For years, I have slavishly followed the tradition of “roast beast” for Christmas. No year-end holiday felt complete without the sweet scent of golden-roasted goose wafting from the oven accompanied by the tangy perfume of its apple-and-prune stuffing, the bubbly cheer of potato dumplings bobbing in their boiling water and a steaming bowl of glistening sweet-and-sour red cabbage.
So much for the fantasy. In reality, Christmas dinner has invariably brought disappointment. After slaving for hours in the kitchen, I have rarely had much more to show for my efforts than a darkly overcooked and unyielding bird with a strangely crunchy filling of sour apples, water-logged dumplings and next-to-no gravy to dunk them in. The only saving grace has been the red cabbage, which sustained me through many a dispiriting festive meal.
All this is now a thing of the past as I present to you the fail-proof festive centre piece: crispy-roast preserved duck’s legs (“confit de canard”) served on a bed of fruity red cabbage cooked in duck fat. Forget about basting, dry breasts, tough joints, the dreaded carving chore (why always me?) and the disappointingly small portions that come out at the end of it all. Bring on succulent, crispy, carve-free, meltingly tender and generously proportioned ducks’ legs! Plus, since each diner gets a leg, there will be no more arguments at the dinner table!
Duck confit is the ultimate fast-food: as it is already cooked, all you need to do is wipe off the excess grease (save it for delicious roast vegetables and for the red cabbage, below) and grill the confit for 15 minutes until the skin turns crisp and golden. Meanwhile, you’ve had time to relax, entertain your guests, sip your aperitif, play with the kids, bring in another log for the fire – anything rather than fret over Christmas Dinner. And because duck fat is full of healthy monounsaturated fats similar to those in olive oil, you’re even doing your body a favor!
If you live near Toulouse, I recommend you buy your duck confit from the charming Natacha and Francis Maso, my favorite local duck breeders. They run a small-scale family farm and produce small quantities of top-quality fresh duck confit (limited supply, so hurry to place your order) which they sell loose or preserved in jars at their farm in Merville or at the weekly Saturday market in nearby Grenade-sur-Garonne. Their confit is particularly low in salt, making it suitable especially for people on a low-salt regimen. (To contact them, call 05-188.8.131.52 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.) Elsewhere in France, you can obtain confit at any supermarket (“La Belle Chaurienne” is my favourite brand of canned confit.)
It helps to be based in south-western France to have easy access to fresh duck confit, but even in the UK and the U.S. you can find canned or vacuum-packed confit if you look hard enough. In the UK, you can find it at various outlets, such as Donald Russell, the Queen’s supplier of poultry and meat, or at The Good Food Network. In the U.S. it’s even sold on Amazon (albeit at a hefty $26.50 for two legs), or at a more affordable $18 at Grimaud Farm.
As the duck confit takes only minutes to prepare, start with the fruity red cabbage and chestnuts. For 6 people, you’ll need:
4 tbsp duck fat
2 apples, peeled only if not organic, cored and coarsely cubed
600-700 g red cabbage, outer leaves and central core removed and finely sliced with a large kitchen knife
75 ml red wine
40 ml mild vinegar (red-wine or apple cider)
75 ml apple juice or water
Salt & pepper
Finely grated zest of ¼ an untreated orange, pinch of cinnamon or gingerbread spice (optional)
250g chestnuts, 1 tbsp butter, 1 tsp natural cane sugar
Melt the duck fat in a large, deep casserole that has a tight-fitting lid. Fry onions until translucent, then add apples and fry for another 1-2 minutes. Add cabbage and liquids, spice and zest if using, bring to the boil and then reduce to lowest setting, cover and leave to simmer. Cook for at least ½ hour (if you have time, make it closer to 1 hour), stirring regularly and checking that the liquid hasn’t evaporated. (Nothing tastes fouler than burnt cabbage…)
Once the cabbage is tender but slightly ‘al dente,’ remove from heat. Ideally, this is made a day in advance so the flavors can infuse overnight. As you reheat the cabbage, taste to season – it should have just the right balance of fattiness, acidity, sweetness and saltiness. (There’s that F.A.S.S.U. again!)
When you’re nearly ready to eat, pre-heat grill to low setting. Lay duck confit skin-up on a high-rimmed baking tray and place about 15 cm beneath the grill. You’ll want the skin to crisp up slowly, allowing fat to melt off slowly from underneath without anything burning, which happens quickly – beware! Check every 2-3 minutes to ensure that steady, gentle bronzing is taking place. When they’re ready, lift the duck legs out of the pan with tongs, blot fat off with kitchen towel and place on hot cabbage, either on a large serving platter or (as in the picture above) on individual plates.
To prepare chestnuts (you can do this while the duck is under the grill), melt butter with sugar in a small pan and add chestnuts. Fry these, stirring constantly, until they are hot and turn a glistening brown. Serve atop the cabbage and alongside the duck. They’ll be your starch, instead of dumplings or potatoes!