The “holidaze” had come and gone, and since this year Christmas had veered away from the gigantic, involved mega-feast that it has been in the past, I craved a challenge.
Duck! Can’t be harder than a chicken or turkey, right?
After calling up my friend, an actual chef, my confidence started melting faster than my frozen duck could thaw.
“Basically you have a 30 second window between done to perfection and rubbery shoe leather,” he said.
Oh, great! So I am chained to the oven, indefinitely.
“You will know it’s done when the juices run clear,” is the last piece of instruction he gave me.
Granted, I desired a challenge and it is hard to teach anyone to cook without being there. Cooking is truly a hands-on experience, involving all your senses and gut feelings. Maybe that’s why chefs get so big; their “gut feelings” just keep on growing...
Anyway, a quick excursion on the internet gave me just enough information to feel completely insecure. There must not be a market on the internet for instructions on how to cook a whole duck. Googling “whole duck” was frustrating, yielding inconclusive, incomplete pieces of directions. Eventually I figured it was easier to plunge into it; no time for cold [duck]feet.
[Also, as an aside, I recently got the Julia Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and that offered exactly what I wished I had for cooking a whole duck, and many suggestions of what to pair with it and such. When I make duck again, I will be pulling that handy dandy cookbook out…]
I invited a friend over to assist me in my quest. Still, my biggest fear was that it would taste like we were eating a rubber bath toy. And the first line of one person’s directions inspired no further confidence in me: “If you have ever cooked a chicken or turkey, throw that knowledge out the window! Duck is an entirely different animal.”
I wouldn’t go that far.
Our guy was a 5 lb. duck. At first glance it looks like a longer, skinnier chicken with some extra fatty padding. So it could not be that different. It did not have three necks or one breast or anything.
As we made the broth first by browning the giblets and neck, I had a handful or so of dried cherries soaking in brandy for the Rosemary and Brandied-Cherry Stuffing that I was going to make up later.
But back to the slippery duck left in the sink...some tips before you bake this bird. Duck is fatty, that’s why they float in water. This is also why it is such a flavorful fowl. So don’t skin the duck in an attempt to shave off calories, it’s not worth it. Duck fat is essential to the cooking process, but don’t feel like you have to eat it at the table. The meat will absorb all the fatty goodness it can by the end of its baking. Also, be generous on your salt and pepper when seasoning the inside body cavity.
All these learned lessons aside, watching your duck in the oven has the same nervous excitement that a child would experience while waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. Long story short, the duck finally got to the point where the juices run rosy clear. Looks like we are having duck for dinner after all!
Duck, College Style -- Simple.
1 4 - 5lb. frozen duck
Salt and pepper
1T Lemon juice
1. First, after you buy your frozen friend, you should thaw it in a refrigerator for a day or two. Once you are ready to cook it, bring it out and bring it to room temperature before baking. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425F degrees
2. Clean the duck. [If you’ve never done this, a word to the squeamish – a duck body cavity is an ice cold, black hole yielding squishy purple organs and a long slimy neck.] Now that you know what you are in for, clean out the basin of your sink, plop the duck down and dump out the fluids. Cut off unnecessary fat around the neck or chest cavity. Next, take out the giblets put them onto a plate covered with paper towels.
3. Removing the wishbone, or trussing. This makes it easier to carve, but honestly is not necessary to cooking a perfect bird. I didn’t do it this time, and nothing negative happened. Still, if you are set on breaking the wishbone and receiving your wish, here is how I was taught to do it: run your finger along the breast until you find the bone. Then using a sharp knife, cut along the top edge and along both sides of the wishbone. Hold the wishbone with your fingers and yank it free from the bird.
4. Seasoning. Doesn’t take much. Squirt a tablespoon of lemon juice or so into the body cavity, followed by few dashes of salt and pepper. Rub them all around; top, sides, everywhere inside.
5. Take your mark. Place the duck, breast side up, in a roasting pan [if you had to substitute I would say use a 13x9in baking pan].
6. Get set: secure your skin, tie your legs, and tuck your wings. Pin any excess skin around the neck or body cavity together with toothpicks. Pull the legs together and make an X. Tie them together tightly with twine or string. Tuck the wings underneath and tie them close to the body.
7. Go! Put your bird into the oven, uncovered, for 15 min to brown the outside fatty layer of the breast.
8. Slow down. Decrease temperature of oven to 350F degrees, turn the bird to one side and continue cooking for about 25 min. Then after another 25 min turn it to the other side. Remember, no basting necessary.
9. Last stretch. In the final 15-30 min [depending on whether you want your duck medium rare – which I highly suggest, cooking it to well done is overcooking it if you ask me], turn the bird back so that it’s facing breast up. When the juices run clear, or the bird is about 150 degrees with a meat thermometer, it is finished.
10. Rest, relax, and dig in. Take the duck out and put on a serving platter. A cutting board is better than a plate. Let it cool before cutting. When you cut, it may be a bit rare, or pink, but fear not! The tenderness you are about to experience may have you eyeing those ducks at your local pond and thinking to yourself, man, would they be good with some stuffing!