Duck has always been my favourite meat, almost impossible to reject if it’s on a restaurant menu. When I lived in France, I alternated between sautéing thick breasts (known as magret, they come from ducks being raised for fois gras) and opening up a tin of confit du canard.
In London, confit comes with an even more luxurious price tag. But duck legs are relatively easy to purchase and often cost little more than chicken. The first recipe I tried was a ragù from All About Braising, where the legs were browned, then slow-braised with a wine-enriched sauce base. It was tender and very tasty, but somehow the rich, almost gamey duck flavour didn’t come through.
A shortcut confit, however, was an unqualified success, the kind of dish that makes one feel clever for having stumbled over it. The recipe, from the NYT’s Melissa Clark, calls for thorough browning before a long, low-temperature roast. The fat rendered off in the sauté is left in the pan, allowing the meat to almost poach. Finally, the skin is re-crisped. (I used the grill; Clark simply uncovers the meat for the last third of the cooking time.) The result was nearly as good as any I’ve prepared (i.e., reheated) or even eaten in a restaurant, the meat falling off the bone, and the skin practically crackling.
The key may come from an initial curing with salt, pepper, thyme and bay. Though Clark suggests a full day in fridge (which I plan to try next time), a few hours were enough to add flavour and draw out excess moisture. I imagine, too, that the rub could be adapted, substituting rosemary or herbes de provence, or maybe even smoked paprika.
On the side? It would be hard to better the classic accompaniment of pan-fried potatoes, though for these you’ll need some fat already to hand—ideally duck or goose, with olive oil as a reasonable cupboard substitute—in order to have the potatoes ready at the same time as the meat. A green or bitter-leaf salad (endive or perhaps radicchio) would be good to follow. And did I mention the wine? Unsurprisingly, big reds from the Languedoc, a duck-obsessed region in France’s southwest, would suit nicely, though I’ve read that California Zinfandels make a fine match as well.
Adapted from the New York Times
Serves 2; doubles easily
Total time: 3 ½ hours for cooking (largely unattended); 3-24 hours for curing
Special equipment: An oven-proof pan which fits the duck legs snugly in one layer. If the pan is shallow, a splatter screen would be useful.
1-2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp freshly-ground pepper
2 bay leaves, ideally fresh
2 good-sized duck legs, washed, any feathers plucked
Strip the thyme from its branches and chop. Combine with salt in a deep plate, pie dish or similar. Grind over pepper and combine. Add bay leaves.
Press both sides of the duck legs into the curing mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 3-24 hours.
If you can, allow the meat to return to room temperature before sautéing. (If not, it won’t affect the final product.) Heat up the pan on a low to medium flame and place the duck legs in skin-side down. Cover with the splatter screen.Preheat the oven to 110-120°C (230-248°F).
Cook gently for 15-20 minutes, checking occasionally, until the skin is browned and crisp, and there is a considerable amount of fat in the pan. Using tongs, turn the legs to make contact between any other fatty areas and the pan. Brown and render the fat from these, then finish with a few minutes skin-side up.
Cover the pan with a lid or aluminium foil and place in the middle of the pre-heated oven. Cook for 3 hours.
When ready to serve, remove the duck from the oven and reset it to grill/broil. Place the meat under the heat for 2 to 3 minutes, which should be long enough to crisp up the skin.
If desired, soak up any excess fat by placing on a paper towel-lined plate before serving.