Duck regularly appears on the menus of the best restaurants but is rarely cooked at home. Why? It is far tastier than chicken, and once you’ve mastered the cooking techniques, it provides a real change from the more-favoured proteins in our diet. A juicy duck breast costs no more than a good steak.
The hunting season used to yield the only ducks we knew, but over the past six years a state-of-the-art farm and processing plant in the Waikato has produced around 15,000 ducks a week for North Island customers. Most are destined for Asian barbecue shops, specialty stores and Chinese restaurants. But more than a quarter are processed, marketed and delivered to the restaurant trade and supermarkets by Gameford Lodge, under its Saveur brand.
In the South Island, Canter Valley produces duck for retailers and restaurants. The variety we buy is pekin (no relation to the famous Peking duck recipe served in China), which is harvested at 42-45 days (at about 2kg), when it is young and tender. Many cooks find ducks fatty; the fat layer develops because ducks are waterfowl that need protective fat for warmth.
During the cooking process it is necessary to render this fat. Long, slow cooking, followed by a period of roasting at a high temperature, ensures tender meat that falls from the bone, and a crisp skin. The breast, at about 60% of the duck’s weight, is the most prized cut. When buying duck, don’t be fooled by the portion size. For heartier appetites, I allow one duck per two people, as there’s not enough meat for four, despite the weight when purchased. As the fat runs off, the breast and legs seem to shrink and the portion seems quite manageable. The fat also ensures the flesh does not dry out. Collect the fat, strain it off from the sediment that settles at the bottom and store it in the fridge or freezer.
It makes the most perfect roast potatoes, with the flavour retained in the fat. Whole duck and roast portions should be served thoroughly cooked. A little pinkness is acceptable if the recipe is for grilled or pan-fried breast. See more about cooking duck in the recipes here, both of which are knockouts. The first may seem a lot of work, but it is well worth it. Your friends may think you can cook like a chef. The recipe will work equally well with duck legs, but shorten the braising time by 30 minutes and the roasting time by 15 minutes.
TWICE-ROASTED SPICY WHOLE DUCK WITH NECTARINES OR PEACHES
- 2 whole ducks
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 onions, chopped
- 3 sticks celery, sliced
- 3 pods star anise
- 6 sprigs thyme
- 2 cups water
- 1 tbsp flour
- 1 cup chicken or duck stock
- 2 tbsp five-spice powder
- salt and pepper
- 6 nectarines or peaches, halved
- garnish: basil leaves
Set the oven to 150°C. Take a sharp knife and remove the neck and tail. Cut each duck in half, by slicing through the middle down the length of the breast, then flattening it out and cutting through the length of the back. Wipe the halves dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Place the chopped vegetables in a roasting pan with the star anise and thyme, then place the duck halves rib-cage down on top. Bring the water to a boil and tip into the pan. Cover tightly with tinfoil and place the dish in the oven. Allow the ducks to braise slowly for 2½ hours. The meat should be very tender. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, strain the pan juices into a large container. Allow this to set in the fridge and save the fat for other uses. You can make the sauce at this stage by deglazing the pan with the fl our and stock. Allow to bubble up while stirring for 5 minutes. Tip into a small saucepan for easy reheating later. Once the duck is cool, carefully remove the breast bones and rib cage. They should come away easily. Leave the wing and leg bones intact to give the duck shape. Forty-five minutes before you want to serve the duck, preheat the oven to 200°C. Rub the skin with five-spice powder and a little salt and pepper. Place on a rack over a baking dish and roast for 25-30 minutes until the skin is crisp and the fat rendered. Reheat the sauce, adding the halved peaches or nectarines to warm. Serve the duck halves on a heated platter and tip the sauce and fruit over. Garnish with basil leaves and serve at once with roasted potatoes and fresh green beans. Serves 4 (or maybe 6 small appetites). Wine match: a rich pinot noir.
DUCK-BREAST SALAD WITH BEETROOT, GREENS, POTATOES AND WALNUTS
- 10 baby beetroot
- 2 large waxy potatoes
- 3 tbsp duck fat
- handful of fresh walnuts
- 1 tbsp liquid honey
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 large duck breasts
- salt and pepper
- 3 cups fresh mixed salad leaves and herbs
- a few opal basil leaves and herb flowers to decorate
- juice of 1 lemon
Prepare all the ingredients. Boil the beetroot in water until tender (about 25 minutes), then peel and cut in half. Peel and slice the potatoes and blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes. Melt the duck fat in a heavy frying pan and gently fry the potatoes until golden and tender. Toss the walnuts in a roasting pan, coating with the honey and a tablespoon of the oil, then roast at 170°C for 5-7 minutes until crisp. Slash the duck skin in a criss-cross pattern and generously season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining oil in a heavy frying pan and add the duck skinside down. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes until the skin is crisp and much of the fat has been released. Turn the breast over and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove and allow the meat to rest for 5 minutes before slicing. To assemble the salad, wash and dry the leaves and herbs, then spread over a large serving platter. Scatter the beetroot, potatoes, walnuts and duck slices over the top. Finish with basil leaves and flowers, then drizzle a little hot duck fat and the lemon juice over everything. Serves 4. Wine match: chardonnay.