Sunday, October 21, 2012

Doing Unhealthy Things With Ducks

So in the world of blogs, Instagrams, and tweets, I've found a disturbing trend afoot...people are actually exercising in preparation for hunting, and they are actually adjusting their diet accordingly to be lean and trim for hunting season.  I hear it called "Hunt Fit" and it is appearing in hashtag after hashtag.  Now this is all well and good if you are going to go chasing elk or sheep or Rocky Mountain goats at high altitude, but otherwise, to me it smacks of a little too much preparation.  Now the hardcore fitness fanatics may instead refer to it as dedication, or motivation, or some other "-ation" and that is fine....I'm not here to disabuse anyone of their right to do whatever it is that they want to do.

But what I want to do is shoot my own dinner and then make it as decadent and over-the-top enjoyable as I can.  Because I #HuntFat.

So in that spirit, here is what I did with some ducks that I had on hand two nights ago.  I can't describe how good it was, so I'll just tell you how I did it and then if you want to try it, you can.  This is how I made what I call pan seared duck with mushroom-tarragon cream sauce with a side of mushroom-cumin risotto.  I'm not much for weights and measures, so you may want to read this whole thing first and come up with a plan of attack to make sure it all comes together at the same time.

The Risotto:
Take a standard package of sliced mushrooms and simmer them in a pot with some salt, pepper, and four cups of water.  Why standard store-bought mushrooms?  Because foraging the ones in my suburban backyard seemed like a bad idea.  Don't boil them, just let them sort of become a hot broth.  This is the stock for the risotto.  I'll tell you what to do with it later.

Put an 1/8 of an inch coat of olive oil in a pan over medium-low to medium heat and add one diced onion and three minced cloves of garlic.  Do not brown these, just keep them moving until they are soft.  Once soft add the arborio rice.  It absolutely must be arborio rice...why?  Because that is what risotto is made of.  If it isn't arborio, it is just a rice dish.  But I digress.  Add about a large handful of rice for each person you are cooking for.  The above measurements for mushrooms, onion, and garlic are based on about three large handfuls of rice.  Stir the rice with the onion and garlic until the rice is coated with oil and everything is getting along nicely.  Again, don't brown any of this stuff.  At this point I also added some ground cumin because it is kind of rustic and smokey, and I like that.

Take a splash of white wine and throw it in the pan with the rice, onion, and garlic.  Not too much, maybe half a glass.  Throw some more wine into yourself if you feel it is necessary.

Once the rice is reduced a bit, turn your attention back to the simmering, hot mushroom broth.  Ladle a few splashes of it into the pan with the rice and then just simmer it until the rice absorbs it.  Once the amount of liquid in the pan starts to get low, throw some more in.  If some of the mushrooms you made the stock with happen to fall in, so be it.  They're going to go in there eventually anyhow.

Keep doing this until you either run out of stock (you could top up with equally hot water, but why would you?) or until the dish is creamy, but not mushy.  Risotto is funny that way...just keep in mind that you aren't trying to make rice porridge.

Put in the mushrooms you used for the stock and then add some kind of dairy.  I've used cream cheese, heavy cream, and all varieties of cheese.  Friday night I shredded half a block of six-year-old sharp white cheddar and stirred it through the dish.  Parmesan is the standard though.

Once the cheese is melted, I added a bit of chopped basil and then I was very happy with myself.

The Duck:
First things first.  Shoot a duck; a couple of them if you can.  Do this in advance of starting the recipe.

Take said ducks and pluck them.  Skin on is critical to this (in my opinion) so later season ducks with few to no pin-feathers is ideal.  Now butcher the ducks, this recipe is just for the breasts so take the breasts of the ducks and get them as dry as possible.  Braise, slow-cook, or otherwise love the legs; but that's for another post.

Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.  Score the duck breasts (that is cut a checkerboard or cross-hatch pattern in the skin), then put them, skin side down, in a hot pan over medium-high heat.  I put just a little bit of oil in the pan to help the browning along.  Sear the skin side until it is a deep gold-brown colour, then flip them over.  By now, your oven should be heated.  Take the pan (did I mention it should be oven safe?  Okay now I have.) and put it in the oven for about fifteen minutes.  After fifteen minutes take the meat out of the pan and cover it in foil for five to ten minutes.

Slice against the grain into pieces about a 1/4 inch think.  Pour the sauce over it.

Wait, you haven't made the sauce because I haven't old you how?  Right.

The Sauce:
Take the pan drippings from the duck and add a splash of whatever liquid you like.  I used white wine (since I had some open) but you could easily use red wine, whiskey, cognac, or any kind of stock (if you have any mushroom stock left, as I did, you could add that too, which I added as well as the wine.)  Just add enough to get the brown bits on the pan to dissolve.  That's duck flavour and you do not want to waste it.

Once I had all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan, I added some heavy cream to thicken it and a bit of chopped tarragon.  Basil or parsley or oregano would work here too.  Or no herbs.  Whatever.

Reduce this until coats the back of a spoon (or really reduce it into a near syrup) and add just a bit of butter to make it rich.

Drizzle this over the duck meat, or do what I did and float the duck meat in it.  Don't judge me.

There are none.  Don't be ridiculous.

I served this with a double dram of Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve rye whiskey in a nice glass.  You'll drink what you like with it, just make sure it is alcoholic so you can really feel like a debauched, well-fed epicurean.

So there you have it.  It might sound a bit too over the top when compared with the simple pleasures of a roast mallard or a smokey stick of Canada Goose jerky, and while those are good too, sometimes it is just nice to really spoil yourself, eat 1000 calories in a single sitting, and not really give a damn about how many sit-ups you'll have to do in repentance for enjoying the bounty of the hunt.

Because if you are hunting and not eating it, then you are missing out on the best part, friend.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Perfect Moments of the Not-Too-Distant Past

As I write this, I’m sitting at Pearson Airport waiting for a flight to Montreal, but I’m really back at Saturday afternoon on the banks of a drizzly beaver pond, cold water dripping off the brim of my hat, straining my eyes for the slightest movement in the faded gray skies that frame the rust, gold, and brown leaves of the treetops.  Our group of six intrepid waterfowlers had kicked a few dozen mallards out of this hole on our way in, and we’d been waiting in vain for the last few hours for them to return as they usually do.  A misty drizzle became steady rain, and then became a misty drizzle again.  Once or twice it outright poured, and all the while a breeze hung around, becoming just strong enough to make the wings on the flapping decoy spin and to ensure that the parts of you that weren’t waterproof got clammy and cold.

Yep, it was a duck hunter’s kind of afternoon.  The ducks just hadn’t read the script.

At some point, almost through spontaneous regeneration, six hunters became eight and with nothing flying we just decided to stand around and trade stories and jokes.  Some of the boys had just got back from moose hunting, and there was ample entertainment from them.  Someone recited the clips from an offensive sound file they had received in an email, and we all laughed.  At one point something very funny was said, because I found myself in fits of hilarity while wiping away tears of laughter.  It is probably better that I can’t recall exactly what it was that made me break down that way, as I’ve found that airport boarding areas aren’t the wisest of places to begin giggling like a maniac.

Some ducks came in and a few fell, with Tack’s yellow Lab Levi making quick work of the retrieves.  Then we went back to standing around and telling stories and lies.  We milled around and carried on quiet personal conversations that were punctuated with group laughs.  We talked about hunting, baseball, women, new guns, new calls, and decoys.  We threw sticks in the pond and then did personal play-by-play as Levi negotiated the decoy lines and the submerged twigs as he fetched them.

Eventually the wind and rain frustrated us enough that we went and wrangled the dekes; with our guns slung over shoulders we headed for the trucks.

Here on Monday, they just called for priority boarding, but my mind barely acknowledges the announcement.  I’m in my memories from Sunday, when we went into a puddled grain field with high stubble and good cover in the ditch.  Misty fog wisped around, and once again prospects were good for some gunning.  Hunkered down in a line we scratched down a drake mallard that came screaming into one of the de facto ponds that were slowly but surely taking over the field; it almost didn’t matter that we missed the other six ducks that were with him.  To be fair we didn’t cover ourselves with glory on that performance, but we compensated on a low flying trio of geese that swung wide in the field before winging towards the gap we had left between the two dozen shell decoys.  Some clucks, moans, growls, and shotgun reports later, and none of them made their way out of the field.  A few more ducks worked the spread, but all high and wary.  Pleading comeback calls and raspy chuckles failed to persuade them and after countless circles they lit down in a deep, fast-moving ditch one field over.  Our man Hastings went on safari to jump them up, and as his reward he crumpled a brace of them for his game bag.  As flocks of dozens and dozens of ducks traded on an increasingly strong wind, the fog blew off but a rain was fixing to blow in.  With Hastings stalking the ditches a field over, and with Tack answering nature’s call well up the ditch, it was up to Rory, Dane, Lucas, and myself to work the calls on six big geese that broke away and once again made our fakes.  Just moments before we had failed to lure in a group of forty or fifty geese that showed interest, but just weren’t convinced.  This group though, were coming in on a wire.  Low finishing work on my Tim Grounds Super Mag combined with good calling from Dane on his GK Giant Killer and from Rory on his Doug Schuyler Voodoo Medicine Man sealed the deal and as the birds put their feet down at fifteen yards, we all began sawing away on our pump guns.  As two geese winged away we collected the ones that stayed behind and went back to the cover of the ditch.  As the rain began to fall we decided to call it a morning and after a picture or two we packed the decoys, weaponry, and our birds back to the trucks.  One large breakfast and one superb nap later, We cleaned up the farmhouse, packed up, and began the trek back home.  Hours of hunting, laughing, and being out in the wilderness all seemed to race by as we re-told the tales from the hunts, the details compressed in my mind by the fleeting enjoyment of it all.

And now, less than twenty-four hours later I find myself about to put away the laptop and wing my way east into la belle province.  The exigencies of career and parenthood will take precedent for a while longer.

But with any luck, it won’t be long until I’m back on a shore or aside a field, hands braced on my 870 Express, waiting for the birds to drop their flaps and put the landing gear down.  Like a golfer’s hole-in-one, those perfect moments of the past keep me chasing the next ones.