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Friday, June 10, 2016

Ducks In A Row

Several years ago, in a desperate effort to escape the suffocating summer heat of New York City and my non air-conditioned 4th floor walk up apartment in Hell's Kitchen, I  rented a cheap car and blasted out of the city for a day trip to the Hamptons on Long Island. Without an agenda or schedule, I simply wanted to get as far away from New York as possible. I hadn't driven a car in years, so managing the expressways, exits, bridges, and tunnels out of New York was a stretch, to say the least. Once I made it safely out of the tangled mess and onto Highway 27 (Montauk Highway), a calm blew over me like a gentle cool breeze. Without a care in the world, I spent the day driving, beach hopping, and soaking in the countryside.

With time melting away, a late afternoon mist echoed my melancholy as I made the turn to return home.  Hoping to squeeze more time out of the day, I pulled into what appeared to be a rundown roadside restaurant. Swallowed by the shadows of overhanging pine trees and draped in a faux tudor-style facade, the restaurant seemed to be lost in time. Embracing its time worn sensibility, a low fire burned in a cobblestone fireplace next to tufted half moon leather banquettes surrounded by empty white tablecloth covered tables. Summer in the Hamptons, I thought. Snugly tucked into one of the enormous scalloped banquettes and feeling decades older than my 22 years, I tasted my first bite of duck confit. Stained with a brooding red wine reduction and splayed over a simple potato puree, that old world succulent duck confit forever anchored my crush on crispy unctuous fat. Yep.

Confit: confire or to preserve.
Cured with salt, poached in duck fat, cooled, and stored beneath a layer of fat, duck confit was and is an old school method for preserving cooked duck without refrigeration for long periods of time. Nowadays, without the need for long term preservation, the method is used mostly as a tenderizer and flavor enhancer.

Once cooked and chilled, duck confit is wildly versatile. Whether served over duck fat fried potatoes, stuffed into tacos, shredded onto wood fired pizza, sauced with pasta, tucked into cassoulets, or packed into rillettes, duck confit is a glorious concentrated fat forward flavor bomb.

While simple to prepare, duck confit takes time. Like a slow meandering drive through the backroads
of the Bluegrass, the journey is worth savoring.

Duck Confit Summer Market Salad.
While whole ducks, breasts, and thigh/leg quarters are readily available at most supermarkets or specialty food shops, I was a very happy boy when I stumbled across locally raised whole Peking ducks offered up by Farmer Joe from Salvisa, Kentucky at the Chevy Chase Farmers' Market. I snagged two plump birds.

The Breakdown.
Working with one thigh/leg quarter at a time, I sliced the skin between the legs and breasts from each duck, pulled the legs back to snap the bones, sliced through the connecting tissues and joints, ripped the thigh/leg quarters from the birds, set them aside, and repeated the process until all 4 quarters were dispatched.

I took a gentler approach with the breast meat. After making long slices down each side of the breastbones, I carefully pulled the meat away from the bones while making long slicing passes down the rib cages until the meat fell away from the breastbones, leaving visible fat lines as guidelines as to where to slice the breast meat away from the birds. After repeating the breast cuts for all 4 breasts, I set the breasts aside and trimmed the remaining fat from each duck before stashing the carcasses and breast meat in the freezer. I tossed the reserved fat into a cast iron skillet set over a medium flame, slowly rendered the fat for 1 hour and 45 minutes, strained the fat, set it aside to cool, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

The Cure.
After snipping the tendons at the tips of the each leg to release the skin, I showered the duck quarters with 3 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, tossed them into a bowl with a few sprigs of fresh thyme, 5 cloves of smashed Jessamine County garlic cloves, and cracked black pepper. I massaged the salty cure into the meat, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and placed the duck into the refrigerator to cure for 24 hours.

The Fat Tub.
I pulled the cured duck quarters from the refrigerator, rinsed off the salt, patted them dry with a dish towel, and set them aside. After warming 4 cups duck fat ( 2 cups rendered combined with 2 cups purchased from Critchfield Meats) in a large cast iron dutch oven, I submerged the duck pieces in the melted fat, brought the heat to a rippling simmer, and slid the dutch oven (uncovered) into a preheated 235 degree oven for 2 1/2 hours. When the meat was knife tender, I carefully lifted the quarters out of the molten fat, gently placed them into a deep dish, strained the hot fat through a fine mesh strainer, ladled the cleaned fat over the duck, and let the fat cool before sliding the confit into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Duck. Fat. Duck.
The Salad.
I gingerly plucked the duck quarters  out of the congealed fat (while leaving some fat clinging to the pieces), slipped them into a large cast iron skillet skin side up, and slid the skillet into a preheated 350 oven to warm through and crisp.

I have a thing for glazes. I spooned 4 tablespoons sugar into small cast iron skillet set over a medium flame. When the sugar started to caramelize, I hit the bubbling browned sugar with 4 tablespoons sherry vinegar and let it rip until the combination slowly relaxed and melted into a glossy sweet and tart gastrique.

After 25 minutes, I pulled the crispy duck quarters from the oven, brushed them with the gastrique, and set them aside to rest.

I tossed hand torn Stonehedge Farm feathery baby mustard greens and  julienned Marion County raw baby yellow squash with a bracing dijon vinaigrette ( 3 tablespoons dijon, 3 tablespoons vinegar, 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, salt, and crfacked black pepper). After nestling the duck confit over the greens, I scattered roasted Stonehedge Farm baby fennel to the side before finishing with quick pickled Boyd County radishes, steamed Casey County baby beets, and Boyle County cherry tomatoes.

Tucked under the ridiculously tender confit, the peppery greens and sharp vinaigrette cut through the haunting richness of the lacquered duck. While the chilled earthy beets, halved tomatoes, and snappy yellow squash added fresh pops, the quick pickled radishes provided acidic biting crunch.


Get your ducks in a row
with a confit market salad.

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