Cooking isn’t an exact science. You can follow a recipe to the tee, plan everything well ahead, time it precisely, but there’s no guarantee that it will come out exactly like how you want it to. Precisely because there’s no way of exacting the art of cooking, it involves an intimacy that can only be determined by the one cooking, their equipment, their taste buds, etc.
The beauty of it is that cooking encourages creativity. You can taste the food, adjust the seasonings, temperature and cooking time, go down a different path to create something entirely different, and then sit down and enjoy whatever you’ve created. The more you cook you’ll realise that the recipe isn’t always needed, that often it can just be a guide. Much like life itself. There is much to learn about life experiences in the kitchen because like life itself, rarely do things go perfectly. As long as you let go of the strive for perfection and accept that mistakes aren’t the end of the world, you can end up with wonderful discoveries.
So let me tell you about the duck confit I made this week. I always imagined it to be a delicacy best left to restaurant chefs but when Mark sent me this recipe, raving about how easy it was to make, I thought I’d give it a try. The plan? Make duck confit alongside a spinach salad with a honey maple syrup dressing. So last Sunday I bought all the ingredients and laid them out on the kitchen island to make what was surely going to be a fabulous Sunday dinner. I opened up the recipe. The first step: salt and pepper the duck legs and let it marinate covered for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Lesson #1: Slow down. I didn’t read the recipe thoroughly the night before! I didn’t realise I needed to let it rest overnight in the fridge for 24 hours. Dad’s email always ends with a favourite quote that he changes from time to time. His current email signature says, “Slow down. Speed undermines quality, depth, compassion, appreciation and real relationship.” Clearly it can also undermine a good meal!!
The next day, I went home after work excited to make the duck confit. As soon as I got home, a slight headache I had been feeling started to intensify. I rushed to the bathroom to throw up, nauseous from the pain of the pounding migraine. There was no way that duck was going to be cooked that night. I sought refuge under the covers for the rest of the night, trying to ignore the thoughts of my head exploding into a million pieces. The duck would have to wait.
Lesson #2: Be prepared for the unexpected, life is full of surprises. Who knew a migraine would hit me that night? It brought me back to the times when I would creep into my Mom’s pitch black room to ask her if she was okay while she laid on the bed with her eyes closed, trying to sleep off her chronic migraines. I remember one time on a shopping day on the Champs-Élysées when a migraine hit her so badly that she threw up on the street before we hopped into a cab back to our hotel. Unforeseen circumstances are exactly that, unforeseen. But it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.
I woke up the next morning feeling like I had come back from the dead. My migraine was completely gone and I was so grateful to be out of the hell I was in the night before that I went to work with a ‘seize the day’ excitement! That duck had been sitting in my fridge for 2 days, it was time! When I got home, I saw a sign in the elevator.
Lesson #3: Don’t get too comfortable, life will throw you those surprises by the handful. Given the unexpected migraine yesterday, I certainly didn’t expect another surprise right after. The building made an announcement that we wouldn’t be able to use our stoves until the next morning. Again, the duck would have to wait.
When I got home the next day, I confirmed that the gas valve had been turned on and everything was back to normal. It was time! I heated up a pan over medium-high heat and placed the duck legs fat down (skin side down) on the pan. The oil was hissing and spitting and the pan was letting off quite a bit of smoke. I worried that the flame was too hot and that the skin would surely be burnt to a crisp.
Lesson #4: Every plan should allow for flexibility. No two stoves are the same, medium high heat for one can be a different temperature from another.
After 20 minutes, I ended up with a much crispier and charred duck leg than I’m sure Melissa Clark, the recipe’s author, intended. The next step was to cover with foil and pop the duck into the oven for 2 hours at 325°F. Then remove the foil and cook for another hour. Mark had said that he had overcooked his duck and to adjust the cooking time when uncovered. I decided to lower the temperature to 300°F then popped the duck in and set the timer to 2 hours.
Lesson #5: When a hurdle presents itself, switch gears. There’s no point in fretting over what went wrong. In times of a crisis, you have to adjust and be flexible, deviate from the recipe because clearly you’re already off track.
After 2 hours, I didn’t bother to continue cooking the duck uncovered. I figured the high heat of the flame on the stove had already crisped the legs enough. Meanwhile, I assembled the salad and made a simple mustard maple syrup vinaigrette. The duck leg turned out to be cooked perfectly. The meat was falling off the bone easily. It may have looked a little darker than I wanted it to be but it still tasted fantastic. What I didn’t anticipate was the saltiness of the duck. The recipe called for 8 duck legs and I had only cooked 2 without adjusting the seasonings.
Lesson #6: Creativity can get you out of many sticky situations. Solution to the salty duck? Shred the meat and toss it with the salad. That was perhaps the most brilliant idea of the night because the sweetness of the dressing and candied walnuts, hard boiled egg, spinach, and cherry tomatoes, was the perfect combination to balance out the saltiness of the duck.
Here is the recipe that I assure you will give you a duck confit (or duck confit salad) as good as any fine French restaurant. And if your luck should be like mine and you encounter a few mishaps along the way, know that patience, flexibility, adjustments and creativity should get you right back on track. A different track than you intended, perhaps, but nevertheless it will be a delicious one. And that’s why we cook.
Easy Duck Confit Salad
Adapted from Melissa Clark
What you need:
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf, crumbled
8 moulard duck legs (one per person), rinsed and patted dry but not trimmed
What to do:
1. In a small bowl, combine salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf pieces. Sprinkle duck generously with mixture. Place duck legs in a pan in one layer. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
2. The next day, heat oven to 300°F. Place duck legs, fat side down, in a large ovenproof skillet, with legs fitting snugly in a single layer (you may have to use two skillets or cook them in batches). Heat duck legs over medium-high heat until fat starts to render. When there is about 1/4 inch of rendered fat in pan, about 20 minutes, flip duck legs, cover pan with foil, and place it in oven. If you have used two pans, transfer duck and fat to a roasting pan, cover with foil and place in oven.
3. Roast legs for 2 hours.
4. Serve duck hot or warm, over roasted potatoes or noodles or shredded into a green salad.
Spinach Salad with Maple Mustard Vinaigrette
What you need:
A bag of spinach
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2 handfuls of walnuts, toasted
For the dressing:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 T mustard
2 T maple syrup
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat up a pan and toss in the walnuts with a sprinkling of sugar. Keep tossing over the heat to toast and remove once the nuts turn a darker shade of brown.
2. Toss all of the salad ingredients together.
3. Put all dressing ingredients into a mason jar and shake well. Taste and adjust seasonings according to your liking.
4. Pour dressing over salad and mix well.