Sunday, April 12, 2015

Duck Trilogy (Part 2): Duck Meatballs a L’Orange

When I was in the elementary school, our teacher, Miss Zora, would inevitably begin our first morning class with a recap of the previous day’s activities. She would sit at her desk, her class notebook open, and her glasses, as usual, somewhere half way down her nose, and she would say, “Let us summarize what we did yesterday, and what we learned,” she would then select a name, randomly, or maybe not, and call it out, “How about you Queen Sashy?” I would then stand up and dig into the bottoms of my memory and recap the action of the previous day for Miss Zora. Miss Zora was a smart educator, and this little habit of hers was a smart learning strategy -- it made sure that we, the students: a) paid attention during her lectures, and that b) by repeating what we had heard, the material would be preserved a little bit longer in those empty heads of ours.

As we are about to embark on the second stretch of our Duck Journey, I will do what Miss Zora taught me so well – I will do a little bit of recapping. Just to be sure...

Last week we spoke about food obsessions. We defined the term, we explained the symptoms, and then we honed into one particular manifestation, the duck obsession, for an in-depth study. We acquired a 5.8 lb Long Island duck and set on a mission to demonstrate how incredibly exciting the little fellow is, in every possible culinary way. We called it the Duck Project. We also introduced the let-us-buy-a-whole-duck-and-not-treat-it-as-a-whole concept, the idea that one duck when treated with a great deal of culinary love, can produce an entire menu. And we took on an assignment to prove it. And we did so by cooking the most glorious duck soup ever, the soup that surpasses one thousand roasted birds, a soup that is an earthly embodiment of the culinary heaven, a soup that calls for new words to be introduced to English language in order to fully and truly describe how magnificent it is.

Today, on the second stretch of our journey, we deal with the rest. One half of the rest to be precise. Today we deal with the meat.

I do hope that the idea of getting a duck and taking it apart, disassembling it into pieces, into skin, meat and bones, did not turn you off from our little project. Because I do realize that it sounds scary. Even my friend Suzanne, who is one of the best cooks I know, said that she prefers to have her butcher do it. (A message to Suzanne – if I can do it – you can do it one hundred and fifty eight times better!) Contrary to the common belief, I was not born into duck butchery. It simply came as a bi-product of my duck obsession, and the fact that I do not know any butcher well enough to outsource the operation to his skilled hands. Hence, I had no way out but to butcher my first duck. Oh man, you have no idea how well I butchered it! By the time I was done, the thing was practically unrecognizable. And because there was no duck breast left, and no duck leg left, just a pile of something that kind of looked like minced meat, I proceeded to treat it the only way I possibly could – as minced meat.

When you are presented with a packet of ground meat you make meatballs, right? Right. Thus, making duck meatballs became a habit of mine, as I kept on acquiring new ducks, and butchering them myself, and then pondering how to use the fruits of my labor in the best possible way. Ground duck meat became a clay for a new obsession of mine, namely inventing new dishes with duck meatballs, going as far as my imagination would let me, telling stories with ground duck, writing kitchen poetry... As in Duck Meatballs with Blue Cheese and Raspberry Ketchup. As in Peeking Duck Meatballs with Szechuan Peppercorn and Oriental Spices. As in Duck Meatballs a L’Orange.

Remember Duck a L’Orange? The bourgeois dish from the sixties. The dish that for a long time embodied French food for all mankind outside France. The kind of dish Miss Zora might have liked. The dish that by now has disappeared from the menus in most French restaurants. Consider Manhattan for example, the island of everything, where one can find practically anything in the world, well, not quote so -- let me bring you a piece of news, you have to scout, and I mean like really, really scout this Big Island of Everything to find a plate of Canard à l'Orange. Which is too bad, because it is a mighty good dish. And a mighty good inspiration for a plate of duck meatballs.

And so I kept on buying my ducks and I kept on making new dishes. I kept on telling new stories. Duck Meatballs a L’Orange. Duck Meatballs with Scallions and Red Currant Jelly. Duck Meatballs in Port Wine Sauce. Duck after duck, meatball after meatball, dish after dish, until I woke up one morning and realized that I had acquired knife skills, at least when disassembling a duck is concerned. I bought a new duck, placed my subject on the countertop and finally butchered it properly – for the first time in my life – yielding two perfect pieces of breast, and two even more perfect duck legs (plus a heavy doze of kitchen pride). I cooked a confit worthy of James Beard and a duck breast worth of Gordon Ramsey.

And that is how I realized that I really, and I mean really, and truly, and no bs-ing here, that I like ground duck the best.

Because it tells stories.

Duck Meatballs a L’Orange

* breast and dark meat from 5 – 6 lb Long Island duck (about 1 lb 6 oz duck meat in total)
* 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
* 3/4 cup minced scallions
* 1 large garlic clove, minced
* 3 - 4 tbsp milk
* 1 tsp ground coriander
* 1 tsp ground cumin
* 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
* 1 tbsp sunflower oil
* salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the sauce

* 1/3 cup fresh orange juice (from one to two oranges)  
* 1/3 cup sugar
* 1 tbsp white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar
* 1/4 cup white wine
* 1/2 cup of duck or chicken stock (or water)
* 1 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
* 1 tbsp all purpose flour
* a couple of slices of orange zest, about a tablespoon or so (remove the zest with a knife or vegetable peeler, and avoid the white layer underneath it)
* a pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 365F.

Grind the duck meat coarsely or chop by hand (you want the consistency of sausage meat).

Make the panada: In a small sauté pan, set over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic, coriander and cumin and cook for about two minutes until garlic and spices become fragrant. Add the scallions and sweat until the scallion begins to soften. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool. In a large mixing bowl combine the milk, breadcrumbs, thyme and scallion mixture, and set aside.

Combine the panada with the duck meat. Season with salt and with somewhat generous dose of pepper. Mix with your hands. Leave the mixture in the fridge for about an hour or two, (or in the freezer for about 20 minutes) to firm up.

Lightly oil a baking sheet. Roll the meat mixture in your hands into golf-ball sized meatballs and place on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15-20 minutes. (Do not over bake, as the meatballs will become dry.)

While the meatballs are in the oven begin to make the sauce. Place the sugar in a small, dry saucepan over moderate heat, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a fork, until sugar melts into a deep golden caramel. Add the orange juice, vinegar and salt. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble vigorously. Continue to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramel is dissolved. Remove syrup from the heat.

Remove the meatballs from the oven. Pour the wine and broth (or water) into the pan to deglaze. Pour the pan juices through a fine-mesh sieve into a small saucepan. You should have about 2/3 cup of liquid.

In a small bowl, stir together butter and flour to form beurre manié. Use your fingers or fork to form smooth paste. Divide the paste into several small balls. Over medium-low heat bring the pan juices to a simmer and slowly add beurre manié, one ball at time, while whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Add the orange syrup and zest and continue to simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and with a fork or tweezers, take the orange peel slices out. (Keep the sauce warm until ready to serve.)

Serve the meatballs with the sauce on the side. 

Serves 4 - 6


  1. I love this duck trilogy, I am still dreaming about that broth you made and now meatballs, oh yes, love that. I am a meatball lover, beef, portk chicken or turkey or mix it I love them all. Now you grind your own duck meat? You butcher your own duck and I got the message but it intimidates me, really it does. You though that given me some inspiration, I need a tutorial. What did you use to grind the meat, I want to know everything because I love duck a l'orange its delicious and yes you are so right you never EVER see it anywhere, Meatballs of duck with orange is a brilliant and delicious and wonderful idea that I must make. I love the ohter meatball idea's too, I have to try ground duck now.

    1. I have a Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment, and it does pretty decent job, but not quite like what you would get at the butcher. For the meatballs I like when the meat is ground coarsely, very much like the sausage meat. Sometimes, when I am really inspired, I chop the meat by hand, that truly is the best.


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