Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration. Edged out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family…”
~Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’
We came to poultry later in our grand scheme than we had originally intended. After purchasing day old chickens from the Murray McMurray Hatchery, and having some success with eggs and meat, we decided to try our hand at ducks. While attending a local auction, we ran across our fainting goat breeder (more on that story later) and found she had brought a hatch of Muscovy ducklings to the auction.
Muscovys are large, odd looking, hissing ducks. The males (drakes) are the size of a large Canada goose; they are friendly and funny, and the females (ducks) lay copious numbers of eggs, and are good setters. They come in a variety of colors, including black, white, lavender, blue and chocolate, and have a unique red lumpy crest around their eyes and above the beak. After intense bidding, we were the proud owners of a makeshift box of ducklings. Our middle daughter, Laura, always had a penchant for ducks and thusly proclaimed herself overlord of all things ducky. The ducklings grew quickly and they were soon hissing, eating grasshoppers and unwanted garden bugs, and generally making a nice, free-range life for themselves. We were looking forward to large duck egg omelets, duck dinners, and broods and broods of healthy ducklings.
You know what they say about the best laid plans? Well, our planning didn’t include the indigenous population of marauding raccoons. Full grown Muscovy drakes weigh about 12 pounds. Their extra large breasts make it almost impossible to take wing. However,this lack of flying aptitude doesn’t prevent them from trying. Many a trip to the barn was interrupted with raucous flapping and the cry of “MOM, DUCK!!” as a stalwart drake soared inches over my head and landed just feet from where I was standing. Their sheer size and temerity protected them from the hungry coons. The ducks were another story, they were half the size of their male counterparts, and when setting on eggs were as vulnerable as, well…sitting ducks. We lost most of our females during the first summer, but did have about 3 broods of ducklings that survived.
Jump forward to a frigid day in late December; time to harvest the first male for our fine Christmas feast. We had some experience slaughtering chickens, so dispatching and dressing a larger duck would be simple, right? Slaughtering poultry can be messy, and is a task best completed outside, so we bundled up and tackled the job at hand. Doug nimbly caught and caged the duck the night before, so all we had to do was make the proper incision, hang the duck upside down to let it bleed out, then scald and pluck it…except that it was below zero and windy, the blood kept freezing, and the boiling water wouldn’t retain its heat. Realizing that we were never going to complete this task outside without suffering much frustration and frostbite, we shifted our operations to the basement.
Did you know that professional pluckers can pluck a bird in about 7 minutes? Let’s just say that Doug and I would never make the cut. What seemed like hours later, with a basement covered with smelly feathers, duck down and tiny pin feathers, our Christmas duck was ready to gut, clean and chill. Was it worth it? Definitely! Did we learn something? Yes, about ourselves and about duck plucking. Are we faster today? Marginally. Our Christmas meal was a success, and we have since had many Muscovy Meals: Roasted Duck with Gravy, Duck Soup (gotta watch the Marx Brothers movie while eating), and all sorts of yummy duck leftovers. Here is one particular favorite. Bon Appetite!
Steamed Roast Duck (Adapted from Julie Child’s Steamed Goose, The Way to Cook)
12-lb. duck, heart and gizzard reserved
Freshly ground black pepper
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh sage
3 Leeks coarsely chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
4 C chicken stock + water
1. Trim wing tips from duck and place tips in a small saucepan. Add heart, gizzard, and 5 cups water and simmer over medium heat for 1–2 hours. Strain stock and reserve.
2. Prick duck all over with a fork.(This helps release any excess fat during cooking.) Pull away and discard loose fat. Season cavity and skin with pepper. Place thyme, and sage in cavity, then truss. For more about trussing, click here.
3. Place duck on an aluminum foil covered rack set in a large roasting pan. Pour about 1" chicken stock/water into pan. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil and steam duck over medium heat for 1 hour, adding more boiling water if necessary to prevent pan from becoming dry.
4. Preheat oven to 325°. Remove liquid from pan. Place duck, breast side down, on rack. Scatter leeks, carrots, and celery around duck. Moisten with 1 cup reserved stock and roast, covered, for 1 hour.
5. Increase heat to 475°. Uncover duck, turn breast side up, and continue cooking, uncovered, until skin is golden and juices run clear, about 30 minutes more. (Add more stock if pan is dry.) Transfer duck to serving plate, tent with foil, and allow to rest for 30 minutes before carving.
Degrease pan juices and use to make your favorite gravy.
(USDA recommends cooking whole duck or goose to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured using a food thermometer. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast.)
Robin Trott grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, MD and dreamed of the country life. These dreams came true on the eve of her 40th birthday. Along with her three daughters and husband, she packed up her things and moved to rural west central Minnesota. The years following this major life move have been full of new experiences: raising pigs, poultry, cattle and horses; cut flower production, market gardening, harvesting and preserving food, and living a simple life (read: really, really hard work!). The rewards of the fresh air, good neighbors, clear night skies, and home grown produce and meat are well worth all the sweat and tears put into the farm. She is a devoted “sustainable” farmer, educator, and local food advocate. Her last article for SGT was Some Pig!