The best duck recipe you've never tried

Sounds a bit odd, tastes delicious
To understand meals on the prairie, and recipes for same, it helps to know a bit about the people and the process of homesteading here.  Most folks in our area, the homesteader families, are of German descent, from Russia.  There's a bit of convoluted history involved but in short, once conditions were such that they were no longer welcome in Germany or Russia, and seeking greater religious freedom, these families headed for America and ended up here, aided by the Homestead Act of 1862.

As a result, they arrived here on an ocean of prairie grass and began to carve lives from the land. It takes no genius to conclude this was a harsh, unforgiving existence. Many perished during the long and often brutal winters as well as from disease and mishaps which resulted from daily tests of brute physical labor against the elements for months and years on end.

A body needs nourishment, and this came in varied forms -- wild game, wild fruits, berries and fish eventually gave way on dinner plates to chicken and slabs of pork and beef.  Wheat for bread was a welcome change, and produce from gardens rounded out the meals.  Soon there were grocery stores and other such conveniences in nearby Kief and other towns within a half-day's ride.  

Of most importance however was to stock the larder for winter.  Potatoes and squash and other root crops had to last throughout the winter.  And here is where cabbage shined.  It grows well in our climate and can be prepared a dozen different ways. But it will keep indefinitely when pickled.

Enter the miracle of sauerkraut.


It's a simple recipe -- cabbage, salt and a bit of water.  It cures at room temp and doesn't spoil.  And it helps a body get thru winter.  Added to pork, it is a match made in heaven.  With sausages?  Delicious!  One traditional recipe at cafes throughout our area is a knoephla (neff'la) casserole.  This is basically small flour dumplings...with sauerkraut. Add sausage, or ham or cheese at your own risk. Truth is, come to any church potluck around these parts and you may find a surprising number of dishes made with dumplings and kraut.  Comfort food from the old country.

Start with Cans or Redheads
Which brings us to the best duck recipe you have never tried. As with most of our recipes here at Prairie Smoke Ranch, if it involves more than three or four ingredients the dogs get anxious the cook gets confused and the guests imbibe in too many beverages.  

So our recipe, handed down by my waterfowler buddy Kuffer one night on the Manitoba prairie, consists of whole ducks, sauerkraut, and pepper. Yessir, that's it.

To begin, take all your buddies who "don't like to eat ducks" and put them in one corner of the room.  Then take all your buddies who "don't like to eat kraut" and put them in the opposite corner.  Task one group to re-oil the shotguns and the other to patch leaky waders or fix the robo ducks.  Your choice as to who does what. But for gosh sakes get them out of the kitchen while you prepare for the magic.  Kick the dogs out too.

Ingredients

Use whole ducks, plucked or waxed. (A few stray feathers only add to the charm.) Don't use breast fillets as you will waste that delicious blanket of duck skin with its marvelous layer of fat, just waiting to infuse with the kraut juices and auto-baste your bird naturally.  We prefer fat divers, and nothing -- nothing -- can compare to a roaster full of blocky canvasbacks.  Redheads and bluebills are good substitutes; lowly mallards will suffice if you have nothing else with which to work.

Use straight sauerkraut, no caraway seeds or other such nonsense.  Fresh black pepper from a grinder is best but nearly impossible to find in a real duck camp.  But find some pepper.

Preparation

You'll need a large roaster, large enough for all your whole birds and a generous mound of kraut atop each one. Four to six large birds should fit in one large roaster, enough for 4-6 hungry hunters.  Drain the sauerkraut, stuff a generous handful into the cavity of each bird, then place breast up in the roaster.  Now cover the birds with a thick layer of kraut.  This will probably take about a pound and a half to two pounds of kraut.  DO NOT LET YOUR KRAUT TOUCH THE TOP OF YOUR ROASTER, as this will burn and be a detriment to the otherwise tempting aroma of the completed dish.

Top with a generous grind of black pepper.  Kuffer would have you place in a 425 degree oven for a half hour, then reduce heat to 375 degrees for an hour or so and then 325 until done.  As I'm still trying to find my pepper grinder and getting pestered to find the battery charger for the robo decoys I take a simpler route -- in at 375 degrees until done. Which will take 2-2 1/2 hours or so.

I can't explain what happens in that roaster, and the best magic is indeed left a mystery.  It involves a divine melding of chemical reactions, thermodynamic principles, wind coefficients and purple-hued sunrises. But I can tell you this minimal preparation results in a foodstuff fit for kings.  

No, it doesn't taste like duck, and it doesn't taste like sauerkraut, it tastes like "this is why I go duck hunting," it tastes like "that's why I put up with that dog all year," it tastes like "sure he snores but he's the best backup shooter in any blind."  It tastes like the boys sent to their corners come running and dig in and poke around the roaster for more.


Add one part sunrise -- part of the roaster magic
Oh it's a mess, more akin to a crab boil than a poultry roast -- wedges of tender meat falling off the bone as whole carcasses are leveraged onto plates and viscous splotches and strands of kraut cover table, tumblers and trenchermen.

This... this is eating gentlemen.  Cretins may favor a beer to usher this meal homeward, but the enlightened waterfowler will pair this prairie delight with a stout red wine, borne of wind-burned grapes harvested under whistling wings and an azure autumn sky.  

You will sleep well, knowing you are uniquely fortified and tempered to greet another prairie dawn. Happy hunting!


Next week: The best big-water decoy you CAN'T buy (but you can make for about a buck).

The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved. 



 


 







 
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