Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Nobody seems to have time to make dinner - at least, that's what 90 percent of the cooking shows on television and magazine articles would have you believe. Even my favorite, go-to source for culinary ideas, "Cook's Illustrated" magazine, seems hellbent on cutting corners and eliminating steps to create the perfect, 20-minute pot roast or "no-stir" risotto. I understand a lot of folks are pressed for time, but if you don't have time to cook healthy, wholesome meals from the heart, it's probably because you've chosen other things in your life to prioritize over the food you eat. I know some people for which food is simply fuel to run daily bodily functions while they pursue happiness away from the dinner table. I, on the other hand, am at the other end of the spectrum. Life is too short to eat bad food. Here's a particularly worthwhile example:
Wood duck confit on a bed of arugula.

Confit (pronounced cone-fee) is an ancient method of preserving meats, traditionally duck or goose, in their own, rendered fat. The pieces of fowl are salted and seasoned, then completely submerged in fat and slow-cooked until they are fall-off-the-bone tender. Once that is achieved, the meat can be stored, in stasis, for weeks, even months, in a cool dark place (or, in more modern times, the refrigerator). When one is ready to serve the confit, the vessel containing the solidified fat and delectable morsels within is heated to liquefy the fat and allow access. The meat is then seared on the stove top to give it a toothsome crust and served forthwith.
Though fairly straightforward, the process is time-consuming and perhaps daunting to those living in fear of the perceived evils of animal fat. The result, however, is nothing short of miraculous - turning dense, fibrous portions like legs and thighs into melt-in-your mouth tidbits of richly complex protein. The technique is a Godsend to hunters who have long wondered what, if anything to do with those leg-and-thigh quarters of their wild ducks and geese, which are usually best-prepared separately from the breast meat because they take longer to cook. Since developing my own method for confit of wild game a couple of years ago, I typically start the process by saving all of the plucked leg-and-thigh quarters from my ducks through the season until I have enough to do a big batch that will keep practically indefinitely in the fridge (though it never comes close to lasting more than a couple of weeks).
The pricking of the skin
First off, one must have duck fat and lots of it. In some parts of the country, the wild ducks have enough fat to render for this purpose, but in my experience in North Carolina, the birds are too skinny to make such an endeavor worthwhile. The easy thing to do would be to buy canned duck fat in the gourmet store or online, but that means you're giving up the second best reason to render fat - eating the duck. Store-bought domestic ducks have gobs of fat and are typically available in the freezer section for $16-18 for a five-pound bird. You can kill two ducks with one recipe by following "The Amazing Five-Hour Roast Duck" recipe, attributed to Mindy Heiferling in "The 150 Best American Recipes" cookbook - another must-have, favorite of mine. The gist of Heiferling's technique is shallow pricking the skin all over the duck and roasting it in a low, 300-degree oven for the first four hours. At one-hour intervals, you remove the duck, pour off the rendered fat into a container, re-prick the skin, turn the bird over and return it to the oven. In the fifth and final hour, you turn the oven up to 350 to crisp the skin. Allow the bird to rest for 20 minutes, then carve and serve. The result is absolutely delicious AND you get about 1-1/2 cups of liquid gold. I have found I need approximately 5 cups of fat to cover a batch of duck legs, so I repeat the process three times leading up to the hunting season so I'll have what I need when it's time to make the confit (trust me, eating three domestic ducks roasted in this fashion is not a hardship). The fat is kept covered in the fridge for months until I'm ready to use it.
Let's skip past the gathering of the wild ducks for now and assume you have 8-20 leg-and-thigh portions defrosted. The next step is to cure the meat for a short period in a mixture of:
  • 2 cups of Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 2 Tbsp black peppercorns
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 1 bunch of fresh thyme
Duck legs on the cure. Cover them with the remaining salt and seasoning mixture.
The ingredients and proportions listed are used by chef Tom Colicchio at his "Craft" restaurant in New York City, but you can play with them to suit your own taste. I diverge from Colicchio in the time the duck is allowed to cure. Where he uses big, fatty domestic duck legs and cures them in the refrigerator for 12 hours, I'm using relatively tiny and skinny wild duck legs and cure them for 4. Once the cure time is finished, take the legs out of their salty bed and wash them off thoroughly under the faucet. Pat them dry, place them in a pot big enough to hold them in a layer or two and cover them with melted duck fat. Bring the fat up to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and leave it for 2-1/2 hours or until the meat begins to separate from the bones. If you aren't intimate with the vagaries of your stove top, watch the process carefully until you're satisfied the fat is holding at the gentlest of simmers. Do not let the fat come to a boil, as this will toughen the meat irreparably. Now cool your confit and place the covered vessel in the fridge for at least a week, until you're ready to move forward with the final steps, as described above.
"Bunged" and ready for storage.

I've made this with both wild duck and wild goose, and I daresay the technique would work for rabbit and squirrel as well. If you're a waterfowler who breasts out his birds and deems the rest too troublesome to bother with, I beg you to give this confit a try. I guarantee you'll be plucking all of your gamebirds and breaking out the legs and thighs for this ultra-slow food preparation for the rest of your hunting days. If you don't hunt, try it with domestic duck parts, or rabbit, or pork. Either way, it will be worth every single minute, hour, day, week and month you put into it.

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