I recently bought the book Cooking for Geeks. It’s very cool, and it approaches cooking the way I like to approach things, by understanding how it works. Rather than give you a recipe and you just follow it blindly and hope for the best, it explains that at this temperature this particular protein denatures, which makes meat taste good, and at that temperature some other protein denatures, which makes meat tough and stringy, so the secret to a good steak is to warm the inside to a temperature between the two.
Another thing it tells you is the temperature at which collagen – the tough gristly connective gunk between the meat – denatures into gelatin. This reaction takes a long time, so the way to get a tough piece of meat to be nice is to cook it at a specific temperature for several hours. This explains why cheap cuts of meat should be stewed over a low heat for hours. After explaining this, it gives a recipe which demonstrates the principle: duck confit. This sounds fancy and scary, but the procedure is pretty simple*.
So on Sunday I bought a couple of duck legs from a local gourmet butcher, prepared them, and whacked them in the over for 6 hours. It was 10pm by the time they came out, so I cooled them down and stuck them in the fridge. Tonight for dinner, I took one of the legs out and seared the skin side in a really hot frying pan with some butter, while I boiled up some simple pasta spirals. I tried to be fancy and make a sauce out of the leftover fat in the pan once I removed the duck leg, but it didn’t turn out (I need more practice at that), so I dumped it and just had the duck leg with the pasta.
Oh. My. God.
I had no idea I could cook anything that delicious. The duck, deprived of its connective collagen, simply fell off the bone. It was moist and tender and slightly salty and lip-smackingly tasty. And the seared skin was crispy and provided a nice contrast to the soft meat.
Next time we have people over for dinner, or I have to cook something for the guys for a gaming day or something, I am going to make this. I want people to fawn over me as the creator of this sensual, delectable delight. And I have another leg still in the fridge… oooh, yum.
* Duck Confit
Get some duck legs. Pat dry, then rub salt into them, covering every surface (about a tablespoon of salt per leg). Option: add garlic and/or herbs. Sit in covered bowl in fridge for a couple of hours. Wash thoroughly and pat dry. Arrange in an oven dish and cover with olive oil – the duck has to be completely submerged. Bake at 80°C for six hours. (Yes, 80, not 180. Below the boiling point of water.) Remove from oil and either store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week to use later, or sear the skin crispy in a frying pan and serve. (And save the oil – it now has duck fat mixed through it. Use it to fry potatoes, or eggs, or meats.)