The first time I spent my own money on fine dining was in August of 1980. My girlfriend was visiting on her birthday weekend and I wanted to do something special for her. Somehow I managed to score a reservation for two in the Crystal Room at Tavern on the Green in Central Park on the weekend of the Democratic National Convention (Carter and Mondale, but I voted for Anderson – remember him?). I had it all planned out; it was going to be a huge surprise.
We took a train to the city, then a cab to the park. I gave the cabbie the address of the restaurant rather than the name so as not to spoil the big reveal when we arrived. We pulled up to the front, I paid the cab, and my girlfriend said “What’s Tavern on the Green?” So much for surprises. The staff immediately made us as a bunch of kids who could be hustled out of the room as quickly as possible to turn the table for a better tipping high-rolling politician. We were seated facing away from the view over the park, our waiter was brusque to the point of being rude, but I was determined to get my money’s worth, choosing to take my time eating.
The only thing I remember about the food was that I had duck, a classic presentation of crispy leg and seared sliced breast. I don’t know how well it was prepared, having to standard of comparison, but I loved the taste. From that point on you could win bets predicting that I’d choose the duck entrée at any restaurant that served it. I finally laid that obsession to rest after my lunch at Bouchon, content in the knowledge that I’d eaten the Platonic ideal caneton á l’orange.
When I was sourcing ingredients for the marathon cooking session in January, I noticed that Restaurant Depot sold duck legs in 20-pound frozen flats. A few weeks ago I bought a box, partially thawed it and portioned out 40 eight-ounce legs. Some immediately became cooking projects, the rest were repackaged in bags of four and returned to the Deep Storage Facility. Six legs were set aside for this recipe from Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.
I assembled the duck legs, a peeled and sliced onion, two sliced leeks, 14 medium carrots (chopped into quarter-inch rounds), 8 cloves of peeled garlic, a parsley and rosemary bundle, one jalapeño pepper, two bay leaves, and about two cups of chicken-leek stock.
I browned the legs on both sides in a tablespoon of duck fat.
After setting the legs aside, I cooked the onions, leeks, garlic, and carrots in the rendered fat, then transferred them to a baking dish, adding the jalapeño and herb bundle.
I set the legs on top of the aromatics, then added enough stock to partially cover the legs. After an hour and a half in a 375°F oven the legs were done.
I set the legs aside, strained the stock from the vegetables (which I also set aside), and reduced the stock a bit to concentrate it. I plated the leg over the vegetables and added a few spoonfuls of the sauce and some parsley to garnish.
Some of my more attentive readers might notice the similarities between this recipe and the crisp-braised duck legs I cooked about a month ago. The technique is identical, but the type and ratio of aromatics is different. This version has more carrots and leeks, and adds onions while omitting celery. The resulting sauce is sweeter, which I preferred. Even He Who Will Not Be Ignored noticed the difference, commenting “You should make this version from now on, the carrots are better.”
Who am I to argue? It seems I’m dealing with a case of like father, like son, with He Who asking for duck for dinner. That’s what leftovers are for, and he happily ate this variation served over mashed potatoes with a side of arugula in duck confit jelly vinaigrette.
Duck confit jelly? Yup, a by-product of a second duck project. But that’s another post.