Cooking duck

Duck is tricky to cook. It’s hard to mess up a chicken, but a badly-cooked duck is pretty much inedible. Given that we need ducks to deal with slugs in this wet climate, and how easy it is to hatch out a bunch of duck eggs in the incubator, we do end up having some ducks butchered every year, and so we have been working out, with fear and trepidation, how to cook them.

Duck can be quite delicious – it’s more flavorful than chicken, and completely different. The meat is dark, and breast meat is usually served rare, where is has a kind of meaty, beefy quality. The richness (for which you can read fattiness) is more like pork; while beef and lamb fat are unpleasant, pork fat (e.g. bacon) and duck fat are tasty in themselves and good for cooking.

The best thing I’ve ever made from duck – possibly the best thing I’ve ever made, period – is confit of duck. This basically just means slowly braising in duck fat. It intensifies the duck flavor, and the duck is meltingly tender.

Here’s the recipe I use:

Duck Confit
4 duck leg/thigh pieces, skin on, excess fat trimmed and reserved
3 tablespoon kosher salt
4 sprigs thyme
4 bay leaves
4 garlic cloves, crushed
about 4 cups duck fat and/or olive oil

Sprinkle salt over duck pieces. Sandwich the pieces, skin side out, with herbs and garlic in between. Put on a wire rack in a large container (so moisture can drain), and refrigerate 12-36 hours.
Wipe excess salt and seasonings off duck pieces. Arrange them, skin side down, in a deep baking dish or ovenproof saucepan. Tuck reserved duck fat trimmings between pieces. Cover with more duck fat or olive oil.
Cover and bake at 200°-225° (the pot should be under a simmer and just barely cooking). Cook for 4-5 hours, until meat is falling off bone. Remove duck from the fat, wipe off excess, and serve.

To store, remove from fat and pack pieces in a large glass jar. Strain the cooking fat, and separate the fat from any liquids. Pour the fat over the duck, making sure it’s entirely covered. It will keep for a long time in the refrigerator and can be frozen. When you want them, remove from the jar and scrape off the fat, and reheat in a frying pan.


So I watched this video, Forks over Knives. More on that later, but I did start wondering about sugar alternatives like honey, since I’ve never been entirely clear on the whole business. Sugar’s not good for us, but is honey much better?

  • glucose and fructose are the basic sugars.
  • sucrose (table sugar) is disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose; it’s broken down into glucose and fructose in the digestive tract.
  • There are also maltose, lactose and other sugars that I’m not consdering here.

Fruit and vegetables contain both sucrose, and free glucose and fructose; the proportions vary.

  • Apples and Pear have a much higher percent of fructose (total).
  • Apricots, plums, and sweetcorn have a somewhat lower percent of fructose (total).

Considering sucrose separately:

  • relatively more sucrose in apricots, peaches, pineapple, beets, carrots and sweet potatoes
  • relatively less sucrose in figs, grapes, pears, sweetcorn, sweet peppers, and sweet onion

Other sweeteners are made of of some combination of sucrose, fructose and glucose, plus water (for liquids) and traces of this and that:

  • Honey – varies, for example: 38% fructose, 31% glucose, 7% maltose, 1% sucrose
  • Maple syrup – mostly sucrose with variable amounts of fructose and glucose
  • Agave – variable and not regulated, some sources give 92% fructose and 8% glucose; another gives 56% fructose and 20% glucose. Agave nectar is hydrolized from agave juice by heating or using enzymes.
  • Corn sugar/dextrose – entirely glucose. Derived from corn (via a chemical process)
  • HFCS – the one in soft drinks is 55% fructose and 42% glucose. Derived from corn syrup via further chemical process.

Fructose is much sweeter than glucose (so less can be used) and has a lower glyemic index, but has equivalent impact on diabetes. Unlike glucose, fructose must be metabolized by the liver and excessive amounts may cause liver problems (such as fatty liver)

It’s not clear why HFCS would be worse than sugar, but rats did gain more weight and get more unhealthy on HFCS than on plain sugar. See Princeton study on rats. They hypothesize that glucose and fructose bound together into sucrose metabolizes differently than as free glucose and fructose.

There’s a number of studies that are particularly focused on HFCS, and of course the usual it’s-all-just-sugar, but I don’t find the results conclusive; everyone has an agenda. Here’s one analysis and an article on liver issues.

Given my personal opinions about nutrition, and this is fairly well supported by all the information out there; the right answer is certainly “none of the above”. Honey is not that different in proportion from HFCS but is the least processed, the most local, and has minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants.

Local farm

There’s a rather cool farm not too far from us, in Sweet Home. It’s name is Sweet Home Farms. I met the owners, Carla Green and Mike Polen (not the famous guy with the similar name) at a food event earlier this year (she got the door prize of chocolates that I was eyeing, but I’m happy with the chicken butchering certificate). They are Salatin-ites who work a day job from home and are overworked. They remind me a lot of us (but much more serious about the farming). They even have an English Shepherd dog.

I was trying to buy a half a lamb a few weeks back and had trouble with their website, and didn’t understand their pricing. I know how hard it is, and they are trying to make a profit… but with the confusion and delay means I got sucked into other things, by now they presumably have butchered and the opportunity has gone by.

They also sell by the piece but I CANNOT find their website using google. So just so I can find it again, it is It sure seems like if you can’t be googled, you don’t really exist, maybe this link will help them.

People eat a lot: producing more and bigger

It’s easy to grow some food, and growing your own makes a big impact on your diet, since you can grow the most delectable and interesting parts of your diet; summer tomatoes, basil, cilantro, green beans. Once you go beyond the glamous stars, and start producing the everyday and mundane, and filling in more of the background, every day, every month, then producing your own food means producing volume, storing, and much more cooking. Maybe I’m a gardener first, but I find producing the food is the fun part, while storing and cooking it is a lot of sorting dirty roots, peeling and chopping, standing over a hot canner of boiling water, and cleaning up the mess. And I don’t even want to start on how unpleasant it is to “harvest” chickens.

Coming as I do from a normal backgroud, a fairly small family of light eaters, we’d cook meals that would produce leftovers but still quite modest quantities. I imagine familiies with 5 or more childen or teenage boys would have a very different perspective! One of my challenges has been to “think big”. For example, my chili recipe made enough for two meals. But it’s not that much more work to double it. Last time I ended up making 3 gallons of chili, which was perhaps a little over the top; 11 people barely ate half of it. But it freezes fine, and it’s so nice to have some quarts of chili handy. It was a lot of peeling tomatoes, but with so much it’s worth it to get the food processor out for the onions and peppers, and the kitchen only had to be cleaned up once.

The same is true of canning. Much of the work of canning is dealing with the hot water bath. I used to end up canning only a couple of quarts of sauce or quarters, a few pints of salsa. But it’s much more efficient in kitchen work to can a full canner load (7-9 jars), or two loads. We got the larger 9-quart size canning kettle this year.

Getting more serious about producing food is the other part (the part that comes first, really). You need to have enough reliable if not exciting producers. I most enjoy growing interesting and exotic heirloom tomatoes, but the interesting colors, odd shapes and shy production just don’t work as well for processing. It’s been a road to learn to grow a bunch of dull but productive plants to get serious tomatoes, enough to make gallons of chili and gallons of salsa. Giving up growing a few of the intesting ones – but how many interesting tomatoes can you really eat? I’m more of a graze-on-cherry-toms-right-from-plant person, myself. The interesting tomatoes go into tomato juice which seems to even things out, I can even put a few green-when-ripe in there.

Lisa’s Vegetarian Chili

2 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large red or green pepper, chopped
1 lb.Tofu, frozen, thawed, and crumbled
4 cloves garlic, mashed
15oz can tomato sauce
1 lb. Can whole or diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
black pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder, or more to taste
A little cayenne flakes, if desired
1 can corn
1 can black beans

Squeeze water out of thawed, crumbled tofu, and mix with part of the chili powder. Add a little liquid from the canned tomatoes and mix well, squeezing to let the spice color the tofu.

Fry onions and peppers in oil until soft and just starting to brown. Add tofu and garlic and cook a few minutes. Add other ingredients and cook for at least an hour, longer is better, until it looks like chili.

Serve over cornbread or rice and garnished with shredded cheese, chopped onions, and chopped jalapenos.

– all quantities are general and I use fresh instead of canned when possible.
– Cook beans before adding, and peel and quarter tomatoes, but everything else can go in fresh.
– Using all fresh tomatoes increases cooking time.
– It’s important to freeze and thaw the tofu before using, to get the right texture.
– I usually use a lot more chili powder but it depends on the quality of the chili powder you have.

Cooking fat and rendering lard

One of the problems of trying to produce all your own food is cooking fat. We do a lot of saute and stir fry; it seems like every thing I cook starts with saute an onion in olive oil. While I have two little olive trees, which have produced a few olives, I was baffled when I picked the olives to figure out where this olive oil might be. The olives produced a bit of whitish juice that did not much resemble olive oil. When the trees are larger perhaps with many more olives it will make some sense.

There are directions online for making a seed press from a hydraulic jack doing some welding.
You grind up your sunflower seeds, hull and all, and press. It would take a lot of sunflowers, though; a few plants yield a rather piddly amount of seeds. In a few years perhaps nuts will be a source.

We can make butter from the goat’s milk, but it’s not abundant (goat’s milk is naturally homogenized so you don’t get much) and we’d eat it up as butter rather than waste it on cooking.

I’ve rendered chicken (and turkey) fat but it has a sticky mouthfeel and a chicken flavor. It’s not impossible, just distracting. Lamb fat isn’t nice looking at all and doesn’t smell nice. I don’t even like it for soap making, the smell lingers.

But lard may be a good solution. This weekend I pulled out 10 or 15 pounds of pork fat trimmings that the butcher returned with our half-pig (not all from our half; apparently most people just let the fat be thrown away). I ground it up to extract the fat, lard. I’m quite impressed with how friendly this fat is; it’s barely solid at refrigerator temperature, has little flavor, no stickiness. I got several gallons and froze much of it. I hear you can make the best piecrusts from lard. I heard that about chicken fat too, but I couldn’t picture an apple pie with chicken-flavored crust. The lard might actually work.

I tried continuing the rendering process to make cracklings. This resulted in lard with a caramelized fragrance, a nice flavor for savory food but not for piecrust. It also resulted in a lot of unpleasant fatty cracklings. Perhaps I’m not doing it right but it wasn’t worth it.

While it’s hard to imagine us raising regular pigs (mature pigs grow to over 1000lbs), there is a endangered heritage breed of pig that says pretty small (topping out about 250lbs) and are more adaptable to pasture. Traditional pigs put on a lot of fat, since the lard was a very desirable yield back before Crisco. Modern pigs are bred to be leaner (and per “Animals in Translation” lean pigs are also nervous and poor breeders). So an old breed, bred to be fat and peaceful and easy to keep, and smaller, bred for the old-fashioned multi-purpose farm…. it might be perfect again for the New Peasant.

Day 7 of the 100-yard diet

Saturday: day 7

We started off the day with a late breakfast of scrambled eggs with onions, sweet red peppers, and sun dried tomatoes; and hash browns. I still haven’t quite got the hash browns down; more practice. Toast is easy. Jay put leftover salsa on his eggs.

For lunch, we have just enough bread left for sandwiches. Jay had feta, tomato, and pickles; I made up hummus with leftover garbanzos, garlic, salt, olive oil and roasted red pepper. We don’t normally eat red peppers every day, but it’s that time of year, I’m trialing pepper varieties so have an unreasonable number of plants, and red peppers just don’t keep. While it could have used a bit of lemon, and tahini, the hummus was still a hit. Jay finished up whatever I missed.

For dinner, we had the same as Friday night; made up fresh crepes, of course, and we needed more salsa, but there was plenty of the other ingredients left. It was a very satisfying meal.

Day 6 of the 100-yard diet

Friday: day 6

The bread keeps calling out to me. I had bread for breakfast and lunch; with butter and honey for breakfast, with feta and roasted red peppers for lunch.

For dinner, I made black beans and cheese in corn crepes, with salsa.

I had soaked some black beans overnight – a pole variety named Cherokee Trail of Tears, said to have been brought from Tennessee to Oklahoma on the infamous journey. These were simmered in the sun oven, although since the day was a bit cloudy, there was barely enough sun to cook the beans. I sauted onions, peppers and garlic, added the beans and seasoned with cumin.

Queso fresco is made by adding vinegar (I used plum vinegar) to almost simmering milk so it curdles, and straining out the curds.

Then I made salsa, my usual recipe: tomatoes, jalapenos, onion, cilantro, and salt. Usually I add some lemon juice, but skipped it today – the salsa missed it, but was still delicious. I’m happy that I have enough cilantro to make salsa – for some reason I can’t grow this very well, it’s the one thing in the produce department that we buy regularly.

Finally, the crepes; a thin batter of eggs, milk, wheat flour, and corn flour. We had some regular sweet corn that got starchy before we picked it, so I tried drying and grinding it.

It was beautiful and delicious, but probably would have been better with tortillas. No reason I can’t make masa and produce tortilla – it’s just takes more skills, ones I don’t have. But this isn’t a great climate for growing corn, either – corn likes water, and our summers are so dry.

In the far distant past, food was hard to come by, and precious. You didn’t waste energy coddling along some plant or animal that didn’t grow easy and abundantly in your particular area, and when travel was by foot or boat, you didn’t rely on food that grew thousands of miles away – like the cornmeal we buy, which probably comes from Iowa, right? Part of the whole eat-local philosophy is remembering that – eat what grows locally, in the season it’s abundant.

It’s a hard concept for us to remember, since the bananas and apples are right next to each other at the grocery store, and our tastes are developed around that – like for example mangos. I love mangos in any form (my favorite snack is dried mangos), but mangos just don’t grow here. We can get mangos flown in from anywhere nowadays (why does our food travel more than we do?). Or I could find a dwarf mango tree, plant in a big tub, keep it in the greenhouse, and spray regularly for the mildrew and diseases it’s prone to under these conditions, and maybe get a mango now and again, but not one at the top of its flavor. For much less effort, no travel involved, I could have abundant and flavorful peaches, cherries, raspberries, strawberries… there’s no shortage of things we can grow locally and enjoy.

Day 5 of the 100-yard diet

Thursday, day 5

For breakfast, wheat berries with cream and honey. It was tasty and satisfying and fairly quick. I’d soaked them overnight – I’m doing even more thinking ahead.

Then, time to grind another pound of wheat for bread. This time I picked through the wheat to remove more bits of stem and hull. They may add fiber to the flour, but it’s already pretty high fiber. I also added a glob of honey – fast food for yeast, so the bread will rise more. The bread is higher, and delicious, but still dark.

For lunch, leftover turkey soup.

This afternoon we learned that a good friend was rolling into town, so we invited him for an quick early dinner, since I had to go out in the evening. I made potato pancakes: grate potatoes and onions, add a bit of flour and an egg, salt and pepper, and fry in butter. I like it served with cottage cheese and applesauce. Many of our apples are too wormy to use, but I found a few to make applesauce. Then I made a quick cottage cheese; adding some rennet to warmed goat milk causes it to set, and after a hour or so I cut it into chunks. and drained the curd in cheesecloth. It wasn’t an accurate cottage cheese, but it worked. We also had some homemade turkey sausage in the freezer, which we pan-fried.

Tonight constitutes my first violations: Chet brought some California Wine, and I do not turn down Chet’s choice of wine (it was lovely); and the turkey sausage used purchased sausage casing, and the fennel in the sausage was also store bought.

Since Chet loves good food, we set out a selection of heirloom tomatoes – I picked different colorful varieties, including pink (Rose de Berne), orange (Persimmon), yellow (Sun and Snow), red (Shuntuksi Velican), and purple (Purple Cherokee), and some roasted red peppers and feta.

I cut up a lot of apples today for drying, as well as the ones for applesauce. Growing your own food, especially growing organically, means some worms in the apples and bits of stem in the wheat. Food in grocery stores is so perfect, as if it was made in a factory. We tend to think that’s normal, like those models in advertisements. But it’s not always like that in real life. Real food as it comes from the earth has character and quirks and it’s not always pretty and sometimes there are bugs.

And then you have to pick out the stems from the wheat, and cut around the spots on the apples, and if there are holes in the kale leaf, as long as there’s no caterpiller still there, it’s just as good as a whole leaf. Although I have to say, growing apples and pears is the hardest, the bugs don’t seem to miss any of the fruit. Plums and grapes produce so much and we rarely have to deal with any bugs or spots on the fruit.

Day 4 of the 100-yard diet

Wednesday: day 4

I finished the bread for breakfast, spread with butter and honey (I’m only supposed to be using the butter for cooking, so this probably constitutes a violation, but it was so good). That’s two days from 1 pound of wheat. So doing some calculations – I suspect Jay’s been off eating store bought bread – it comes to about 122 pounds of wheat per person for a year. Over the year, there are the equivalent of 2 1/2 people living here. That’s about 300 pounds of wheat we’d need to grow to keep the family (just barely) in wheat for a year.

I’ve grown small patches of wheat for the last few years. The yields came out to about to 4 and 10 pounds per 100 sqft – I planted smaller patches, this is just standardized for comparison. Jeavon’s book “How to grow more vegetables…” claims to get yields of to 25 pounds in that amount of space – if you have really rich soil, you get more grain. But wheat can grow in unimproved clay soil too (that’s my 4 pound yield), and is drought tolerant, and can grow over winter.

Anyway, assuming I don’t get Jeavon’s yield, but that I’m growing in improved beds for a reasonable yield, I’d need 10 beds to grow all our wheat (1000 sq ft). That’s half our total garden space. I don’t know whether to be shocked (so much space just for wheat) or happy (only half the garden, we can eat plenty from the other half).

For lunch: leftover turkey soup, and whatever else I could scrounge. I was hungry again this afternoon, and a little cranky.

For dinner we had guests, so we barbecued lamb. I thawed some lamb chops; they are from an older sheep, a 2 year old ram. It’s technically mutton, but our sheep just lie around in the pasture and eat, so this one didn’t get tough. To be sure, I marinated it in some homemade plum vinegar (originally a failed wine), olive oil, garlic, pepper and salt. Then roasted potatoes, carrots and onions (in more olive oil; we really need that stuff). I made a greek salad from cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers,feta, fresh basil, plum vinegar and olive oil. And some green beans. I also baked a squash – Potimarron, an old variety of squash from France with a creamy texture and a flavor that’s supposed to taste like chestnuts. But I forgot to serve it, so it’s left for tomorrow, and I gave some for the guests to take home. I ate way too much after being hungry all day.

Day 3 of the 100-yard diet

Tuesday: day 3

I missed breakfast this morning, so I had an early lunch of yesterday’s leftovers; falafel in pita and leftover red pepper and squash soup. The soup thickened when it was chilled and was a great sauce. The heat from the hot peppers comes through.

For dinner, I made turkey soup. I sauted onions, added stock, added a lot of potatoes, carrots and green beans, and the leftover turkey meat. The turkey was smoked so the soup has a smokey flavor, I didn’t even bother to go outside to pick sage or thyme. We usually add noodles (ah, refined flour) but not today. There’s one pita roll left from yesterday that we split to go along with the soup. I sliced a cucumber also, since the one yesterday was so good; it’s an heirloom cucumber called Uzbkski.

Today we also had a dessert. This was an experimental dish, with squash, eggs, milk, honey, and soft goat cheese. It came out very tasty but really misses vanilla and spices like nutmeg.

I’ve done a little googling on locavore (who knew there was a name for what I try to do?). One group in the bay area has a whole month long challenge, not just a week, and it moves from year to year. This year is supposed to be an emphasis on food preservation. And this is the time of year to think about it, if you have a garden.

We eat a lot of our own food all year, but canning is just not a big part of this. Canning uses so much energy and generates so much heat – boiling gallons of water for 10-40 minutes… While I have heard that it takes more energy to run a freezer for a year than to can the same amount of food, we have to run the freezer anyway since it’s full of lamb and turkey. So the total additional energy for us to to freeze food: nothing, and in fact a full freezer is more efficient.

Canning is used for jam, pickles, tomato sauce and juice (maybe a dozen quarts each). And we freeze some foods. But the best way to eat is right out of the garden – there’s something growing in our garden all year, even carrots and kale in January, that we can pick fresh. And “root cellaring” (we use an unheated storage space) lets us keep potatoes, squash, onions and garlic through March, depending on how warm it gets. No energy at all. We also dry a lot of tomatoes (boy, do we dry a lot of tomatoes). In our dry climate here, and with the steady hot wind in summer, you don’t really need an electric dehydrator. Screened racks in the wind will dry tomatoes in a couple of summer days.