More of us know Duck, Duck, Goose as an age-old children’s game rather than a sustainable livestock farming practice. But as I’ve noticed more whole, frozen ducks cropping up at farmers markets along the Midcoast, I wanted to understand better how consuming these domesticated waterfowl play might play into a greener eating scheme.

Matt Kovarik of Black Earth Forest Farm in Bristol raises Pekin ducks for their meat, Golden 300 ducks for their eggs and Toulouse geese for their guard dog-like tendencies. Kovarik leases land from and also works for his mentor Dan Sullivan of Broad Arrow Farm. Together they raise heritage chickens, turkeys, pigs and lamb; slaughter and butcher these animals as well, as Kovarik’s Pekins, in an on-farm facility; and then sell the meat from the farm’s shop.

“We raise all of the animals on the farm where they are the healthiest and the happiest,” Kovarik explains. The birds are raised on pasture between May and November. The ducks love to play and waddle around the wetter parts of the farm where the chickens would simply get muddy and be cold and miserable. For their part, the geese keep predators away with their aggressive honking. This type of biodiversity makes efficient use of the farmland.

Farmer Craig Martel of Greener Days Farm primarily raises Large Black and Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs on pasture, woodlots and crop fields in Waldoboro. The ducks wander around the farm’s orchard. “They love to eat the clover there and help fertilize the soil as they do,” said Martel. And while ducks are generally docile birds, they prey on the mice on the farm that would otherwise get into Martel’s hay and grain and carry ticks around the farm.

The problem with raising ducks in Maine, though, lies in getting them regularly processed at a state-certified facility, said Joe Murray of Dragonfly Cove Farm in Dresden. Because their feathers are so much waxier than those of chickens or turkeys, the ducks are much tougher to pluck than a chicken. Murray raised about 100 Pekin ducks last year but was recently told by his processor, Weston Meat and Poultry in Gardiner, that it would no longer be accepting ducks. Whether Murray will raise ducks this year is up in the air.

Local ducks do not come cheap so when columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige buys one, she lets nothing go to waste. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Kovarik raised and processed 100 ducks in 2019 and plans to double that number this summer because they sold well, mostly by word of mouth.  At press time, only 4-5 birds were left in the Broad Arrow Farm shop. “It was just me and my partner processing the ducks. We have all the right gear, we just need to be more efficient at it in the future to meet the demand,” said Kovarik, adding that sending ducks out to be processed would be cost prohibitive at the scale he raises them. For perspective, it costs a farmer about $6 to send a chicken to a facility to be slaughtered and plucked, compared to $10-15 for a duck.

Whole Pekin ducks, which typically weigh about 5 pounds when they are slaughtered, cost the consumer $7-8/pound. If I am going to pay $35-40 for any bird, my budget dictates that I get several meals out of it. Luckily, since duck meat is so rich, a little goes along way.

Roasting a whole duck can be a tricky prospect, says Martel, who was a chef before he was a farmer. He suggests to his customers that they break down the bird into breasts, legs and thighs, wings and the carcass. He prefers to prepare each type of cut separately using a sous vide system, which cooks meat very slowly and evenly in plastic bags in circulating warm water.

Duck skin has a lot of fat. Scoring it helps ensure the fat will render and the skin will properly crisp. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

While I divide the duck as Martel does, I use plain old pans to get at least three meals out them. I score the skin of the two (6-ounce) skin-on breasts in a cast-iron pan over medium heat. This temperature renders the fat and slowly crisps the skin. I drain off the fat (reserving it), flip the meat, cook it to medium rare (any higher is criminal, Martel advises) and serve the breasts with a quick wine and butter sauce. If I slice the breasts thinly on the bias and serve them over rice, the portions satisfy four eaters easily.

I roast the carcass and the wing tips in 300 degrees for 90 minutes. This process yields flavorful bones for stock and more duck fat. The bones, long simmered with onion skins, carrot peels, fennel stalks and parsley stems, yields a rich stock for ramen. All of the rendered duck fat gets poured over the raw legs, thighs and wings in a ceramic baking dish. The lot gets cooked slowly in the oven at 200 degrees for several hours. Once I pick the meat from these bones, the yield amounts to 1 1/2 cups of duck confit. Use it to elevate everything from hash browns to a slice of toast into an elegant meal. Additionally, the fat left over from the confit process can be used to make your next batch of roast potatoes crispier or your next bowl of popcorn more interesting.

A whole duck is the locally raised bird that just keeps on giving.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Duck stock, duck fat and duck confit – the bird keeps on giving. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Duck, Duck, Soup

Shoyu ramen has a clear broth that is seasoned with a soy sauce-based tare, or seasoning. While this recipe uses duck stock, meat and eggs, it will work with chicken as well. When making the tare, if you don’t have sake (a Japanese fortified wine made from fermented rice), you can substitute dry Vermouth or sherry in equal measure. If you want a non-alcoholic replacement for this recipe, mix 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar with 3 tablespoons water or juice.

Serves 4

FOR THE TARE:

1 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup sake

1 tablespoon mirin

1 (1-inch) piece of ginger root, sliced

1 scallion, roughly chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

FOR THE SOUP:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms

2 quarts duck stock

2-3 strips kombu

4 servings cooked ramen noodles

4 cups baby spinach leaves

1 cup shredded duck confit

4 soft-boiled duck eggs

4 scallions, thinly sliced

Toasted sesame seeds

To make the tare, combine all the ingredients in a small pan and place it over medium heat. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes and remove it from the heat to cool to room temperature. Strain the mixture, reserving the liquid and composting the solids.

To make the soup, heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the mushrooms, stir to coat them with the oil, and let them cook, undisturbed until they are browned on one side, 3-4 minutes. Remove the cooked mushrooms from the pot and set aside.

Pour the stock into the now empty pot and add the kombu. Bring the stock to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off the heat and let the kombu steep for 20 minutes. Remove and compost the kombu. Bring the stock back to a simmer when you are ready to serve the soup.

To assemble the soup, pour 1/4 cup of the tare into the bottom of each of four bowls. Divvy up the noodles, spinach, duck confit, cooked mushrooms and scallions among the bowls. Pour 2 cups of the hot broth into each bowl. Slice the soft-boiled eggs in half and place two halves atop each bowl of ramen. Garnish with the sesame seeds and serve immediately.


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