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Pacific Northwest | February 6, 2005Pacific Northwest MagazineFebruary 6, home Home delivery

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   Recipe: Lupa's
   Duck Ragu


Succulent Duck Legs
Don’t be chicken, you can try this at home

With rich meat and plenty of fat for cooking, duck legs offer a versatile, inexpensive and comforting alternative to more familiar poultry. And cooking them is easy.
With rich meat and plenty of fat for cooking, duck legs offer a versatile, inexpensive and comforting alternative to more familiar poultry. And cooking them is easy.
ADMIT IT: You've had enough boneless, skinless chicken breasts and rotisserie chicken for one lifetime. You need to eat more duck. Duck, even supermarket duck, tastes like how I imagine chicken used to taste before factory farming: the reassuring flavor of poultry with the richness and backbone of red meat.

"Count yourself fortunate if there's a hunter in your family," begins the introduction to the chapter on game in "The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook" (1963). I agree wholeheartedly, but you can't so much as unholster your 12-gauge in this town without perturbing an animal-rights enthusiast or putting some buckshot in an innocent bystander.


 Lupa's Duck Ragu

Adapted from The New York Times
All right, when it comes to duck hunting, I'm no Dick Cheney. I don't even know what "12-gauge" means. So when I need a duck fix, I turn to University Seafood and Poultry. And, generally, I bypass the whole birds and the breasts (those darlings of restaurant menus from here to Issaquah) and ask for a few duck legs, which are sold frozen for $3.98 a pound. (They're also available at Whole Foods and Central Market.) Duck freezes well, and you can defrost legs in an hour in a bowl of cold water.

I know what you're muttering: "Duck? That's restaurant food. I'm going to turn the page and read 'Now and Then' instead." There are two things you should know:

First, this is not a column about making duck confit. Yes, duck confit (duck legs slowly simmered and preserved in duck fat) is a favorite of fancy restaurants and one of the most succulent foods on record. But it requires a large amount of duck fat and at least two weeks in the fridge. Besides, you can buy duck confit at Metropolitan Market or DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine.

Second, cooking with duck legs is as simple as it is rewarding. You can undercook a duck leg, but you can't overcook it. Like beef chuck and pork shoulder, duck legs are well-exercised muscles that take best to slow cooking. And also like those other meats, duck legs are tender, rich and comforting when you treat them right.

Here are two ways to cook them:

Braise (for the most succulent meat). Season with salt and pepper, put the legs, skin side down, in a pan; cover, and turn the heat to medium. When the skin has browned and much fat is rendered, turn the heat to low and cook 90 minutes, turning occasionally, until legs are very tender. Braised legs go especially well with sauerkraut.

Slow roast (for the crispiest skin). This is about as easy as it gets. Place legs, skin side up, in a roasting pan and put the pan in a 300-degree oven. Roast 90 minutes or until fat has rendered and skin is crisp. You'll end up with leaner, somewhat drier meat, good for using in a hash for breakfast.

In either case, you may serve the duck legs whole or pick the meat off (if you like chicken salad, consider duck salad). Braising, roasting, sauerkraut, it all sounds so . . . European. But duck legs are equally at home elsewhere in the world. Thai green curry is perfect with duck. Duck meat makes superb enchiladas. And those crisp-roasted duck legs can be treated like a country cousin of Peking Duck: Roll the meat and skin up in a mandarin pancake with hoisin sauce and scallions.

Now, what to serve with your duck legs? In my experience, cabbage, green beans and potatoes go better with duck than any other vegetables. No matter how you cook your legs, you'll render some duck fat, a golden liquid that sends the typical chef into fits of glee. This is the cooking fat for your vegetables. Sauté some onion or shallots in it, add some cabbage or green beans and cook until beginning to brown, add some water or stock, cover and cook until tender. Go ahead and throw the duck legs in with the vegetables if you like.

If you have potatoes, especially good potatoes like fingerlings from a farmer's market, cut them into one-inch chunks, toss with duck fat, salt, pepper and thyme. Roast at 400 degrees for 45 minutes.

I may not have a 12-gauge, but you can have my duck legs when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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