Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Duck confit minus the fat

What is the last time you made duck confit?

According to my estimates, duck confit happens in home kitchens at most 0.25 times a year. I am talking about experienced home cooks here. The kinds that find making dinner in the end of a busy work day relaxing, and who don't blink an eye before attempting a multi-hour cooking project on a weekend. Still. After talking to my students, I can't see duck confit being cooked much. Of course, you can buy it, but from my experience, the store bought stuff is pathetic compared to the home-made version.

Pst -- I'll tell you a little secret. Last time I made duck confit was 2 years ago. Is it hard? No! I've never heard of someone's duck confit not coming out even if it was their first time. Is it a pain in the ass? Yes! It all boils down to working with a bucket of duck fat. I am not talking about the calories. I am talking about the logistics. Handling large amounts of fat at home is not fun. That's why I never deep-fry. In theory, duck fat is easily obtainable and recyclable material. You roast a couple of ducks and you'll get yourself enough fat to confit 4 duck legs. There are two problems however: 1) I hate whole roasted ducks because they don't do the bird justice -- the breast is never medium-rare and the legs are never as tender as in confit. 2) if you want to keep that fat in usable form, you have to strain it and separate it from the juices -- doable, but messy.

There is, of course, the option of buying duck fat instead of rendering your own. But you'll have to pay about $12 for 4 cups of fat to cook 4-6 duck legs. When you are done, there is still the ordeal of filtering the fat and separating it from juices if you want to freeze and reuse it.

While developing recipes for my chicken/duck class, I was wondering if there was some way to achieve the same meltingly tender duck flesh and crispy skin without all the fat. Turns out I was not the only one tortured by this questions. I found a couple of New York Times articles about how to make duck confit without the fat. The concept seemed so straight forward I didn't bother printing the recipes or book marking them. You salt the duck 24 hours in advance, like you would for confit, then cook in the oven at low temp for about 2.5 - 3 hours. I got myself some duck legs, gave it a try and it was perfect. The only problem was how to do this in class when you only have 3 hours total and need the oven for other dishes at a higher temperature? I was also wondering if salting the ducks 24 hours in advance was necessary. That would be tricky since I was planning to have the students take the ducks apart in class.

In the last 2 months, I cooked more duck legs than I am willing to admit. I messed with temperature and duration, with curing and lack there of, with adding aromatic vegetables in the bottom of the pan, with poking the duck skin to help fat render. No matter what I did, the results were much drier than my first successful try. Even though I was only cooking 2 duck legs at a time to minimize the amount of experimental duck we had to consume, I was reaching the point where the very idea of duck legs was making me nauseous.

I decided to retest the original successful idea, but after so many attempts I forgot what exactly I did the first time. It seemed so easy, I didn't bother writing it down. What was worse, I couldn't remember which exact article inspired the successful attempt. Finally, I found it. It was an article by Regina Schrambling from 2002. This time, instead of skimming it, I read it very carefully. The answer was right there in front of me:
The trick to this no-fat-added confit is packing the legs tightly into a baking dish, one that is about three inches deep, and sealing it with foil so that the meat essentially simmers in its own juices over several hours.
That's what was different. The first time, I cooked 4 duck legs and they sat in the skillet very tightly. On all the subsequent tries, I cooked only 2 duck legs which gave them too much breathing room. The fat they were rendering wasn't enveloping them at all, and the results were significantly drier even after I returned to low temperature and a long cooking time. I couldn't remember if I covered the dish the first time or not, but I decided to stop messing around and <gasp> follow directions. Well, almost... since I stupidly trimmed the extra fat of my remaining two duck legs the previous day, I thought I should add a bit more fat in. I had some pork fatback in my freezer. I cut a few slices and added them to the dish. I arranged the legs as snugly as possible in a much smaller dish and covered it with foil. 3 hours later, the legs were meltingly tender and all I had to do was crisp their skin. I tried the broiler, and non-stick skillet options. The skillet won by a huge margin, producing evenly brown, shatteringly crisp, and not at all chewy skin.

Lazy and Cheap Duck Confit

In traditional duck confit, the legs are submerged in rendered duck fat and cooked slowly for several hours. This can be both messy and expensive, preventing home cooks from attempting this preparation too often. That's a shame because absolutely identical results can be achieved without buckets of duck fat. You won't be able to store the confit for a month since you won't have enough fat to cover it, but now you might attempt this mouthwatering dish more often than once a year. If you ever cut up whole ducks, cut the skin into strips, put it in a zip lock bag and freeze for making confit. No need to render it, it will melt during the cooking process. If not, a cheap and wonderful alternative to duck fat is pork fatback. I usually keep some in my freezer for all my confit needs.

4 duck legs if using Long Island or small duck (2 if using Moulard or large duck)
Salt and pepper
4 oz scraps of duck fat or pork fatback, sliced into 1/6 inch thick strips 1 bay leaf, broken into 3-4 pieces

Salt cure (1-3 days in advance):
Trim excess fat from duck legs and reserve for cooking the legs later.
Sprinkle duck legs with salt all over (about 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt), cover and refrigerate.

To cook duck legs:
Preheat the oven to 275F.

Find an oven safe dish that is 3 inches deep and fits duck legs extremely tightly. It's ok for some parts of them to overlap, but it's not ok for there to be any space around the legs or they'll dry out. Arrange a few pieces of duck or pork fat on the bottom of the dish and top with pieces of bay leaf.

Sprinkle duck with freshly ground black pepper on all sides and arrange skin side up in the baking dish fitting the legs very snugly. Tuck strips of duck or pork fat around duck legs anywhere exposed meat comes in contact with the sides of the dish. Arrange the remaining strips of fat on top of duck legs. Cover the dish tightly with foil and place in the middle of the oven for 3 hours if using small duck legs such as Long Island (a.k.a. Pekin) or 4 hours if using large legs such as Moulard.

The duck is done when a wooden skewer goes through it with absolutely no resistance. The meat should be spoon tender. Cool the legs in fat for 15-20 minutes, then remove them to a paper towel to dry off on both sides. Remove any pieces of duck/pork fat or bay leaves that might be stuck to duck legs. The duck legs can be cooled completely at this point and refrigerated until you are ready to serve them (up to a week).

What to do with rendered fat:
You'll need 1-2 Tbsp of rendered fat to crisp up duck skin in the skillet, so save that. The rest of the fat can either be discarded or filtered and frozen indefinitely for future use. Do not pour the fat down the drain. I keep a disposable plastic container in my freezer labeled "fat to dump". Whenever I have any cooking fat I don't want to keep, I pour it into this container and when the container is full, I throw it away. To save the duck fat for future use, first put it through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of any chunks, bay leaves, etc. Then let it sit for about an hour until it completely separates from the juices (the fat will be on top, juices on the bottom). Carefully ladle the fat into a clean jar without disturbing the juices. Cool to room temperature, then cover and freeze.

To serve:
If the duck legs just came out of the oven, all they need is a quick browning in a non-stick or cast iron skillet. Set the skillet oven medium heat and add about a tablespoon of rendered duck fat. When hot, place duck legs in the skillet skin side down. Cook until the skin is nicely browned, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Serve whole or tear up to serve in salads, pasta, etc.

If the duck legs were chilled before serving, warm them up in a covered non-stick skillet on medium-low for about 5-7 minutes flipping half way through. Then proceed to the crisping step above.

*      *      *
P.S. Unless you teach cooking classes, you probably couldn't care less about how I am going to fit this dish into a 3 hour class without buying 3 sets of duck legs. But just in case you are curious, here is my plan. The first time I teach the class, I'll buy extra 4 duck legs (besides the whole ducks and chickens that students will be cutting apart). I'll cure these legs a day before class and will get them in the oven 2 hours before class. During class, I'll show students how to salt the legs they cut off the duck, how to pack them tightly into a dish with extra duck fat scraps and get it ready for the oven. I'll then disassemble these duck legs and freeze them for next class (so that I don't have to buy extra duck legs in the future). Meanwhile the confit that I would have started before class will be done, and I'll show them how to test it for doneness and crisp the skin.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How to Braise a Chicken

Well, I finally did it -- I announced Things with Wings. This latest addition to our class list is supposed to teach you everything you ever wanted to know about poultry but were afraid to ask.

Developing a new class also has a wonderful side effect of providing me with blogging material (or more precisely with a deadline). I can no longer procrastinate writing down these recipes, so I might just as well blog about them.

Today's topic will be how to braise chicken, which very conveniently applies to braising duck too. What is braising? Braising is a combination cooking method: first you brown the protein and then you cook it in liquid. There is an insane amount of braising chicken recipes in this world: coq au vin, chicken Proven├žal, chicken with 40 garlic cloves, chicken Cacciatore, Moroccan chicken tagine, etc. Most of the recipes I've seen for these dishes provide mediocre results: flabby skin and tough dry meat. Their only saving grace is the sauce.

Is it possible to make braised chicken that's all about the chicken? Turns out it is, but it took a bit of work to figure it out.

How to solve the dry meat problem:
Don't use breasts! Would you braise a beef tenderloin? No, not even the most idiotic of cookbooks would suggest that. But for some strange reason, most braising recipes suggest that you cut up the chicken into 8 pieces and cook legs and breasts together. Chicken breasts have no connective tissue or fat making them a terrible choice for a braise. Just like you wouldn't put tenderloin and chuck into one stew pot, you shouldn't put poultry breasts and legs into one stew pot either. The reason for braising a whole chicken is historic (or at least that's my best guess). If you wanted to braise a chicken in the old days, you had to buy a whole chicken at the market or kill one from your own backyard. Finding two different chicken preparations for legs and breasts when you had a large family to feed was simply not practical. But since it's very easy to go to the store and buy only legs or only breasts these days, why not use this to our advantage?

How to solve the tough meat problem:
Assuming you are using chicken legs, you are not likely to end up with dry results, but can easily end up with tough ones. Chicken legs need a good long time to become tender, and indirect heat, but most recipes tell you to cook them "just until done" and to use a stove top. That doesn't do braised chicken justice. I found that the optimal way to cook them (after you browned on the stovetop and assembled your sauce) is in the oven at a gentle 325F heat for slightly over an hour or until they are fork tender. Ideally, you'd braise at even lower temperature for even longer time, but that might pose a problem for you schedule-wise. For absolutely ideal results, braise at 250F for 2.5 hours. But 325F is as high as you can go without toughening the meat. Don't be alarmed if your thermometer registers 190-200F (not the usual 170F you expect to see in done chicken legs). That's the point at which the connective tissue melts and leaves you with the most tender results.

How to solve the flabby skin problem:
Oh, this has been the thorn in my side for years. No matter what I did, it seemed impossible to keep the skin crisp. I tried re-crisping it in the skillet or under the broiler when the braise was done, but results were never satisfactory. The answer finally came from my culinary heroine Judy Rodgers, the author of the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Only submerge the chicken in the sauce half way to make sure the skin stays above the liquid. Oh Judy, I love you! Finally, it's braised chicken skin that actually tastes good. I know what you must be thinking -- why not just remove the skin? Sure, you can do that, but I want my skin and I want to eat it too :)

Another tip from Judy Rodgers is to pre-salt the chicken 1-3 days in advance. It makes it way more flavorful and in my opinion improves the texture too. Though that's not just a tip for braising chicken, but cooking chicken in general.

That's all there is to it, and we are ready to braise.

Moroccan inspired chicken braise

Serves 6

12 chicken thighs (or 6 chicken legs, cut into thighs and drumsticks)
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp kosher salt (or 2 tsp table salt) or less if using chicken stock with salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 Tbsp canola or olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, sliced pole to pole
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp all-purpose flour
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 inch ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 preserved lemon (a.k.a Moroccan lemon), pulp removed, skin rinsed, and sliced paper thin
12 green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 and 1/2 cup chicken stock (plus more as needed), if possible home-made, unsalted

Salting the chicken (if possible, do this 1-3 days in advance)
  1. Press the chicken pieces between paper towels to dry and sprinkle with salt on all sides.
  2. If possible let the chicken air-dry in the fridge for a day to help the skin crisp as it cooks. To do that, arrange it in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet skin side up and let sit in the fridge uncovered. If you don't have room in your fridge for this, just pile it all into a zip lock bag.
Browning the chicken:
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Press the chicken pieces between paper towels to dry before searing. Mix pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom and sprinkle all over chicken.
  3. Set a large (if possible NOT non-stick) skillet over medium high heat and add the oil (1 Tbsp for 10 inch skillet, 2 Tbsp for 12 inch). When the skillet is hot, add chicken pieces skin-side down without overlapping (if your skillet is not large enough, do this in batches). Do not disturb the chicken for at least 5 minutes. Regulate heat so that the chicken is making sizzling noises, but is not burning. When the first side is brown, flip the chicken to brown briefly on the other side. You'll have to rotate drumsticks more than 1 time to brown them on all sides.
Making the sauce and braising:
  1. Remove the chicken to a large plate and add the onions to the skillet. Turn down the heat to medium and cook stirring occasionally until tender, 8-10 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook stirring constantly until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add flour and cook stirring constantly until no streaks remain, at least 1 minute. Add stock, olives, and preserved lemon. Bring to a simmer stirring constantly.
  2. If you are working in a large skillet that can fit all chicken pieces in 1 layer, put the chicken pieces into the skillet skin-side up. If your skillet is not large enough to fit all the chicken, pour the sauce into some baking dish (like 13 by 9 inch pyrex) and set the chicken on top. The liquid should come half way up the chicken pieces. Be careful to keep most of the skin above the liquid. If it looks like you have too much liquid, take some out. You can simmer it in a small pot and use it as extra sauce. If you don't have enough liquid, add some stock.
  3. Place the dish with chicken in the middle of the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until chicken is fork tender.
  4. Remove chicken pieces to a serving dish, tilt the pan, and skim off excess fat. Serve with rice or couscous.
Leftovers keep very well. To warm up, lightly brown chicken pieces skin-side down in a little bit of butter using a non-stick skillet. Flip, add sauce, and simmer on medium-low until heated through.