By Scott Leysath
Believe it or not, I’m really not much of a foodie. I do get to spend a lot of time in kitchens around the world learning how others prepare fish and game, but at home my dishes are fairly simple. A handful of locally sourced ingredients, and good fish and game, make up the lion’s share of my personal favorites. Fewer ingredients and uncomplicated dishes mean less time in the kitchen and more time to enjoy whatever is going on outdoors.
Waterfowl are among my favorite game birds, and I enjoy eating them just as much as I enjoy hunting them. While my first choice is a duck breast fillet grilled medium rare, I also enjoy braised goose that is moist and tender like pot roast. Here are five of my favorite ways to prepare waterfowl for friends and family.
Makes about 20
I love street food, and one of my favorite forms of this cuisine is the tamale. These delicious bundles of flavor consist of masa—a simple dough made of cornmeal—filled with sauce, meat, and cheese and steamed to perfection in a corn husk. Any shredded or ground game can be mixed with sauce and loaded into a tamale, but I prefer to use shredded duck or goose. My favorite sauce starts with rehydrated dried New Mexico chili peppers that are then blended with herbs and seasonings. Canned red chili or enchilada sauce works well too. Dried corn husks can be found at many grocery stores and markets. They should be soaked in water for 30 minutes to soften them up before filling them.
Making tamales is a relatively simple process. I recommend asking a few friends to help so you can make a large batch in assembly-line fashion. One person spreads the masa, the next adds the filling, and the last one folds up the tamale and loads it into the steamer. Premade tamales can be kept in the freezer for about a year.
- 2 cups masa flour
- 2/3 cup melted lard or other shortening
- 1 1/4 cups warm chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup diced onion
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 seeded and minced jalapeño pepper
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup red chili or enchilada sauce
- 2 cups shredded duck or goose breas
- Shredded cheese
- Dried corn husks
[Step 1] To prepare the masa, combine the flour, lard, broth, and salt in a mixing bowl. You can start by stirring the mixture with a fork, but you’ll eventually have to use your hands to ensure that the ingredients are thoroughly blended. The masa should be the consistency of moist cookie dough. If it’s too dry, add a little more chicken broth. If it’s too wet, mix in a little more masa flour.
[Step 2] To make the filling, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeño, and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add chili powder, cumin, salt, red chili sauce, and shredded meat. Stir to blend the flavors. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes and then allow to cool.
[Step 3] For each tamale, lay the corn husk on a flat surface with the narrow end pointing toward you. Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons of the masa evenly along the bottom quarter of the corn husk about 1/2 inch from any of the edges. Place a few tablespoons of the filling in the center of the masa. Top with a teaspoon of shredded cheese. Fold the left edge of the husk over the stuffing (the idea is to surround the filling with masa). Fold the right edge over the husk and fold the bottom end up toward the center.
[Step 4] Place the tamales side by side, folded-end down, in a steamer basket placed in a deep pot. Add water to just below the basket and bring to a boil over medium heat. Next, reduce the heat, cover, and steam for 25 to 35 minutes. The tamales will be moist when removed from the pot and will firm up after a few minutes at room temperature. Remove tamales from husks and serve with pico de gallo, salsa, and garnishes of your choice.
Chef Tip: Pressure-Cook Your Tamales
If you’re making lots of tamales, save some time by using a pressure cooker. Under pressure, tamales will cook in 15 minutes, compared to 25 to 35 minutes in a regular steamer. Many people make several large batches of tamales and freeze them for later use. For a quick weeknight meal, thaw out the tamales and microwave them in their husks.
I’ve been hooked on southwestern cuisine since moving from Virginia to Arizona decades ago. This recipe features tender shredded duck that has been cooked low and slow. My preferred method of preparing the meat is by braising. Although the process takes several hours, I think the flavor of properly braised duck is superior to that of birds cooked in a pressure cooker. But if you are pressed for time, a pressure cooker or multi-cooker will do the job.
The meat is served on a crispy tostada shell with a variety of tasty toppings. I like to put together a tostada bar and let my guests build their own. Diced tomatoes, cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped cilantro, grilled corn, avocado, lime, and black beans are some of my favorite toppings.
- 6 medium or large ducks, quartered or filleted
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- Chopped carrots, celery, and onion
- Whole garlic cloves
- Red wine or broth
- Tostada shells
[Step 1] Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Place the meat in the skillet and brown evenly.
[Step 2] Remove the browned meat from the skillet and place in a roasting pan with chopped vegetables and garlic cloves. Add about 1 inch of broth, wine, or a combination of both to the pan.
[Step 3] Cover the pan with foil or a tight-fitting lid. Place the pan in an oven preheated to 200°F and bake for two hours. Increase the temperature to 250°F and continue braising until the meat is tender and shreds easily. Check the meat for doneness every 30 minutes and make sure the liquid in the pan is at least 3/4 inch deep. Add liquid as needed.
[Step 4] Once the meat is tender, remove from the pan, allow to cool, and shred with a fork. Serve on tostada shells with toppings of your choice and hot sauce to taste.
Make mine a Margarita
The origins of this classic cocktail are mysterious. Margarita Sames, a wealthy American, said she invented the drink while on vacation in Acapulco in 1948. Another account claims the drink was developed in 1938 in a Tijuana-area restaurant for a customer who was allergic to all spirits except tequila. Wherever and whenever its genesis, this combination of tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau or triple sec is the perfect accompaniment to spicy waterfowl dishes.
Mango and Prosciutto Duck Poppers
If I had to guess, I would say the most popular duck dish across the United States would have to be the tasty bacon-wrapped morsels known simply as duck poppers. First of all, they taste great. One or two bites of spicy, bacony goodness and you just can’t get enough. This recipe includes the elements of a standard duck popper, but with a twist. Most people can eat several of them. Plan for at least 4 per person.
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Tabasco sauce
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 24 2-inch strips duck breast (about 1/2 inch thick)
- 6 jalapeño peppers
- Thinly sliced prosciutto strips
- Thinly sliced just-ripe mango
- Toothpicks or small wooden skewers
[Step 1] To prepare the marinade, whisk together all the ingredients except olive oil in a large, nonreactive bowl (made of plastic, ceramic, or glass) until well blended. While whisking, add olive oil in a thin stream until emulsified. Add sliced duck, cover, and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours, turning occasionally.
[Step 2] Place each pepper on a cutting surface and slice the outside (green) part lengthwise into 4 pieces. Discard the stem section with the ribs and seeds attached. If you prefer your duck on the spicy side, add some of the seeds to the marinade.
[Step 3] Remove the duck strips from the marinade and drain. Lay prosciutto slices on a work surface. Place a strip of jalapeño, then mango, then duck across one end of the prosciutto. Roll the prosciutto up and over the duck, jalapeño, and mango while keeping it snug with your fingers. Secure with a toothpick.
[Step 4] Cook evenly on a hot grill, in a cast-iron skillet, or under a broiler until lightly browned on all sides (about 7 to 9 minutes for medium rare).
Chef Tip: Brine for Better Flavor
If you brine your birds in a mild saltwater solution consisting of 1/2 gallon of water mixed with 1/2 cup each of coarse salt and brown sugar, they will taste better when grilled. Brining adds flavor and moisture, reduces cooking time, and, most important, replaces blood with brine. Brine the meat for 12 to 24 hours.
Sweet Jalapeño Duck
There’s a common culinary thread here. Many of my favorite recipes are just a tad spicy. If a little heat turns you off, reduce the spicy elements or leave them out entirely. To me, spicy ingredients are best when they are balanced with something a little sweet, such as orange juice concentrate. If you prefer more heat than sweet, add more peppers.
This recipe calls for duck breast fillets, but it works equally well with duck legs that have been braised for 2 to 3 hours until they just about fall off the bone. Once the meat is tender, place it on the grill and baste with the marinade while grilling. I like to serve this dish with ice-cold beer.
- 4 to 6 large duck breast fillets, preferably with skin intact
- 2 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups orange juice concentrate
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 6 jalapeño peppers, thinly sliced into rings
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 6 minced garlic cloves
[Step 1] Combine the marinade ingredients in a large nonreactive bowl. Reserve 1 cup of marinade to use for basting while grilling. Place ducks in remaining marinade and refrigerate for 6 to 12 hours, turning occasionally.
[Step 2] Remove the duck from the marinade. Place the fillets, skin-side down, on a medium-hot grill for approximately 3 to 5 minutes per side, basting occasionally with the reserved marinade, until medium rare. Remove the fillets from the grill and rest the meat for 5 minutes before serving.
Chef Tip: Sweet Peppers
For a sweet-hot accompaniment to grilled waterfowl, place 2 cups of sliced jalapeño peppers in a glass or plastic container and toss with 1 cup of sugar. The sugar will liquefy and, after a day or two, the peppers will be as sweet as they are spicy.
Busch Beer Partners with DU
Many waterfowl recipes pair well with beer. Now you can enjoy Busch beer while helping conserve wildlife habitat. As DU’s newest Proud Partner, the 64-year-old brewing company’s commitment includes donating one dollar to DU for everyone who visits their website and pledges to protect the great outdoors. Visit busch.com/ducksunlimited and take the pledge today.
Grilled Duck Breast with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Rosemary
While shooting TV shows in South Africa a couple of years ago, I had some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Kudu, gemsbok, springbok, and zebra were all cooked pretty much the same way. The locals soaked trimmed meats in olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper for 24 hours. When it was dinnertime, the meat was grilled to a perfect medium rare over smoky, white-hot coals. I’ve since followed the same method of preparation with waterfowl and other game. I usually add fresh rosemary since I have a hillside full of it at home.
Because the marinade is primarily olive oil, I use a better-quality extra-virgin variety that adds both fat and flavor. The garlic is fresh and the salt and pepper are both freshly ground. If you happen to leave the fillets in the marinade for an extra day or two, your duck will still taste like duck, unlike the result when you use a more potent marinade designed to mask the flavor of wild game.
- 4 to 6 large duck breast fillets, preferably with skin on
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 to 10 minced garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground salt (or any coarse salt)
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
[Step 1] Place duck breast fillets in a container or resealable plastic bag. Add remaining ingredients and toss to coat evenly. Refrigerate for 24 hours, turning occasionally.
[Step 2] Remove duck from the marinade and drain for several minutes. Discard marinade. Place fillets on a hot grill, skin-side down, until the skin is crisp and medium brown. Flip the meat over and grill for another 2 to 3 minutes until medium rare. Cook slightly longer if desired.
Chef Tip: Take the Temperature
Before putting game to flame, grill grates should be clean, lightly coated with vegetable oil, and too hot to place your hand above the surface for more than a couple of seconds. Smaller ducks like teal and wood ducks cook quickly and should be grilled over medium-high heat. Larger ducks and thick goose breast fillets are best cooked over medium heat to avoid burning the outside layer before the center of the meat reaches the desired temperature. Using a meat thermometer will help ensure that game is cooked properly.