Cookbook author Hank Shaw talks ducks, geese ahead of Range dinners

November 7, 2013

Even for those who are more familiar with bargain hunting than game hunting, author and James Beard Award-winning blogger Hank Shaw has this knack for making you want to grab a shotgun and take aim at your next dinner. It's part of Shaw's worldview that humans are the earth's lone creatures who do not know how to feed themselves should the apocalypse arrive and wipe our streets clean of restaurants, food trucks, gas stations and, say, 7-Elevens hot dog rollers.

Hank Shaw on ducks: Think of them as beef. (Photo by Holly A. Heyser)
Hank Shaw on ducks: Think of them as beef. (Photo by Holly A. Heyser)

In his latest cookbook, "Duck, Duck, Goose" (Ten Speed Press, 2013), Shaw focuses his sights on a narrow band of critters: waterfowl, those winged creatures that simultaneously stimulate our saliva glands (duck-fat fries, anyone?) and cause home cooks to search for the nearest rib-eye in the butcher's case. (When, after all, was the last time you cooked a goose — not counting your own?)

Shaw's been on a grueling tour to promote the book, and ahead of his sold-out "Duck, Duck, Goose" dinners at Range (in collaboration with Bryan Voltaggio), the author took a few minutes to answer some e-mail questions about his latest volume and the subject it addresses.

In  "Duck, Duck, Goose," you make the argument that duck "has become the new pork." With that as the premise, what part of the duck would you say is the equivalent of bacon or pork belly?

All of it. Duck confit is not unlike good pulled pork, and the breast meat, served with crispy skin, is a perfect marriage of meat and fat. Ducks and geese have a similar ratio of fat to meat as pigs, and this is what makes them so exciting to cook and eat. As for the pork belly comparison, I make a Chinese red-cooked duck leg dish that is every bit as good as the one made with pork belly. Try it and you will not be sad.

Help me understand this apparent paradox: Why do Americans go crazy for duck-fat fries but not for the duck itself?

Because they don’t cook them enough. Repetition builds ease in the kitchen, and unless you have that repetition you will always be nervous and stiff when you cook. People are scared of messing things up, unnecessarily so to my mind. But remember, duck is hugely popular in restaurants, so Americans aren’t scared of eating duck, just cooking it at home.

As you note in your book and in blog posts, the canvasback duck was a prized protein in early America. Given the decline in the canvasback population and its change in diet, can Americans ever taste the bird like the founding fathers once did?

No, and hopefully there will never be commercial market hunting for ducks ever again. But the good news is that canvasback populations are higher than they’ve been in a long time, so those of us who hunt can get them. If you’re not a duck hunter, make friends with one!

Shaw's "Duck, Duck, Goose" was written for both hunters and home cooks.
Shaw's "Duck, Duck, Goose" was written for both hunters and home cooks.

Generally speaking, duck is more popular in other countries than in the States. Did this force you to study more international cuisines or talk to, say, more Asian chefs to understand how they develop recipes?

Yes. I did a lot of research — both from books and hands-on — on Asian cooking. I worked with several Chinese and Laotian cooks to refine those recipes. I am pretty proud of my Chinese dishes in “Duck, Duck, Goose.”

So how many attempts did it take before you felt comfortable enough to publish your Peking duck recipe?

LOL. A lot. Maybe 20 or so. It’s the only recipe that still gives me butterflies, because there are such high expectations when you serve it.

As you've toured the country, promoting your book, have you determined what kind of audience tends to buy your book? Is it more the hunting community? The home-cook community? Or both?

Both. A typical crowd in a restaurant is about 40 percent hunters and 60 percent home cooks. Which is as it should be. I wrote “Duck, Duck, Goose” for both groups. There are less than a handful of recipes in the book that don’t work for both store-bought and wild birds, and I make notes on what differences you need to be aware of, depending on what kind of duck you have on hand.

Will you be enjoying a goose this holiday season, in a classic Dickensian family gathering? What new preparation would you suggest for others who might want to tackle a goose this year?

If I can get myself a wild, whitefront goose, yes. This is my favorite goose, as it’s typically fatty and that fat is sweet from all the seeds and grain the bird eats. It’s the perfect wild bird to roast for the holidays.

New preparation? Although it’s a traditional dish, I’d say definitely go for a German ganseklein soup. It’s a sweet-and-sour soup made from the wingtips, neck and giblets of a goose (while you roast the rest), and it’s served with homemade dumplings. The spices and the dried fruit that go in it really, really make this taste like Christmas.

If you had one or two sentences of encouragement for those who are afraid to cook ducks or geese, what would it be?

Don’t think of ducks as birds. Think of them as beef: Breasts are like a steak, albeit steak wearing a hat made of bacon, and the legs and wings are like brisket — in general, they need slow, moist heat to make them wonderful. Start with a simple duck breast and work from there. It’s actually pretty easy.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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