As I mentioned yesterday, the duck project was simply the result of wanting to having something a little different for our Thanksgiving meal. The timing is the RV industry’s fault. Really.
See, every year the RV Industry Association holds a trade show and convention in Louisville KY, which I need to attend for business reasons. I can only assume that the organizers chose the date and location specifically to save money, because the convention is held immediately after Thanksgiving. The convention center is probably rock-bottom cheap at that time (who wants to have a trade show then?) Not only are airliners crowded and airfares ridiculous, not only is the weather dismal beyond belief in Louisville that time of year, but most critically this timing means that all the participants have to interrupt a time-honored post-Thanksgiving ritual — namely, making sandwiches with cold turkey breast, mayonnaise, lettuce and bread — in order to drive or fly to Louisville so that they can attend the show starting on Monday.
Either the convention dates were picked by someone who needed an excuse to get away from their in-laws, or they’re getting a smoking deal on the Kentucky Exposition Center. Probably both, now that I think of it. Of course the cost is simply shifted to those of us who must attend, because we pay higher fares on the airlines in order to fly on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, not to mention inflated rates at the local hotels.
I think this will be the sixth or seventh time I’ve attended this show. Each year I find myself dejectedly heading for the airport on Sunday when I should by all rights and dyed-in-the-wool American tradition be lounging around the living room with a remote control in one hand and a plate of leftovers in the other. We can’t really dent all the Thanksgiving leftovers before I have to go, and it seems wrong to leave when there’s still a huge pile of yummy chow in the refrigerator. To make things worse this year, E & E are flying to Vermont for a visit in early December, which would leave the entire burden of leftover turkey consumption on me. I like to eat but that’s too much. So part of the motivation to make something other than turkey was to have fewer leftovers, and we’re doing it this weekend so we have plenty of time to eat what we have before I have to go.
And now you know how, last Sunday, we found ourselves driving around Tucson in a rare Fall drizzle, looking for ducks. The frozen kind. (Vegetarians may wish to stop reading here, as the rest of this blog becomes graphically carnivorous.)
We found the duck at Dickman’s Meat, at 5.1 pounder. That was the easy part. Then came the research. Eleanor first handed over her worn old copy of The Escoffier Cookbook and challenged me to choose between one of 29 obscure French preparations for duck, including “Hot Pate of Duckling,” “Nantais Duckling With Sauerkraut,” “Moliere Duckling,” “Rouennais Duckling Wings With Truffles,” and of course the crowd favorite, “Stuffed Balls of Duckling.” I picked out a few recipes from which Eleanor began to select compatible elements to create her own recipe.
Based on the influence of departed French chefs (Auguste, Julia, et al) and her culinary training, Eleanor originally planned to poëlé the duck. This means she would start with a Matignon, which is a fine mince of carrots, onions, and celery hearts, with a bit of lean ham, a sprig of thyme and half a crushed bay leaf. This would be put all over the duck in a thick coating. The enveloped duck would subsequently be richly layered with strips of bacon and buttered paper, and then — in the spirit of old French cooking — basted with the drippings, melted butter, and Madeira wine while roasting in the oven.
The “roasting rack” for the duck would be a large dice of celery, carrots, onion, and fingerling potatoes, to be eaten as a side dish. Eleanor had also conceived a stuffing that would be a mix of veal, pork, and diced apples.
But something didn’t seem right. We both knew (from a painful 1990’s-era duck cooking debacle) that the amount of fat in a duck is critical to the outcome. Also, most of the Escoffier recipes called for undercooking the duck if it was whole, and that made Eleanor dig deeper for a reason why. She consulted all of her best culinary references and kept running into hints that roast duck was tricky because the amount of fat in them varies so widely. Wild ducks are lean and tend to dry out, while market ducks are ridiculously fatty. We finally found a good analysis of the problem in “The New Best Recipe,” published by Cook’s Illustrated, which is sort of the Consumer Reports of food.
The article explained that since Escoffier was published (first edition in 1942), the ducks we can buy at the market have changed. They’re fattier and — to make things even trickier — they tend to be disproportionately fat in the legs and wings, which makes roasting the bird as a whole quite difficult. The solution according to Cook’s Illustrated is to steam the bird before roasting, which greatly reduces the amount of fat, and separate the legs so that subcutaneous fat can be more easily rendered from them.
We also discovered that the duck could be expected to reduce in weight by approximately 50% during cooking (due to the rendering of fat), which means our 5.1 pound duck (technically, a duckling) might yield as little as two or three servings. I don’t want massive leftovers, but I’d like at least some. Off I went to Dickman’s for a second 5.1 pound duck. This experiment was already getting expensive.
The good news about having two ducks was that we can experiment a little. The current plan is to prepare one duck using the poëlé technique, but instead of adding butter for basting, she’ll use only the drippings. It also will not be stuffed. The vegetable “roasting rack” will remain the same, except without the potatoes, as they would absorb oil and get greasy.
Duck No. 2 will follow the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation, first steamed to reduce the fat, then slow-cooked on a rotisserie. Eleanor is thinking of putting the Matignon beneath the skin, but that’s still a work in progress. The next step will be later today: a grocery run for ingredients. The plan is to start cooking in earnest on Saturday.
And all this because the RVIA convention is held at the wrong time of year …