During our December visit to Paris, my wife, Jackie, and I had an excellent dinner at L’Abeille, the fancy restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel One of our main courses was spice-crusted pigeon with several varieties of turnips. We ordered it because of our fondness for the combination of red-fleshed birds and those sweet, juicy, peppery-mustardy-funky root vegetables. When I say “red-fleshed birds,” I mostly mean duck, which is a classic with turnips, a nice alternative to the more common oranges, cherries or other fruits.
Soon after we returned home, I went to the farmers market and bought a bunch of turnips and a couple of Moulard duck legs from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. I figured I’d braise the legs, not roast them; I wanted the dish to generate its own sauce. A day in advance (though it could have been done a few hours before serving), I gave the process a head start by cutting each leg at the joint, yielding two drumsticks and two thighs, then removing the bones.
This is among the easiest of boning jobs: Just feel where the thigh and shin bones run, cut and scrape around them and cut around the end joints. The final cuts can be a source of anxiety because the thrifty cook’s impulse is to avoid leaving flesh on the bone, but here if a wee bit remains that’s all to the good, because it will enrich the sauce. I seasoned the duck pieces with salt, pepper and thyme leaves, then left them in the fridge overnight. (Again, this can all be done on the day.)
To make the sauce base for the braise, I chopped the bones into one-inch pieces and browned them in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, along with the scraps of skin and fat that I’d trimmed from the legs. When they were a deep caramel color, I added chopped aromatics — leek, carrot, celery, parsley stems, thyme — and let those brown lightly. I deglazed with white wine, then added stock to cover. Chicken stock might have been ideal, but I had only a beef-veal mixture. In an emergency I could have used vegetable stock or water with some tomato paste, but those would have done nothing for the sauce’s consistency given their lack of gelatinous richness. After 45 minutes, I strained the mixture and set it aside to cool. There were 1 1/2 cups of nice brown liquid.
To braise the duck legs, I first heated the oven to 325. I browned the skin side of my four boneless-and-seasoned pieces in a straight-sided pan over fairly low heat, which took a good 10 minutes; the skin was deep brown, and most of the fat had rendered out. I removed the duck to a plate, discarded most of the fat and added another round of the same aromatics that had gone into the sauce base. When these had just begun to brown, I returned the duck pieces to the pan, skin side up, and added three tablespoons of Italian red vermouth, which immediately emitted a complex aroma.
When the liquid had reduced by half — I was careful not to burn it — I added the sauce base, which almost covered the duck, leaving only islets of browned skin. When the liquid came to a low boil, I covered the pan with a circle of parchment paper and the lid, left slightly ajar to help keep the temperature low (per Harold McGee). I placed the pan in the oven, where it remained until the duck was tender, about 90 minutes. But start checking at minute 45; there are many variables here. While the pan was in the oven, I peeled and quartered the turnips and left them in cold water until needed. I also made plain polenta, which could not have been outdone as an accompaniment for this dish.
I strained and defatted the cooking liquid, which had reduced further and was now tasting like sauce, not stock, and set everything aside until 15 minutes before serving. At that point, I crisped the skin on the duck pieces in a non-stick skillet over low heat — covered, so the flesh would heat through as the skin regained its crispness. I put the turnips in a saucepan with a tablespoon of butter, salt, a pinch of sugar and a few tablespoons of the sauce and cooked them, covered, until glazed and tender. This happens faster than you’d think, so keep checking them.
To finish, I added the remaining braising liquid to the turnips, checked for seasoning and swirled in a teaspoon of butter to give it a little more consistency. I arranged the turnips and duck pieces on our plates with a plop of polenta and added sauce.
Like 80 percent of our dinners, this was made just for Jackie and me, but braised duck — crackling skin and fork-tender flesh — with turnips would be terrific company food. Though the dish comes off as rather fancy, all the elements apart from the turnips can be made in advance (glazed turnips can get rather forlorn and soggy if left to lie around, then reheated), and re-crisping the duck doesn’t require a great deal of attention, so long as you don’t try to do it over high heat. In fact, market produce permitting, the dish might turn up at our next dinner party.
More duck recipes: