I live in Decatur, which I’ve been told is greater. I’m uncertain on this point, but I do know it has amazing food. Leon’s Full Service is one of my favorite Decatur restaurants/cocktail bars/gastropubs. I went for dinner recently with a couple of friends and ordered the special for that evening, which was duck confit. It was incredible. I decided I was going to make it. So, I went to the Dekalb Farmer’s Market and got a pair of duck thighs and set to work.
I assumed confit was Spanish for “with fit,” much in the same way that Malaysia is Spanish for “bad Asia.” This assumption seemed correct as most of the recipes called for preparing it in a baking dish that fits it tightly. However, upon further research, I discovered that confit is actually a method of preserving food by slowly cooking meat (or fruit) over a long period of time in fat (or syrup). It was apparently all the rage in France back before refrigerators were a common thing.
In modern times, duck confit is one of the crowning dishes of French cuisine because it tastes wonderful. Also, it’s apparently pronounced con-fee, which does sound much more French. Many of the recipes require a whole duck and multiple days of work. I had neither, so I instead dug around until I found a simplified recipe courtesy of NPR and David Lebovitz. It only took 8 hours of brining/marinating and around 3 hours of cooking, which was much more do-able.
- 4 duck thighs (thigh and leg attached)
- 1 tablespoon of sea salt
- 1 tablespoon gin
- 1/4 tablespoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tablespoon allspice
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved lengthwise
- 2 bay leaves
- Needle or straight pin
As I said before, I only bought 2 duck thighs. I probably should have halved all the rest of the ingredients, but I didn’t because I figured it probably needed all of this for it to be seasoned correctly. Next time I’ll probably go with 4 just to see if it changes anything. It was much cheaper than expected, only being about $3 for each thigh, so this seems feasible.
I found out through this recipe that allspice isn’t just all the spices combined. Just kidding. I found that out like a month ago. I thought I had some, but I didn’t. Given how little is used, I figured I could just find a replacement for it. I did some googling and found out you can replace allspice with a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. I didn’t have any cloves, so I googled a replacement for cloves. Turns out the best replacement is allspice. It’s like when you’re in school and you look up the definition of frustrating and find out it is “something that causes frustration” and write that down and you get no points because it’s not the actual definition.
I decided to just go with extra nutmeg and some cinnamon. Next time I make it I’ll be sure to get allspice to see if it changes anything. If you can’t find a needle, just buy a cheap dress shirt at Walmart. It’ll come with like 40 of them.
Preparation – Night before and/or morning of cooking
- Find a baking dish that tightly confits around the duck thighs without leaving much space.
- Use the needle and poke the duck thighs all over so the marinade/brine can get in there.
- Mix the salt, spices, and gin together in said baking dish, place the duck flesh-side down, and then rub the duck with the mixture all over. I’m still not entirely sure what flesh-side down means. I put it skin-side down when I did it, because I read flesh as skin, but I believe it’s wanting you to put the non-skin side down. I also saw one recipe that said there’s a fat-side. I wish someone had a photo of the anatomy of a duck thigh I could reference, because it seems they have like 7 sides.
- Pick the duck thighs up. Cut the garlic in half lengthwise and place it and the bay leaves on the bottom of the dish and place the duck thighs on top of them. This was easy with 2 of them, but I don’t know if you’re supposed to tear the bay leaves in half if you have 4. I’ll cross that river when I come to it.
- Wrap the dish in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for 8 – 48 hours. I just left it overnight.
- Unwrap your cooking dish and put it in a cold oven
- Set the oven to 300 and cook it for 2.5 hours, opening up the oven occasionally (I did it every hour) to baste the fat on the duck. Yes, that’s right, the duck is cooking in its own fat. Apparently turning solid animal fat into liquid is called rendering. Bacon does this, as do many other meats.
- At this point, you have made duck confit…sort of. If this were 17th century France or a more traditional recipe, you’d have cooked it at a much lower temperature for much longer (like 6+ hours) and would have a lot more fat from the rest of the duck. You would then completely submerge said duck thighs in the fat in a container of some sort and the meat would stay good for a few weeks. Meat goes bad because it gets bacteria or fungus on it. The fact that you cooked it means it is pretty much clean of bacteria, and pure fat keeps any additional bacteria from growing on it. Read more about the science of confit here.
- To finish the dish, bump the oven temperature up to 375 and bake for 15 minutes. The skin should be brown and crispy.
Traditionally, duck confit is served with puy lentils. I didn’t have any of those, but I thought that putting it on grit cakes would be fun. I made 1/2 cup of grits via the recipe on the box (substituting chicken stock for the water), added a tablespoon of butter, 1/4 tsp salt and pepper, and 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese, and put the grits on a baking dish in the freezer for 10 minutes to let them get solid. I then threw them in the oven for about 6 minutes at 300 and they formed nice grit cakes.
I’ve seen duck served with fig sauce before. That sounded like a good idea. I didn’t have any figs, but I did have some sharon fruit I picked up at the farmer’s market. Sharon fruit is a mellow variety of persimmon also known as Israeli fuyu. I grew up eating figs, and the sharon fruit’s taste is somewhat reminiscent of a fig to me. I found a fig sauce recipe and tried replacing the fig with sharon fruit. Big mistake. It turned out disgusting. Like, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. I think I’ll have nightmares about it for a while. Having failed miserably at that, I just cut up the other sharon fruit and put it on the plate. Much better idea. I highly recommend this pairing. It worked great together.
The duck was wonderful. It was a little salty on the skin side, probably because I left it in the brine with that side down. I’ve realized that I notice the taste of salt more and more as I’m cooking more and more. I think it’s because I don’t use much when cooking, but most frozen and restaurant food uses a ton of it. True duck confit is supposed to melt in your mouth. Mine wasn’t quite there, but it was definitely very moist, very tender, and very wonderful. The sharon fruit went perfectly with it, and the grit cakes were a great base. I’d probably omit the parmesan cheese in the grit cakes next time just to let the flavor of the duck be even more of the focus. I give it an 8/10 and recommend giving it a try sometime.