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A Duck Dish to Savor

A word about duck legs and the holidays is in order. You might have some trouble finding any before Christmas, so call around a bit — Berkeley Bowl, Magnani's Poultry, Whole Foods, Market Hall, etc., but this dish is guaranteed to make you happy, whether for Christmas, New Years Eve, or just when entertaining some guests. I can say (because the owner is my son-in-law) that Star Meats, if you order right away, will get one more shipment in from Liberty Ducks on the 28th. Not inexpensive, but Liberty is the best duck around, generally only available to restaurants. The others will have Mary's or other Pekin variety duck, except for Magnanis which (if they are still getting the same thing, I've not been in for a while) has Moscovy, a larger variety of bird, that is quite delicious but needs a good bit of extra time for the braising part.

My recipe is an evolutionary one. In the summer, I make it with berries and serve with a salad (dressed with duck fat and good vinegar). Of course you can use orange, the classic duck accompaniment — a combo of fresh orange, zest, and marmalade does nicely. But I had the idea of using cranberries, for a beautiful holiday dish, and it works very well. Especially with maple syrup and Port. Serving it with fresh spinach and Forbidden rice, which is one of my favorite starches, makes for a formidably beautiful presentation. But you can tailor this recipe to your own tastes, and invent it anew. That's really all a recipe is — a guide to invention! One further note: the quantity of duck listed is for nice, fat legs. The ones pictured each weighed in at just over half a pound. Sometimes, they're much smaller. Then, two per person is an absolute necessity. Leftovers are delicious, so don't skimp. 

Duck Legs with Cranberry-Port Sauce, Forbidden Rice and Spinach

  • Yield: 4 servings
  • 2 lbs. duck legs (at least 4!)
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1 small carrot, or half of a larger one
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup fresh cranberries
  • 1/4 cup Port wine (ruby or tawny)
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup Forbidden (black) rice
  • 1/2 lb. young spinach leaves

Peel and dice the onion and carrot, and cut the celery about the same size. Peel the garlic cloves, halve each of them. Strew in the bottom of a pan just large enough to lay the duck legs in flat. Top with the duck, skin side up. Season well with salt and pepper, and pour in water to come 1/2 way up the duck.


Bring to a simmer, cover and simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes, until the duck is tender, and the skin is starting to separate on the legs. The second photo is the finished duck, the first, below, was taken part-way through cooking. See how the leg bone is exposed on one of the legs?



Remove the duck to a plate to cool, and strain the broth into a glass measuring cup, reserving the aromatic vegetables as well as the broth and fat. NOTE: You can do all of these steps a day in advance, and refrigerate the duck, broth and aromatics. Don't bother wrapping the duck, if you leave it uncoverethe skin will dry out a bit, and get crisper when you roast it. Once the fat has settled/chilled, it's easy to separate from the broth below, but you can also use a ladle to spoon it off, if you're not making the duck in advance. Reserve it as well.


Cooking the Rice

The rice takes about 40 minutes to cook, so start it before making the sauce and finishing the duck. Just combine with water to come an inch over the rice in the pot, and 1/2 tsp. salt, and bring to a simmer. It should almost be dry when it's tender — if you've set the flame too high, you may need to add water. You want to end up with damp rice, but not a ton of water left over. 




Finish the duck and make the sauce:

Preheat an oven to 425°F. Lay the duck legs out, skin side up, on a roasting pan. Lightly re-season with salt. Combine the picked-over and rinsed cranberries with the wine and maple syrup in a small pot.


Bring the cranberries to a boil, and cook until the they have burst and the sauce is reduced to syrupy. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved duck broth, and simmer until glossy and syrupy again (if you have no better use for the rest of the duck broth, you can continue to add it until it's all used up except for 1/4 cup, which you'll need to finish the rice). Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper. When the oven's hot, put the duck legs in, and after about 5 minutes, brush on a little of the sauce — if it's still cooking, don't worry, even if a bit thin still,  it will glaze the duck. Continue to roast, basting two more times, for a total of about 15-18 minutes, until the duck is beautifully bronzed. 


Finish the rice and cook the spinach:

Take the bay leaf out of the reserved aromatics, and place them in a frying pan. Cook on low heat for a couple of minutes, then add the cooked rice, and 1/4 cup of the reserved broth. Stir and cook over low heat for a few minutes, tasting and re-seasoning if needed.


Heat a teaspoon of the reserved duck fat in the bottom of a non-reactive (NOT aluminum or cast iron) pan and add the spinach. If it came 'pre washed' use it as is; if you have to wash it, be sure to spin it dry as the dryer it is, the more successful this part of the dish will be. Season with a little salt and pepper, and use a tongs to turn the spinach in the hot pan (it should be over pretty high heat) until just barely wilted. Cook for too long, and it will juice out and get really wet, which you don't want. 



Choose a nice platter, warm it so it doesn't chill the food you put on top, then lay the rice out as the bottom layer. Top with the duck, tuck spinach between the legs, and spoon on the sauce. Serve hot!