If you’ve never eaten duck, the playoffs might be the time, if only to ensure Anaheim eats crow
IN polite society, it isn’t acceptable to kill and consume your enemies. But if you’re into symbolic domination, consider the case of the Anaheim Ducks, the only one of 30 NHL squads to adopt a relatively helpless, commonly consumed creature as its nickname.
In theory, you could eat a penguin or a coyote, but neither of those critters are reputed to taste very good. Panthers and sharks are protected and increasingly endangered. Hunting a bruin is feasible, given the large Canadian population of black bears, but not easily accomplished.
Of all the animals that appear on NHL jerseys, only the duck is a common human foodstuff. Duck can be found in every good Chinese grocery, hanging behind the glass in the barbecue section, along with the fireengine-red pork tenderloins and yellowybronze marinated chickens.
Duck can also be ordered off any good southern Chinese menu, shredded in soup, braised in a hot pot or served as an appetizer portion of the aforementioned, crispy-skinned fowl barbecue.
Call ahead, and some northern Chinese kitchens will prepare Peking duck; they serve the roasted skin and some duck meat with small pancakes, green onions and hoisin sauce. Yes, the duck taco is a Chinese invention.
Find a French bistro, and you can snag a nice confit of duck leg. This is a delectable, ancient recipe, where the fatty appendage is first salted and then cooked slowly in its own fat, traditionally as a method of preservation.
A more modern, French-inspired restaurant preparation involves simply searing a whole duck breast, but only long enough to ensure the flesh remains medium rare to preserve its deep-red colour before its carved into slices.
In other words, if you’re the sort of Winnipeg Jets fan who has no problem resorting to superstition in an effort to help your team gain an upper hand over Anaheim, you could spend the rest of the Jets-vs.-Ducks opening-round series consuming waterfowl.
Fair is fowl, but fowl ain’t fare
GO back a century. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a nice fat duck or goose to wind up on the family table as the centrepiece of a celebratory meal.
These could have been wild birds or domestic fowl raised on a small, family farm. When farming operations grew, however, chicken proved to be easier and more profitable to raise.
“With modern poultry production, it costs pennies to produce chicken, whereas duck requires a bit more maintenance,” says Scott Bagshaw, chef and owner of Enoteca, a River Heights restaurant where duck is almost always on the menu.
A domestic duck also yields less protein than a chicken, making it less economical for farmers to raise and for restaurants to buy and sell.
This is one of the reasons chicken is far more commonly consumed than duck. But there are others: Duck is more difficult to prepare for home cooks and restaurant chefs alike.
“An overcooked chicken breast will still be relatively tender, but if you overcook a duck breast, it will be really tough,” Bagshaw says.
“We don’t ask people how they like their duck breast done. It’s medium-rare. To properly cook a duck breast requires some skill and patience.”
Cooked medium-rare, a duck breast winds up a glorious hue of deep reddish-purple on the interior. For a generation of consumers raised to regard undercooked poultry as dangerously toxic, the appearance of perfectly cooked duck can be off-putting.
“For years, people ate their meat well done. People are still a little scared of duck, because it’s a bird that you can eat rare,” says Adam Donnelly, chef and co-owner of Osborne Village restaurant Segovia, which also almost always has one duck dish on the menu.
“Chicken, you have to cook it through. There is a stigma of having to cook meat all the way through.”
The breast way to sear a duck
IF you’re barbecuing a duck, you’re probably going for the crispy skin as much as you are for the meat inside. If you’re making a duck-leg confit or braising an entire bird, you’re cooking the heck out of the thing, by very definition.
Searing a duck breast without overcooking it is a more delicate operation. Donnelly says he starts by searing the whole breast, skinside down, to render out the considerable layer of fat.
The breast then gets popped into an oven at high heat — but only for two minutes. After that, comes the most important step: resting the meat, for six to eight minutes.
“This is what helps the duck become tender without overcooking it,” he explains. Slice it open too soon, and you wind up with a pool of juice on a cutting board and a genuinely tough bird.
Right now, Donnelly is serving slices of seared duck breast with spicy lentils, olives and some labneh — strained yogurt — flavoured with piquillo peppers.
Bagshaw, who uses a similar method, serves his slices with a purée of Jerusalem artichokes, golden beets, hazelnuts and a sauce of Armagnac and figs.
Neither expect more people to order duck, simply because of the Jets’ opponent in the first round of the NHL playoffs. In fact, Winnipeg restaurants tend to be dead on game nights as of late, if they’re not the sort of place with a wide-screen television.
“During a game, we’ll be really slow,” says Donnelly, a Jets fan who has a ticket to Game 3 of the Ducks series, in Winnipeg on Monday. “I think the playoffs are really good for the city. Everyone’s really excited.”
Bagshaw is more ambivalent about the Jets — but interested in the way the city is reacting.
“I appreciate the gladiatorial grandiosity of the event. I’m a Roman history fan; I used to be a history teacher. I appreciate hockey games on that communal, bloodthirsty level,” he says.
It makes sense that a chef isn’t turned off by a little blood.
Getting your ducks in a row
NOW before you head out into the bush with a shotgun and try to bag yourself a timely meal, you might want to consider the duck hunt doesn’t actually start until September in Manitoba.
Even then, not all ducks are created equal.
In North America, the most common domestic duck breed is the white pekin, a descendent of the ubiquitous wild mallard. The pekin is the proverbial “little white duck” from your childhood sing-alongs.
Chances are, this is also the species you’re eating when you’re chowing down on Chinese barbecue or a taco filled with shredded duck leg.
Compared to a purpose-bred domestic duck, a wild mallard will yield less meat and taste a little gamier. But the esthetics are subjective; if you’ve grown up eating wild duck, you may find domestic meat as bland as a chicken nugget.
That’s probably why ChineseCanadian chefs liberally douse the stuff in soy sauce. At Sun Fortune, a popular Chinese barbecue spot near the U of M, you can order half a duck for $12.95.
That’s a far better deal than a large pack of McNuggets from McDonald’s. And far more satisfying — this weekend, anyway.
Adam Donnelly, chef and co-owner of Segovia, prepares a plate of seared duck breast on lentils.