Canard

It was in a small auberge in the Dordogne, in the south-west of France, maybe forty-five minutes from the town of Villeneuve-sur-lot, where I encountered the perfect fried potatoes.

I was dining with my parents, my sister, and a somewhat vegetarian friend. I, of course, went straight for the foie gras over arugula, among other things, but my mother and sister got the crayfish, which came with pommes frittes. Jennifer, the vegetarian, picked at the fries and soon started wolfing them down. We all talked about them – they were, everyone agreed, the best we’d ever had.

Jennifer knows no French; my mother and I have a little. So when Mom asked the proprietor how he made some incredibly good fries, I understood the response and Jennifer didn’t: “Oh, that’s simple. They taste good because we fry them in duck fat.”

“What did he say?” asked Jennifer, and my mother and I, guided by some psychic link, practically shouted the same thing at the exact same time: “He says the oil is really hot!” Lubricated by this little white lie, dinner continued, with Jennifer able to enjoy the best fries in the world guilt-free. So duck fat is really one of the tastiest things you can fry with. I always keep some around. You can use it for just about any sort of high temperature frying – anything you might use bacon fat for, use duck fat instead. The high heat needed for a good omelette will scorch plain butter, but just a dollop of duck fat mixed in will let you get that same butter much hotter without burning it (and, not incidentally, will make the omelette taste better).

The problem with duck fat is that you can’t really find it on the shelf of your average supermarket. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be fresh. The solution is obvious: go buy a duck.

There’s a million ways under the sun to prepare duck, but I find the simplest is the best: slow-roast it. No sauces, no soy, nothing except duck and salt. The recipe from The Joy of Cooking is just fine.

Get a duck, between about 4 and 5 pounds. A frozen duck will have a noticeably inferior texture, so fresh if you can find it (or, if you can only find frozen, then you might consider doing something more intricate with a sauce to try to compensate for the texture). Preheat your oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove everything from inside the duck, and pull off the most egregious globs of fat off of the skin in the neck (don’t worry about losing this – you’re going to have plenty left over). Using a sharp, thin skewer, pierce as many holes as you dare in the skin of the duck. The goal here is to give the subcutaneous fat somewhere to drain to – in so doing, it will become crispy. Try not to pierce the actual flesh beneath the skin. I like to slip the skewer underneath the skin and kind of work it around horizontally. (Chinese chefs who make Peking duck will frequently use an electric bicycle pump to do this, just pumping compressed air under the skin of a tied fowl – if you’ve got some other innovative way of accomplishing the task of “loosen the skin from the muscle beneath,” have at it.)

Rub the duck all over, inside and out, with kosher salt. Place in your preheated oven on a rack breast-side down, for 3 hours. Every hour or so, poke a few more holes in the skin. After 3 hours, flip the duck breast side up, drain off the excess fat to a jar (which you’ll refrigerate and save for use in cooking later) and turn the heat up to 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. I usually then give the duck a 5 minute roast at 500 just to really crisp it up. Remove from the oven, set on a platter, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes.

Bon appetit!

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