Having a few friends over for a cozy dinner is a welcome break from the seriously isolating behavior I tend to adopt over the winter. Maybe I don’t speak for you, but it takes some prodding to get me out the door on a winter night even in the warmest January we’ve had in 60 years. There’s probably a rule somewhere that says you should never cook something for the first time for guests. I tend to think the opposite is true. Why not try something you’d probably wouldn’t take the time to cook for yourself? Well, we all know why. It may be a disaster but hey, after a couple of Charlie’s famous cocktails, who cares? Besides, I have very forgiving friends and family when it comes to food experimentation. The point is to get together, break bread, make a toast or two, have some good conversation and if the food is delicious, all the better.
I adore duck but rarely cook it. I’m not exactly fat-phobic when it comes to eating fat but cooking with it is another matter. Right before we remodeled our kitchen several years, we roasted a Christmas goose which turned out to be the last meal ever to be cooked in that oven. There was so much fat splattered everywhere we declared our stove “totaled” and used a hot plate until we broke down and bought a new one.
A week or two ago I glanced at Melissa Clark’s column in the NY Times. Her title read Duck Confit, and Hold the Fat and the recipe was for Really Easy Duck Confit . I knew I’d have to try it. Usually confit refers to a process of preserving meat whereby you cook it in fat — lots and lots of fat. It’s one of the oldest methods of preserving food and is especially popular in Southwestern France. (Confit, pronounced con-fee, comes from the French verb confire, meaning to preserve.) Once the meat is slow-roasted in copious amounts of fat, it’s cooled, still in the fat which prevents oxygen from reaching the meat. Kept in a cool place, it will keep for months at a time. The meat can also be made into a dish called rillettes (this recipe from local food blogger, Matt Wright looks incredible). It’s shredded, mixed with fat, put in a jar and then topped with yet another layer of fat to create a seal.
All of this appeals to me from a survival standpoint but for guests, I was just thinking of the delicious flavor of duck without having to deal with all the fat. Don’t get me wrong. Any time you cook duck there will be some fat to deal with. With this recipe, it’s very manageable, won’t destroy your oven and you can strain off what’s left to use in frying anything like fried eggs or potatoes. When all is said and done, you’re going to wish you had more of it.
I followed Melissa Clark’s recipe but made a few changes and absolutely loved the results. It takes some time because you start a day or two ahead of time salting the skin but the crispy, crunchiness makes even a small amount of curing worth it. Then you have 3 hours of slow roasting at 325 degrees — just enough time to whip the house into shape for your guests. I suggest making it the morning of your party then just popping it into the oven to warm it up right before you want to eat.
Duck Confit for Four
8 whole duck legs, rinsed and patted dry but not trimmed
11/4 t kosher salt
Several sprigs of thyme, chopped
1 bay leaf, crumbled
Plenty of freshly ground pepper
Place duck legs in one layer in a pan. Mix salt, pepper, thyme & bay leaf in a small bowl. Rub salt mixture on each leg. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours. ( I remembered after I made mine that leaving the duck uncovered in the fridge can result in crispier skin, I may try that next time. Also, I left mine curing for 48 hours and it was fine).
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Scrape the excess salt and herbs off the legs with a knife.
In a heavy skillet on medium heat, place the legs skin side down to render the fat. You may need to do this in batches or in two skillets. If the skin is browning too fast, turn the heat down but keep cooking until you have about 1/4 inch of fat in the pan. This will take about 20 minutes or less.
Remove from the heat. Either turn the legs skin side up in the same skillet or place in a roasting pan and pour the rendered fat over the top of the legs. The legs should fit rather snugly in the pan but shouldn’t be touching.
Cover the pan with foil and place in the oven. Roast for 2 hours. Remove the foil and roast for another hour until the duck is golden brown. Remove legs from the fat. Pour the fat off into a wide-mouthed container for other uses. Let it cool, then store in the fridge.
I love having almost everything done when my guests arrive so I can fully enjoy the party. With a main dish this rich, the rest of the meal can be very simple. Duck confit can be completed in advance and is delicious served with Sally’s roasted vegetables and a salad with roasted beets. You can be assured everyone with be picking up the bones and eating them clean. If you do manage to have any leftovers, shredded duck confit makes a fabulous salad. Think pears or apples, blue cheese, maybe a walnut oil vinaigrette….