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The Nasty Bits: Gizzards Galore

"My duck routine is always carried out for the sake of confit, an illustrious ritual that begins and ends with fat."

When I need a bit of fun and relaxation after a long day's work, I'll buy a few ducks. It's best if they still have their heads and feet still attached, but as long as they're fatty and plump, I'm happy. Being a bit of a control freak, I thrive on well-established routines and when it comes to ducks, I have a duck routine.

In the kitchen with my birds in tow, I turn on the radio to NPR, put on my apron, and get out my knives. On the dining room table, I set up my cutting board as well as five stainless prep steel bowls. Laying the ducks on their backs, I remove their neck skin. The skins, though thin and sometimes sinewy, have a bit of fat on them so they'll be tossed into bowl number one, reserved for fat. Whole birds are like plump Christmas stockings; with unbounded enthusiasm, I like to reach into the cavity of the birds and dig around for whatever may be lying in the depths of the duck. Bowl number two is used to house the results of these excavations.

To remove the wishbones, I flip the birds over and carefully cut around the v-shaped curves, outlining the bone until I reach the joints at each end. Pulling ever so slightly, the wishbones snap out of place and I'll toss them into bowl number three, which holds scraps reserved for stock.

Then I move onto the wings.

Using my fingers, I feel around for the cartilage that connects the wings to the body, wriggling the joints to be sure. With a quick trace around the socket, I twist and slowly sever the sinews until the wings are completely detached. They'll go into the biggest bowl, bowl number four.

Removing the wishbones and the wings leaves the breast of the ducks exposed. With one steady incision down the two sides along the center of the birds, each half of the breast may be lifted away from the ducks in one meaty piece, to be used later for curing, grilling, or pan-frying. Hence, the fifth and final bowl.

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The legs, which accompany the wings in bowl number three, can be more challenging to remove in light of that prized, tender bit of the thigh deemed the "oyster meat." Usually, I like to position the bird back onto its side so that I can press down upon the legs and snap the joint attached to the thigh, making it easier to cut around the bone and cartilage.

The French call the rib cages "demoiselles," or young ladies. Grilled quickly over very hot coals and served with bread and wine, the rib cages are finger food at its best. If I do not need the demoiselles for stock, then they are saved for this very purpose, as a restorative snack later on.

It is the anatomy of these birds, the reliability of their organs and appendages, that makes the process of breaking them down so therapeutic. There are no surprises or unforeseen disasters--just the assurance of knowing that if I study my ducks, they'll come apart with the ease of a well-placed incision or a steady snap of a joint. Each part is essential and when I am done fabricating the birds, I take a moment to look down at the order I have created.

My duck routine is always carried out for the sake of confit, an illustrious ritual that begins and ends with fat. If you've taken apart a whole duck then you know how generous the duck is with its fat, a culinary by-product that is a commodity all its own. To render the fat, it must be ground to a pulp in a food processor--a messy venture, admittedly, but doing so reminds me of the feral nature of flesh. Then, over the course of many hours, the duck parts will stew slowly in the fat before they are lifted out and strained, only to be returned to the fat during the canning process.

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At a restaurant you may be served the legs, but making confit at home yields a cornucopia of little nuggets that are placed into the pot alongside the duck meat: gizzards, necks, and whole heads of garlic. While there is a certain elegance to eating the prized leg confit, usually I prefer the bony bits. Crispy with little slivers of silky meat clinging to the bones, the wings and necks are best gnawed in the company of friends and loved ones.

As much as I savor the meat of confit, it is not the flesh at all but the innards, housed in bowl number two, that I enjoy the most. The gizzards, which are the muscular part of a bird's stomach used for grinding up its food, are beautiful in their own way. Resembling dark red pebbles with a pattern like fingerprints impressed along their broad sides, under certain lights the gizzards are incandescent with tones of blue. In the past I used to save the gizzards as a celebratory snack after days of salting, stewing, and canning. Sauteed simply with a bit of the duck fat, the rich and chewy gizzards always seemed like the best embodiment of what confit was meant to be--a transformative process that celebrates the role of fat as both the cooking medium as well as the preservative.

20090721-gizzards-jar.jpgAmong the material treasures in my life, I will always count the jars of confit I have sitting in my cellar, awaiting an occasion worthy of their goodness. In decadent times, the duck legs may be crisped and served as is, or used in cassoulet on cold wintry nights. The wings and necks I reserve for myself and for those eaters who appreciate the act of nibbling as much as the food itself. But the gizzards? The gizzards are my constant companions throughout the season because they are manageably small, yet so delicious that they alone can form the base of a complete meal. If you have never before confited, it would not be a bad idea to start with gizzards, which are more forgiving than duck legs and can be cooked in a slow cooker with great success.

A confit of duck gizzards sautéed and served with greens is by far one of my favorite salads, ranking up there with a homemade Caesar. When the gizzard slices are cooked in the fat, brown bits stick to the bottom of pan and provide the ideal conditions for deglazing with vinegar. A red wine vinegar, though quite acidic when cold, becomes considerably milder and more complex as it boils down. The juices of this powerful deglazing liquid are poured over frisée or dark greens, and the gizzards are scattered throughout. The leafy greens, enrobed in fat from the dressing, taste intensely ducky on their own without any additions. Still, like the bistro favorite Frisée aux Lardons, a poached egg would be an unctuous embellishment to the plate.

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Confit of Duck Gizzards

Adapted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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