There is more to waterfowl than breast meat
I love the taste of goose. If I was forced to choose just one meat, goose confit would be it.
Last season our Canada goose decoys failed to bring birds in on a blustery morning with gale-force winds and sideways rain. But my son and I noticed the dugout where we hunted was seeing a lot of air traffic from mallards. We bailed from our blinds, headed to the pothole and duck-walked to the edge of the water. A raft of 100-plus ducks took to the air. In all the excitement, we shot one mallard apiece. It wasn’t five minutes before the ducks were barreling back in and splashing down again. We collected near our limit of birds that day.
I had forgotten how much fun ducks are to shoot— and how much work they are to pluck. We had decided well before the migratory season that we were going to take our time to pluck as many decent birds as we could and push ourselves to make something delicious for the table, something better than we had ever done before.
When we got home, we sorted the ducks into three piles:
- Near-perfect headshot, no damage to the body. We plucked these, chin to ankles.
- Breasts okay. The breasts were in good-enough shape to be plucked and leave the skin We skinned these ducks’ legs.
- Badly shot up. These birds were skinned and cut up to salvage what we could and destined for slow-cooked duck recipes or grilled pieces of duck breast for quesadillas
Our goal was to preserve as much whole, skin-on duck as possible, then as many whole pieces with skin on, and finally make the best of what was left. We plucked the wings down to the last joint. We pulled livers, gizzards and hearts. We kept the carcasses that were in good shape for a soup. And some of those I smoked for duck soup.
Being a chef by trade, I relish the challenge of making something delicious from the field. Last season I focused on what would make wild ducks dang delicious. It was worth the effort and my suggestions are that duck hunt- ers take the time to pluck and make the effort to expand their culinary competency.
My first goal was to master duck confit. Confit sounds elitist-fancy and even a bit snooty, but it is the last thing from that. Confit, as a process, originated with French farmers several hundred years ago to preserve ducks in the fall for a year or two ahead.
A MEANS OF STORAGE
These guys in France weren’t Michelin chefs––they were farmers who slaughtered ducks in the fall with an axe, salted and seasoned them, then after a few days of curing them in the cool fall weather, simmered duck pieces over the fire in iron pots full of duck fat. Once cooked, farmers packed the duck pieces in earthen crocs, covered the works with molten duck fat and wooden planks, then stacked the crocks back in the coolest part of the barn. The legend goes that a French farmer never ate down his confit store below a year’s worth. It was the equivalent of their savings account. That means the confit they ate back then was often more than a year old––and no refrigerators!
A NEW FAVORITE
Confit is my new favorite food. Wild duck and goose confit are delicious, and it is worth giving the process a try. (Rabbits, hares, pheasant legs and even bear are great candidates for confit.) Salting and slow cooking change the texture and flavor of the bird. Confit takes a duck leg from chewy and ordinary, to exquisite.
We no longer require confit to preserve our meats, but we still really enjoy the unique taste of a well-craft- ed confit, so we continue to do it. You can learn more about the process of confit by listening to my podcast interview with Kate Hill. She’s from Agen in the south of France, where she offers a week-long, hands-on duck butchery and confit course. Michael Ruhlman leaned on
Hill when he crafted the confit section of the book. “Char- cuterie.” Hill is an American ex-pat who has logged a couple of decades in France, paying particular attention to the local butchers and their charcuterie processes–– confit in particular.
I have adapted her recipe to make wild duck and goose confit. Hill adds 3 percent salt to meat by weight and leaves it to sit in the fridge overnight. The following day she rinses the (cured) meat in cool running water and dries it. Then she covers it in fat and simmers it in the oven at 180°F for 5 to 8 hours––until it is fork tender.
I did mine in a combination of goose fat and lard. As an alternate to oven roasting, I have made this same recipe in the sous vide bags for seven hours at 180°F with excellent results. The meat turns out mildly salted and fork tender. We use this as an ingredient in our wild game cassoulet. (You can hear this second podcast with Kate Hill.)
Confit is a time-honored way to prepare meat that yields a complex flavor and a tender, silken texture. Pan- fried confit is perfect simply as a pre-dinner celebration of chunks of goose or duck fried with sliced onions and eaten with your fingers and slices of fresh bread. Here’s the recipe.
- 25 kg (5.5 pounds) duck legs (You can top this up with breasts too, but we usually keep those for higher purposes.)
- 40 Grams (3 Tablespoons) coarse salt (I found salt at 1.6% of weight suits our tastes perfectly. Use more if you like a bit more salt.)
- 4 bay leaves
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon Ajowan seed (available here) (As an alternate, use 2 tablespoons of dried Thyme, but Ajowan is my new favorite spice for confit, since it is thyme-flavored but more pungent.)
- 10 allspice berries
- 4 whole cloves
- 4 fresh garlic cloves, sliced
- 2 liters (8 cups) duck fat (I roast a few domestic ducks in the fall, keep the fat and top up with lard or olive oil)
- Rinse duck legs well in cold running water. Dry with paper towels.
- Mix spices and salt, fine grind in a coffee grinder.
- Peel and slice garlic cloves fine.
- Lay duck legs in a glass or ceramic baking dish and sprinkle salt mixture over the legs
- Press garlic slices and bay leaves into the meaty part of the legs.
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 48 hours.
- Remove the duck legs, rinse well in cold water, and dry with a paper towel.
- Place duck legs in a deep Dutch oven to accommodate the legs and cover them with fat.
- Preheat oven to 190°F
- Heat the roaster on the stovetop until the fat starts to bubble. Place in the oven uncovered for up to six hours.
- Check legs with a fork at four hours. When a fork eases into the thigh meat, the duck is done. It might take the full six hours.
- Remove from the oven, let cool, drain fat and remove duck leg.
- When ready to eat the duck leg, place on a baking dish in a 425° F oven until crispy brown. Serve with potatoes roasted in duck fat and some greens.
- Or package for freezing and later use.
A note about fat: Confit is cooked in fat, but by the time the legs are roasted in the oven, most of this cooking fat is removed. Confit is a luxury, not a weekly menu item, so don’t worry about fat content.
While this confit is excellent preparation for waterfowl, the same process works equally well with rabbits and pheasants. The resulting confit also becomes a celebratory ingredient in Cassoulet, Frances’s famous bean and meat casserole. (This will be the focus of a future feature in North American Outdoorsman magazine.)