NEW YORK - (NYTIMES) I feel lucky to live near Manhattan's Chinatown. It's a short walk that always improves my spirits. No matter what I'm shopping for, I always end up stopping at the roast duck place.
The guy hooks a mahogany lacquered beauty from a rack by the front window and picks up a giant cleaver. With impressive expertise, he proceeds to chop the duck, bones and all, into perfect squares. Succulent, crisp-skinned and faintly perfumed with five-spice powder, this bird is to be devoured, still warm, as soon as I get home. Eating something that good has a humbling effect.
There are other stellar ways to cook a duck, though. In France, especially in the southwest, duck is dinner more often than not, served any number of ways. A large Muscovy duck breast may be grilled like a steak and sliced; seasoned duck legs may be slowly cooked in duck fat to make confit for an eventual cassoulet; or duck legs may be braised with red wine and prunes.
RECIPE: Braised Duck Legs With Plums and Red Wine
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 2 hours
8 duck legs, about 4 pounds
2 tbsps kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp ground allspice
Pinch of cayenne
2 cups diced red onion
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
4 cups chicken broth
1 (1-inch) piece of cinnamon stick
2 pieces star anise
1 bay leaf
2 pounds small purple free-stone plums, halved, pits removed
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tbsps finely sliced chives
1/4 cup roughly chopped pistachios
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1. Lay the duck legs on a baking sheet in one layer. In a small bowl, mix together salt, pepper, clove, allspice and cayenne. Sprinkle salt mixture evenly over duck legs on both sides. Set aside for 20 minutes.
(Alternatively, wrap and refrigerate seasoned legs for several hours or overnight.)
2. Put a wide, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add duck legs skin side down. Legs will begin to exude fat and sizzle. Let them cook, without moving them, until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Turn legs and cook on other side for 10 minutes more.
3. Remove browned legs from pan and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tbsps duck fat (save remaining fat for future use).
Add diced onion to pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add tomato paste, stirring to incorporate, then add wine and broth and bring to a simmer.
Add cinnamon stick, star anise and bay leaf. Chop half the plums into 1/2-inch pieces and add to the simmering broth.
4. Heat oven to 204 degrees Celsius. Transfer duck legs to a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot. Pour the hot broth mixture over legs, then cover and bake for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 176 degrees Celsius and bake for 30 to 40 minutes more, until legs are quite tender when pierced with a skewer.
Remove pot from oven and skim fat from surface. You may prepare the dish to this point one to two days in advance, if desired.
5. Heat butter in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add reserved plums skin side down and sauté for a minute or so, until lightly browned, then turn and cook for a minute more.
6. Transfer duck legs to a warm platter and spoon the hot sauce over them. Garnish with sautéed plums. Mix together parsley, chives, pistachios and lemon zest. Sprinkle parsley mixture over the top and serve.
I'd be happy with any of those, but just now I crave a true French-style braise, with meat that is gently simmered to utter tenderness, brimming with flavour. Varying the duck-with-prunes motif a bit, my thought instead was to use locally grown plums, which are still around, if nearly out of season. They're the wonderful little purple ones called Italian plums or Stanleys. I bought a huge basketful the other day, some for making plum jam, some for eating out of hand, and a couple of pounds to pair with duck legs and red wine.
I employed the same technique with the fresh plums as is used in the traditional prune version, letting half the fruit dissolve, simmering in the braise. The plums and red wine add body, sweetness and a touch of acidity to the rich sauce. The result is deep, dark and reminiscent of coq au vin. Just before serving, the rest of the fruit is sautéed in butter to garnish the dish.
A braise has many virtues, one of which is that cooking it a day or two in advance only enhances the flavor. It doesn't mind spending a night in the fridge, so it can be made according to the cook's schedule. And the seasoning can bend to a cook's whim, too. I couldn't resist giving this mostly French stew a bit of Chinese aroma, supplied by star anise and cinnamon stick, clove and allspice.
And to Drink
This rich braised duck requires a bright, incisive red wine that is fruity enough to stand up to the dish but not so powerful as to overwhelm it. And it must be refreshing.
Fortunately, that leaves many options. Pinot noir is a classic match, but it ought to have some exuberance. I'd choose a good, balanced bottle from California or Oregon over a more subtle Burgundy.
A Bandol with enough age to tame the fierce tannins of the mourvèdre grape would be delicious, as would a well-balanced Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas, or, from Spain, a Priorat.
Zinfandel, as long as its powerful fruit flavors are fresh rather than stewed, would go well. I would also consider a dry red from the Douro, made from the same grapes as port, and possibly a structured malbec from Argentina.