I was lying in the bath the other night, attempting to thaw out after a particularly icy afternoon working in the garden here in Wānaka, when I heard a mad ruckus of ducks squawking outside. A couple of wild mallards have made our little pond their home and, despite not managing to rear any of their ducklings this year (a combination of hawks, ferrets and sheer stupidity), they've been happily settled there and no longer fly away or get jittery when we come near.
The commotion outside was not the gentle quack of happy ducks, there was definitely something troubling going on, as there had been in the late spring when evil ferrets would sneak in and steal the baby ducklings. However, it was dark and about minus-5C outside. I stayed put in my warm bath and thought little more of the matter.
Over the years we have acquired a splendid array of birdlife here (quail, bellbirds, tūī,
kererū, the rare native falcon karearea, even an iridescent kingfisher that hunts frogs in the pond) and it feels so good to have created this habitat where all kinds of birdlife can thrive.
Even though we named our quacking pair Paté and l'Orange, we never dreamed of ever eating them. This said, as legions of duck hunters will attest, mallards are delicious. (Paradise ducks, on the other hand, which actually aren't ducks, rather shelducks — a type of large goose-like bird — are another matter, being greasy and tough and not nice eating at all.)
While mallards are never as fat and tender as farmed varieties like pekin, muscovy, aylesbury or the famous Rouen ducks of France, they take a lot longer to cook than farmed duck (except the breasts, which should be served rare or medium-rare). They have a fine-textured flesh and a rich, appealing flavour. Most years, I am lucky enough to be given a few gutted and plucked mallards from my hunter friends. But even if I wasn't given any, I certainly wouldn't be killing the ducks (or any other game birds for that matter) that reside in our garden.
Later that night of all the squawking kerfuffle, it started to rain, a big storm that went on for a couple of days. The pond rose and rose and finally started overflow. When we went out to investigate, Paté was up the far end of the pond making sad little quacks. There was no sign of l'Orange. Then we spotted a beady-eyed ferret loping up the bank, out on his endless hunting run. I had never imagined that ferrets would go after adult ducks. It turns out I was wrong.
Ferrets' long, thin shape means they require constant food and for this reason they are wired to kill everything. They are very strong swimmers, known to cover distances of up to 5km in the water. The fact that the pond was near-freezing proved no deterrent to the wicked ferret's appetite. There was his trail, right down to the pond. In his haste to escape his vicious enemy, our beautiful drake l'Orange had ducked his head down into the outflow pipe of the pond and, whoosh, was sucked down, gone forever. It took my husband Ted several hours, in thigh-deep icy water and a large expensive excision of the pipe end to remove him. By then, sadly, he was not fit for any pot.
However, had he been able to be eaten (in the interests of waste not, want not, I always pluck, gut and cook the quail that break their necks on the glass windows here), these are three seriously delicious ways my frog-fattened Monsieur l'Orange might have found his way to our dinner table.
Duck breasts with balsamic marmalade
My dear friend, Daniele Delpeuch, queen of French cuisine, taught me this sublime way of cooking duck breasts and I've never looked back. Pan-frying them slowly, skin-side down renders out the fat and browns and crisps the skin. Then, turning off the heat and letting them finish cooking on the other side, just in the heat of the duck fat in the pan, ensures they stay lightly rare and beautifully moist. If you are doing this with wild duck breasts, start with ¼ cup duck fat in the pan as these wild breasts don't have enough fat to render.
Ready in 30 mins
4 duck breasts
Salt and ground black pepper
4 tomatoes, halved
2 Tbsp good-quality marmalade
2 Tbsp balsamic glaze
Deeply score duck skin with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern. Season duck on both sides with salt and pepper, place skin side down in a heated pan and cook for 15 minutes over medium-low heat.
Keep an eye on it and reduce heat if the skin is becoming too brown. Turn duck over, turn off heat and allow to stand for 10-15 minutes (the heat of the fat will be enough to finish cooking). Lift out and drain on paper towels.
Drain almost all the fat from the pan but don't wash it (it can be chilled and reused multiple times). Add tomatoes to the pan and cook until just softened. Remove from pan and keep warm. Add marmalade to the pan and cook over a medium-high heat until caramelised (about 2-3 minutes).
Angle-slice each duck breast across the grain into 3-4 slices. Return to the pan with balsamic glaze and cook for another minute or two to just warm through. Adjust seasonings to taste.
To serve, place 2 tomato halves on each of 4 warmed plates, top each with a sliced duck breast and drizzle with glaze.
Duck confit with fragrant lentils
Confit is the process of slow-cooking in duck fat or oil. It works incredibly well for both duck and chicken and surprisingly the results aren't fatty or oily. Lentils make a classic accompaniment.
Ready in 5 hours + 6-12 hours marinating
6 bay leaves
Afew sprigs of thyme
6 duck leg quarters
2 Tbsp flaky salt
Zest of 1 lemon, cut into strips with a vegetable peeler
1 head garlic, broken into skin-on cloves
Ground black pepper, to taste
4-6 cups warm duck fat, to fully cover the duck
1 recipe fragrant lentils (see below) to serve
Parsnip chips to garnish (optional)
Place bay leaves and thyme sprigs in the base of an ovenproof dish that fits the duck snugly in a single layer. Arrange duck on top, sprinkle with salt, cover and chill for 6-12 hours.
The next day, preheat oven to 120C fanbake. Lift duck out of oven dish, rinse to remove salt and pat dry. Add lemon zest and garlic to bay leaves and thyme in the bottom of the dish, arrange duck in a single layer on top and season with pepper. Add enough warmed duck fat to fully cover the duck. (If you don't have enough fat, add olive oil if necessary, to ensure the duck is fully covered.)
Cook for 4 hours. It can be prepared ahead to this stage and keeps in the fridge for months as long as it is fully covered in fat with no air pockets.
When ready to serve, preheat oven to 220C fanbake and line an oven tray with baking paper. Remove duck legs from fat, scraping off any excess fat. Place on prepared tray and cook until the skin is crisp (about 15 minutes).
Serve duck on a bed of fragrant lentils and, if desired, garnish with parsnip chips made by deep-frying peelings of parsnip over medium heat until golden and crisp, then draining on paper towels.
Ready in 30 minutes
Serves 6 as a side dish
1½ cups Le Puy lentils
1 medium onion, very finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed finely
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp sherry or wine vinegar
3 Tbsp chopped parsley
Leaves strips of orange zest, to garnish
Place lentils in a pot with onion, garlic, lemon zest, olive oil and 4 cups water. Simmer uncovered until lentils are just tender and liquid has all but evaporated (15-20 minutes).
If the lentils are tender and there is still liquid in the pot, turn up the heat and watch closely until all liquid has evaporated.
Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and ground black pepper and stir in vinegar and parsley. Garnish with strips of orange zest to serve.
This dish tastes even better if made a day ahead, chilled and reheated.
Ready in 1¾ hours
4 duck legs
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 long red chilli
Zest of ½ a lime, finely grated
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup coconut cream
½ cup tamarind chutney or 6 Tbsp of any other chutney with 2 Tbsp tamarind paste
½ cup coriander and/or mint leaves, to serve
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Season duck well all over and place in a deep casserole dish. Roast until fat runs freely and skin starts to brown (about 40 minutes).
Lift duck out of dish, drain off fat (chill and use for cooking other things such a confit or roast potatoes) and return duck to dish.
Combine all remaining ingredients except herbs and pour over duck. Cover, reduce oven to 160C fanbake and cook until duck starts to lift away easily from the bone (50-60 minutes). Check liquid is bubbling around duck — if it starts to catch, add a little water or more coconut cream.
Uncover and increase oven to 220C to brown (about 10 minutes).
Serve garnished with coriander and/or mint.