I had the privilege, and the challenge, to test recipes for the last two editions of The Joy of Cooking. The last time, we were the only test kitchen and my team was busy for many months.
That last Joy edition was for the 75th anniversary. Needless to say, cooking now is rather different. Many of the changes are good: more variety in our stores, year round availability of “seasonal” ingredients, and interest in cuisines from around the world. And some of the changes present issues. We don’t spend time watching our mothers cook for hours any more. For a generation or more, Mom has been out of the house working at another job. She doesn’t get home much before the rest of us and she’s equally tired. It’s become a world of fast food or quick cooking. And cooking knowledge has sadly faded.
Seventy-five years ago, just about every cook knew what braising was, and how to do it, and why to do it. Today that knowledge is rather rare. But braising, a technique that can be used for both short and long cooking times, is a technique that is being rediscovered and truly enjoyed. Among the new generation of braising books is All About Braising by Molly Stevens. Molly is a distinguished author and chef with French culinary education and wonderful writing skills. Written in 2004, All About Braising offers a myriad of recipes and insights.
What is braising? You put ingredients, typically vegetables and meat, in pot. Add liquid to cover, put the lid on, turn the heat on, and let time and heat do the work. The covered pot means that as liquid evaporates in the pot, it hits the lid, cools, and returns to the cooking contents below. The liquid may start as pure stock or wine, but over time it begins to incorporate components from the veggies and meat. And that meat is being cooking, in part, long and slow so that it does fall off the bone. The meat is tenderized as the collagen, a protein, is broken down. The collagen transforms into gelatin which makes the broth silky and rich. In the picture above, that rich brown sauce was achieved because of the braising technique.
Braising can take hours or just one hour. Short time recipes often involve poultry, although this particular duck recipe does cook for hours. And, yes, you’ve tasted the wonders of braising: short ribs, osso buco, and coq au vin are examples of braised dishes.
This delicious duck recipe was our Christmas dinner. It was rich, satisfying and a reward for some time spent in the kitchen. This is a two-day recipe. There is a wonder here that can never be captured by fast food.
Duck Legs Braised in Port and Dried Cherries
Yield: serves 4
- 4 large Moulard duck legs, including thighs, about 12 ounces each
The Spice Rub:
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted
- ½ teaspoon black pepper corns
- ½ teaspoon allspice berries
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried
- 1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt
For the Braise:
- ½ cup (3 ounces) dried Bing cherries (with no sugar added)
- 1 cup tawny port
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup chicken stock, ideally homemade
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preparation The Day Before:
Trimming the Duck:
Trim the duck les as of much excess fat as you can without cutting into the skin or the meat. If you’ve never trimmed duck legs before, proceed slowly to avoid trimming off the skin with the fat. Unlike chicken, duck skin and fat can be hard to distinguish. After removing a maximum of fat, trim off any loose flaps of skin as well. Depending on the duck, there may be as much as 4 ounces of fat to trip off each leg.
Collect the fat to render at another time and use it for sautéing potatoes or other vegetables; or discard.
The Spice Rub:
In a small mortar or spice grinder, combine the coriander, black peppercorns, and allspice and grind to a coarse powder. Add the thyme and salt and mix. Sprinkle this spice mixture all over the duck legs and rub so the seasonings adhere. Arrange the duck legs in a single lay in a baking dish, cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight.
Plumping the Cherries:
In a small bowl, pour the port over the cherries. Set aside to plump overnight.
Preparation The Day You Plan to Eat:
Browning the Duck
Heat the oven to 325°F.
Pat the surface of the duck dry using paper towels, being careful not to wipe off the spices. Heat a large heavy skillet (10- to 12-inch) over medium-high heat. If you have a cast-iron skillet, this is a good place to use it. Because it holds heat so well, the cast -iron skilled sears the duck legs without having the skin stick or tear.
If you don’t have cast iron, choose the heaviest skillet you have. Don’t worry that there’s no fat in the pan; the duck legs will quickly throw off enough to get things sizzling. When the skillet is hot, but not scorching, add as many duck pieces skin-side down as will fit without crowding.
Sear the duck, without disturbing, until the skin is crisp and taut, about 7 minutes. Lift one edge with tongs to peak to see that the skin is crisp before turning. Panfry the other side just until spots of brown appear, another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the duck to a shallow braising pan (4- to 5-quar). Pour off all the excess fat and repeat with the remaining duck legs.
Pour off the fat, this time reserving 2 teaspoons in a small jar or ramekin, and remove any black specks from the skillet with a damp paper towel. Don’t clear away any tasty cooked-on browned bits that will later add depth of flavor to the braising liquid.
The Aromatics and Braising Liquid:
Return the skillet to medium heat, add the reserved 2 teaspoons duck fat and the shallot, and sauté until the shallot begins to soften, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cherries and their soaking liquid, increase the heat to medium-high, and simmer to reduce the liquid by half, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and stock and reduce again by half, another 8 minutes.
Pour the reduced port-stock mixture over the duck legs. Cover with parchment paper, pressing down on the paper so it nearly touches the duck and extends over the sides of the pan by about an inch. Cover with a tight lid. Slide into the middle of the oven to braise at a gentle simmer. Lift the lid of the braising pan during the first 30 minutes to check that the liquid isn’t simmering too forcefully. If it is, lower the oven temperature 10 or 15 degrees.
After 1 hour, turn the duck legs with tongs. Continue braising gently until the duck is fork-tender and pulling away from the bone, another hour or so (about 2 hours total). Remove the duck form the oven, and, with tongs, arrange the legs skin side up in a single layer on a half sheet pan or broiler pan. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Increase the oven heat to 475°F.
Degreasing the Sauce:
Duck legs release a substantial amount of fat when braised, and if you own a gravy separator, this is a good opportunity to bring it out. Pour the braising liquid into the separator, and then pour the liquid into a medium saucepan (2-quart), leaving the clear fat behind. If you don’t have a gravy separator, pour the braising liquid into the saucepan and skim the surface fat with a wide metal spoon.
Reducing the Sauce:
Set the saucepan over medium-high heat and simmer rapidly until reduced to a syrupy sauce, about 3 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper, and lower the heat below a simmer to keep warm.
Meanwhile, Crisp the Duck:
Once the oven has preheated, removed the foil and slide the pan of duck legs onto a rack in the middle or upper part of the oven and roast until the skin on top is crispy and sizzling, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to warm plates or a handsome serving platter.
Spoon the dried cherry and port sauce over the top of the duck. Serve.
Source: All About Braising by Molly Stevens