Ages ago I used to love a Friulian recipe for duck breast cooked in sguazeto — a preparation akin to a ragu — and a Tuscan near cousin using squab. Then one day I saw some nice-looking ducks in a local shop and had a “Eureka!” moment. Why not use a whole duck — but skin it first? The benefit would be twofold: an excellent, non-greasy ragu using homemade duck stock, and some beautiful duck fat to be rendered and saved for other purposes like frying potatoes.
I went home, improvised a hybrid ragu from both versions, and made the skin into rendered fat and cracklings. I’ve been repeating this feat ever since — though only when I’m up for a real kitchen marathon. Don’t expect one of those neat little recipes calling for chicken stock and four or six ready-bought duck legs. And extracting liquid gold from duck skin takes time. But you’ll be surprised at how far small amounts of either ragu or duck fat go.
Luckily the whole thing can be done in steps over two or three days. I skin the duck and cut it up first. (Occasionally I add one or two extra duck legs — skinning them also — for a larger yield.) The legs and breasts go into the fridge along with the skin while I make the stock. I can resume the ragu the next day and tackle the rendering job the day after.
Yield: about 8 cups
For the stock:
For the ragu and to finish the dish:
- Remove the giblets and neck (if included), rinse under cold water, and pat dry. Refrigerate the giblets, covered. With a small, sharp knife, cut off the wings as close to the body as possible and set aside with the neck. Inserting the knife tip under any convenient edge of skin, work the skin loose a little at a time. Messy and tedious, but it doesn’t have to look good. Cut the skin free from each drumstick close to the tip. Pull out any fat from the cavity. Refrigerate the skin and fat in a small container, tightly covered.
- Use the same knife to detach both legs. With a heavier knife or poultry shears, cut through the ribs. Pull, bend and cut to separate the back from the breast side. I don’t bother to halve or bone the breast, since the meat will eventually be cut up anyhow.
- Refrigerate the legs and breast, well covered.
To make the stock:
- Cut the wings into separate joints; if the neck is included, chop it in two. Bend the back until it snaps enough to be cut all the way through. Place the wings, neck and back pieces in a small saucepan. Add parsley, wine, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, partly covered, for 1½ to 2 hours. Strain the stock through a mesh strainer. You should have about 2½ to 3 cups. If you are not continuing at once with the recipe, refrigerate the stock, tightly covered.
To make the ragu:
- When you are ready to continue, use a large, heavy knife to chop the onion, carrots, celery, and optional garlic into a mixture like very fine hash. (Yes, you can chop them separately, but it won’t taste the same.) Set aside.
- Drain the porcini, saving the soaking liquid. Rinse them under running water to remove any clinging grit. Chop medium-fine and set aside. Strain the soaking liquid through fine cheesecloth into a small bowl and set aside. Chop the duck gizzard, heart, and liver quite fine and set aside. Warm the reserved duck stock in a small pan and set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in a large, wide saucepan over medium-low heat. When it is fragrant, add the pancetta and cook, stirring, until the fat is mostly rendered out. Add the chopped vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are cooked through, about 10 – 15 minutes. Stir in the minced porcini and duck liver and giblets. Let simmer for a few minutes before adding the duck legs and breast. Cook over medium heat, turning the duck pieces occasionally, until they lose their raw color. Add the wine, increase the heat to medium-high, and let the liquid nearly evaporate before adding the tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, mushroom soaking liquid, and 1 cup of duck stock. Simmer over low heat, partly covered, for 1 hour. If the liquid seems to be evaporating fast, add another ½ cup of stock.
- A whole on-the-bone breast should be done in about an hour and 15 minutes. Start testing for tenderness after 1 hour. Remove it from the pan; let the legs continue cooking another 5 – 10 minutes (or as necessary). Detach the breast meat from the bones and cut it into medium-small dice (about ⅓ inch). When the legs are tender, cut off the meat and cut into bite-sized pieces. Return the bones to the pot.
- Taste the sauce and season to your preference with salt and pepper. Add the chopped sage along with 1 more cup of broth, turn up the heat to high, and let the sauce cook down and thicken until the liquid is nearly evaporated. Remove the bones, add the diced meat, and simmer just until heated through.
- Serve the ragu over pasta (preferably some sturdy fresh kind like bigoli), gnocchi or polenta, with some freshly grated Parmesan. 2 cups of this richly concentrated sauce are enough for about 1 pound of pasta. It can be successfully reheated and is if anything better after a day or two. It also freezes well.
Rendered Fat and Cracklings
Yield: Depending on the size of the duck, usually about ½ to ⅔ cup cracklings and 2½ cups rendered fat
- Try not to work in a hot, steamy kitchen, or the pieces of skin will get too slippery to be conveniently cut up. It will be easier if you put the skin into the freezer for about 20 minutes, then work quickly (or handle a little at a time, returning the rest to the freezer as you work).
- With a very sharp knife, cut the skin and any stray pieces of fat into strips no larger than 1-by-½ inch. Don’t worry if they’re messy-looking. Put them into a large, wide, heavy skillet with 1 cup cold water. Cook over medium heat, watching carefully, until the water has boiled away and the clear fat is free to rise above 212 F. This may take 30 to 40 minutes or quite a bit longer, depending on the size and shape of your pan. Reduce the heat to low; keep watching the pan, stirring frequently, as the bits of skin barely start to brown. In another 10 to 20 minutes some white foam will appear as the internal water content begins to be driven off.
- Turn off the heat, scoop out the half-done cracklings into a medium-sized heavy skillet, and set over medium heat, watching carefully. Turn the heat to low as the foaming increases. Cook, stirring frequently and pressing down on the larger bits, until the foaming starts to subside and the cracklings are a medium brown. Remove from the heat and scoop into a shallow heatproof dish or pie plate lined with paper towels.
- Pour the clear fat through a fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof cup or bowl, along with any fat that’s collected in the smaller skillet. Store the drained cracklings and cooled fat separately.
Afterthought: Some cooks add a thin-sliced onion to the pan along with the duck skin and water. The onion not only communicates a lovely flavor to the fat but gets as crisp and delicious as the cracklings.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.
Photo composite: Take advantage of your duck’s copious amount of delicious fat.
Credits: Paul Cowan / istockphoto.com for duck, and Expressions by Christine / Flickr for cutting board