The next time you are at a dinner or other event where wild ducks are served whole, take note of how many people can eat the legs. If the breasts are cooked to the proper temperature, they will be moist and tender, but the legs will be sinewy and barely edible. Most of the animals we cook and eat are best when prepared in parts, rather than as whole critters. Ducks and geese are no exception. The breasts should be cooked quickly and served medium-rare, but the other parts should cook much longer and at a lower temperature. The solution is to disassemble your ducks before cooking them.
Breaking down dishes into their basic parts, known as "deconstructing," is popular at many restaurants. Waterfowl are perfect candidates for this cooking style. For this recipe, the legs are braised for 2 to 3 hours before the rest of the bird is grilled. MAKES: 6 SERVINGS
- 3 large ducks, skin on or off
- 1/2 cup coarse salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- Olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 stalks celery and 2 carrots, roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- Chicken, beef, or game broth (or substitute wine, beer, or a combination of any of these liquids)
- Sauce of your choice
[STEP 1] Prepare a brine by mixing 1/2 gallon of water with the coarse salt and brown sugar. If you want to add more flavor to the brine, do so with dried or fresh herbs and seasonings, but do not dilute the ratio of water to salt. Add ducks to the brine and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. Remove ducks from the brine and pat dry.
[STEP 2] Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a sharp knife, remove the legs from each duck at the body. Place legs in a bowl and toss with enough olive oil to coat them, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange legs in a lightly oiled roasting pan and brown in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, turning over after 15 minutes.
[STEP 3] Once the legs are browned, add carrots, celery, onion, and garlic to the pan, along with a half inch of broth, wine, or beer. Cover with foil or a tight-fitting lid, lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and braise for 2 to 3 hours or until the meat pulls away from the bone with minimal pressure. Some legs will be done faster than others. After the first hour of braising, check every 30 minutes to make sure there is still liquid in the pan. When done, allow the legs to cool completely. This step can be done up to a few days before cooking the rest of the duck parts.
[STEP 4] Before grilling the duck bodies, fillet the breasts, split the birds down the breastbone into two halves, or "spatchcock" them by removing the backbone and pressing down flat. Place on a well-lubricated grill and cook to desired internal temperature. Medium-rare is 130 to 135 degrees at the center of the breast. A few minutes before the meat is done, add the already-cooked legs to the grill and heat to serving temperature.
[STEP 5] If desired, brush with a sauce of your choice or melted butter. Arrange breasts and legs on plates and serve.