Eating duck for the first time was not the most memorable experience of my culinary life, while eating duck confit for the first time will forever be seared into my brain. It was, Walter Manske’s, duck confit at Church & State that did me in. I was a server there and had the good fortune of being handed the remnants of a crispy golden duck leg by another server, to wolf down as we stood near the dish tank, hovering over the garbage cans. Holy cow, that duck was good.
Next time I had duck confit, I actually ate it off a plate and the crispy outside and meltingly tender inside was accompanied by a chutney like fruit sauce. It took a good duck confit for me to get duck. Never being blown away with duck breast, I have had duck dishes other than confit that I enjoyed: chef Ericka Lins formerly of Campanile, makes a wicked duck meatball, the duck pancakes at Chi Dynasty in Los Feliz are tasty other than that I don’t really go out of my way to make, buy or order duck. The exception is duck confit for me, and the duck confit recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers has become my most beloved holiday meal.
Including this Thanksgiving I have made the entire traditional holiday meal for one of the wonderful families I have cooked for, five years running. That is a lot of turkey and I think I’m just kinda over serving turkey as a festive holiday feast for my family meals, so I have decided to bring on the duck confit! Don’t get me wrong, I like turkey and one of my favorite guilty pleasures, other than bean burritos on a soft flour tortilla, is a post Thanksgiving turkey sandwich: white meat, white bread, mayo, salt & pepper. This year Revivalist Kitchen hosted a Harvest Dinner, non-traditional take on Thanksgiving! Read all about what we served up up here.
I cook turkey on a regular basis for many clients and while my husband and I will eat turkey, rarely do I go out of my way to cook or eat it (collard green turkey enchiladas being a firm exception). The bonus here is the duck confit can be mostly prepared well ahead of time and only needs to be finished by warming & crisping up in a pan. The leftovers can be kept refrigerated submerged in cooking fat for long periods of time and that fat is a wonderful medium to roast & sauté other meats and vegetables. Leftover duck confit is a delicious Real Food answer to my appallingly pale colored turkey sandwiches of the past but I suspect this recipe is so good; there won’t be too many leftovers to speak of.
One of the best lunches of my life was with my then finance now husband Andrew at Zuni Cafe on a rainy San Francisco afternoon. We ate roast chicken and drank Burgundy and it was soul satisfyingly good eats. I have never had duck confit at Zuni Cafe but the recipe in Judy Rodgers life changing cook book is about as perfect as a recipe can get. This book was suggested to me as I was being rung up at a used bookstore in Hollywood by now obviously brilliant guy working the register. He saw my hodgepodge of books: a paperback filled with traditional Greek recipes, a banged up copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, and something by Alice Waters. The clerk at the bookstore grabbed the copy of the Zuni Cafe Cookbook that just happened to be within his arms reach and he said that I just had to get it. He sold me on the book long before I had heard of the legendary Zuni Cafe or the now departed Judy Rodgers, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2013.
Buying that book both simplified and elevated my cooking in a major way and I am very grateful to that dude for being a really great bookstore employee. I am also grateful to Judy Rodgers for writing her book, as I love what she shares, how she talks about her process of recipe development and how she tells her story. The best advice on properly seasoning and salting protein I have ever read came from that book and I was shocked to learn how much of a difference proper salting techniques can make in all dishes, not just confits and cures. So with deep respect to Judy Rodgers, here is her perfect recipe for duck confit. Her instructions are wonderful and I have paraphrased them here. I highly suggest you go out and buy or borrow a copy of this wonderful book and look at the full Zuni recipe for duck confit, as well as enjoy all the other cool ideas.
Duck Confit a la Judy for a party of 8
12 duck legs, approx ¾-1lb each preferably from McCall’s Meat & Fish if you live in SoCal
2 large 3.5lb buckets of duck fat
9T of salt: I used a combination of maldon flake and fine sea salt
This recipe clearly makes duck for a crowd: it can be scaled back following a ratio of 2tsp of salt per pound of duck legs and around 2 cups of fat per pound of meat. Duck fat is expensive so I try to buy the minimum amount I need just to cover all the duck legs.
Start this recipe at least two days before you want to serve it, but three is even better. Weigh duck legs and measure out salt. Trim any lose bits from the duck and pull out any feathers that may remain in the skin. Sprinkle the salt over the duck legs and massage in. Lay duck in one even layer and cover with plastic wrap (not foil as the salt can corrode aluminum, even in 24 hours.)
After 24 hours rinse salt off duck legs and gently massage the legs. Cut a slice of meat off the duck and fry it up in a little oil to test for salt. It should be salty but not crazy, crazy, salty. If it’s super gross salty rinse the duck legs again and repeat the test. Allow the meat to rest for another 24 hours to redistribute the salt.
To cook the duck, melt the fat in two large dutch ovens or sauce pans, add the duck legs and bring up to a simmer. I used my thermometer and tried to keep the heat around 200 degrees F, for an hour and a half. I was able to do that by having the burners on their lowest setting with the pots pushed all the way against the back of my stove versus directly over the center of the burner. The cooking is pretty much hands off, I stick my tongs to the bottom of the pot a few times to make sure nothing was stuck and potentially scorching and I push down a few stray legs that wanted to pop up out of the fat but otherwise I let the fat gently simmer and cook the meat until it was soft but not fall off the bone tender. You can also do the cooking in a crockpot, on the lowest setting for six hours, pull out early if meat starts to fall off the bone. Turn off the burners or crockpot and allow the meat to cool in the fat, then store in the fridge until ready to serve.
One hour before cooking the duck legs remove them from the fridge and let them get to room temperature. It works best to brown the duck in a medium not giant frying pan, around two to three at a time. Just make sure it’s one even layer and they don’t crowd each other. Pre-heat the oven to 220 to keep the duck warm as you finish the batches and turn the frying pan or pans up to medium high heat. Once the pan is heated pull your duck out of the fat and place directly into the hot pan, skin side down and allow to cook around 5-8 minutes. VERY CAREFULLY, using tongs and a spatula try to ease the duck up without damaging the skin and flip it over and cook an additional 4-5 minutes. If the duck skin resists, allow it to cook longer. Be very careful, the duck fat is hot grease it will spit and spatter a lot during cooking. The duck skin should be a burnished golden color with a crispy crust. Finish browning the rest of the duck and keep crisp duck warm in the oven until serving.
Leftover duck confit can be shredded and mixed with cooking fat and spices for a beautiful rillette, shredded as a wonderful addition to tacos or salads.
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