It’s on every bistro menu from here to Boston not because it’s some tricky dish, but because it turns out it’s one of the easiest ways to impress people. Anyone can make it, as long as they have plenty of fat lying around.
Boning the Duck
Here’s the deal: Duck confit is duck meat cooked in its own fat for 2-3 hours, then shoved in the fridge. Later, it’s thrown onto a hot pan or right under a broiler to crisp up the fat, then it is served. There’s almost no way to screw it up.
You can buy duck in pieces and parts in most nice grocery stores, or you can find it whole. (Hint: Either way, it’s probably in the freezer next to the meat counter.) I bought a whole duck for $15, and then went on to prove that while “boning the duck” sounds pretty bad–like, illegal-in-most-southern-states bad–it isn’t. My advice on boning ducks is to follow Julia Child’s advice: Cut a slit down the back, and then scrape the knife against the bone until the meat comes away, whole. You might fuck up a duck once trying to get it right, but it’s not so hard.
What you NEED though is fat, and that’s the best reason to buy the whole duck. Cuz once you have two thighs and two breasts cut and set aside, you take the rest of the skin and any hiding fat, and stick all thatin a roasting pan or Dutch oven, cooking it at 300º till the clear fat renders, about an hour or so. Pour off the clear fat into a heat-proof container, and save the skin (cracklin’ duck!) or throw it away. You’ll maybe get a cup or two of fat from a whole duck. That’s the only trouble–2 cups is not enough grasa to make the confit happen. What you want is to submerge all the edible parts of the duck in the fat.
In my case, I returned to the grocery store, and picked up a tin of chicken schmaltz from the kosher section. It was 7 oz., not even a damn cup, but it was enough to put me over the top. Purists (and pretty much any French people) will want my head for using chicken fat to cook a duck, but I confess because I’m not ashamed, and I dare them to taste a difference in the end product.
The real flavor secret with duck confit is the marinade. Before you place it in its greasy bath, you toss the duck pieces with chopped shallots, garlic, salt, pepper, parsley and whatever else you’re going for (thyme, herbes de Provence), and let it sit in the fridge for a day. Make sure you toss it a few times because a lot of liquid seeps out, and you want that fat especially to soak up all the flavor elements.
Hot (Fat) Tub
When you’re coming up on the 24-hour mark, stick all your collected fat into a roasting pan or Dutch oven, one that isn’t too big, just enough to snugly fit all your duck. Heat the fat in the oven to 200º, and once it’s all melted, scrape all the herbs, onions and marinade off the duck parts, then place them in. Remember, submerge the pieces. If you can’t do it, you don’t have enough fat. (Might want to collect some extra, and keep it in the freezer.)
There’s not much more to the story here. You cook your duck parts in 200º fat for 2-3 hours, until the internal temperature is at least 190º. You’re not going for “medium rare,” and you’re not exactly going for slow-roasted either. It’s a different kind of duck texture, but it’s an easy target to hit. Once you’re done, you can pull the whole thing out of the oven, set it on the stove to cool, and when it’s room temperature, shove the whole roasting pan into the fridge, where it will keep–say the sages–for several weeks.
That is not the final product, of course, but the hard part is already behind you. When you are ready to impress your friends, family and honored guests with your French elegance, pop the duck parts out of the fat, wipe off any clumps of fat, and stick it into a preheated pan, fat side down. The goal is to heat the meat through, and brown the skin so it’s crispy. An alternative is to do it under a broiler, though you run the risk of browning the skin before the rest of the meat is heated through.
Duck confit is supposed to be served with something sweet and fruity. My favorite is the Cumberland sauce that comes with duck at the Millbrook Cafe in Millbrook, NY. It’s raspberry jam and horseradish mixed together in even portions, and it’s awesome. I recently used some homemade huckleberry jam instead–just as good. In this case, I served it on a bed of wine-braised beet greens (that in all honesty nobody really liked), following a salad of spinach, roasted beets, baked apples and goat cheese. Duck confit is, of course, good any time of day or night, hot or cold. It’s a very malleable preparation, as good served hot for dinner as it is eaten cold, as you hover over your kitchen counter the following day at lunchtime, too hungry to even sit down.
This is, hopefully, my last duck post for a while. I recognize that I’ve somehow made that a recurring theme, and while you might say it’s one of my favorite dishes, the truth is that I like to focus on one thing and work with it over and over for a while, then move on to something else. I put my wife through a long season of home-rolled sushi back in 2006, and an unfortunate number of homemade sausage sessions in 2007-2008. The next fetish? I really don’t know, but I hope it’s not baking. (I think it’s probably baking.)