In the past, the duckling on the holiday table usually came from the depths of the supermarket frozen food bin, beside the rock-hard Cornish game hens and stacked turkeys.
But things are looking up for duck.
In recent years, farmers have considered the market profitable enough to provide fresh ducklings the year-round.
Why the change of heart?
Until recently, the annual consumption of duckling was less than half a pound per capita, compared with 110 pounds per capita for beef and 40 pounds per capita for chicken. However, America's duckling industry has grown by more than 50% within the last few years, producing more than 24 million ducklings annually today, compared with 16 million in 1980. Of those, 25% are today sold fresh, compared with 13% in 1980.
"People today have a stronger feeling that fresh is better," said Jack Clune, national sales manager of Concord Farms in North Carolina, which sells fresh white Pekin duckling (also known as Long Island duck).
Duckling parts are also commercially sold to food service institutions, including restaurants, but a small percentage reaches the retail trade in the form of fresh tray packs sold at the meat department counters in supermarkets throughout the country. The Long Island duckling being farmed today comes not only from the Carolinas and New York State, their original home, but also from Sonoma County in California.
On the West Coast, an influx of French and Italian professional chefs created a demand for fresh duck, especially large, full-breasted varieties that could be presented sliced on a plate. The demand prompted boutique farmers to try their hands in the breeding and introduction of the large-size Moulard, a superior species created by crossing the Pekin and Muscovy ducks. The residual benefits have, since, filtered to the consumer.
Today, large-breasted Moulards are available fresh the year-round. Higher-priced fresh or frozen boneless breasts weigh from six ounces to 18 ounces and range in price from $6.25 to $7.99 per pound, about half the price of fillet of beef or veal cutlets. Actually, it is a good buy for solid meat. Whole Pekin duckling is also available in fresh form at about $1.45 per pound at some specialty markets.
Duckling, incidentally, was first domesticated in Egypt, but traveled to China, where it became a staple for thousands of years before reaching Colonial America.
According to the National Duckling Council, duckling requires special care and feeding but has a short life span--about 49 days. Within that brief period, the duckling consumes about 20 pounds of feed and reaches a total weight of six to seven pounds at its prime when the meat is considered most tender. Dressed weight ranges from 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 pounds.
Although storing and cooking methods vary widely (as you will note in the recipes given here), duckling producers, such as Concord Farms, suggests thawing frozen duck 24 hours in the original package inside the refrigerator, or for quick thawing, placing the packaged duckling into a pan of cold water.
After the duckling is completely thawed, remove from the package, take the giblets and neck from the cavity and rinse with water inside and out. Drain and dry with paper towels, then gently scratch a fork over the skin of the duckling, so the duckling will baste itself during cooking. Be careful the fork tines do not penetrate through the skin into the meat since it will cause the duckling to lose its natural juices and become dry.
After sprinkling with desired seasonings, the duck is ready to cook. For roasting on a rack or trivet, place breast side up in a roasting pan. Roast, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes per pound or until crisp.
Because there is no single desirable cooking method, it may be necessary for the cook to experiment before arriving at a suitable method.
Whole ducks are wonderful roasted with some liquid to keep the meat moist and savory, as the recipe given here suggests. The recipe was inspired by the duck dinner eaten at Michel Pasquet, a charming one-star restaurant in Paris last summer.
It was duck for two, brought to the table whole on a plank, where it was carved roughly, then passed to the waiter to finish carving. The unusual, but efficient carving procedure is described in the photographs shown on Page 10. The carving requires using only the duck breast and legs, which are boned. The meat is served sliced with the sauce in which it cooked.
The ducks, cooked with olives, cepes and shallots in a richly browned duck sauce, were done to a perfect medium, which, by French standards, is overdone. "Medium?" the waiter had asked, no doubt having learned to understand the American distaste for duck on the rare side.