Three Trees and a Duck

I suppose it may be a little strange to think of eating duck meat when there are flocks of ducks heading back north as the winter snows melt away, rather than in the fall as they are flying south to escape the cold, incoming arctic winds, but there was a nice plump package of duck meat waiting in my refrigerator last week, and a new recipe book begging to be tested.

I have learned while living in Finland that I love foraging.  Heading out into the woods with a pail in one hand and either a mushroom knife or a berry fork in the other hand, is one of my great joys for 4 glorious months out of each year in Finland.  From July through October, the forests are packed full with all kinds of good things ripe for the picking.  So when I discovered that I can actually start this self-indulgent hobby a few months earlier, you can imagine the smile on my face.  May hasn't arrived yet, but my plans have:  I'll be foraging for nettles and fir tips and who knows what else out there, and making them into food for our table.

That I discovered these things in California forager Connie Green's book The Wild Table seems fitting to me.  Connie writes about year-round foraging in California and creating wonderful meals out of seasonal foraged food.  With the help and sure hand of Chef Sarah Scott, the book is full of tips for the amateur forager like me, or for food lovers who are simply curious.

Browsing through the pages I found a recipe for duck using juniper berries and maple syrup, I knew I needed to experiment. As Connie says, you've probably never had a meal flavored with the essential flavors of two trees before!  Correction.  Make that three.  Orange features heavily here as well!

I had a jar of dried juniper berries in my cupboard, and there is always a bottle of Vermont's finest in my fridge, so all I need to do is let the duck sit in brine for 48 hours before roasting it up with root vegetables for Sunday dinner.  Oh people, get yourself a duck and try this.  It's too good to be missed!  Buy Connie's book - you'll be glad you did - especially those of you on the west coast who are lucky to have all the wild ingredients she talks about available in the woods not too far from your front door.

You can get Juniper berries in the spice section of nearly all grocery stores I've been in.  You may actually have some in your yard if you live on the West Coast of the US:  many times I've seen a huge and unruly juniper tree shrub nestled up against the front porch of a split-level home - and of course out in the woods - their natural habitat.  If you can't find Juniper, I might try fresh rosemary or some fresh pine or fir tips.

Juniper and Maple-glazed Duck
adapted very slightly from The Wild Table by Connie Green

One note:  Since I was serving two people, I bought 2 duck breasts instead, weighing 700g (1.5 lb) total, and then cut the recipe by a third and it worked beautifully.  I did make the full quantity of the syrup and there wasn't much of it left as a lot drips off during the glazing process into the oven pan, so I'd at least double it if I were roasting a whole duck.

For the brine:

One 4-5 pound duck
1/4 cup sugar
3 dried bay leaves, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh, frozen, or dried juniper berries, crushed
Zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 fresh thyme sprigs, chopped coarsely (I used dried thyme and it worked well too)
6 quarts of water (or enough to cover the duck completely).

Rinse and pat dry the duck.

Place the remaining brine ingredients except for the water into a container large enough to hold the duck.  Heat one quart of water to boiling and pour it over the dry ingredients.  Stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Stir in the remaining water (I actually recommend stirring in 3 quarts of the remaining water, letting it cool, and then seeing if you need the rest to actually cover the duck).  Let the water cool to room temperature.  Submerge the duck in the brine and refrigerate overnight or up to 48 hours.

One hour before cooking, remove the duck from the brine and drain it in a colander or on a rack placed inside a baking sheet.  Pat the duck very dry before roasting.

For the glaze:

1 tablespoon dried juniper berries, roasted until fragrant (2-3 min) and crushed
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Finely grated zest from one orange

Position rack in the center of the oven.  Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C.

Place the juniper berries on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 3-4 minutes, being careful not to burn them.  They will be fragrant when ready, but become bitter if burned.  Let them cool slightly, and then crush them in a mortar or with the back of a heavy spoon.

Combine the remaining glaze ingredients in a small sauce pot and add the juniper berries.  Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to medium-high so that the mixture is at a vigorous simmer, for 2-3 minutes until the glaze is slightly thickened.  Remove from heat and let sit for 5 more minutes to let the juniper berries infuse, and then pour the syrup through a fine mesh sieve to strain out the chunks of juniper berry juice.  Return the glaze to the pot and keep warm while you roast the duck.  Set aside 1/3 for serving.  Use the rest for glazing the duck during the roasting process as follows.

For the duck:

Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil and place a wire rack inside.  If using a whole duck, truss the duck, pat very dry, and place on the rack.  If using duck breasts, pat them very dry and place them skin side up on the rack.  Cook for 30 minutes.

Remove the duck from the oven and turn down the heat to 350°F.  Carefully pour of the excess fat from the pan (I didn't, but I've heard that duck fat is delicious and healthy, so if you do this, reserve the duck fat for something else.).

Prick the skin of the duck all over with a fork.  Brush with one-third of the remaining glaze and return the duck to the oven.  Cook for 15 minutes.  Baste with another third of the glaze.  Cook for 15 more minutes and baste with there remainder of the glaze.  Cook for 30 minutes (you'll need less time for the duck breasts - test the temperature in the thickest section of the duck breast at this point).  Cook until the internal temperature of the duck is 175° - 180°F.

Hold in a warm place to rest for at least 10 minutes.  Serve the reserved glaze along with the duck.

Rosemary-scented Roasted Root Vegetables

2 large orange carrots
2 large yellow carrots
1/2 rutabaga
1/2 celery root
2 parsnips
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large rosemary branches, chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Wash and peel the root vegetables and cut them into sticks.  Toss with the olive oil, salt and pepper and place into an oven-safe dish, preferably with a lid.  If you don't have a lid, cover the dish tightly with oil.  Bake in a 400°F/200°C oven for 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to rest with the foil tightly on while roast the duck.

Once the duck is roasted and resting, turn the oven temperature back up to 400°F/200°C.  Remove the lid or foil and return the vegetables to the oven.  Cook for 10 minutes and remove from oven.

Serve the duck with oranges slices, roasted vegetables and the reserved glaze.

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