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Just ducky!: If you're game, roasting a duckling is as easy as chicken

Thursday, March 11, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

This is second of an occasional series on game.

You'd love to know how to roast a whole duck. But, oh, you've heard stories. Recipes are intimidating. It's too gamey. It's too fatty. It's just too hard.

The leaner farm-raised ducklings are less slippery to grapple with for the home cook. A sturdy pair of kitchen shears comes in handy when snipping the bird into serving portions. (Photo courtesy of Maple Leaf Farms, Inc.) 

Well, lord love a duck! An ordinary person cooking in a home kitchen is not expected to compete with a chef turning out a complicated $30 entree in a restaurant. Today's tame-game, farm-raised duckling tastes terrific on its own without being gussied up. It has been bred to be lower in fat, and roasting a duck is as easy as roasting a chicken. Here's how to do it:

Buy a 4- to 5-pound frozen duck from the supermarket. Thaw it. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Open the package. Remove giblets from the cavity and set aside. Rinse duck and pat dry. Trim off neck flap and fat gobs near the opening and discard. Place the duck breast side up on a rack in a roasting pan. Tuck the wings to the back. Tie the legs loosely with kitchen string to keep them from splaying.

Rub inside and out with coarse salt and grindings of black pepper. Squeeze the juice of a whole lemon over the duck. Add 1/2 cup water to the bottom of the pan. Without opening the oven door at any time, roast duck at 500 degrees for 25 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees. Continue roasting for 40 minutes. Carefully remove duck from oven. Drain any liquid in the bird cavity into the pan. Let the bird rest on a board for 20 to 30 minutes. While the sitting duck rests, set the table, toss salad and make a simple sauce.

Now, cut into serving pieces. Using poultry shears, preferably, or a sharp knife, cut the duck in half straight through the breastbone. Spread the two sides apart. Remove the backbone and the tail by cutting along each side. The duck can be refrigerated at this point, or not.

Just before serving, run the duck halves (or quarters) under the broiler to crisp the skin and serve. If desired, the duck skin may be removed before serving.

Ducks have more ribs than Don Rickles. Either way you choose to carve, do your guests a favor and remove the ribcage before serving. This is most easily done while the duck is warm. All you need is a small, sharp knife and your fingers. Supporting the breast with your left hand, slide your fingers between the breastbone and rib cage and remove the bony structure. Cut off the wing tips if desired. With a sharp knife, cut the duck on the bias to quarter it.

Hands up for questions

    For hints purchasing duck

A Ducktionary

So you wanna buy a duck


Here are the answers. You know the questions.

No, you don't have to prick the skin to let the fat out. The danger with pricking is that if you go too deep, you prick the meat and the juices will drain out. When duckling was fattier, you had to poke holes in the skin before completing the roasting process. But things are easier these days. The initially high roasting heat renders out much of the fat, while lower temperature finishing keeps the flesh moist.

Yes, do pour 1/2 cup of water into the bottom of the roasting pan before it goes into the oven. The water will prevent the fat pouring out of the pores from dripping onto the oven-heated pan causing spatter and smoke. The hood is turned on because the high heat will burn off old grease in the oven, making smoke.

No, no special equipment is required. But a really good pair of strong poultry shears is handier and safer than a knife when boning duck or when handling slippery, hot poultry of any kind. They're expensive, but they're worth it. Find them in the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

To skin or not to skin is forever the question. Since the low-fat fashion is to avoid eating chicken skin, why even think about eating fattier duck skin? A simple sauce will mask the naked look and enhance the flavor. On the other hand, nothing beats the flavor and crunch of crispy duck skin.

Flavor and texture? Farm-raised duck meat is richly flavored, complex and juicy. It has a good chew to it, and a little goes a long way.

Bird hunters know that wild duck tends to taste like what it feeds on. They might bag any of 44 species of wild ducks that live in North America.

Yes, ducks are all dark meat. This is because they evolved to use their muscles for flying and have large amounts of myoglobin, a red, iron-containing protein that stores oxygen in the muscles. Unlike chickens, which are uniformly meaty, ducks have most of their meat in the breast, the tenderest part of the bird.

Either a woodsy sauce of mushrooms or a fruity sauce of berries is a good companion. In a hurry, pass hoisin sauce or chutney.

How to dispose of the melted duck fat? Do NOT pour it down the sink drain or disposal unless you hate the landlord and are planning to move soon. Pour it out of the roasting pan into an empty coffee can. When it cools, top with the can lid and put in the freezer. Toss the can of frozen fat into the garbage on trash collection day.

Ducking the problem

For years, duck has been the fine-feathered victim of fat phobia. So duck farmers did what other producer groups have done when threatened by fear of fat: they bred meatier, leaner animals and put them on a diet. Today's leaner duck is the result of breeding improvements and feeding programs. The fatty ugly duckling has morphed into a Cinderella-svelte bird.

The white Pekin duck, also known as Long Island duckling, accounts for nearly 95 percent of U.S. duck consumption. Pekin duck without a g is a breed. Peking duck with a g is a recipe. A duckling is a young duck, 8 weeks or less. Since all ducks are marketed at a young age, the terms duck and duckling are used interchangeably.

Like chickens, ducks lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods such as sauteing, grilling, broiling or barbecuing. Although white Pekin ducklings have a large amount of fat directly under the skin, there is no intramuscular marbling.

New nutrition data approved by the U. S. Department of Agriculture shows that white Pekin duckling is lower in fat and calories than skinless chicken breast. A 3.5-ounce serving of skinless duckling breast has 2.5 grams of fat and 140 calories, compared with chicken breast's 3.6 grams of fat and 165 calories.

Packaged boneless, skinless duck breasts are slowly making an appearance in supermarkets, as a delicious competitor to boneless chicken breasts. Unfortunately, there is little demand here because people don't know about the product. Duckling breasts, conveniently packaged and ready-to-go, are available in some urban markets such as Washington, D.C. ,and New York. Those of us in smaller markets can order by mail or through the Internet.

Here's how to prepare a 4- to 6-ounce boneless, skinless duckling breast.

Grilling and broiling: Cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side over medium-high heat or until just pink inside.

Saute: Preheat pan or skillet with a little oil. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side over medium-high heat or until just pink inside.

Stir fry: Slice duckling breasts 1/8 inch across the grain. In a wok or skillet, stir fry for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-high heat or until meat is just pink.

The best-tasting duck is cooked to just pink. When cooked, the internal temperature should register between 160 and 165 degrees for medium rare. Rare duck meat is safe and delicious; well-done is tough and stringy. And who wants to eat a rubber ducky?

Before slicing, allow the duck breast to rest for at least 5 minutes. This allows the meat temperature to equalize, preventing excess juice loss when cut. Slice the breast into rounds. Fan the meat onto a plate and serve.

For a marvelous treat, smoke the breasts. Smoke until cooked through according to your smoker manufacturer's directions. Serve thinly sliced over salad greens or as an appetizer.

Knockout presentation is an art. To plate duck halves or quarters, swirl sauce onto the plate, arrange a breast, a leg or a whole half duck attractively on top of the sauce. Scatter over a few raspberries, blueberries, small strawberries and a few melon balls. Match with a wild rice pilaf or a sweet potato dish, both excellent with duck. If the plate is large enough, add a cluster of composed salad greens.

If you have leftover duck, you are lucky. It can be made into a sandwich with watercress on sourdough bread. Use bits and pieces to toss into a pasta sauce or fried rice. The livers can be transformed into a superb pate.

So you wanna buy a duck

To buy locally

Amarraca and selected Giant Eagle supermarkets: Frozen whole white Pekin ducklings weigh from 4 to 5 pounds and run about $1.99 to $2.19 a pound. They will make 2 to 4 servings. Fully-cooked and frozen half-ducks are $6.59 for a 14-ounce package. These are good to have on hand to run under the broiler on a busy day.

John McGinnis and Co., Route 88, Castle Shannon: Frozen whole white Pekin ducklings weigh from 4 to 5 pounds and run about $2.49. a pound. Special-order fresh ducks are $3.79 a pound. Frozen Muscovy ducks weighing 7 to 8 pounds are $5.99 a pound.

Mail order and Internet

D'Artagnan Inc., 399 St. Paul Ave., Jersey City, N.J. 07306: Pekin, Muscovy, Moulard, Mallards in season. Whole ducks, boneless breast, smoked breast, legs, confit, foie gras. Mail order: 800-327-8246. Internet: www.dartagnan.com

Joie DeVivre, Box 875, Modesto, Calif. 95353: Muscovy. Whole, boneless breast, legs, whole smoked duck, smoked magret, dried magret, foie gras, confit. Mail order: 800-648-8854. E-mail: jdvivre@netfeed.com.

GoodHeart Brand Specialty Meats, 11122 Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Texas 78217: Muscovy. Whole, boneless breasts, smoked magret, confit, foie gras. Mail order: 888-466-3992. Internet: www.goodheart.com.

Culver Duck Farms, Middlebury, Ind.: White Pekin whole ducks, boneless pre-marinated and plain breasts, legs. Mail order: 800-825-9225. Internet: www.culverduck.com.

Maple Leaf Farms, Milford, Ind. 46542-0308: White Pekin Ducks. Mail order: 219-658-4121. Internet: www.mapleleaffarms.com.

Related Recipes:

Feathered Friends Port Sauce
Roast Wild Duck

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