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Ducking the French paradox

Duck leg confit

Duck leg confit

DUCK CONFIT seems to typify the French paradox – that of a nation that consumes seemingly vast quantities of fat yet has a reportedly low incidence of heart disease. It’s thought that as long as you simply slug down plenty of red wine while eating all this fat, you’ll live to to spend your ripe old years playing boules with the other old boys in the town square.

But in fact, there is not much fat in duck leg confit, when it comes to eating it. The fat has been drained away from the meat and has become the fat in which it is cooked. And when you finally finish it off, you drain the meat of all excess fat, and quickly fry it to brown the skin side of the leg before serving it.

Sure, this is not a Weigh-Less dish, but nor is it unctuously fatty. I had tried cooking duck confit once before – only a few months ago – and while the leg was delicious and tender, it was not truly a confit as it had been cooked in too little fat.

It’s hard to say what it is about duck confit that makes it so desirable. You might think the idea of cooking the legs entirely immersed in duck fat is a foul idea. One plus factor is that the legs are cooked very slowly. I cooked them for three hours, using Raymond Blanc’s advice to keep them at a temperature just short of a bubble, but hot enough for them to gently cook all the way through in that time. Blanc being very French and very precise, in that stubbornly Gallic way, he insists they be cooked at 85C, which means bringing the dish to that temperature in a 95C oven, which sounds more Irish than French. Whatever – being South African of Yorkshire stock with Irish habits, I cooked it at 100C and kept an eye on it. At no stage in three hours of cooking did I detect a single bubble breaking the surface of the duck fat, and the result was better than I could have hoped for.

In fact, I cooked duck two ways that night – and we had a quail starter too, on what was a pretty fowl evening.

Panfried quail with baby button mushrooms

Panfried quail with baby button mushrooms

We started with deboned quail, which I panfried in halves until golden and then removed to the warmer drawer while I deglazed the pan with red wine. Remember to also fry the cut edge of the meat. I added baby button mushrooms, rosemary sprigs and pitted black olives, seasoned and quickly boiled this down to a runny syrup, and served each person three half quails with the mushrooms and sauce poured over. Easy, quick and surprisingly light as there really is not much eating on a quail. Or a mushroom.

“Light” was a good idea, as the main course was to be the confit duck leg and a rare duck breast each, served with minimal veg for sensible reasons.

I had worried about having enough duck fat to cover the legs in a cast-iron pot just big enough to hold six whole legs (i.e. the intact leg and thigh joint). But I cunningly cooked the breasts first, in a heavy, dry frying pan, starting skin side down on a moderate heat (just enough to get a sizzle), then reducing to a lower heat. They stay fat side down until almost done, and are then turned for just a few seconds on the flesh side, to keep them a little pink on the inside. (This you will just have to judge, Daisy; it is not an exact science.)

With a metal bowl to hand, I frequently poured off the collecting melted fat from the six breasts, to which I added the trimmed fat from the as yet uncooked legs. This, when rendered down on a high heat, created plenty of fat.

All you need to do is lay the legs in the cast-iron oven dish, pour the fat over until entirely covered, and place in the preheated 100degree (or 85degree if you like) oven uncovered for three hours. If it starts to bubble, lower the heat. And that’s it.

At the end, when ready to serve, panfry the skin side quickly (in the pan the breasts were fried in) until golden brown (barely a minute) and serve.

The sauce? Duck needs sweetness. Deglaze the pan with dry white wine. Add the juice of four oranges or other sweet citrus (I used mineolas), two sprigs of sage and a small glass of Van der Hum liqueur, and simmer down to a suitable consistency. I had a jar of preserved naartjies (from Granaat in Laingsburg – make a stop next time you drive through) so I popped six half naartjies into the sauce.

Medium rare duck breast and duck leg confit

Medium rare duck breast and duck leg confit

There are those who adamantly insist that duck breast must be rare, and they do mean red, more than pink. Don’t be bullied – slightly pink is just fine. The combination of underdone and confit duck meat on the same plate makes for an interesting comparison. And the tart sweetness of the citrus sauce with that alcoholic twist is as pleasantly paradoxical as a Frenchman’s health.

First published in Weekend Argus 2010

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