So, where do the ducks -- or at least their legs-- go in January? After a mad rush to bake bread, tidy up the house, and roast the butternut squash, I hopped on the subway to the Union Square Greenmarket, all set to patronize the big stand that's always there, selling venison and pheasant and wild turkeys and yes, duck.
Except that it wasn't there. There were plenty of stands selling pastured lamb, bison, beef, and pork, but duck I had promised, and duck it would be. So back over to Brooklyn, to pop into Staubitz on Court St at 4pm, to a butcher who was not at all sure that they had any duck. Into the back he went as I eyed the rest of the meat case, thinking, well, who doesn't likes a nice roast chicken? Luckily, though, some 10 minutes later he emerged, holding aloft a package of 4 duck legs. "Just put this into a bowl of cool water, and they'll thaw out in about 40 minutes or so."
Ah, frozen duck. I hadn't counted on that. The Zuni recipe, as I remembered it, seemed to call for at least 2 1/2 hours in the oven, and I had no hors-d'oeuvres planned. Well, then. Into the kitchen and into the water with the sealed plastic packet of duck.
And into the oven with four sweet potatoes while some milk warmed on the stove, infused with a few branches of thyme and sage. As the duck thawed, I rapidly boiled down an entire bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot to 1/4 of its volume, spattering a fine purple mist all over the stove. In a big white pot on the other side of the stove was chicken stock in process--2 chicken legs, a chopped leek, a chopped carrot, some salt and another branch of thyme.
Trying to bisect a butternut squash without a huge cleaver means my knife inevitably gets stuck in the side of the squash like a bad outtake from The Sword in the Stone. Luckily, there is another option: just stick the whole thing in the oven!
Ha! Take that, sucker!
Poke it vigorously so the steam can get out, slip it onto a baking sheet (so the inner drool won't burn and smoke), and bake at 325F until soft, a long time. Remove from the oven, slash in half and let it cool. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the seeds and strings. Scrape out all the flesh and let it drain in a colander for a couple of hours. Put the chunks through a food mill to make a smooth puree. Slash your roasted sweet potatoes open and let cool, then do the same scrape and mill. Mix the purees together, then dribble in enough herb-scented milk (or cream) til you have a smooth and gently enriched puree. Add a knob of butter, salt and pepper to taste. Smooth into a baking dish and slip into the oven while the duck bakes, just enough to heat through. Of course, orange is always suitable with squash and sweet potatoes, but there was enough citrus going on in this menu, so I opted for winter herbs--thyme, sage, or rosemary--instead.
Then, the winter salad: julienned fennel, turnip, and endive, a mixture of three crunchy whites, scattered with pomegranate seeds and a handful of arugula, in a light dressing of wine wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, good green olive oil, and a drop of honey. Three bunches of collards rinsed, ribbed, rolled, and sliced into chiffonade, ready to be steam-sauteed in a ladleful of chicken stock, then tossed into hot garlicky, lemon-zested olive oil, spritzed with lemon juice just before serving.
But back to the duck. Not thawed through, but softened enough to separate, the duck legs were patted dry with paper towels, rubbed with a little salt (according to Zuni, the well-salted legs should have sitting in my fridge for two days by now, loosely covered and thinking their own thoughts, but nuts to that) and tossed, skin down, into a hot cast-iron skillet to hiss and brown on both sides.
Much fat rendered, the legs did get crisp and browned, just as promised. Then, pour off the fat into a spare coffee can (mmm, duck-fat home fries, anyone?) and swirl the boiled-down red wine into the pan. Replace the duck legs (fatty skin side up), tuck in 3 large onions, cut into wedges, a handful of whole garlic cloves, a dozen fat unpitted prunes, and a few slivers of orange peel. Add a cup of reduced chicken stock (start with 2 cups, then boil down to half its volume) over the top, then bring the whole thing to a simmer. Cover tightly, and pop into a 300-degree oven for about 40 minutes. The liquid should come halfway up the duck legs; add more chicken stock if needed.
Timing is completely dependent on your oven and the size of the duck legs. Mine were smallish, and my oven runs hot, so everything went faster than I expected. After 40 minutes or so, I uncovered the pan, flipped the legs over, and sloshed the prunes around. A little while later--maybe 30 minutes, more or less-- I uncovered the duck again, which now looked well-browned and shiny. 10 more minutes, uncovered, and the sauce reduced a bit and the duck got even better-looking. Out of the oven, onto a platter with the mostly cooked-down onion sludge and the plump prunes. The sauce went into my new gravy strainer, there to sit for a couple of minutes so all the fat could rise to the top. You definitely want to do this, gravy strainer or not, so you're not serving a sauce that's half straight-up duck fat.
So, finally, hot greens in a bowl, squash-potato puree in a dish, sauce in a pitcher, sliced polenta bread in a basket, and duck on a platter. A fine winter meal all around. And as usual, I completely forgot about the salad, until I was opening the fridge to get dessert. Whoops! So we had salad before dessert--not chocolate cake as I'd planned (too heavy and brown after the duck), but a buttery Meyer lemon pound cake, with a chilled compote of navel and blood orange slices, pomegranate seeds, a few tablespoons of Grand Marnier and a sprinkling of orange-flower water. Very good for breakfast, too.