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.

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.

“Vegetable Surprise” recipe (or way of life)

When you work full time, and have gardens and animals to care for, plus lots of other projects, something tends to get less attention. For us that is cooking. Often we just come in at dusk and look at each other and hope the other has some great dinner idea… but rather than order out for pizza, since we do strongly believe in eating our own food as much as possible, we’ve come up with quick meals that use whatever vegetables are available.

Besides Top Ramen (which I’m embarrassed to say we do eat from time to time) the main thing we make is what I call Vegetable Surpise. (I think the name is funny, since it’s not a surprise – but no one else thinks it’s funny; just humor me). Here’s the “recipe”. You can make as much or little as you like by adding more vegetables, but when vegetables are the main part of the meal you need a surprising amount – I rarely manage to cook up enough for leftovers.

Vegetable Surprise
– onion (one small or 1/2 large)
– garlic ( as much as you like; I use a big spoonful of that canned chopped stuff, or 2-4 cloves fresh)
– oil
– vegetables (such as cabbage, kale, collards, chard, gailahn, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, dried tomatoes, peppers, jerusalem artichokes, green beans, snap peas, zucchini, winter squash, kohlrabi) cut in bite size peices.

You may need to parboil beets and winter squash; it’s hard to get them soft enough in saute.

Chop onion and garlic and saute in medium hot oil. After a couple of minutes, add vegatables in order of hardness (hard to soft). Cook vegetables until done to taste (we like them undercooked, but then, we’re hungry at this point).

Serve over pasta and top with grated hard cheese such as parmesan or pecorino romano (or any cheese, really – gorgonzola is good, cheddar works)

Or serve over baked potatoes and top with cheddar.

Or add a couple of eggs with the cooking vegetables, and some soy sauce, and serve over rice.

Or add a lot of eggs, let cook for 10min, flip over and cook on the other side, and call it a frittata (we usually add sliced potates to the vegetables when we do this)

Or only cook vegetables halfway, remove from heat, add a lot of beaten eggs and a little milk, and pour into a pie crust and bake, call it a quiche.

Or you can add cream (after the end of cooking to make a cream sauce), or ricotta; but these require more sense of adventure and having some leftovers that need using up.

Fresh tomatoes don’t generally work, they release too much liquid when cooked so you get a runny, sloppy dish. However, if you add cut up small fresh tomatoes shortly before serving, so they just get barely hot, it’s particularly delicious over pasta with grated cheese.