A Wet Wintery Sunday
This past week in Chicago we went from a polar vortex to a spring thaw. In the span of seven days, there was snow, ice, rain, wind and slush. So the idea of spending Sunday snuggled at home with my husband while something delicious bubbled away on the stove seemed like the perfect antidote. While the duck slowly cooked, I happily needlepointed while my husband tinkered.
I came across this recipe in our local newspaper a few weeks ago and knew that it was something that I wanted to try. All I needed were the duck legs and leeks. Little did I know that I would not only get this wonderful meal, but I was able to render almost a quart of lovely golden duck fat to enjoy throughout the coming months. More on that later.
Chasing Away Those Blues
With a little bit of planning, this delicious recipe will yield four generous servings along with the aforementioned duck fat and cracklings. I served it with polenta, a green salad a lovely fruity red wine. Chase those winter blues away with this rich and flavorful duck stew. The duck falls off the bone and is juicy without being fatty. The apples and prunes are the perfect complement to the dark duck meat while the Calvados and cider cut through any overt sweetness of the fruit.
While the stew simmers, you can use that time to get those nasty little chores done around the house. Or better yet, take a long soak in a warm tub or curl up with a good book and a better companion.
Recipe from Chicago Tribune, Food and Dining January 16, 2019 and tweaked by me
Yield: 4 Servings
- 4 large duck legs, about 10-12 ounces each
- 1.66 cups apple cider, preferably fresh
- 2 medium leeks, white and tender green parts, chopped
- 2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 2-3 ribs of celery, chopped
- 1 Tablespoon of minced garlic
- 1 generous teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 dried or fresh bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 7-8 ounces of pitted prunes
- 2 flavorful apples, cored and sliced with the skin left on (I used Honeycrisp. Fuji or Braeburn would also be good.)
- 1/4 cup good quality apple brandy such as Calvados (If you don’t plan on actually drinking the brandy, you don’t have to buy the most expensive Calvados on the market. Any decent bottle will do and closed tightly, it will last for some time. It’s great to use with apple tarts, by the way.)
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
- Trim the excess fat and skin from the duck legs. [Do NOT throw this away. At the end of the recipe are directions how to render the fat and make cracklings.]
- Prick the skin on the legs all over with a fork and season the legs generously with salt and pepper.
- Heat a large Dutch oven or covered braising pan over medium heat. When the pan is nice and hot, add the duck legs in a single layer, skin-side down. Cook until the skin is a lovely brown and the duck has given off excess fat. Turn over the legs and cook the underside until brown. The second side will cook much faster than the skin side so don’t walk away and leave it. Remove the browned legs to a platter and loosely cover with foil. Allow the fat to cool down slightly and then CAREFULLY pour the fat through a fine sieve into a clean glass jar. This is just the beginning of the duck fat that you will render.
- Deglaze the pan, using 2/3 cup of the cider, scraping up any brown bits with a wooden spoon. Add the leeks, carrots, celery and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently until the vegetables are tender – about 15 minutes.
- Stir in the herbs and spices. Add the chicken broth and remaining 1 cup of cider. Stir through and then add back the duck legs. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 2 hours, untouched, until the duck legs are very tender when pierced with a sharp knife. [The braise can be made ahead up to this point. It can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days, if desired. I didn’t do this, but it’s good to know that you can.]
- When you are ready to serve the duck, remove the legs from the pan and skim as much fat as you can from the braising liquid. [I actually didn’t have that much at this point, because of judicious trimming and pricking and browning the duck initially.] Add in the prunes and sliced apples and stir through. Add back the duck legs. Bring the mixture to a lively simmer and cover the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes and then add in the apple brandy. Cook for 5 minutes more. Serve over polenta or a sturdy noodle like a spaetzle so that you don’t lose a drop of that wonderful braising liquid.
How to Render Duck Fat and Be Happy All Year
Duck fat is possibly the eighth wonder of the world. Okay, I exaggerate. But it is a slow-burning fat that makes a humble pot of beans or potatoes or simple scrambled eggs into something truly special. Stored in the fridge or freezer it lasts almost indefinitely and a little goes a long way. It’s easy to prepare and while it takes a bit of time, it requires little effort and supervision. Here’s how:
Remember all of those trimmings of excess skin and fat? Coarsely chop them and place them in a large skillet over medium low heat. Add 1/2 cup of tap water. Cook low and slow, allowing the trimmings to render the fat (liquefy) while the water evaporates. Any bits of skin will turn toasty, crunchy brown and these cracklings can be used in salads or however you like. Don’t be impatient. This takes about an hour or more. Once all of the fat has liquefied and the skin has browned, carefully remove the cracklings to a paper towel using a slotted spoon. Allow the duck fat to cool slightly. Then carefully pour it through the fine-meshed sieve into the bottle with the other reserved fat. Cover the jar. Once the jar cools, it should be refrigerated.