Monday, 13 December 2010

Duck 'n' such

    Thursday, for the first time in months, I roasted a duck for dinner. As usual, I ended up with a "mature" duck from Fairways, instead of their "young" duck (mature means that the price per kilo is about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of the young duck). Sometimes this works out, sometimes not: mature duck tends to roast up a lot tougher than the young ones.
    I can't remember where I got the recipe for roasting duck, but it is really simple. Remove the wings--at least the end half. As they are really small, they dry out anyway, and can burn. With a very sharp knife, cut through the skin of the breast from breast bone to outside with long diagonal strokes close together. Don't cut into the meat--these cuts are to allow the fat to run out of the bird. Rub with coarse salt and place in an open roaster.
    With an oven temperature of 175C (350F), roast the duck for 1 hour on its back, flip for an hour (to help brown the back) and then flip back for a third hour. I did this once with a young duck at 150C (300F) for a slightly longer time (3.5 to 4 hours) and ended up with the tastiest deep-fried skin imaginable. I've never managed to duplicate that skin.... But that's really all there is to roasting a good duck. And, most importantly, this slow roast seems to maximize the amount of fat that renders out of the duck.
    Because the oven was on anyway, I halved a squash and put some olive oil and butter in it, roasting it alongside the duck. I also found a recipe on for beets:


Beets, preferably all the same size (if not, you'll just have to pull the smaller ones out when they're done
Toasted, whole sweet spices – 1 cinnamon stick, 5 allspice berries, 3 cloves per pound of beets, or to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste


1. Preheat your oven to 400F
2. If the tops are on, cut them off, leaving about 1 inch of their stems. Gently wash the beets of any obvious dirt or mud under cold running water. If the thin root coming off the beet is very long, trim it to an inch or so,
but this isn't strictly necessary.
3. Place the beets in a pan big enough to fit them all with a little room between them. If using, scatter the spices around the beets. Add a little water, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan by 1/8 to 1/4 inch. This creates steam and helps to keep the beet juices from burning.
4. Wrap the pan tightly in foil and place in the oven. Depending on the size of your beets, this can take from 45 minutes to well past an hour. If your beets are 11⁄2 to 2 inches wide, check on them at 45 minutes, being very careful of the hot steam that will come billowing out when you unwrap the foil. They are done when a
skewer or paring knife can slip though them easily. If they're not, re-cover tightly and keep cooking. When
they're ready, take them out and uncover to cool.
5. When the beets are cool enough to handle, the skins should slip and peel off rather easily; just rub them a
bit to get them going. You can wear gloves for this to not stain your hands, but I like using paper towel,
which gets a nice grip on the skins.
6. You can cut the beets now, season them with salt and pepper, dress them however you like, and serve. Or, if you want to put the roastiness back into roasted beets, fire up a big, heavy pan over medium-high heat. Add a little vegetable oil, and when it is shimmering, add the peeled cut beets in one layer and sear them until
you get some nice caramelization. Flip to color the other side. Or, if you have a large quantity of cooked beets to caramelize, toss them with some oil, lay them on a sheet tray, and roast them in the oven at 425F until they've taken on some color. Love them.

Flavors to pair with beets

Beets, walnuts, goat cheese and a light vinaigrette are a classic for a reason, and while I may tire of seeing them on restaurant menus, I won't tire of eating them together. But beets are surprisingly versatile; I find that if I add something acidic to heighten their sweetness and something rich to round it out, lots of flavors from lots of culinary traditions work wonderfully — from the Mediterranean to northern and eastern Europe and beyond. Here are some of my (current) favorite combinations; of course, all of these can be adjusted to your personal taste:
• Mint, olive oil, sherry vinegar or another aged-wine vinegar
• Melted butter and ginger
• Lime, honey, dill
• Oranges and olives
• Yogurt and parsley
• Pine nuts, raisins and vinegar

-- Francis Lam

    Now I didn't want to did through the cupboard looking for all the required spices, so I'm happy to report that they weren't essential. The beets roasted nicely and peeled fairly well--even though I hadn't roasted them hot enough, substituting time for temperature. I also boiled some Yukon Gold potatoes and sieved them when they were cooked through; I got this trick from Heston Blumenthal and the result is a lovely (albeit delicate) version of mashed potatoes. This just meant that I drained them in a metal sieve and then pushed the cooked potato through the sieve with the back of a wooden spoon.
    I knew that "mature" duck tends towards the drier and chewier side of things, so I wanted something to pair up with the meat. Instead of gravy, I bought some fresh cranberries, boiled them with a bit of water until they popped, and then pressed then through the sieve as well. The liquid went back in the pot, I added some sugar to counteract the astringency of the cranberries, thickened with rice flour, and et voila, warm cranberry sauce.
    In the end, only the breast meat was worth eating and it was a bit chewy. But the long roasting time seems to help a bit with that problem. The drumsticks went into the stock I was preparing, and the rest of the carcass went into the fridge to be turned into stock later.
    But as good as dinner was (and it was good, the duck notwithstanding), the most important part of roasting the duck is currently in the refrigerator: the rendered fat. This one duck gave me ~750 ml of fat. It's good for weeks in the refrigerator, longer if frozen. And there is nothing like duck fat to work with potatoes. Fried in duck fat, potatoes take on an extra, silky, texture that cannot be duplicated any other way. I used some of the fat to brown some shallot slices, and then fried a combination of yellow potato with some diced sweet potato for a quick meal (be sure to let the sugars in the sweet potato caramelize), and remembered why I like duck so much. Duck soup is good, roast duck is lovely, but it's the fat that really matters.