This last hunting season was a hard one for me, I didn’t get out as much as I had hoped and the little hunting I did wasn’t as fruitful as I needed it to be. I didn’t shoot a deer this year and I didn’t get as many squirrels as I usually do. On the plus side, I did spend some time grouse hunting and actually came away with several grouse. I also did really well on ducks this year. I didn’t get out very many times but my good friend Eric Passe down in Wabasha put me on some ducks on the days I did get out, so I have plenty of duck in the freezer.
I don’t know what it is about ducks, but I have an affection for them that I don’t have for other animals I hunt. Maybe it is the fact that ducks were the very first thing I ever hunted. Or maybe it is the people that I have hunted ducks with. Either way, ducks and duck hunting are just part of who I am and what I do.
When I was about 6-years-old, my father and grandfather would take me out in the duck boat and we would sit in the bitter cold and drizzling rain for hours upon hours, hoping that ducks would fly within gun range and we could take a few ducks home for my grandmother to cook. Dad would let me bring my BB gun and when I started to get impatient or cold he would say, "Why don't you check your sights and see if you can hit that old decoy out there." I would take my BB gun and rattle off ten or fifteen shots and that would keep me occupied and distracted from the boredom or the cold or whatever was bothering me. Those duck hunts are some of my fondest memories as a child.
When I was 12 or 13 years old, my grandpa and I were out in duck blind on Leech Lake and had been shooting mallards and bluebills. We didn't have a dog at the time, so we were both in waders, me in chest waders and my grandfather in his hip boots. As we were out in the water, picking up some of the ducks we had just shot, I looked back at my grandpa to see a dozen or so mallards cupped up and coming down behind him. I whispered, "Grandpa...ducks!” but he heard, "Grandpa, duck” and did exactly that, squatting down into the frigid November water of Leech lake. That made him jump straight up out of the water and let out a loud "wooohoo!"
The ducks flared and he and I both laughed. I started to pack things up, because it was around 25 degrees out and Grandpa was now soaked from the waist down. Grandpa told me not to bother, he'd be fine and we proceeded to sit out in the freezing cold until we got or 12 ducks and then went home. It is times like that, that have made me love ducks and duck hunting the way I do.
I have spent almost as much time learning how to cook ducks as I have trying to get them. Duck is one of the most versatile meats around and holds up to many different styles of cooking and flavors. One of the hardest things to do is cook a duck breast properly. Duck can be as tender and delicious as a fine steak or it can be a hockey puck that is almost inedible. Cooking a duck breast simply with salt and pepper and serving it with some root vegetables can be one of the most rewarding meals you will ever try. You just have to cook it right.
This is a recipe that my wife found from the website Myrecipes.com, it is a basic roast duck breast with root vegetables, rice and chutney. If you don’t have any homemade chutney laying around the house, you can buy chutneys at the grocery store that will work just as well.
For the duck
4 duck breasts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon rendered duck fat
To prepare duck, remove skin. Sprinkle duck breasts with salt, and pepper. Heat the duck fat in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add duck; sauté 2 minutes on each side. Place skillet in oven. Bake at 400° for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let your breasts rest for a few minutes before slicing. Slice each breast half lengthwise into thin strips.
Make two cups of rice and serve the duck with a scoop of rice, the strips of duck some rot veggies and some chutney.
For the vegetables
2 cups sweet potato (1/2 inch dice)
2 cup parsnip (1/2-inch dice)
2 tablespoons duck fat
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
8 garlic cloves, peeled
1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
Try to cut all the vegetables about the same size so they will cook evenly.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. To prepare roasted vegetables, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and toss to coat with duck fat, arrange on a baking sheet and bake for 35 minutes or until parsnips are tender.
Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an RN at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him on Twitter at @youcookitright.