Roast Duck with Limes

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Judging from what people have said to me over the years, the domestic duck doesn’t have the fans it deserves, largely because of the difficulties of reducing its fattiness. There seem to be three reasons for this: using the wrong sort of duck, not getting rid of the fat properly during the cooking, and then not removing the rest of the fat at the carving stage.

The recipe that follows is guaranteed to make the skin crisp (as the Chinese know, this is the best part) and the meat melting and succulent, and provide you with a supply of delicious duck fat. I served it this way for Elizabeth David once, who sent it back. Dismayed, for she was one of my heroines, I wanted to know why – particularly as, at lunchtimes, I put the duck in the oven at 11.30 a.m. so that it would be perfect by 1.30. It seems the grande dame preferred to have the bird served with a rare breast and a better cooked leg finished under a hot grill, a modish presentation of the time. Well, that way the breast meat is fine but not enough subcutaneous fat runs away, although you can eat the skin; and the leg meat can easily be undercooked, with the skin likely to suffer scorching and blistering without reaching fat-free crispness.

Anyway, both she and her lunchtime companion (who it seemed was meekly following suit) each rejected a perfectly cooked half duck – cooked and carved to order, as it were, with no sign of fat anywhere, the skin crisp, golden brown, without blemish, the meat melting in the mouth. Although taken aback to be exchanging views with the greatest food guru of the time, I stuck to my guns, but I can’t deny it was a disappointing experience.

When I say the wrong sort of duck, I mean you must buy a fresh duck that has been dry plucked, not a frozen duck which has almost certainly been wet plucked – that is, plunged into very hot water to open up the pores that hold the feathers. This alters the texture of the skin so it becomes impossible to crisp properly (and the meat is also more likely to dry out). Dry plucking involves coating the bird with hot wax, letting it set, and removing the embedded feathers at one go. The secret of crisp skin involves pricking holes under the skin to allow the fat to run away but not pricking the meat.

This recipe uses limes to go with the duck, but a tart apple sauce with orange rind, or redcurrant jelly melted, acidulated with lemon juice, and jellied again is also very good.

Duck fat is high in polyunsaturates and thus relatively healthy. Keep it for roasting or frying potatoes, sautéing vegetables, and for mixing into a well-dried out swede purée. Three ducks will give you enough fat to make your own duck confit. I’m told goose fat makes good hand cream – I can’t say whether duck fat does the same.

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Ingredients

  • 1 large, fresh duck, with giblets if possible
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, chopped
  • 2 tbsp oil or duck fat
  • 600 ml water or light stock
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • bouquet garni
  • salt
  • 3 or 4 limes
  • 50 g sugar
  • 50 ml water
  • cornflour (optional)
  • 2 tbsp red wine, port or brandy (optional)

Method

Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C/Gas8.

Wipe the duck, and remove any bits of wax, particularly from under the legs. Remove any lumps of fat from inside the cavity and put them in the roasting tin to render down. Remove the feet at the joints and throw them away. Cut off the wing tips at the second joint in and chop them roughly. Chop the gizzard and heart roughly. Cut off the parson’s nose, to allow the duck to fit snugly in a roasting tin, and throw it away. Brown the bits of duck and the vegetables well in the oil or fat, add the water or stock, the garlic and the bouquet garni and cook gently while you are roasting the duck. Let it reduce to about 150ml.

Prick the duck well along the underside of the breast and where the legs meet the body, taking care not to puncture the meat. Turn the duck over and press down on the middle of the backbone to break it. This allows the duck to sit flat in the tin and to brown evenly, breast side up. Salt the breast lightly and place in the oven for 15–20 minutes to start the fat running.

After this time, pour off the accumulated fat into a tall heatproof jug, turn down the heat to 350°F/180°C/Gas4 and keep pouring off fat and any brown juices every 20 minutes. The duck should always be sizzling merrily. Cooking time will be about 1 hour 45 minutes, depending on the size and fattiness of the bird, but more cooking to remove more fat will not do any harm. The whole point is to remove all the fat from the breast, and as much from the legs as possible.

Make the lime compote while the duck is cooking. With a very sharp knife remove all the skin and pith from the limes, segment them between the membranes, and chop roughly. Heat the sugar in the water until it is dissolved, stirring, and let the limes steep. You can cut some of the dark green lime skin into fine strips (removing all pith first) if you wish, but blanch them for 30 seconds first and refresh, then add to the compote.

When the duck is cooked, pour off the accumulated fat from the brown residues, strain the stock from the combined giblets and vegetables and reduce it to a gravy, skimming as you go, then add to the residues. Thicken with cornflour if necessary, slaked with red wine, port or brandy. Season. There should be about 4 tbsp of gravy per serving.

Carve the duck into 8 pieces, removing any fat left on the thighs, and arrange on a hot serving dish. Serve the compote and gravy separately.

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