John Ross Column: A delicious update on Long Island duck

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Photo by John Ross

Ducks have been farmed on Long Island since the late 1600s. In the early days, duck production was part of mixed farming. The sandy soil, easy access to water for ponds and a good market in New York City made Long Island a natural for specialization. In 1868, the Long Island Rail Road was completed to Eastport, which soon became the center of our local duck industry.

But the event that made the Long Island duck world famous began with the introduction of the Pekin duck from China in 1873. This large-framed breed thrived in our region, producing big portions of very tender meat. The Long Island (Pekin) duck joined the Rouen duck in France and the Pekin duck in China to become the world’s most sought-after ducks.

How did those first Pekin ducks get to Long Island? According to Lloyd Corwin, owner of Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, a British officer named Ashley, stationed in Peking, cultivated a few white ducks of uncommon size for his private consumption. In 1873, an American clipper ship came to Peking from Connecticut, carrying a Yankee trader named James Palmer. Palmer returned to the United States with a small flock of Ashley’s ducks. One drake and three female ducks survived the trip, and their descendents grew rapidly on the sandy soil and tidewater streams of Eastern Long Island.

By 1968, six million ducks were produced by about 30 growers. Today, the only major duck farm left is Crescent, which is alive and healthy in Aquebogue. But Long Island ducks have become a world-renowned brand that continues on. And those ducks coming out of Aquebogue are still among the treasures of the North Fork. Here are a couple of updated recipes you can enjoy at home:

GRILLED DUCK BREAST WITH PASTA

Purchase 3 pounds of boneless duck breasts with the skin on. Trim all excess fat and any skin that overhangs the meat. Score the skin with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper.

Prepare the following vegetables: Portabello mushrooms — remove the stems and, with a fork, scrape the gills off 2 mushrooms. Bell peppers — split a green pepper and a red pepper in half, remove the seeds, trim the ends, and flatten for grilling. Broccoli rabe — trim the ends from 1 bunch of broccoli rabe, rinse and chop coarsely. Red onions — peel 2 red onions and cut into thick slices. Sun-dried tomatoes — cut 1 cup of sun-dried tomatoes in half, soak briefly in hot water and drain. Zucchini squash — trim the ends from 2 zucchini and split in half lengthwise.

Prepare a charcoal grill and when the coals are white, grill the duck breasts skin side down until very brown. Turn them, continue cooking for about 5 minutes and remove. Grill the mushrooms, peppers, onions, and zucchini. Toss them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil before grilling.

Bring to a boil 4 quarts of water and add 1 box of orecchiette or bowtie pasta. Just before it is fully cooked, add the chopped broccoli rabe, continue cooking for 2 minutes and drain.

To assemble, slice the grilled duck breast into bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl. Cut all the vegetables into 2-inch pieces and add to the duck. Add the pasta and broccoli rabe along with the sun-dried tomatoes and toss all ingredients together.

Make a dressing by combining 1/4 cup sherry vinegar with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Add this to the pasta mixture along with 1 cup of chopped fresh basil. Serve in bowls with shaved parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Serves 4 to 6.

MOROCCAN STYLE DUCK RAGOUT

With a stiff, sharp knife, bone 8 duck legs by making an incision on the underside of the leg from the tip to the end of the thigh bone. Scrape the meat away from the bone and remove the two bones in one piece. Trim the excess fat from the boned legs, leaving the skin on, and set aside.

Place the 8 bones in a roasting pan with 1 coarsely chopped onion, 1 chopped carrot and 2 stalks of chopped celery. Roast the bones in an oven at 400 degrees for 30 minutes and remove.

Place the roasted bones in a small stock pot and cover with cold water. Bring this to a boil and skim the surface. Turn the heat down to a simmer and add a bouquet of 1 sliced leek, 6 parsley stems, 4 sprigs of thyme, and a bay leaf. Add 12 whole peppercorns and let simmer for 2 hours before straining. Skim the surface of fat and place the stock in a smaller saucepan. Cook at high temperature until the liquid is reduced by half.

Place a Dutch oven or casserole on the stove and add 2 tablespoons canola oil. Add to this 6 coarsely chopped shallots and 2 cloves of sliced garlic. Cook at low heat and add 2 cups of sliced carrots. Continue cooking and season with 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric and 1 teaspoon chili powder. Drain and rinse 2 small cans of chick peas and add to the mixture. Stir in 2 tablespoons flour to make a roux and continue cooking. Add 1 cup merlot and bring to a boil. Stir in 2 cups of the reduced duck stock and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal grill and when the coals are white, grill the boned duck legs skin side down until very brown. Turn them over and continue grilling until fully cooked but still pink in the middle, about 30 minutes.

While the duck legs are cooking, rinse and trim the stems off of 2 bunches of kale. Cut the leaves into 2-inch pieces. Cut the duck legs into small, bite-sized pieces and add to the ragout. Stir in the kale along with 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Bring the ragout to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve in shallow bowls with a good North Fork merlot.

Serves 4 to 6.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years.