We had an odd little impromptu Christmas dinner. Our plans fell through due to snow in the Sierra, so it was just Holly and I. Some sort of bird seemed appropriate for the meal, so I pulled out a huge fat gadwall Holly’d shot on Sunday.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without stuffing, and since I’d already made a large batch I had planned to take to our gathering, all I needed to do was bake it. I am fond of stuffings: They are always idiosyncratic, as the only real constants are some sort of bread and some sort of onion. You can pack them into a pan and make a stout stuffing, or gently place them into their vessel, which results in an airy, fluffy dressing; that’s how I prefer it.
My stuffing hinges on mushrooms and chestnuts. Chestnut stuffing just seems so festive, and they add a nice solid texture to an otherwise soft dressing. As for mushrooms, I used portobello this time, but any will do — even buttons. Add some sage, some lardons of pancetta, a few shallots and a full quart of duck broth and this was one tasty stuffing. New Year’s Resolution: Make stuffing more than twice a year…
To start the meal, I made Sicilian salt cod fritters. I love baccala, and deep-frying it in fritters is my favorite way to eat it. I typically do this with potato as a binder, but I did not have any — so I switched to breadcrumbs. I used two kinds: regular for mixing, and panko to coat. I like the fuzzy effect panko creates when deep-fried.
What makes it Sicilian? Pine nuts and mint. I probably should have added golden raisins, but I don’t like raisins much. Here is the recipe. How were they? A little dense, as I had forgotten to chop the baccala before putting it in the food processor: This meant the meat fibers remained long, so they were a tad stringy. Yummy, but stringy. They were better the second day reheated in the toaster oven.
But the main course — and the reason I am writing this post – is because I have found another good way to roast wild ducks and geese: slow-roast them. Why bother with another method? Well, Holly’s gadwall was gi-normous, and nearly as fat as a domestic duck. This is rare, even here in Northern California, where most of our ducks are fatty.
If I roasted this gadwall the usual way, the fat would prevent the skin from crisping up properly — although browning it in a pan first helps a lot. So I went to my library and came up with Clarissa Dickson Wright’s The Game Cookbook, which includes a recipe for mallard with a Port and orange sauce.
After reading her recipe, I decided to riff off it. I’d use apricot jam instead of marmalade — I’m not a big fan of marmalade — and a little more tomato paste than she calls for, plus duck stock, duck fat instead of butter, and a teaspoon of pureed red jalapenos from the garden instead of dried cayenne.
Here’s how I slow-roasted the duck. The effect was dramatic. The fat ballooned in the oven, making the gadwall look like a little butterball. The wrinkles you see is what happened when the duck came out of the oven; it deflated.
But the skin was oh-so crispy! And the fat was sweet and rich and oh God I really, really want it to run down my chin again it was so good so good so good…sorry, lost myself for a second. But it was really that good! The meat was fully cooked, which I normally think is overdone, but with its fat blanket the breasts weren’t dry in the least. What’s more, the legs were completely cooked. This is the main flaw of my usual duck-roasting method; underdone thighs.
As for the sauce, since it was Christmas I didn’t want to de-fat it the way I would normally (as you can see), and it was still a perfect combination of sweet, fruity, deep, sharp and rich. Really a triumph — better even than the excellent Cumberland sauce I’d made for the duck hunter’s dinner. Here’s how to make it. The takeaway? Slow-roasting is a perfect method for cooking domestic ducks, and is a great alternative for wild waterfowl — when life gives you a fat duck.