By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Quackless ducks, impotent ducks and mallards
With 35,000 waterfowl hunters, Iowa is duck country. Yet until recently, duck dining here was isolated to Chinese restaurants and wild game dinners. No more. Thanks to expanded domesticated duck businesses, readers have been asking questions about breeds, sexes and even sexless-ness on their duck plates. We dutifully investigated.
PF Chang’s offered only one duck option. None would have been better. Their VIP duck presented half a dry bird, not as crispy as one expects in Chinese restaurants, with scallions, flatbread and a very sweet, very salty plum sauce. My server had no idea what breed or sex my duck was. Since Chang’s prides itself on recipe authenticity, it’s safe to assume it was a Pekin (aka Nanking), a mallard breed that originated in China, became Long Island duckling in America and is closely related to 95 percent of all domesticated duck in America, and nearly 100 percent in Asia. Alba’s duck breast came from an Indiana company that raises Pekins and distributes duck breasts. Theirs was plated with a wonderful wild mushroom risotto, squash, cranberries and mint.
At Django, restaurateur George Formaro told me that an alpha diner had recently canceled an order of duck after learning it was a Pekin. So I called Fox Hollow Farm’s Tai Johnson-Spratt, who raises free range Pekins, low fat White Muscovies and Mule ducks, which are a impotent cross between those other breeds. She supplies Django, Sbrocco and Bistro Montage with whole ducks.
“Andrew (Meek at Sbrocco), Bill (Overdyck at Django) and Enosh (Kelley at Bistro Montage) all assure me they use the entire duck, that nothing goes to waste. Otherwise I would sell breasts and not know what to do with the other parts,” she explained.
I fact checked that. Meek offered foie gras, plus a pan roasted duck breast with a duck confit, mushroom-tart cherry risotto, and duck demiglace. Django went further with potatoes fried in duck fat; duck liver served with apple fennel compote; roasted duck breast in duck demiglace with spaetzels, walnuts, apples, leeks and prosciutto; confit of duck leg quarters served with duck demiglace, root vegetables, cabbage and bacon; and a duck leg cassoulet with sausage, bacon and white beans. Duck foie gras found its way into their filet Rossini (beef tenderloin, truffles and Bordelaise sauce) and a Django dog. The café even offerred a “foie gras of the month.” All those dishes were superb but Django had run out of Fox Hollow ducks and new supplies are months away.
Bistro Montage still had Fox Hollow mallards, and Kelley served a duck breast with braised wintergreens and turnips stuffed with fig compote — the best dish I tasted on this job. He also used the confit of leg quarters in his cassoulet. Formaro and Kelley both said they don’t care about duck breeds. They prefer anything Fox Hollow has to anything they can get from more distant suppliers.
Johnson-Spratt said that sex matters more than breeds. That’s why she raises quackless Muscovies and Mules. Those males and females are more uniform in size than mallards, in which females might be only 60 percent as large as males.
“Mallards rule though. Low fat duck misses the point of duck,” she offered.
At Le’s Chinese BBQ, I found a choice of whole ducks in natural shapes, or whole ducks flattened before smoking. The latter method produced crispier skin usually associated with the famous Peking duck. Le’s was the only place that sold whole ducks including heads, necks and innards. That’s important during the fortnight following a lunar new year, which began on Valentine’s Day this year. That’s when consuming foods that are less than whole is considered unlucky by a billion or so people. Le’s whole birds, with tofu, cost about $10 less than a breast entrée anywhere else did.
La Paris Café opened on 2nd Avenue with eclectic range — from home made desserts and French pastries, to lamb chops and spring rolls, to home baked banh mi and fantastic pig’s blood soup. CV
Caption: Fox Hollow Farms duck breast at Bistro Montage, 2724 Ingersoll Ave., with braised wintergreens and turnips stuffed with fig compote was the best dish we found on this beat. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close.