We have had a splendid holiday season here in New Mexico, from attending Los Posados, our traditional candlelit Christmas procession, in mid-December to ringing in the New Year joyously and quietly with my visiting parents. In the mornings we feasted on our own backyard eggs (due to the huge amount of greens that my hens eat, the yolks are a fiery orange-red, always the mark of a good egg) and Purple Peruvian hash browns, along with thick slabs of smoked bacon (not yet home-grown, but in the future, who knows?) We ate my own meat chickens cooked a dozen different ways; in the out-of-focus shot below, you see them grilling on my new firepit grill.
Usually I can take a little time off around the holidays, and so that’s when I do some yearly kitchen chores, like making duck confit. This is a large undertaking and isn’t for everyone. If you just want to quick-grill a leg here and there, buying your duck confit is probably perfectly reasonable. But if you want not just the meat, but the lovely flavorful fat it was cooked in, then make it yourself.
Be prepared to spend some time looking for your materials. I order them on the Internet. To confit six large duck legs, you need two pounds of extra duck fat. I pay less than $15 for the fat, but I have seen duck fat sold in 7oz quantities for almost that price. You can use lard or olive oil instead if you insist, but in my view that isn’t proper duck confit. I should add that I don’t use pink salt, curing salt containing nitrates, for confit and so mine has to be refrigerated or, for storage over a few weeks, frozen. If you want to cure with pink salt, get the excellent book Charcuterie and follow the directions. I always confit twelve duck legs with four pounds of fat so I have some to give to foodie friends, but that’s probably overkill for most people.
Having secured six large duck legs with thighs attached and two pounds of duck fat, you are ready to start. First, salt the legs very generously, using two tablespoons of salt for the whole job. Grind black pepper generously over the legs, chop a small handful of thyme leaves and strew them about, and put in a bowl or plastic bag with 10 peeled smashed cloves of garlic and 10 bay leaves interspersed with the legs. Be sure to get Turkish bay leaves; the commonly found ones from California have a mentholated quality that you will not enjoy in the finished product. Set in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day, heat your oven to 300 degrees. Lay the duck legs out on a baking sheet with the bay leaves and garlic underneath them, and make sure the pepper and thyme leaves make it onto the tray. If doubling this recipe, use two trays. Don’t crowd them, because you need room for them to release their fat. Bake slowly until the legs are golden brown, usually about an hour.
Remove from the oven and place the legs in a pot large enough to hold them with room left over. Transfer the bay, garlic, etc. to the pot as well. Add the extra duck fat, and bring to a simmer. Use a flame-tamer if your burners run hot. Let the pot simmer comfortably until the duck meat is very willing to fall off the bone. This usually takes five or six hours for me.
Let cool just until no longer warm to the touch, but the fat is still liquid. Portion out as you like; I put two whole legs in a plastic container to go in the refrigerator, and ladle in enough fat to cover them. Then I use my Foodsaver to package the rest into bags containing two legs each, with enough fat to fill just the bottom of the bag, and vacuum-seal for the freezer. You will have a quart or two of pure fat left over, and this can be frozen in quart plastic containers for the next time you confit.
Now that you have a lot of duck confit, what do you do with it? For starters, you can make a quick rich meal by putting legs, heated and drained of their fat, in a very hot oven or under the broiler, then serving them on a bed of lentils or with herbed spaetzle, drained well and fried in a little of the duck fat until it has lovely crisp brown spots. You can set a leg or two on top of any cassoulet-type bean dish, nestling them into the beans a little so that as the whole splendid amalgam cooks, the duck fat plumps and sweetens the beans and the duck skin gets very crisp.
You can use fat and chopped confit to coat roast potatoes, letting the little bits of duck get crispy as the potatoes brown.
You can use a bit of chopped confit meat and duck fat to dress winter vegetables like carrots or parsnips, with a sprinkle of parsley to lighten the effect. Frozen green peas, given a brief boil, drained, and tossed in a hot pan for several minutes with a dash of heavy cream, a tablespoon or two of chopped confit meat and fat, and some soaked, chopped slices of dried porcini mushrooms, are elevated above their usual station in life. In the winter, duck confit adds subtle richness to everything it touches. On very cold evenings, you may even enjoy plain garlic toasts popped under the broiler with some chopped confit on top. Whenever you take some out of the container, gently warm it so that some fat liquifies and covers the meat to protect it from the air. Keep it in the refrigerator; it will not store safely at room temperature. Then when the hot weather comes, you will no longer be interested in confit at all. So enjoy it in its season.