by Eugenia Bone
One summer day I helped my friend Marilee Gilman slaughter and process about 24 fat ducks. Marilee and her husband Charlie have a beautiful farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado, and they have grown or raised just about everything, from hogs and cutter bees to blue corn for tortilla chips. Anyway, when Marilee told me she had this huge chore to do, I volunteered. I thought it would be fun.
It was the most exhausting afternoon I’d spent in years.
Charlie did the killing and ran the birds through the picking machine. First, Marilee and I cleaned them—those tricky gallbladders! Look! A baby zucchini in the gullet! The endless strings of…well, you get the idea. We set aside the gizzards, which were so tough to clean that I have to say I kind of abandoned the job, and the livers, then more picking of all the little broken bits of feathers with our fingertips and fingernails and pliers and paring knives. My back hurt, my feet were sore. After a while, we were so focused on getting the damn job done that Marilee and I didn’t even talk to each other anymore. Washing, chilling, and then the butchering. Off went the thighs and legs, zip went a little paring knife around the wishbone and easy off went the breast. I cut the fat off the carcass and put it in a separate container, and chucked the carcass in a bag. One after another, whap! Like a robot: thighs, wishbone, breasts, fat. Whap! I started to float out of my body—I was still butchering and yet I could imagine cutting my thumb off. But I didn’t and lived to help Marilee brown and then boil up the carcasses for stock, render the fat, then confit 10 or so legs, freeze the breasts, confit the gizzards, and make up a batch of duck liver pâté with cognac.
Usually a martini makes me pretty silly pretty quickly, but my post-duck slaughter cocktail did absolutely nothing to affect my numb body. All I can say is, preparing one duck for the table is not only significantly easier than processing a brace; it won’t interfere with cocktail hour, either.
Duck is a wonderful poultry, as easy to cook as chicken, but with richer, darker meat and a thick layer of sweet fat. It cooks wonderfully with fresh and dried fruits of all sorts, from berries to tomatoes to citrus, as well as mushrooms, olives, ginger, chili, rosemary and sage, booze and honey. The eggs are awesome. Humongous, they are great to use in a one-egg appetizer. I can think of no other protein that produces as many dinner options as one whole duck, except maybe two whole ducks. Everything on the bird is edible, and all of it is preservable. The breasts and legs can be frozen (though you can also pressure-can the meat), the bones can be browned and boiled to make stock, and the fat can be rendered to use in making confit. The frozen duck pieces are good for up to six months. The stock can be refrigerated, frozen or canned in a pressure canner. The fat is good in the refrigerator for at least six months, and foods that have been brined and cooked in the fat can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks, because the brining stage retards spoilers, and once covered in fat, air cannot penetrate the food. The fat is also a fabulous alternative to butter in savory applications. I’ve heard that duck fat is the most digestible fat and I am totally in agreement.
A duck is called a duck if it is 6 months old or more; otherwise, it’s a duckling. The most widely sold American duck is the Long Island duck, derived from the Pekin; it weighs between 3 and 6 pounds. Wild ducks are wonderful, gamey and dark, but you’ll only get them from a hunter. (Though be particular: After years of tolerating a flock of Canadian geese pooping all over his yard, my dad finally killed one and ate it. He said it was horrid.) Most ducks are sold frozen or defrosted. Choose a duck the same way as a chicken: plump breasts, elastic skin, with no liquid or blood in the bag if the duck is frozen. Ducks have a slightly different anatomy from chickens: They are more oblong, and their wishbones are high and narrow. Nonetheless, you butcher a duck the same way as a chicken. Fresh duck will hold in the fridge for a couple of days. Frozen duck should be thawed in the fridge.
One whole duck yields two frozen breasts, two frozen legs, two quarts stock and two cups rendered fat. You can confit the gizzards, and I always eat the liver, if I can get it, the first night.
For more recipes that utilize all parts of a food, from Apples to Zucchini, check out “The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals” (Clarkson Potter, 2014), or KitchenEcosystem.com.
Eugenia Bone is a cook and author whose stories and recipes have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, including The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, Wine Enthusiast, Martha Stewart Living and The Wall Street Journal, among many others. She is the author of five books, including “Italian Family Dining,” “Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Food” (nominated for a James Beard award), “Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms” and “The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals.” Visit Eugenia’s blog at KitchenEcosystem.com.