Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It don't get easier than ducks on the grill

Here's my latest column from today's Times-News:

Summertime grilling is easy — with duck

July 21, 2008

'Tis the season of burgers and brats, but I've got bird on my mind.
Not chicken. Oh no, I'm talking about duck.
You know duck, don't you? That incredibly delicious bird that pops up in Asian restaurants and white-tablecloth establishments. You'll typically find it in your grocer's freezer, buried under a frozen pile of turkeys and other meats deemed too exotic for public display.
Well, sort through that ice pack and grab yourself a couple ducks, because it will be the easiest meal you ever cooked on a grill.
Don't believe me? I can break down the process into three steps:
1. Puncture the skin;
2. Add seasoning;
3. Cook on the grill for two hours.
That's it. It's so easy that I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what else to write about in this column.
Somewhere along the line, duck got a reputation for being difficult to cook. For years, I heard tales that it could take up to two days to cook a duck. Two days! As a result of such misconceptions, people became intimidated and the bird was relegated to restaurants and freezer cases.
That's a shame, especially for those of us who are fans of dark meat. I say keep your chicken breasts, I want the thighs and legs where the flavor is. And when it comes to duck, the bird is all dark meat, all flavor.
Now, the one thing that boring old chicken breast does have on duck meat is it's leaner.
Duck meat is so delicious and unctuous because its meat is rich and its skin is fatty. According to the Web site Calorie-Count, www.calorie-count.com, a whole roasted duck averages 472 calories per serving, 357 of which comes from fat. A skin-on chicken breast has only 276 calories per serving, a measly 98 of which comes from fat.
So it's clear, chicken breasts - even with the skin on - are healthier to eat than ducks. Fine. But compare a whole duck to a whole chicken.
A whole roasted chicken has 468 calories per serving, 253 of which come from fat. Sure there's still a triple digit difference between chicken and duck when it comes to calories from fat, but do you realize what 104 calories amounts to?
Half a Moon Pie.
We're talking about some seriously succulent duck meat here, folks. I say that's easily worth half a Moon Pie.
Calories aside, duck is the perfect grill food. Even burgers and hot dogs need more attention. You have to baby-sit burgers and hot dogs or they'll burn. Once those birds go on, though, you don't have to touch the grill until they're done - two hours later.
Think of all the things you can accomplish in that two hours. Take a dip in the pool, read the newspaper, play some horseshoes, brew four or five batches of sweet tea.
When the time comes to finally open the grill, your eyes will rest upon the most beautifully browned, crispy skinned ducks you've ever seen.
As an added bonus, if you cook the birds for friends and family, they'll think you're a grilling genius, a culinary savant: You mastered the mighty duck with nary any effort.
Just don't let them know how easy it really was.

(Because grilling duck is so easy, I decided to offer a few ideas of how to fill the time.)

Read ...

... but pace yourself.

Play a game ...

... but know how to lose gracefully.

Anyway, it's your two hours. Use them as you like.

Grilled ducks and purple potatoes
(Makes 4 servings.)

I've yet to find a grocery store that doesn't stock frozen ducks. I always buy two because one duck yields about half the meat of a chicken. For this dish, I also picked up a few purple potatoes (because they look cool), some fennel, onions and cherry tomatoes. A side benefit of cooking ducks on a grill, you can roast vegetables underneath the birds, allowing the fat that drips off the ducks to flavor the vegetables. It's a smidge more involved than simply cooking the ducks, but not much. (Tip: Vegetables are much more dense than duck meat. As a result, they will need a bit of help to ensure they are fully cooked by the time the ducks are done. So once the vegetables are cut up and seasoned, roast them in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes before placing on the grill.)

2 frozen ducks (buy the birds a few days ahead so they have time to thaw)
1½ pounds of purple potatoes (or whatever potato you like) quartered
1 head of fennel, coarsely chopped
3 yellow onions quartered
1 pint of cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
3 tablespoons powdered ginger
2 tablespoons sea salt (or 1 tablespoon table salt)
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper (add another table spoon if you really like the taste of black pepper)

To get started, chop the vegetables and place everything but the tomatoes in a roasting pan you're comfortable sticking on the grill.
Season the vegetables with salt and pepper to taste. Pull the ducks out of the refrigerator and using a sharp paring knife, puncture the skin all over the ducks.
Just be careful not to puncture the meat too much. The puncture holes will allow the fat to drain off the ducks and onto your vegetables. If you skip the vegetables, you still need to puncture the skin in order for the ducks to cook properly. Just make sure to stick a drip pan underneath the birds or your grill will smell like duck fat for months.

Once the skin is thoroughly pricked, add the Chinese five-spice powder, powdered ginger, salt and pepper, rubbing the spices in thoroughly on all sides of the birds. (Tip: I like the Asian flavor ginger and five spice powder give to duck. However, I've also grilled duck with nothing more than salt and pepper. Both ways result in delicious duck.)

If you're using a gas grill, place the pan of vegetables underneath the grate where you plan to grill the duck (say, the left-handed grate). Put the grate back on and light the other side of the grill (say, the right-hand side) and leave the heat on medium. If you have a middle burner, keep it off.
If you're using a charcoal grill (as I do), build your fire and get the charcoal good and hot. When the coals are ready, move them over to one side of the grill, place the pan of vegetables on the other side of the grill and put the top grate on.

In both cases, you're going to cook the duck using the off-heat grilling method. Simply put, you're turning your grill into an oven. As the interior of the grill heats, the duck cooks and renders its fatty goodness all over the vegetables.

Normally, I oil the grill grate before cooking. Feel free to do so this time, but you don't need to. The ducks' own fat should take care of that.
When the vegetables are in and the grill is ready to go, stick the ducks on, close the grill and walk away. The birds don't need you and the less peeking the better. After about an hour and a half, open the grill and carefully remove the top grate, stir the vegetables and add the tomatoes. Put the top grate back on for a final 30 minutes.

Remove the ducks and vegetables, carve the birds (if you care to) and enjoy.


Columbo said...

This looks like it was fun, but I keep waiting for your blog post on the first time you made "beer can chicken".

When can we expect to read all about that outing?

antoniabowden said...

Nice Times-News product placement, Drew.