Lining Up all Your Ducks in a Row: Duck Confit

DSC02265Roast Duck is one of the great triumphs of Chinese cookery – all those lovely bronzed birds hanging up in the windows of local restaurants. But it’s one of those dishes which is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at home – certainly not something where the payoff matches the effort compared with just buying a takeout from the local.

Despite this, western cook books are full of attempts to re-create the Chinese roast duck in a form that can be attempted at home. I have fond memories of seeing Ken Hom on the BBC in the 1980s demonstrating his method for a roast Peking duck. But they were never as good as you can get from a restaurant.

Rather than follow this forlorn path, we return to one of the classics of western duck cooking: the South West France dish of duck confit. Confit is really a method of preserving rather than a conventional recipe but it can give the twin delights of very tender flesh allied to wonderfully crispy skin. For a period, people were worried about the fattiness of ducks and the possible health implications. But the type of fat in ducks seems to be have been rehabilitated and, in moderation, this is a wonderfully tasty dish.

Note confit takes some time – a minimum of one day to prepare although the actual time you’ll be working won’t be very long. And the taste is better if you can leave the duck for longer, once preserved.

You can buy in your own duck legs and duck fat but that’s not as easy as it might be here in Hong Kong and it’s certainly not cheap. For the more economical approach, for which you can also pat yourself on the back and say it’s more holistic, look at the separate post on Duck Butchery.

In this recipe we are going to confit 6 legs, the yield from three ducks together with the fat we rendered – see the duck butchery post for how to do this, a discussion of how to source the duck and alternatives for the fat.

You can do the recipe with as many or as few legs as you like but there is a certain amount of effort involved in the confit process and, as a preserving method, it works best when you make a good batch and then use what you need, keeping the rest preserved. Also the logistics of making sure there is enough duck fat to cover the legs during the confit process means that it seems to work better with more rather than fewer legs although that partly depends on the shape of your cooking container.

The confit process is actually quite simple once you’ve sourced your legs and fat. Essentially there is a curing phase followed by the cooking itself and then storing. You’ll want some flavorings to add to the curing salt and that’s about it until you’re ready to re-heat and serve.

Some cautions

Remember you are working with raw poultry so need to be scrupulously clean in dealing with knives, cutting boards and anything else that comes into contact with the raw duck. Later, the hot fat is dangerous and there’s a lot of it so, again, be careful handling it.

If you are going to keep the duck confit for some time, you need to be careful with the storing phase. You have to use scrupulously clean equipment, avoid any contact between the legs and the air or any dirt and make sure they are completely covered in fat. If you are going to eat them within a few days, you don’t need to be quite so paranoid – they will keep well in the fridge. I used an oven-proof glass storage container which I sterilized in a low oven (110C) for 20 minutes.

Duck Confit
 
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Author:
Serves: 6 servings
Ingredients
  • 6 legs (see duck butchery for sourcing)
  • About 1 litre of duck fat (or alternatives – see duck butchery)
  • Salt – about a tablespoon
  • Pepper
  • Five spice powder (optional)
  • 6 Garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 whole star anise (optional)
Method
Curing
  1. In a non-reactive container (e.g. glass, stainless steel or plastic – I used the non-stick container I would later use for cooking) lay the duck legs in as few layers as possible, covering each layer with a good sprinkling of salt and fresh pepper.
  2. I like the taste of five spice powder with duck so added some of that. Traditional recipes would add thyme leaves or maybe bay leaves or nutmeg here.
  3. You then need to cover the container and store in the fridge. Recipes vary on how long – anywhere from about three hours to a couple of days. In my case, I left the legs for a day and a half – longer than I originally planned because if got waylaid by something else. Longer is probably better.
  4. You then need to wash off the curing salt and dry the legs to reduce the amount of moisture going into the confit process. Some cooks (like the Stellar guys) leave the legs uncovered in the fridge for a while to accentuate the drying process but I didn’t bother with this.

Cooking
  1. Lay the legs in a cooking container and throw in the crushed garlic cloves and the star anise if you are using it.
  2. The norm would be a heavy based saucepan that is big enough to contain the legs and enough fat to cover the legs or in an oven tin but it’s difficult to sustain the right low temperature, especially in the oven.
  3. The legs are going to be cooked slowly and I find this is one of those recipes which benefits from a specialised slow cooker (or a rice cooker with a slow cook function) which can achieve a fairly consistent temperature some way below boiling point. If you have one of these, you want to cook the legs for at least three hours. I did it for 5 hours on the low setting and they were very tender at the end, possibly even too tender as the skin broke very easily. I’d do it for 4 hours next time.
  4. If you don’t have a slow cooker, then about an hour and a quarter just barely simmering on the stove-top should be fine - check the legs are cooked through and tender with a knife in the thickest part of the thigh.
  5. Remember the skin at this stage will be soft – it will only get crispy when we do the final re-heat.

Storing
  1. Transfer the duck legs to your sterlised container being as delicate you can, not to break the skin.
  2. Carefully filter the hot fat into a heatproof jug and pour the filtered hot fat over the legs once again to cover them. It’s important to cover all the legs fully.
  3. Allow that to cool, cover and store in the fridge.

Re-heating and Serving
  1. Remove from the fat – you can take out as many as you need but be careful to leave the remaining legs covered with fat.
  2. Scrape off any excess fat and then heat. You can either do this in the oven or in a frying pan. I prefer the latter.
  3. Get a heavy-based pan and heat the legs, skin-side down, on a medium-to-high heat until golden.
  4. Heat a little on the other side.
  5. Serve with a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Remember, these are already cooked; you are applying just enough heat to crisp the skin up and warm the meat through.
Notes
The duck legs are very rich in flavour so you don’t need more than one per person accompanied maybe by a light salad. And possibly a little crusty bread to mop up any of that delicious fat.

And the final bonus?
When you’ve finished the last of the duck, you can still use the fat for cooking – the best ever medium for roasting potatoes and the trendy choice for french fries.

Tropical Jam Session: A Soft-Set Mango and Passion Fruit Jam

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One of my earliest cooking memories is making jam from wild fruit that we had picked as a family. This was in the years before the ubiquitous “pick your own farms”. Instead we picked fruit that was growing free and wild near our home on land that no one seemed to own. Mostly it was blackberries which don’t make the best jam to be honest because the pips tend to get stuck in your teeth. You could avoid that by making blackberry jelly but the straining involved was quite a faff. Or you could you could add some apple to reduce the amount of pips and improve the flavour.

But my favourite was always raspberry jam. We could only get enough free raspberries to make this in a bumper year and provided that others hadn’t got to the raspberry bushes first. It was so nice to eat and a lot of the joy came from knowing that you had made it. I remember the big pot foaming and my mum teaching me about the need for a rolling boil and how to test for a set.

Here in Hong Kong, there are no local raspberries; the imported ones seem to be lacking in flavour and they’re a bit expensive for jam-making. Anyway, you can buy the definitive English raspberry jam in the shops here – Tiptree’s near-legendary ‘Sweet Tip’ Raspberry Conserve. You can’t really beat that so, without the economic incentive we had to make our own when I was a kid, there’s not much point in raspberry jam-making whilst you’re in Hong Kong.

But that opens up new opportunities for tropical fruit jam. Passion fruit is my favourite. They have a wonderful scented aroma nothing like any other fruit. They’re small and a little expensive and, although that aroma goes a long way, you really need something to bulk out the jam. Mango makes the ideal companion.

Sourcing
It turns out to be surprisingly hard to find passion fruit in Hong Kong. I’ve found the most reliable place to be the Graham Street market in Central. There are a few stalls between Gage Street and Queens Road that usually have a box or two of passion fruit. My economics training can’t fail to notice that there is a weird thing going on with the prices: the nearer the top of the hill, the more expensive they are. On my last visit: HK$7 for one near the top, by Gage Street, and HK$10 for four, nearest the bottom. I guess more people start at the top and, once they see what they want, they buy because they don’t want to walk all the way down and then have to climb back up to get them.

For ripe passion fruit, you want ones that are going wrinkly. Ironically, if you do see them in supermarkets, this is just when the supermarkets reduce the price so you may be able to get a bargain. Try to get relatively heavier ones for more flesh and avoid ones that are broken or badly mis-shaped

Mangoes are obviously more widely available. I would suggest buying larger ones because you need quite a volume and bigger ones are less hassle to skin and get the flesh from. For jam, you actually want slightly under-ripe fruit if anything because it contains more of the natural setting agent, pectin. You don’t really need the very best fruit for this so keep your expensive Alphonse mangos for another time.

You needn’t bother too much about pectin with the passion fruit – I think you want the maximum aroma and flavour from them which means using them when they are really ripe. If the passion fruit are still shiny and smooth, store them (not in the fridge) and they will ripen naturally in a few days.

The only other ingredients you need are some lemon juice and sugar. The lemon juice adds a little tartness which helps give a fresher taste. It also adds some further pectin.

For the sugar, you can use plain white granulated sugar which is fine. But you might want to look out for specialised jam sugar which has some pectin added. I’ve bought this sometimes from Wellcome or GREAT here in Hong Kong and it is worth using, especially if you are using fruit with a lowish pectin content like mango.

There are other tricks for adding natural pectin but, unless you plan on keeping your jam for months, you can ignore these. In the UK, we used to buy bottled pectin (Certo brand if I remember correctly) and in the US they sell pectin derived from apples for the same purpose. But I’ve never seen that or anything similar in Hong Kong so we’ll make do without.

There is another type of sugar called, confusingly, preserving sugar. This has no added pectin but has larger crystals which supposedly reduce the possibility of burning and the amount of impurities in the jam that rise to the surface as scum. But there are other ways of dealing with both those problems so it’s no big deal.

Too set in your ways?
Classic jam has a firm set. Some people like the flavour this gives and the way it spreads on bread. A good set gives you the best possible preserving effect so, if you are planning to keep the jams for months, this is the way to go. However some people think that the heat needed to get jam to this stage and the volume of sugar needed relative to the fruit makes for a less fresh tasting jam. If I understand the science involved, you need to boil the fruit and sugar mixture for long enough for moisture to evaporate leaving a concentration that is 65% sugar and it needs to reach a temperature of around 104C. That needs a quite a lot of sugar and quite a lot of boiling – hence those “rolling boils” I remember from my childhood.

So there is a bit of a trend for softer-set jams. At the extreme, these can be like a fruit compote. We are going to go for something in-between – less set than a traditional jam but still recognisably a jam-type spread. We are going to use a low sugar recipe which will produce a good consistency but it won’t get to the magic 104C setting point. The classic mix for a set jam is equal weights of sugar to fruit but we are going to go for only a quarter as much sugar as fruit although mangoes are themselves obviously very sweet and add a lot of natural sugar.

A sterile argument?
These jams are going to be hanging around for a few weeks at least though so we do need to sterilise the jars we will use to store them in. My mother used to use a rag-bag selection of jars that we had saved during the year for our summer and early autumn jam-making sessions. You’d find yourself eating blackberry and apple jam from a Branston pickle jar. Some of these jars were a bit iffy to be honest and we learned that, when we eventually opened the jar, there might be a layer of mould at the top which we would carefully remove before starting to scoff the jam below. That’s a bit frowned on nowadays although I can pronounce the immortal words: it never did me any harm. So we are going to use jars in good condition – it’s especially important that the tops still give a good seal. If you need to buy jars, there’s a variety of stuff out there in Hong Kong for preserving– Wing On has a several different types of jars in masses of different sizes for reasonable prices. I use the Italian jars seen in the photo above which have an ordinary screw top. And I don’t use wax covers or anything else. But I do sterilise these in an oven whilst the jam is cooking including the tops. I just put them on a large baking tray with the tops removed and at the side
More than a bit of a jam
The basic method is to steep the fruit and the sugar for a period and then heat at an increasing temperature. You’ll need to do this in large container. There are specialist jam making pans but the most easily available option is likely to be something like a large stockpot, preferably with a heavy bottom. You can do more or less than the quantities here according to your taste. If you’re new to jam-making, I would start with small quantities. Once it starts cooking, you need to keep stirring to avoid it burning on the bottom of the pot. A long wooden spatula is handy because it’s going to get hot.

Because we’re going for a soft-set, we are not going to bother too much about temperatures or testing for the set but just cook for a defined period of time.

I like the pips of the passion fruit which add a gentle crunch to the jam as well as a little visual interest. If you don’t like them, you can strain them out – ideally after the jam has made because the pips probably contain some extra pectin.

You’ll find a jam funnel useful for pouring or just about any funnel that has a reasonably wide neck that will fit in your jars. You want to fill the jars as close to the top as possible – less air means less possibility of spoilage. I seal the jars with their screw tops immediately and invert them for a few seconds – this means the still-hot jam does some sterilising on the top of the jar and the inside of the lid.

Remember in all this, you are dealing with a lot of hot sugary liquid which you don’t want to get on your skin, so be careful and use protective gloves.

A Soft-Set Mango and Passion Fruit Jam
 
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Author:
Serves: 5 jars
Ingredients
  • 2 kg mango flesh (about 8 large mangos) diced small
  • 8 passion fruit
  • 2 lemons - juice only
  • 500g sugar – ideally jam sugar or white granulated sugar
Method
  1. Mix together mango flesh and sugar and leave for 2 hours or overnight to infuse.
  2. Sterilise jars for 30 mins at 130C fan.
  3. Heat mango flesh and sugar over low heat for 5 mins to melt sugar, stirring.
  4. Add flesh of passion fruit.
  5. Raise heat to high heat for 20 mins stirring.
  6. Add lemon juice.
  7. If there is a lot of scum on the top of the jam, either remove it with a slotted spoon or add a knob of butter which will naturally disperse it.
  8. Decant the hot mixture into the sterilised jars almost to the top. Seal and briefly invert the jars to sterilise the tops. Take care with the hot liquid.
Notes
These will keep in the cupboard until opened for at least a few weeks and probably longer. Once opened, it’s advisable to keep in the refrigerator although the jam will taste better at room temperature.