Duck dinners are everything they're quacked up to be and more.
Depending upon where you live in the United States, it is now or soon will be duck season – time to call ducks, shoot them, dress them, cook them and eat them.
My duck days began when I was big enough to shoot my grandfather's Remington
12-gauge shotgun without the recoil knocking me on my butt. I was about 11, I guess. While I tried to hone my shooting skills with that Remington, my grandpa used his newer and better Browning 12-gauge duck 'n' goose buster. He shot most of the ducks we bagged, but I couldn't blame my shotgun. Instead, I pointed to Grandpa's decades of experience as my excuse.
I quickly did master the most important aspect of duck hunting – calling in the ducks. Grandpa taught me well, and I was a good duck-call student.
"You sure can talk to them ducks, boy," my grandfather would say to me often during those cool, crisp, autumn mornings in the duck blind, after calling in a flight of mallards.
But the best part of duck hunting was and still is eating those divinely delicious birds. I can think of nothing better in life than dining on ducks. Well, almost nothing.
My grandmother cooked those savory first ducks of my early years. I have tasted no better roasted ducks since then. Keep in mind, however, that I have never eaten a duck I did not devour with absolute, utter joy.
I have gobbled down quackers – both wild and domestic – in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, California, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and France. I've enjoyed pan-browned duck breasts, smoked duck halves, duck in raspberry sauce, but I'm very happy with simple, traditional, whole, roasted ducks.
Grandma Ellen always prepared our birds whole, in what I assume was the
Irish-American way, learned from her mother. Then again, maybe it was the
German-American way, taught by her mother-in-law. Why didn't I ask about such
things when I was young? That kind of stuff is important family history that's now lost. Yep, when I was young, I failed in chemistry, second-year Latin and family history.
The French – as you would expect – can plate up some delicious duck dinners. But
I'm pretty fond of the Chinese variations, too. Singer Billie Holiday was of the same opinion.
"Singing songs like 'The Man I Love' or 'Porgy' is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck," the legendary Ms. Holiday said.
Peking duck might be the most famous Chinese version. It can be a pain in the tail to make, and time consuming, but the finished product is fantastic eating. When it's done, you wrap pieces or slices of the duck meat and duck skin in little Mandarin pancakes, with green onions and hoisin-based sauce. It's only natural that oohs, ahhs an umms will accompany the consumption of this stuff, so don't be alarmed.
You can find Peking duck recipes online, of course, and there's a pretty good one by Queen Dragon Mom on Food.com. It would be a good choice, because the instructions are clear and explicit, and the recipe is very similar to the one I ripped off from one of my Chinese cookbooks. You'll see right away that the recipe takes 8 hours to make, and 6 hours of that are prep time. That's why it can seem like a pain in the tail. But a lot of the
time involves the duck dangling in the air in order to dry, which helps your duck end up with crispy skin.
People driving by our Lake Arrowhead, Calif., house when I was preparing Peking duck probably wondered why a naked duck was hanging in the bay window of our dining nook, just off the kitchen. If they only knew. Oh, yes, if they knew what that buzzard-looking thing would turn into in a few more hours, those folks would be knocking on the door, begging for some fowl-filled Mandarin pancakes, right?
Although I've also cooked Chinese braised duck, French duck a l'orange and Vietnamese barbecued cinnamon duck, among other variations, I mostly prepare Ellen-style roasted duck. It always comes out brown, crispy, juicy and bursting with wonderful flavor.
Remember, you don't have to be a duck hunter to love duck meat. A domestic bird, with that layer of fat, is delicious. Yes, indeed, that fabulous fat will baste and flavor the meat, so head for the market and purchase one of those plump Long Island birds. If you've never tried roasting a duck, go online and check out Martha Stewart's "Roast Duck 101."
While you do that, I have to go pick up some Winchester, 12-gauge, high-brass No. 4's.