On the True Taste of Real Meat
On the True Taste of Real Meat
Have I written yet about just how much I love duck? I think I probably have, but I don’t think I’ve written yet about how a perfectly brined and cooked crispy duck breast tastes better to me than any steak I’ve ever eaten. In fact, I think I like crispy duck breast better than I like bavette, my all time favorite beef steak.
I also don’t think I’ve really talked about the slightly sweet, rich, strong flavor of duck, and how maligned it is. Which brings me to an overarching subject that’s been on my mind lately: the true flavor of real meat.
Every time I teach a duck class at least one person in the class asks me: “How do I cover up the gamey flavor?” It’s the same for lamb classes. And it’s the same even for my pork classes because I like to use older pigs for many of my classes.
First of all, they are asking the wrong person. Whenever someone uses the term “gamey” to describe meat I’m prone to saying something like “It’s not gamey. It just doesn’t taste like a boneless skinless chicken breast.” It tastes like…meat, I say. REAL MEAT.
I spent the last week teaching a group of high school kids all about meat. We took a field trip to Rainshadow El Rancho, the farm that I usually buy ducks and chickens from. All of their laying hens and meat birds are free-range (truly free-range, we’re not talking about the mostly laughable “legal” definition of free range that gives each bird a couple of inches to move around at most). Farmer Joe told us that when he has people go home with one of his chickens for the first time, sometimes they’ll call him a few days later to tell him that the bird “tastes funny.” He first asks them when they cooked the bird. If they cooked it within a few days of slaughter, then he asks them how they cooked it. If they cooked it like they should have, he says: “Congratulations. You just got to taste what real chicken should taste like.”
The truth of the matter is that what many Americans deem as “gamey” or “too strong” is really just the taste of meat from an animal that was allowed to move around like it would in the wild, that was allowed to eat what it would in the wild, and that was allowed to behave as it would naturally. The less an animal moves during its lifetime, the less an animal’s diet resembles what they would naturally eat (i.e., soy feed instead of, say, bugs), and the shorter the life span of an animal, the more mild the resulting meat is going to taste. Factory farmed animals and birds = mild meat with a “tender” texture. This is what we like in America. Not so elsewhere. In France, for instance, not only are many pigs allowed to roam fairly freely, and allowed to root around for their food, they slaughter their pigs at 3-4 years of age. Here we slaughter pigs when they are 6-9 months old.
Of course, while some animal protein, whether domesticated or wild, is naturally going to be gamier than others (ducks, deer, elk, lamb, for instance), depending on how long ago the animals were domesticated (or if they were ever domesticated) it’s going to taste less “gamey” the less it moves and the less of a varied, natural diet it eats.
The breed of ducks I buy from my farmer were bred a long time ago to not fly, so those birds are not going to move as much as flight birds in the wild. Hence, my birds will taste less strong than a wild duck. But because they are free-range, they will have much more flavor than a duck not allowed to move much during its lifetime. And because these ducks are still eating bugs in addition to the grain mixture they are fed, they will taste stronger than ducks just fed grains.
It’s all a matter of degree of course, but when it comes to flavor and texture these degrees matter. When you pay attention, and become educated when it comes to how your animal was raised, you start to notice the difference when you taste the meat. Suddenly, when you pull that crispy duck breast out of the oven and slice into it and taste it, words like “gamey-ness” morph into descriptors like “delicious,” “flavorful,” and downright “meaty goodness.”
Crispy Duck Breast with Braised Fennel
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
- 2 duck breasts
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 fennel bulbs with fronds (sometimes called anise; 10 to 12 oz each)
- 1½ Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp black pepper
- ½ cup duck stock or water
- Vinegar, shallot, parsley, and olive oil, to taste
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Score the skin of each breast in a criss-cross pattern. Be careful not to cut into the flesh.
Lightly salt and pepper each breast to taste.
Cook the breasts, skin side down, over low heat in an oven safe pan. When the duck fat starts to melt, gradually turn the heat to medium-high.
When you start to hear sizzling, set timer for five minutes. Do not disturb the meat during this time. Your skillet may start to fill with molten duck fat. You don’t want the meat to poach in the fat, which will happen if there’s too much. Being careful not to burn yourself, tip the pan and spoon excess fat out of the pan as needed.
Cook for five minutes, until skin has browned. Flip breasts and cook for an additional 2 minutes.
Place the breasts skin side up in the oven and roast for 5-8 minutes, depending on thickness and desired doneness (ideally you want the duck breast to reach medium rare).
Remove breasts from oven and cover with foil. Let sit for up to ten minutes.
Slice thin pieces and serve with fennel.
Cut off and discard stalks from fennel bulbs, reserving fronds.
Chop 1 tablespoon of fronds and set aside.
Cut bulbs lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices, leaving core intact.
Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown fennel slices well, turning over once, 3 to 4 minutes in total.
Reduce heat to low. Sprinkle fennel with salt and pepper, then add duck stock or water.
Cook, covered, until fennel is tender, approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Sprinkle with fennel fronds.
Toss with a little red wine vinegar, shallot, parsley, and olive oil and serve with duck breast.