Duck is the pinnacle of meaty achievement. Turkey never made it past GCSEs, the triumvirate of chicken, beef and pork suffer from over-exposure like second-rate stadium rockers. Lamb’s great but lacks that sense of luxury that makes duck so special.
My biggest vice – and I don’t use the term lightly – is crispy duck, with its sweet & sticky hoi sin sauce. I once ate it three times in a week and then found a duck bone under my bed like some kind of Native American curse. A greater pleasure, though, is duck confit.
I don’t consider duck confit a culinary vice because you can’t buy it in tupperware boxes and it’s unlikely to get delivered by a man on a moped. For me, duck confit is the single best dish one could ever order at a restaurant. I have never been disappointed, even in Montmartre tourist traps where the salad was dressed by Heinz and the chips had all of the worst characteristics of sponge fingers.
The crisp skin, the improbably soft flesh, the salty, garlicky, peppery flavour, all perfectly complimented by the rich, dark duck meat. I’m starting to drool a little and I’m at my girlfriend’s place so that’s not a good look.
It is a little complex, this dish, but it’s totally worth it. The way people visibly sink into rapture when they take their first bite is worth any amount of washing up and overnight chilling. I’m going to write the recipe for two because any more seems almost indecent – duck confit is made for intimacy.
Duck Confit with pancetta cassoulet
For the duck:
- Two duck legs
- A whole bulb of garlic, separated into cloves and crushed with the flat of a knife
- Enough duck or goose fat to entirely submerge the legs
- Fresh thyme sprigs
For the cassoulet:
- One tin of cannellini beans
- One tin of butter beans
- A good big handful of pancetta, or smoked bacon lardons
- Tinned chopped tomatoes
- Red wine
- Balsamic vinegar
- Two cloves garlic, finely chopped
- One red onion, roughly chopped
- Bay leaf
- Salt & pepper
- Vegetable stock
- Olive oil
First, pat the duck legs dry. I like to score the skin very lightly, just a few cuts on each leg, but not into the meat. Crush one of the garlic cloves and rub it all over the skin of the duck, then do the same with salt and pepper. Pack tightly into a snug-fitting ovenproof dish and cover before putting in the fridge to cool overnight.
In the morning, heat the oven to around 150ºc, brush the layer of salt, pepper and garlic off the legs and put to one side. Melt the duck or goose fat in your ovenproof dish before adding the duck legs, all the garlic cloves and a few sprigs of thyme, making sure that the legs are completely submerged. Bake in the oven for around 3 1/2 – 4 hours.
At this point, strain off the fat into another pan and allow the duck to cool completely. Once it’s cooled, re-melt the fat and pour it over the duck legs before placing in the fridge for 1-2 hours to set. It can be left like this, so long as the duck is completely surrounded by fat and not touching the sides of the dish for anything up to a month.
Reheat the oven to 200ºc and scrape off the solidified fat. Place in a roasting dish and roast for 40 minutes or until the skin is very, very crisp. Whilst this is happening, make the cassoulet to accompany the main event.
Fry the red onion and garlic cloves over a medium heat until the onion’s just starting to sweat. Add the pancetta or smoky bacon lardons and fry until the fat on the meat is starting to crisp and colour. Drain the cannellini beans and butter beans and add to the pan before adding a good glug of red wine, the balsamic, the tinned tomatoes, a bay leaf, a little vegetable stock and salt and pepper. Cover and allow to bubble, but not too vigorously. Stir every now and then and add more stock if it starts to stick or look to dry. When the duck’s almost cooked, up the heat and boil off any remaining liquid so you’re left with a moist but not overly saucy bean cassoulet. Plonk the confit on top of a little mound of cassoulet and tuck in.
I like to drink something muscly and red with duck confit, but honestly it doesn’t matter too much. In this case the food completely takes centre stage. Even a Petrus would be playing the triangle compared to duck confit’s symmphonies of delicious.