If it’s New Year’s week, it must be time for cassoulet at our house. For this week’s Dark Days Challenge meal, we used the same streamlined recipe we’ve been making for the last couple of years. But this year, we went back to the classic preparation, and made our own duck confit.
We were lucky enough, last fall, to buy one of the Pekin ducks that Massa Organics was using for pest control in their rice fields. We parted out the bird, setting aside the breasts for searing, making stock out of the carcass, rendering down the fat and skin, and preserving the legs in the rendered fat.
One of my new year’s resolutions is to eat more food grown by people I know in 2010. We already do a pretty good job of finding local sources, but it’s always that much sweeter when we know the families behind our dinner. This cassoulet was a pretty good first step — we’re friends with three of the producers: Steve Sando from Rancho Gordo, Taylor Boetticher from Fatted Calf, and Greg Massa of Massa Organics. We know many of our other farmers by sight from our market trips, but in the next year we’re going to try and become even more familiar with the people who put food on our plates.
The recipe below may seem long, but trust me when I say that it’s a gross simplification of Judy Rogers’s original recipe, which runs to 6 full pages. Just like her Mock Porchetta (and pretty much every other Zuni recipe), the length isn’t so much an indicator of complexity or difficulty, but rather a mix of thoughtful hints, step-by-step signposts, and thought-provoking commentary. In the book, Rogers details how various duck breeds adapt to the master recipe, recounts her laborious process to find the best variety of salt for curing, offers ideas on how to get enough fat to cover your meat, makes suggestions for adapting the recipe to duck breasts or gizzards, and provides a number of serving ideas. It’s a treatise on duck confit in all its glory, and I highly recommend you read it at least once in its entirety. (If you don’t already own a copy, it’s well worth picking up. You don’t have to take my word for it: Eat Me Daily named it one of their top cookbooks of the past decade.)
- adapted and condensed from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
4 whole duck legs (legs and thighs attached)
1/3 oz (approximately 2 tsp) sea salt per pound of meat
rendered duck fat, sufficient to cover the legs
- (approximately 2 cups fat per pound of meat) plus a little extra for insurance
Rinse the legs well and pat dry, trimming off any ragged edges of skin or fat. Working on a sheet of parchment, salt the legs all over, a little more on the thick parts and less on the bony legs and ankles. Roll the legs in the salt left on the parchment. Arrange the legs in a single layer in a wide glass, ceramic, or stainless container, skin side down. Refrigerate for 18 to 24 hours, depending on the size and meatiness of the legs.
Rinse the legs well, one at a time, under cold running water; do not soak or you will end up with waterlogged meat. The flesh should feel firm, but knead the excess salt out of any areas that feel especially hard. Dry the rinsed legs on a clean towel and pat dry. Test for saltiness by trimming off a bit of meat and simmering it in duck fat for 5 minutes. If it tastes too salty, rinse and dry each leg again. (Rogers says it should be reminiscent of well-seasoned sausage, and not to worry if it’s tough at this stage.) Place the legs on a very clean plate and rest at room temperature for an hour, or overnight in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap.
Heat the fat until warm but not bubbling, then add the duck legs to the warm fat. Choose the smallest pot that will fit your duck, to reduce the amount of fat you’ll need. Unlike most recipes, it’s fine — in fact, it’s desirable — to crowd the pieces into the pan, but do not stack more than 2 layers deep. If needed, add more fat to submerge the legs completely. Heat the fat and legs to just below a simmer (200°F is a good target, if you have a deep-frying thermometer), skimming off any foam.
Stand by to adjust the heat, maintaining a steady temperature to avoid toughening the meat. Cook for an hour, then begin testing for doneness every 10 minutes. (Large legs often take 90 minutes to 2 hours; small legs, like those on the Massa ducks, are done just after an hour.) The meat should yield to a firm prodding in the pot; when it does, remove a piece from the fat, and slice off a bit. Allow the sample to cool; fully cooked meat will be tender when just cooled enough to hold with your bare hands.
When the meat is done, remove the pot from the heat and allow to sit undisturbed for 20 to 30 minutes. Skim the surface of the fat, removing any stray bits. Using tongs, gently move the legs to a sterilized glass or ceramic container, trying not to tear the skin or to disturb the liquid on the bottom of the pot beneath the fat. Skim the fat again, and ladle it through a fine-mesh strainer over the meat, again taking care not to disturb the gel at the bottom of the pot. Cover the meat completely — depending on the size of your storage container, you may need to melt more fat — and cool to room temperature. Cover the container well, then refrigerate for three days to a week before using. For longer storage, I prefer the freezer; the fat protects the meat from drying, and the deeper chill prevents any off flavors.
Farmers and food artisans who created the ingredients for this week’s meal:
Rancho Gordo, Napa: flageolet beans
Fatted Calf, Napa: Toulouse sausage and ham trimmings
Massa Organics, Hamilton City: duck
Catalán Family Farm, Hollister: onions
Guisto’s Vita-Grain, South San Francisco: sea salt
…and our own homegrown thyme and crumbs from homemade bread