THE FEAST of the Three Ducks is a rite of transition. We invented it, from stray bits of family tradition and duck lore, to straddle winter and spring, and to bring old friends and new friends together. Ideally, the dinner falls on a chilly day in April, when winter is still in the air but the earth smells like spring, and the heavy richness of slowly baked duck warms us.
My maternal grandparents, the lawgivers in our family who also raised ducks, regarded ducks as the superior fowl, one for festive occasions. They believed that ducks taste best when killed after a cold winter. And our legacy includes their advice to save every drop of the duck fat and use it for cooking whenever possible. A long row of jars filled with golden duck fat is my image of abundance.
The nine of us sitting around the table felt in a ritual mood when my wife, Lizou, presented the ducks. She assigned three guests to carve a duck each. When she proposed that the three ducks represented the past, the present and the future, nobody thought it a joke. An old friend promptly asked if he could be in charge of the duck standing for the past -- his favorite tense, his refuge. A new friend, a refugee who has been in the states for six months, meekly suggested that he would like to try the duck of the future.
A Chinese once pointed out that the duck, which was an imperial favorite in China, and food for special occasions, is equally at home in water and air, and on solid ground. Eating ducks, he claimed, puts people in a storytelling mood.
Our three ducks lifted our spirits. It had been a Russian winter, we all agreed, hard and long. And as the evening ended, a loud squawking shattered the midnight quiet. A formation of Canada geese flew over our house in a perfect V shape -- stragglers making their way to the north.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE DUCK (8 to 10 servings) 3 4- to 5-pound ducks 3 carrots, cut in chunks onion, quartered 2 celery stalks, cut in chunks cloves garlic Pinch of paprika Salt and pepper
Stuffing: 1 cup brown rice or bulghur, uncooked 3 eggs Sage, minced garlic and paprika to taste
For cooking: 6 granny smith apples, peeled and quartered 3 carrots 6 small onions
For the gravy: 1 cup water 1 teaspoon cornstarch
The first step is to cut off all loose fat on the ducks. Then make a stock of the neck and the gizzards; simmer them in water to cover for an hour with carrots, onions and garlic.
Next, prepare the stuffing: Cook the rice or bulghur according to package directions. Then remove all the vegetables and meat from the stock, chop and mix them with the cooked brown rice or bulghur. Add three eggs, as well as sage, minced garlic and paprika, and mix well. Stuff the birds.
Put the ducks on a rack in a roasting pan and surround them with cut-up apples, carrots and onions. Put pan in the oven at 450 degrees, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 375 degrees, cover the pan and continue cooking for an additional 3 hours. Uncover the pan (this is crucial) and cook ducks for another hour to allow them to brown. Since we like the ducks very tender, we bake them for at least four hours.
As the birds cook, check them from time to time, sprinkle salt on them and remove the fat from the pan. You may collect as much as a pint of fat.
When the ducks are ready, take them out of the roasting pan and place on a serving dish.
To make a gravy, pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add 1 cup water to the pan and scrape up browned bits. Stir in 1 teaspoon cornstarch (or more if you like a thicker gravy) and pour into a small saucepan, scraping all the drippings into it. Stir over medium heat, simmering for a couple of minutes to make a gravy.
Garnish the ducks with red cabbage and potatoes, and serve it with the gravy.
RED CABBAGE (8 to 10 servings) 3 tablespoons duck fat 2 red cabbages, sliced Salt and pepper
Heat the duck fat in a large saucepan and saute' the red cabbage, uncovered, until it wilts, about 20 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper
RED POTATOES (8 to 10 servings) 12 red potatoes, sliced about 1/4-inch thick Duck fat for brushing
Place sliced and unpeeled potatoes on two cookie sheets. Brush them with duck fat. Cook in the 375-degree oven with the ducks for about 1/2 hour, turning after 15 minutes.