Pretending to get ready for winter
Lately, I’ve found a new hobby: duck hunting.
Okay, I haven’t actually been going out with a gun to shoot them down out of the sky, but I have been prowling all the local grocery stores to find them. I’ve spent the better part of the last month on a mission to make duck confit, and given that I live in a town with a park devoted to all manner of waterfowl, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find ducks.
When I finally found some Brome Lake ducks at a nearby Sobeys, I snatched them up and immediately set to work.
Duck confit is duck (usually the legs, although apparently you can confit the breasts as well) that has been cured overnight with salt, slow cooked in rendered fat (usually duck fat, although you can mix in some lard as well) and then stored in that same fat, which hardens as it cools, forming a natural seal to keep the air out. This effectively preserves the meat (“confit” is just French for “preserved”). In Charcuterie, the book whose confit recipe I used (although I have at least four others), Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn write:
“Ducks and geese may have been the raison d’être of the confit. When it came time to harvest the foie gras, the valuable fattened liver from specially raised birds, French farmers would have had far more meat than they could eat or sell. Happily, the birds produced extraordinary amounts of fat. So they first cured the meat with salt, then poached it in its own fat and left it to cool submerged in that fat.”
This may explain why I associate duck confit with autumn and winter. Since the ducks are presumably slaughtered at this time of year after spending all summer getting fat, it would be the right season for making and starting to consume confit. Of course, we don’t need to preserve meat with salt and fat anymore, since we have freezers and other such modern tools, but we continue to do so because it still tastes good. And with preparations as, well, arcane as confit, that sense of its relationship with the season hasn’t quite gone away for me. I could have made this recipe at any time of the year (the ducks were frozen when I bought them) but it’s nice to pretend I’m getting ready for a long, cold winter.
(Interestingly, a recent study has shown that there’s no discernible difference in flavour between confit that’s been cooked the traditional way, and duck that’s been cooked with moist heat at a controlled temperature, then rubbed with duck fat.
Because I was working with whole ducks, I set aside lots of time to make the confit. First, I broke the ducks down into legs, boned breasts, fat and carcasses. The breasts went back into the freezer (something that I’m sure would offend many food safety experts), the legs went into their overnight salt-and-spice cure, the carcasses went into roasting pans en route to the stockpot, and the fat went into a pot to render.
The next day, I rinsed the salt off the legs, patted them dry and placed them in my large Le Creuset Dutch oven. I took the rendered fat, plus some additional fat I’d purchased, melted it in a saucepan and poured it over the duck legs. Once I was satisfied they were covered (I had to add a little bit of lard as well), I put them in the oven on it’s lowest setting. Six hours later, the fat was clear, the juices were all at the bottom, and the legs were tender. Into the fridge it went. For a week.
Last night was the big night, when I finally pulled the confit out of the fat, cooked it up and ate it. We had a couple of friends over, and served it over a risotto spiked with fresh shiitakes and dried Porcini. I forgot to take photos of the finished plate, but that’s alright, since it was entirely monochromatic.
The taste and texture, though, were amazing. Rich, salty, and meltingly tender. My husband, who had had a bad experience with duck confit in the past, had set out steak knives, but one of our guests rightly observed that you could have eaten it with a spoon.
If this is preparing for winter, I think I can handle the snow.