Duck Done Deliciously

Duck Done DeliciouslyFinally, some easy ways to cook mouth-watering waterfowl dishes. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
September–October 2005

My interest in dining on duck began in college. A group of us would cut class on Friday for the waterfowl opener and drive to a northern Minnesota lake covered in wild rice and wild mallards. On return to my apartment, I’d spend hours slowly roasting a duck, basting it in its juices then brushing on a fancy fruit glaze before serving.

Such a time-consuming treatment worked well when I bagged only a few ducks each season. But after my aim improved over the years and I began harvesting more birds each fall, I dreaded the hours-long process of roasting duck dinner. What’s more, I could never cook a duck without getting that slight “liver” taste.

Then a friend told me his favorite way to cook these scrumptious birds. It’s been a love affair ever since.

“I learned this method by reading how the old-time duck hunters prepared their birds,” says Joe Kingman, a longtime North Woods waterfowler. “I decided to try it, and ever since it’s been the best way I’ve found for cooking duck.”

The method, which I call Kingman Duck, goes as follows:
1. With game shears, cut the backbone from a plucked duck.
2. “Butterfly” the bird by spreading the body cavity and pressing it firmly against the countertop (breaking the breastbone).
3. Sprinkle both sides liberally with salt (preferably sea salt).
4. Slap the duck on a hot grill for—get this!—just ten minutes on one side, then five on the other.

A 15-minute duck? I couldn’t believe it either the first time I cooked a bird this way. Then I took a bite from a breast slice: smoky and salty on the outside, pink and slightly bloody on the inside. I’d never tasted duck so good. Since then, I rarely prepare duck any other way.

Why is this easy and speedy recipe so tasty? I later learned the answer from an expert wild game chef: With duck—also with goose and venison—the rarer the meat, the sweeter the meat.

“If you prick your finger and lick the drop of blood, it’s sweet,” explains Ken Goff, a game cooking expert who for years was executive chef at the renowned Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in the Twin Cities. “The same is true with game animals that have rich, red meat. The key is to not overcook the blood, which then turns bitter and gives the meat that ‘gamey’ taste.”

Another reason this method works so well is that by butterflying the duck, you make it flat rather than round, ensuring more even cooking top and bottom. (Grilling spherical shapes results in a burned exterior and raw interior.)

Another expert who advocates cooking waterfowl hot and fast is Eileen Clarke of Townsend, author of several wild game cookbooks, including Duck & Goose Cookery, published by Ducks Unlimited. Because she and her husband love to hunt geese, she has developed many delicious ways to cook the big birds.

“The easiest is to barbecue a whole plucked goose on a propane grill,” she says. “Our grill has two burners, and I turn just one on and heat the grill to 350 degrees. Then I place the goose over the other burner and put a pan underneath to catch the drippings. In an hour, I’ve got a perfectly cooked goose with a crispy skin and juicy meat.”

It pains me to see hunters breast out a duck or a goose, then throw the rest away like so much trash. It’s illegal under the state’s wanton waste regulations, disrespectful of the birds, and a poor ethical showing. It’s also illogical, because that meat can be prepared to taste great.

I’ll admit legs and thighs aren’t the easiest parts to prepare. Unlike breast meat, they don’t taste good cooked fast and hot. One easy solution is to slow-cook these portions in a little liquid (called braising). Teresa Marrone, a cookbook author in Minnesota, recommends cutting up goose or duck thighs and legs and placing the pieces in a crockpot or in a covered pot placed on the stove or in the oven. Add enough orange juice to soak but not cover the meat, a bit of chopped onion, and a few herbs (such as rosemary).

“Cook that for seven or eight hours over low heat—after first bringing it to a boil—and you’ll end up with meltingly tender meat bathed in a sweet, citrusy sauce,” Marrone says.

Another great way to use up duck, says Marrone, is to prepare duck burgers (see recipe at right), which works just as well for goose. With this dish, you can consume every last scrap of your bird, including the meat found along the muscular backbone.

Yet another way to enjoy extra waterfowl meat is to add it to the venison you use for sausage. Keep a bag in the freezer to store deboned duck and goose legs and thighs. When it’s time to make venison sausage, chop up the waterfowl and add it to the other ingredients. The fowl adds an extra dimension to the taste and ensures not one scrap of duck or goose goes to waste.

“If I must choose among the sports that draw me into the open,” wrote the great outdoors writer Gordon MacQuarrie, “it will be duck hunting. No other sport with rods or guns holds so much of mystery and drama. The game comes out of the sky.”

Many of us feel about the sport as MacQuarrie did. By preparing the best waterfowl recipes we can find, using as much of our harvest as possible, we pay tribute to these indomitable birds and the marvelous sport they offer.Bear bullet

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.