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.
A Culinary Anatomy of Duck
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.
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 rib cages are finger food at its best."
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.
Confiting Is Not Just for Duck Legs
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.
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. Sautéed 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.
Among 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.
Confit of Duck Gizzards
Adapted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert.
- 1 1/2 pounds large duck gizzards
- 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
- 1 medium shallot, chopped
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lightly crushed black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves or herbes de Provence
- 4 cups rendered duck fat, or a combination of duck fat and lard
- 1 cup homemade confit of duck gizzards
- Freshly ground pepper
- 6 ounces mixed greens (arugula, radicchio, frisée, mache, etc)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the gizzards and pat dry. Cut or pull away any extraneous fat or membranes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the gizzards with the salt, shallots, garlic, peppercorns, and herbs. Cover with plastic wrap and let cure in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 12 hours.
The following day, rinse the gizzards and place them into a heavy pot, of small to medium size. Pour the fat over the gizzards and place the pot over low heat. Slowly heat the fat, over the course of forty minutes, to a temperature of 225°F. The fat should be barely simmering; do not raise the heat, or else the gizzards will be tough when cooked through. Cook slowly for 2 to 3 hours, until the gizzards are extremely tender. Alternatively, place the gizzards in an ovenproof bowl or casserole dish, and cook in the oven at 225°F for 2 to 3 hours. Alternatively, cook the gizzards in a slow cooker, partially covered, for approximately 6 hours on low temperature.
Remove the gizzards from the fat. Use at once, or store in glass canning jars, with enough fat to completely submerge the gizzards. If necessary, add more fat, lard, or olive oil to cover. Refrigerate until you are ready to use. The gizzards will keep up to 2 weeks in the fat in the refrigerator, or freeze in plastic tubs or bags.
To use: Bring the jar of gizzards to room temperature. Steam the jar to soften the fat and then remove the gizzards, reserving the fat for use in cooking.
Confit of Duck Gizzards with a Salad of Mixed Greens
adapted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert
Thinly slice the gizzards and set aside.
Rinse and dry the greens; then tear into bite-size pieces.
Place the gizzards in a medium skillet with a few teaspoons of the duck fat. Gently cook over low heat until hot, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove the gizzards from the skillet. Pour the vinegar into the skillet and deglaze, stirring to get all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. The vinegar should be thoroughly mixed with the duck fat; add a bit of Dijon mustard if you like, to help along the emulsification.
Pour the contents of the skillet over the salad greens and toss to mix. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Arrange the greens on plates with the gizzards scattered liberally throughout.