As the song goes: “It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid…”
Unless you happen to be a turkey, of course! Or a plump pig destined to become a gammon. But wait… maybe the trembling turkeys and petrified piggies can breathe a sigh of relief – why not try something else for Christmas this year? I mean, who can really fit a turkey into their suburban oven anyway? Plus then you feel obliged to invite all those casual acquaintances and distant rellies that you don’t really want to see, but need to invite so that they can help you finish off the turkey. Nobody still wants to be eating leftovers by Valentine’s Day.
No, no – far simpler for many reasons to do a roast duck. And before you back out of the room saying oh no siree, not me, I don’t know the first thing about roasting a duck, take a deep breath and stop panicking. Now repeat after me:
Roasting a duck is easy peasy pumpkin pie.
Especially when you have your best buddy Nigel Slater on hand to help with a recipe.
My mom used to do a roast duck occasionally, but less frequently after a close encounter between our cat and a cup of duck fat. Our cat Smokey was a gorgeous silver tabby Persian, whose name was a truncation of his pedigree name “Ali Pasha’s Silver Smoke”. He had the regal bearing of a champion and a lineage as long as your arm, but when it came to food he had the sneaky sensibilities of an alley cat. Anything edible left unsecured in the kitchen was fair game, and more often than not, as you approached the kitchen, you would hear the soft thud as he guiltily leapt off the counter where he had been sniffing out leftovers. My mom once baked a batch of mini milk tarts which she left to cool safely under a mesh food cover umbrella. Hey – what would a cat want with custard tarts anyway? But when she returned to the kitchen a while later, Smokey had chewed a hole through the mesh and taken a kitty bite out of at least half the tarts. He hadn’t eaten one whole one – no far more fun to nibble each one.
It’s a miracle he lived to the ripe old age that he did.
Anyway, one Sunday my mom had made roast duck and had poured off the copious amounts of fat that had cooked off into a cup which she set aside to solidify for easy storage. We had a delicious lunch and later, my brother and I carried our plates back into the kitchen. The sight that greeted our eyes was memorable. On the counter was an empty cup. On the floor was a cat who looked like his fur had been dreadlocked from chin to front paws. He had clearly gone foraging on the counter and found the delicious-smelling duck fat – and then finished it off. But even so soon after the unexpected windfall, you would see he was beginning to have second thoughts. He had started cleaning himself and had succeeded only in spreading the fat all over his fur and matting it. Plus he was licking his lips compulsively, as cats do when they are not feeling too well in the digestive department. Suffice it to say that within the hour he was vomiting all over the garden – one particularly violent projectile made a greasy stain down the slate steps to the swimming pool that stayed there for years. And the more he licked, the more of his fur became greasy and matted and he just could not understand why. He survived, but for the sake of his continued health, my mom was circumspect about making duck after that.
Unburdened by pets (except the neighbours crazy felines who think they live at our house as well as next door!), I have no such qualms and duck is one of my favourite cook-to-impress meals for friends. And, as I mentioned earlier, if you are still undecided about what to make for Christmas, this is a wonderful recipe to consider.
NIGEL SLATER’S DUCK WITH PANCETTA AND POTATOES
1 duck weighing about 2.5kg
6 medium potatoes (maris piper are ideal)
Mild extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions
5 -6 sprigs of fresh thyme
A couple of bay leaves
A wine glass of Marsala or similar sweet wine
Pre-heat oven to 200C. Remove duck giblets, rinse inside and out and pat dry. Cut the potatoes into finger-thick slices and the pancetta into cubes. Put the pancetta in a large roasting tin with a tablespoon of the olive oil. Warm over a low heat, allowing the pancetta to flavour the oil, but do not let the pancetta colour. Add the potato slices and allow to cook slowly. Peel and cut the onions into slim wedges and add to the potato pancetta mix, together with the thyme leaves stripped from their stems. Turn it all over as it cooks and allow the potatoes and onions to colour slightly. Season with salt, pepper and bay leaves and remove from the heat.
Prick the skin of the duck all over with a fork, season inside and out with salt. Lay it on the potato mix and put in oven to roast for an hour to 1.5 hours, until the potatoes are soft and the duck is golden brown. During cooking, spoon cooking juices over any potatoes that appear to be browning too quickly or drying out. Try to pour or skim off some of the fat released during cooking that is not absorbed by the potatoes.
Test if the duck is done by inserting a skewer into the thickest part of the flesh – the juices should run clear and the skin should be crisp. Remove the potatoes to a warm serving dish and return the duck to the oven at 220C for 5 minutes to crisp. Remove to a warm serving dish. Pour the Marsala into the roasting tin over moderately high heat on the hob. Scrape away any bits stuck to the tin and stir into the sauce – heat till it bubbles. While the sauce bubbles, slice the duck, check the sauce for seasoning and serve the sauce spooned over the duck.
I served mine with lemon thyme peas (boiled peas with a squirt of lemon juice and about a teaspoon of thyme leaves) and, of course, those fabulous ducky potatoes.