By Jill J Easton
There they lay: two young pintail drakes ready to turn into duck dinner. But a duck on the ground is a far cry from a beautifully browned duck coming out of the oven. Not everybody knows how to pluck a duck, much less gut it and prepare it for cooking.
The truth of this was brought home by Keith “Catfish” Sutton, a well-known outdoor writer who often does seminars at sporting shows.
“What do I do once I’ve got the fish in the boat?” asked an older man who still looked clueless after Keith had finished his program. “Do I hit the fish on the head? Cut its head off? What is the next step? How is it cleaned?”
This same cluelessness sometimes carries over to the beginning waterfowl hunter. Using the following simple steps will make undressing a duck easy.
How to pluck a duck
Put the duck on your lap or a working surface breast up. Pluck an area of feathers off the breast, pulling out a few feathers at a time and pulling in the direction the feathers are growing. (Hint: Keeping a paper bag or cardboard box beside you is a good way to minimize the feather drift, and doing the plucking outside is preferable if weather permits.) Simply keep enlarging the hole you’ve made, pulling small bunches of feathers between thumb and fingers. Keep pulling until most of the feathers are removed from the duck’s tail to its neck, then work your way around to the back of the bird. Be sure to get into the “armpit” area and remove those feathers as well. Pluck the wings down to the first joint, and pluck the legs all the way to the skin of the feet.
Using your thumb, rub any areas where feathers or down remain. Moistening the carcass with a wet rag or spray bottle helps in this process. The duck will be pimply and similar looking to an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey.
The final step is to singe any remaining feathers, down, hair filament feathers and quills over a propane cooker or torch or other open flame. The black marks on the duck’s skin should rub or rinse right off.
Now grab your naked duck, turn it on its back, place a sharp knife under the base of the wing joint and press the bone downward until the joint dislocates. It is easy to feel the difference when it gives way. Cut off both wings, then take the same action with the legs at the joint.
Next cut off the tail just in front of the vent, and cut off the head and neck close to the top of the breast.
Congratulations, you have plucked your duck.
Cleaning the body cavity
Using a sharp knife or poultry shears, cut the skin and tissue from your tail up to the bottom of the breast. Reach inside the body cavity and haul everything out, including the lungs, which will feel like small sponges adhering to the backbone and ribs. Reach all the way up to the neck opening. The hard kernel you’ll feel there is the duck’s voice box. Pull it out, too. (Note: Some people prefer to cut along one or both sides of the backbone from stem to stern, thus opening the body cavity to make the gutting process easier. Either way is acceptable, but opening the bird this way makes it less stable in a roasting pan.) Thoroughly rinse the body cavity and dry with paper towels.
If you want to use the heart, liver, and gizzard in gravy or stuffing, follow these steps: Trim away the large veins and arteries from the top of the heart. Trim away the green bile sac from the liver, as well as any greenish tissue surrounding the sac. Carefully cut the gizzard in half, rinse out the grit in the cavity, and trim the tough white tissue away from the red muscle meat of each half.
There you have it. A duck ready for the chef’s magic.
Cooking the duck
Duck is one of my favorite all-time wild meals, but overcooked duck is like eating old wood. It’s hard in the mouth and most of the flavor is gone.
Nives Northern introduced me to fruit stuffed duck and I was immediately a believer. The ducks stay moist and flavorful and the stuffing is almost as good as the duck itself. Although ducks come in a lot of sizes from teal at less than a pound, to common eider at six pounds, the recipe can easily be adapted to fit the duck. This recipe should feed four people. About two teal or one mallard makes a full-up meal per person with rice and vegetables.
1-2 ducks per diner
1-2 cloves minced garlic
4 tbs dried oregano
1 cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup dried prunes
1 cup pitted green olives
½ cup capers
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
4 tbs chopped parsley
Combine first 11 ingredients, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Arrange ducks in shallow roasting pans, spoon all the fruit and marinade over the ducks, then sprinkle with brown sugar and pour the wine over the fruit in the pans.
Bake 1 to 1 ½ hours basting frequently. When the ducks are golden brown and the juice runs clear when pricked, the ducks are ready to serve. Let them rest and cool for three minutes then transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle each duck with parsley. Plate each duck on a bed of rice and spoon the fruit mixture over the rice. This is especially good with lightly sugared baby carrots.