10 November 2007
Crispy Duck Legs with Apples
In medieval Baghdad, pomegranates were considered food for the poor. I know this because for a college Islamic art class I had to design an Abbasid palace with certain stylistic specifications. In addition to what seemed like thousands of assigned readings, there were extra optional readings which were intended to give us a feel for the lifestyle of the period: after all architecture is functional, and it would help us to envision the furniture and textiles which would fill the space and the daily lives of the people who would inhabit it. Being the complete nerd that I am, I stopped in the library reserves to get one of those extra readings, the first and I am sure only person to check out the musty cloth-bound papers crumbling with age. Flipping through the book I found a section devoted to the great cuisine of the caliphs and, fascinated, I spent the next hour under the awful florescent lighting of the library basement absorbing every detail.
This is how I know that pomegranates were so plentiful they were distributed to the poor, while the most prized fruits were apples and quince, which were used in stews with lamb or poultry. Later, I found that Charles Perry wrote a lovely little book translating those medieval Baghdadi recipes into modern English. But what I find even more fascinating is that those apple dishes, called tufahiyya, are still made across the Middle East today, from Syrian lamb stew to Moroccan chicken tagines. This recipe of duck and apples hews closely to the classic tufahiyya, which always use apple juice in addition to the fresh fruit. I've used small apples simply halved, but for an even more aesthetic presentation you can use whole tiny baby apples which are so prized by Arabs (if you can find them). You just eat around the seeds, and it's fun to pick up the apples by their little stems. The only change I've made is to do the braise in the oven (ovens are used very sparingly in the Middle East because they use up a lot of expensive fuel). This is where the real beauty of this dish lies: the duck legs are nestled in the liquid so they become meltingly moist, but the top peaks out so you also get perfectly crispy duck skin. There's nothing like crispy duck skin.
It may seem odd now that apples were considered the food of kings, but their deliciousness here is certainly convincing. No matter where you live or what century you're in, I think this is an autumn recipe everyone should have in their repertoire. And if you ever have to design an Abbasid palace, remember to put in a good apple orchard, and a pond for ducks. And maybe a few pomegranate trees, to distribute to your less-fortunate subjects.
On Cooking Duck: If you are at all intimidated by the idea of cooking duck, I urge you not to be. Duck legs have all the wonderful things that chicken does not: it's dark, moist, and full of meaty flavor. Duck has a bad reputation for being fatty, but most recipes call for the fat to be trimmed away. It is unfortunate that many places only sell duck whole, since the breasts and legs are really suited to different preparations. If you have a good relationship with your butcher, he may cut up a duck (or two) and sell you just the legs. If not, I urge you to go ahead and buy a whole duck: it's like a culinary treasure trove. Set aside the breasts for another use, render the fat and store it in the fridge for roasting potatoes or frites, use the skin to make duck cracklings for salad, and use the bones and giblets for amazing duck stock.
Crispy Duck Legs with Apples
A modern interpretation of a centuries-old Middle Eastern recipe. You can double or triple the recipe as needed, the only difference will be you have to transfer to a larger roasting pan. It can also be made using chicken (reduce cooking time to 45 minutes) and also with quince (poach the quince first to tenderize). Serves 2.
2 duck legs
3 very small red apples
1 cup apple juice
1 small onion, sliced into half moons
1/2 cup water
2 cinnamon sticks or 1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp coriander
salt pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the apple juice in a bowl, cut the apples in half (leaving the stems intact) and place them in the bowl with the apple juice.
2. The duck legs will probably have a good amount of fat and skin on the underside of the leg- trim away this fat, leaving only the skin on the outer surface of the duck legs (though you don't need the fat in this recipe, I urge you to save the fat and render it for another use). Heat a cast iron skillet or dutch oven until hot. Add the duck legs, skin side down, and cook until nicely browned. Turn over and cook for only one minute, then transfer to paper towels to drain.
3. If there is a lot of fat in the skillet drain off all but one tablespoon of it. Add the onion slices and apples, cut-side down, and saute them over medium heat until onions are softened, a few minutes. Pour in the apple juice and water, add the coriander and cinnamon sticks. Nestle the duck legs in the pan so that just the skin surface is exposed, arranging the apples around them. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the surface.
4. Transfer to the oven and braise for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until duck is tender. Check it a couple times during the process to make sure the pan isn't looking dry, you may want to add a touch more water. Serve warm.
If you are as nerdy as I am, I recommend you check out Jean Bottero's "The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia" (U of Chicago Press), Lilia Zaouali's "Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World" (USC Press), or Charles Perry's "A Baghdad Cookery Book" (Prospect Books).