In The Recipe Lab: Thomas Keller’s Duck Confit

100122-demian-keller-confit-2All of my cassoulet meditation recently provoked me to the point of tracking down pigs feet and making Fergus Henderson’s Trotter Gear.  Then, with a fridge full of the porcine pedal goo, I figured the only logical thing to do would be to put some of it to use and make the cassoulet that had been occupying my thoughts.  Ah… but that would mean bringing duck into the picture.  Duck confit to be exact.  Buy it pre-done or do it myself?  How hard could it be?  Besides… I had to at least try it once.  So to the confit research I went.

100122-demian-keller-confit-1‘Research’… that’s funny.  A cursory look online came up with a couple recipes that called for a lot of spice rubs involving clove, nutmeg, etc.  Pointing the duck’s legs in the direction of ‘earthiness’.  As interesting as that sounded I thought to also check to see what Thomas Keller had to say.  And I found it.  One page 135 of his ‘Bouchon’ cookbook.  His duck confit recipe heads in a slightly different flavor direction by stating ‘the simpler the better’.  It calls for duck fat, a lot of time in a low oven and ‘green salt’.  Green salt is Keller’s salt rub marinade for the duck legs.  Pictured above, it calls for 1/2 cup of kosher salt to be ground with 2 bay leaves, 2tbs thyme leaves, 1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves, and 1tsp black peppercorns.  Pretty simple indeed.  And very pretty.  Its’ look reminded me of moss.  But its’ smell was vibrantly herbaceous in a totally different way from what moss should be.  This will work with the duck?  No woody, smoky, warm tasting spices to evoke the Fall season?  Well… if chef Keller says so… there must be something to it. 

100122-demian-keller-confit-3My time until the scheduled cassoulet was short – less than 24 hours – so I rubbed down the duck legs with green salt the night before and let them marinate.  Chef Keller’s recipe calls for 24 hours.  I could give it eight.  In the morning I rinsed the legs off, dried them and placed them in a pan.  The next step says to submerge the legs in enough melted duck fat to cover them.  I had one 7 ounce container of D’Artagnan duck fat.  Luckily the legs were packed pretty efficiently so the melted fat almost covered the leg skin.  At $7 a container that was good enough for me. 

 Actually, just after I performed this recipe test I noticed that Melissa Clark had written an article for the New York Times about duck confitusing only the fat that renders from searing them.  A trick she learned from Eric and Bruce Bromberg, the owners of New York’s Blue Ribbon restaurants.  A trick I will have to use next time….

Anyway, I covered the leg pan with foil and placed it in the oven along with my digital thermometer.  Chef Keller’s recipe calls for 10 hours at 190F (88C).  I fiddled with my oven temp until the digital thermometer on top of the leg pan registered 193F pretty consistently.  As for the time… I could give them only eight hours.  I found that the duck legs were pushing dangerously close to my cassoulet making territory.  I was worried about their doneness but what could I do?  I had to get the cassoulet into the oven.

But here is the catch.  When I transferred them from the confit to the cassoulet pan to brown they pretty much fell apart they were so tender.  This was no big problem as cassoulet is suppossed to be ’stew-y’.  But the next time I do this I will probably only confit my duck legs for maybe 7 hours.  I’d like them to still have some ‘tooth’ and hold up to a browning saute treatment.

Really, though, the true test comes with the taste.  And I have to say that these duck legs were nothing short of amazing.  So delicious.  So tender.  Just the right amount of saltiness.  And a certain ‘herb-iness’ that really resonated with the duck meat.  The cooking time had evidently mellowed the brightness of the herb marinade.  To the point that it added tons of flavor while somehow remaining in a background supporting role to the duck.  Where I think too much clove and nutmeg would have drowned out the meats’ inherent flavor, this really let it show through.  A true genius flavor pairing by chef Keller and a further testament to the maxim that less can actually be more. 

In the end the cassoulet turned out amazingly.  With chef Henderson’sTrotter Gear and chef Keller’s duck confit stirred into the mix, how could I go wrong??  Lots of ways, come to think of it… but this cassoulet was great.  The guests were happy and our wintry hearts were warmed.  Its’ description may have to wait for a future post but I know that Thomas Keller’s duck confit, with his killer ‘green salt’, was a key component of what made this cassoulet an outstandingly delicious meal.

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  • [...] I decided to use The Amateur Gourmet’s recipe as a starting point.  With just a few tweeks.  I had a supply of Fergus Henderson’s Trotter Gear chillin’ in the freezer just waiting for a use.  So I wanted to incorporate that somehow.  Also, thinking about the duck component of cassoulet I had been inspired to confit the legs first using Thomas Keller’s ingeniously simple confit recipe in his Bouchon cookbook.  You might say a little ‘East meets West’ thing was taking shape here (as in ‘Eastern England’ and ‘Western United States’…).  Anyway, you can view my Trotter Gear post here and my duck confit post here. [...]