Cooking Wild Duck Is a Plucking Matter
I’ve eaten freshly shot elk heart for breakfast in the Rockies; I’ve removed the scrotum of a German boar without batting an eye. But that was all in the great outdoors. The presence of wild duck innards in my living room is a culinary labor of love I...
Photo by Isabel Rozendaal
Welcome to back to our new column, hunter/gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. Photographer and writer Isabella Rozendaal is back for her second installment with her project, Isabella Hunts, in which she follows hunters in various cultures around the world.
When I first began photographing hunters and they offered to share their catch, I wasn't quite sure what to do with the freshly killed meat. I didn't even really like game–I would have picked a spicy bowl of pho over venison any day, yet I was determined to turn it into something delicious. I read cookbooks from a variety of cultures, and I discovered that game does not need to taste like your grandmother's socks; it can be so much more than Christmas dinner.
Dutch cooks who are used to consuming conventional meat face a challenge in cooking wild birds: they are so lean you can't use any modern recipes that work for domestic duck. To avoid this problem, I've ignored conventional cooking methods and decided to make sausages. A game purist might refrain from turning these noble birds into franks, because you need to cut the meat with (lots of!) delicious pig fat. However, I am not a purist, and there is nothing that I love more than a good sausage.
Even when I was a kid and still a practicing "vegetarian," my favorite food, without fail, was salami.
Sausage isn't hard to make, provided that you have one crucial piece of equipment: a sausage maker. Cleaning this contraption is the most challenging part. Actually, no, that's not true: cleaning the ducks is—by far—the toughest bit. Preparing game always takes a little planning.
First, I have to call the butcher shop to order my ingredients. The lady on the phone doesn't really seem to listen to what I'm saying until I ask for a couple feet of intestines. "Oh, yes ma'am, we'll make sure it's ready for you," she responds. You might be surprised to find that the more complicated and particular your requests become, the more your butcher will come to like you.
The day before it's time to make the sausage, I clean the bird. I've seen hunters clean game many times, but doing it yourself is another story entirely. Luckily, there is YouTube. You can learn to skin anything, from beaver to bear. The hunters in the tutorials make butchering look so easy, but all those fluid movements come with years of practice. Nonetheless, I've been fascinated by operations, blood, and guts for as long as I remember, so I look forward to it.
I start to pluck the duck's chest and stomach—there is enough down here to fill a small pillow. I make the first incision. So far so good, I think. The breasts are removed easily; they come out in one flawless piece, just like in the video. The legs are a different story, though. It takes a lot of fidgeting and knife-wriggling around the joints to free them from the skin without too many splinters. Once that's done, I remove the organs and check them. Everything looks perfect, but the smell that erupts from the stomach cavity weakens both my knees and my appetite. I get used to it, but my boyfriend promptly pulls the door closed with a sour face.
After removing the chest and legs, I have all the necessary meat for my sausage, but I want to use as much of the animal as possible, so I tackle the carcass, which I'll use to make stock. After a long struggle, scraping innards and removing skin, I'm covered in scratches from broken bone fragments, but I've finally freed the carcass. On my cutting board lies the surreal shiny coat of a mallard, twisted and turned, his eyes closed peacefully. To my right lie his breasts, as perfect as the meat I'm used to buying from the butcher's shop.
The second duck is clearly older. His breast is tougher and less finely textured. I'm glad I chose to make him into sausage. This is not a supermarket product, and you can't really decide what to cook with it until you've cleaned the animal. I repeat the procedure until all the meat and bones are divided up neatly. I wipe my sweaty forehead with a bloody wrist and let out a sigh.
I have lost any and all appetite for duck.
The strange thing, though, is that I've always entertained—at least in the back of my mind—the thought that hunting might make me want to stop eating meat. I wasn't sure if I could bear the moment of death. But for me, it turned out to be easier to overcome than I had anticipated. I had never expected that I would start doubting my omnivorism while cleaning a bird. I am not squeamish: I've eaten freshly shot elk heart for breakfast in the Rockies; I've removed the scrotum of a German boar without batting an eye. But that was all in the great outdoors. It's the smell of it: the putrid presence of blood and intestine in my own living room when I can no longer imagine that this is something anyone would want to eat. But when I take the bright red meat from the fridge the next day, all my doubts are dispelled. It is gorgeous, it smells fresh and mild, and I want to put it in my mouth right then and there.
One of the challenges of working with dark game meat is taming its gamey flavor. It can be quite strong and I'm personally not crazy about it because it's something I didn't grow up consuming. Luckily, there are all kinds of methods that you can use to reduce or balance this out. By mixing the meat with pork, the flavor becomes milder, and to counter it, I add raw, fresh fennel, sharp orange zest, plus a handful of sage. What is left in the end is the taste of game—just full and strong enough to offset these flavors, slightly sweet, and incredibly rich.
It's worth the labor of love, and you'll see that with these instructions for sausage making, it's as easy as pie.