If we can cook it, you can cook it!

Red-Wine Braised Duck Legs from John Ash in Fine Cooking Magazine

John Ash, Chef, Author and Teacher
         Let’s face it: You can only eat so much chicken, so many ways. Well how about Duck instead?   Dark, rich, tender meat with a crackly, crisp skin, duck is often thought of as a restaurant item (think Peking Duck) or saved for a special occasion.  But after this foray into cooking duck, thanks to Fine Cooking Magazine and a writer named John Ash, I very well may indulge my passion for the bird more often than I have been doing. You can also find duck more readily than ever as more supermarkets than ever stock it.  The truth is, as Mr. Ash points out, if you can cook chicken, you can cook duck.  And today’s recipe is simplicity itself: You simply braise duck legs in a rich, sweet wine sauce filled with dried fruit and lots of garlic. When the duck is fork tender, you brighten the sauce with capers and lemon juice.  While Fine Cooking served theirs on a bed of Polenta, ours was made of creamy-rich mashed potatoes. The potatoes were from Long Island and once upon a time, the duck would have been too.

Today’s Pekin Ducks

The first domesticated ducks reached our shores from China in the late 1800s. And by our shores, I do mean our Long Island. In 1874, one James Palmer of Stonington CT imported the first Pekin Ducks.  The ducks became so numerous on the Island, that they were called Long Island ducks.  To this day, the Pekin or Long Island Duckling is the most common of all ducks, making up about 95 percent of the duck Americans eat.  In China, they were bred from Mallards.  The ancestors of today’s Pekin Ducks lived in the canals of Nanjing. They had small bodies and black feathers.   When the Chinese moved their capital to Beijing (Pekin), barge traffic increased. These barges would often spill grain into the canals and the ducks ate it up.  They slowly increased in size, grew white feathers and became Pekin Ducks.

         The Long Island ducks prospered in their new home. And they formed a great part of the local economy.  By 1939, there were about 90 duck farms almost all of them concentrated in the towns of Eastport, Flanders and Riverhead.  When I first came to Bridgehampton, there was a sizeable duck farm in the next town over, Water Mill.  Most of what I remember of that farm was the stench.  Over the years, as property values rose stratospherically on the East End of Long Island, and concerns about water pollution rose too—that stench I told you about–the duck farms all but disappeared.  Indiana and Wisconsin have long surpassed Long Island in production although 10 percent of duck consumed in this country is still from L.I.   A local monument to the Long

Island duck, the Big Duck, is a constant reminder of Long Island’s history of duck farming.  The Big Duck is a building in the shape of a duck that was constructed in 1931.  Duck Farmer, Martin Maurer used it as a shop to sell his ducks and duck eggs.  The Duck measures 18 feet wide, 30 feet long and it’s 20 feet tall to the top of its head.   Unfortunately, in 1984 its days of selling ducks were over.  So well known, Suffolk County bought The Big Duck and moved it to the main road between the Hamptons and Riverhead in 1988.  But the Duck moved back to its original location where it still sits operating as a Tourist information and gift shop.

         Today’s recipe is straightforward.  However it is not a dinner-in–twenty-minutes dish.  You sear the duck legs to a brilliant brown color.  They’re then braised in a red wine and chicken stock in the oven with aromatics including a head of garlic and dried fruits.  I used a mixed bag of dry fruits including raisins, sour cherries—even some pineapple.   The active work is minimal. You just need nice long braising time in the oven.  While the duck is braising, it gives up much of its fat. Then you need to add time to allow the fat to separate in a large fat separator.  If you don’t have one, I find that a large pyrex measuring cup can be be to use.  Simply put the pyrex, or, for that matter, the fat separator into the freezer to speed up the job.  Once that’s done, you reduce the sauce, add the fruit, the capers and some lemon juice.  While the sauce is reducing, start the mashed potatoes or polenta. Ladle the finished mash or polenta on a plate, artfully position a duck leg, sauce it and serve.  Here is the recipe:

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