I don't know about you, but I'm thankful that Thanksgiving week is finally over.
The funny thing is, I barely even celebrated it this year.
No, turkeys had no reason to fear me. I yawned at the sight of yet another golden roasted bird on the cover of each and every November magazine and Wednesday food section (and felt sympathy for those poor writers who have to feign enthusiasm for yet another story on the proper way to bake a pumpkin pie, the perils of improperly defrosted birds, or the absurd notion that there is any wine that can stand up to sticky cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes). I decided I wanted none of that, so I (and my blog) took a holiday this year from the topic of traditional Thanksgiving foods.
With N swamped by graduate school and parent-teacher conferences and me searching hopelessly for some sane way to make a living, this was the ideal year to resolve to skip Thanksgiving. Some of our friends went out of town, and we declined invitations to join the celebrations of others. Even my brother, visiting from San Diego, sought his dose of dry white meat drowned in lumpy gravy at someone else's house.
My defenses began to show weaknesses Tuesday morning, however. A plan hatched spontaneously in my mind to go to the farmers market that afternoon in Berkeley, perhaps my favorite outdoor market in the Bay Area. My anti-Thanksgiving resolve completely withered at the sight of multi-hued pumpkins, freshly dug potatoes, wet kale, and soft persimmons illuminated by the market's kerosene lanterns as dusk fell.
Before I knew it, my inner Scrooge, fully (and properly) thawed, was phoning the butcher to order not a goose for the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, but a Liberty duck for N and myself. Alas, there would after all be a meal that, in appearance, somewhat resembled Thanksgiving.
After a fireside dinner of succulent slow-roasted duck and a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin (a French pinot noir from Burgundy), I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to the temperamental oversized American bird that needs to be brined, heavily salted, massaged with butter and caressed with spices just to taste reasonably good.
I discovered that no flour-thickened gravy can compete with a sauce made from caramelized duck bones (see recipe below). Nor can the embarrassing avalanche of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole compare with the austere simplicity of turnips and carrots roasted beneath the duck in its luxurious fat.
As for pumpkin pie, I'll take mine any other autumn day in the afternoon with a cup of Darjeeling, thank you. I have never understood its allure after that orgy of butter, cream, sugar and tryptophan we call Thanksgiving. So after our duck dinner, we savored a moist slice of Lyndsey Shere's cakey pudding made from soft hachiya persimmons purchased at the Berkeley market.
If you're looking for a reminder of how wonderful roasted poultry can be, I've included my recipe for slow roasted duck, an adaptation of Paula Wolfert's recipe that appeared in her book The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. Unlike the typical roast duck, this one will not explode like a fat bomb in your oven.
In the morning, I cut my duck in half, slid it into the oven on a bed of vegetables, covered it after 10 minutes, and then forgot about it for nearly 4 hours. The oven's gentle 275˚F (135˚C) heat worked its magic, melting the fat into the meat so that it became as juicy and tender as a good confit. Then, when I was ready to eat, I chose the pieces I wanted, lay them skin side down in a hot cast iron pan and slowly crisped the skin. When the skin released easily from the pan, after about 10 minutes, it was ready. The skin was so crisp, it shattered like glass under the pressure of my fork.
One 5-pound Pekin duck yielded 2 dinners for 2, the breasts one night and the legs another. Believe me, you won't want to go back to dry turkey again.
Slow Roasted Duck with Turnips and Carrots
adapted from Paula Wolfert
(yields 4 servings)
1 Pekin duck*
1 T sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
1 t herbes de Provence
1 onion, chopped into large pieces
1 celery rib, chopped into large pieces
8 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
few branches thyme
2 bay leaves
3 large turnips, peeled and cut into 4 to 6 wedges
12 baby carrots, peeled
Master Duck Sauce, made with hard cider and Calvados (recipe follows)
With a sturdy knife or poultry sheers, cut the duck in half. Remove the backbone, neck and two outer joints of the wings, reserving them for the sauce. Using a small paring knife, pierce the duck skin every half inch, being careful not to also pierce the flesh. Mix the salt, pepper and herbs in a bowl and then rub them all over the two duck halves. Distribute the remaining ingredients (minus the sauce) in the bottom of a 9 by 11-inch roasting pan to form a bed for the duck halves. Lay the duck halves on top, skin side up. Wrap the pan in plastic wrap and allow to rest over night in the refrigerator.
The next day, preheat the oven to 475˚F (250˚C). Remove the duck pan from the refrigerator, unwrap and allow to come to room temperature. Place duck pan into the oven and roast, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 275˚F (135˚C), cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and continue to cook for 3½ hours until meat is extremely tender and nearly falls off the bones. [Note: during this time, you can make your duck sauce (see recipe below)]. Turn off the oven's heat and let the duck cool in the oven for another half an hour.
Using two spatulas, carefully remove the duck from the vegetables and fat to your cutting board. Cut each half in half so that you have 4 quarters (2 breasts and 2 whole legs). Remove and discard any loose bones, such as the ribs. Set the duck quarters aside, wrapping them until ready to finish cooking.
Fish out the shallots, turnips and carrots from the fat in the roasting pan and set aside for later use. Strain the remaining fat into a measuring cup, discarding the other vegetables. Using a ladle, separate the fat from the duck roasting juices. Reserve the fat (1-2 cups) for another use (keeps for about a year in the freezer). Reserve the juices to add to your sauce.
About 30 minutes before serving, preheat oven to 400˚F (200˚C). Heat cast iron skillet over medium heat, add duck pieces skin side down and allow to sizzle for 1 minute. Do not attempt to move duck pieces, because skin will stick and tear. Reduce heat to low and crisp skin for 5-10 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil and place pan in oven to continue to brown skin and heat the duck meat. Add reserved turnips and carrots to pan with the duck. After 10 minutes, the duck pieces should release easily from the pan. Transfer to plates and serve with turnips, carrots and warmed sauce.
Master (Duck) Sauce
Follow the techniques in this recipe to make any kind of sauce from other meats, such as chicken, beef or lamb. Just substitute cut up pieces of meat or meaty bones for the meaty duck bones in this recipe. I'm calling it the Master Sauce, because it serves as a base sauce to which other seasonings can be added, such as picholine olives, herbs or fruits.
For my duck with turnips, I used a cup of dry French (alcoholic) cider for the wine in the recipe, and then added 2 tablespoons of Calvados, a French brandy made from apples, and an additional ¼ cup of cider during the deglazing step.
Neck, back, wing tips from the duck
½ onion, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 small sprig thyme
½-1 c wine (white, red, port, hard cider, depending on use)
3-4 cups chicken stock or water or combination of both
Using a sturdy knife, cut meaty duck bones into 1 to 2-inch pieces. Remove excessively fatty bits from the bones, especially around the neck. In a pan (not non-stick or cast iron, if possible) over medium-low heat, slowly cook the bones, turning every few minutes, until caramelized, about 15-20 minutes. Regulate your heat so the bones brown, but don't burn.
Add wine and deglaze the pan, which means to stir and scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula or a wooden spoon to remove the caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan.
Transfer the contents of the pan to a 1½ to 2½ quart sauce pot. Pour stock over the bones and bring to a boil. Skim the foam off the top, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for at least 1 and up to 3 hours. Whenever the duck is finished cooking, add any loose bones and the roasting juices to the pot.
Strain sauce through a fine mesh strainer, then degrease with a ladle. Return sauce to pan and reduce to 1 cup, correcting the seasoning to your preference with salt.
*It is important to use the widely available Pekin duck for this recipe, because they have more fat and will yield the desired tender, confit-like texture. The leaner Muscovy or Moulard ducks are better suited to other cooking methods, in which the breast can be cooked to medium rare. If you are in Northern California, I recommend seeking out the free-range Pekin ducks from Jim Reichardt's Sonoma County Poultry, also known as Liberty Ducks.