Duck is an underappreciated food in Canada. While it is now featured in many of the better restaurants (including great recipes in three of my local favorites: Zest, About Thyme, and Paris Bistro), it seldom is featured in butcher shops or supermarkets, and seldom is served at Canadian tables. Having recently returned from a jaunt to the South of France, Valerie and I are very conscious of how much we have come to appreciate the French love of duck in their cuisine. It appears not only on the menus of some of the finest restaurants on the planet in Paris, but equally on the chalkboard specials outside small town bars and bistros. It is most often seen as “magret de canard” or duck breast, grilled with a sauce. However, it also appears on the menus of the southwest as “confit”, served alone or as the main meat ingredient in the famous cassoulet of the area around the town of Castelnaudary.
Confit is a way of preserving food… most often duck… that involves salting the meat ( normally the leg, though other bits work as well) for a day or two then poaching it in duck fat until tender. The meat is then immersed in a jar of hot duck fat and sealed, a process that will keep the meat for lengthy periods of time. When removed from the fat and either fried or baked, the meat is sinfully rich and flavourful.
Duck fat is also lavishly used in the South of France, especially for cooking potatoes. Duck fat is not like other fats… in fact, some scientific studies have likened its properties more to olive oil than to animal fats, and the French don’t seem to suffer from imbibing it in magnificent quantity. Ducks are by nature fatty creatures, so anytime the meat is cooked, fat results. Diced potatoes cooked in duck fat until golden and crisp are every bit as good as the fantastic frites the French do better than anyone (except the Belgians).
And then there is foie gras. Ducks are force fed until they are obscenely fat and their livers are enormous… at which point, they are among the most valuable birds on earth. Those livers (now called “foie gras” or “fat liver”… the French translation looks better on a menu) sell for prices that make gold look cheap and connoisseurs the world over willingly pay for the stuff, lightly grilled and served with sweet wine. Any leftover bits or inferior quality livers that aren’t sold as fresh foie gras are processed into paté or terrine and sold in tins or jars in specialty shops where even these secondary products fetch impressive prices.
However, as I have said, the magret or breast of the duck is the most commonly available part of the duck, and you’ll see it in French supermarkets and butcher shops the way you might see T-bones or pork chops here. The very best magrets are those from ducks that have been fattened to produce foie gras; they are about twice as thick and meaty as the breasts of normal ducks.
Preparing magret de canard is simple, and in previous columns I’ve mentioned my favorite recipe from Michael and Anna Olson’s On the Twenty Cookbook: just score the fat in a grid pattern and fry the breast fat side down for about 5 minutes, then pop it into a pre-heated 375 degree oven (without turning it over) for another 15 to 20 minutes. Duck, unlike other poultry, should be served medium to medium rare. Serve it with a sweet sauce like the sour cherry gastrique the Olsons use (even just smear honey on the meat while it’s still very hot) and, of course, potatoes sautéd in the fat.