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Snazzy hors d'oeuvres, an amazing roast duck, terrific red wine and your closest friends -- they all add up to the best Christmas Eve ever.

December 20, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THEY say that sometimes the best gift is one we give ourselves. As cooks, we know that a gift of food is even better when it can be shared with others. And it's better still when it involves flipping crepes, filling pastries and roasting duck, tasks that might sound like chores to some people, but which fill us with a quiet joy (and the house with wonderful smells).

So with this Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, why not give yourself an early present and cook a nice dinner for some people you care about?

It doesn't have to be anything major, just a quiet meal for four good friends, a moment of calm in the midst of the hectic holiday season. For one evening you can forget all the school pageants, office parties and open houses. Just sit back, enjoy the blinking lights and carols and eat good food.

You know, something like roast duck with turnips, the bird's skin crisp with a hint of spices and orange, preceded by crunchy little pastries stuffed with a rich salad of Dungeness crab and radishes, and followed by a dessert of silken crepes filled with a fragrant grapefruit cream. Add some oysters to the first course and serve watercress salad and cheeses so you can linger over the red wine before dessert and you're all set.

It'll be fun -- and not just the eating part, but the cooking part as well.

Given time and the right frame of mind, there's something about the shopping, the chopping, the alternating moments of hurry and calm that is intensely enjoyable, even relaxing. And given the normal pace of life in this pre-holiday run-up, those are things that seem mighty welcome.

You can do the whole meal in only a couple of hours -- not counting the roasting of the duck, which actually takes only a few minutes of active attention. And you can either do all the work at once or split it up so you can putter at your pleasure. Wrap some presents; flip some crepes. Hang some stockings; bake some pastry shells. You get the picture.

Here's how I'd do it: Salt the duck and set it aside several days in advance. The day before the dinner, bake the pastries. Christmas Eve morning, prepare the crepe batter and the filling. A little later, take half an hour to make the crab salad and clean and blanch the turnips. That leaves you with about an hour more of work to finish the meal.

And what a meal.

Roast duck is a dish that seems made for such intimate dinners. First, because it's delicious -- skin that is browned and crisp to the point of crackling, and meat that is moist, rich and faintly gamy.

But almost as important, the dish is perfect because it's inconvenient to serve roast duck for a group that's any bigger than four. There's just not much meat on a duck -- particularly when compared to a plump little chicken or a great big turkey. And what meat is there is spread pretty sparsely over a large frame; a duck is too big to roast two at a time in anything but a restaurant setting.

So much the better, though -- because so few people serve a whole roast duck anymore, that just makes it all the more memorable when you do.

Crisp, moist, perfect

STILL, there are a few things to keep in mind when roasting a duck. The current fashion is to serve medium-rare duck breast, but forget about that when you're roasting a whole bird. The leg is full of sinew that must be cooked to at least medium to become tender. The laws of physics dictate that serving a medium-rare leg and a medium breast from the same bird at the same time is a physical impossibility.

So just forget about fashion and cook your duck to medium or even medium-well. That's no sacrifice. Because a duck's breast is "dark meat," it tastes wonderful way beyond the point at which a turkey or chicken would have dried to sawdust. During my testing, one duck got away from me and cooked to 185 degrees, but the breast meat was still moist (though the area around the knee was a little dried out).

The other problem a lot of cooks have with duck is that it's pretty fatty. Unlike most poultry, which have been bred to be lean, ducks still have a fairly thick layer of fat just beneath the skin (and after a long walk in the wetlands last week in a brisk breeze, I can certainly understand why).

That fat is one of the reasons the skin gets so crisp and the meat stays so moist, but it can also be a hurdle if you've never roasted a duck. A badly prepared duck can be pretty greasy.

Cooks have come up with all sorts of tricks to render the fat. Some advocate steaming the bird first, then roasting it to crisp the skin. Some recommend high-heat roasting: In "Simply French," Joel Robuchon calls for a 425-degree oven.

To my mind, both of these have significant drawbacks. The first is cumbersome, involving transferring a hot bird from one pan to another -- and that's even if you somehow are able to find a steamer big enough to hold a whole duck.

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