Weird Crap I Cook: Duck Shepherds Pie

Now that we are settled back in Jamaica Plain, I have been itching to do some interesting meals for blog purposes.  While we were in Philly, Hi Lo Foods, my go-to spot for unusual meats and ingredients in JP, closed with the intention of a Whole Foods moving in to replace it.

The upside is hopefully an increased property value for our condo since we will be a 5 minute walk from Whole Foods in a few months. The downside is that I no longer have an entire aisle of WCIC entries within walking distance.  Although a nearby Stop and Shop carries a lot of similar meats, my visits this week didn’t produce a lot of inspiration.  So, I turned to my overloaded freezer and defrosted a couple duck breasts.

My guess is D'Artagnan has gone through two rounds of rebranding since these breasts were purchased

I love duck meat.  Aside from the obviously amazing Chinese preparations, my favorite versions are medium-rare duck breast, slow roasted duck thighs, and anything involving the crispy skin.  Unfortunately, these breasts had spent a few years in the freezer and were past their prime, so I knew I needed to cook them through.  For some reason, a variation on shepherds pie was the first thing I thought of.

After a day of occasional brainstorming, I got started by heating a handful of chopped blackberries and about a cup of bourbon together.

Thats some nice focus and composition

This would serve as the base for the poaching liquid and also the broth used in the gravy.  Why did I choose bourbon and blackberries?  Because I had both of them; the blackberries were a couple days old and the Jack Daniels was leftover from a free tasting I went to in March at Wharton.  Honestly, though, I had those ingredients in mind before checking the fridge and cupboards. Raspberries and white wine were the runner-up.

Reduced a bit with half a quartered onion thrown in

At this point I poured in a carton of chicken broth, added 5 cloves and a bay leaf, and let that come up to a boil while I started preparing the duck breasts.  First step was removing the skin and thick layer of fat from each one.

A little freezer burned here and there, but not too bad looking despite the long stay

The skin and fat were reserved for later use and the meat from each breast was halved for easier poaching.  I rubbed each piece with a few shakes of cinnamon and a little salt before dropping them into the boiling poaching liquid.

I was amazed how little meat there was in a pound and a half of duck breasts. They are mostly skin and fat

After turning the heat down to a low boil, I started working on the ingredients I planned to mix the cooked duck with for the pie filling.  First up was cubing a handful of bacon.

I cubed more than that, about a third of the slab, but I discovered I didn't take a picture of the final amount

While that cooked on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven, I cut cubes of baby carrot and yellow onion and seasoned them a bit.  After 5 minutes, I pulled the bacon cubes, poured them into the bowl with the carrots and onions, and mixed well.  The contents of the bowl went onto the baking sheet and back into the oven.

I love the way carrots taste when roasted with a little bacon grease which I learned from roasting turkeys at Thanksgiving. One of the many reasons why I am rooting for a Mens Wearhouse XL to move into one of the empty storefronts in JP

15 minutes later, this came out of the oven.

I was counting on the burned and browned bits to add some good flavor to the final project

I strained the grease off these and reserved it for later use while the carrots, onions, and bacon waited in a bowl to be mixed with the duck meat.  Speaking of the duck, it came out of the broth after about 20 minutes at a low boil.

Shrunken, dense, and cooked through. Not how I usually like my duck, but they smelled good

While the meat rested and cooled, I strained the poaching broth to remove all solids and put it back on the burner over low heat.  I hoped that reducing it a bit would strengthen the flavors and make the gravy better.  Once the breasts cooled, they were shredded, chopped and added to the bowl with the roasted veggies and bacon.

A little dry looking, but I had plans to fix that

Next step was to get started on the potatoes and gravy.  In order to make a duck gravy, I would need to render out some duck fat which is why I saved the skins.  I rubbed the skins with salt and pepper, and fried them in the leftover bacon grease for a couple minutes before placing the skillet in a 425 degree oven.

The previous times I had attempted to render fat I used the stove top, usually burning myself. This was a much better option

After 20 minutes, I had about a cup of duck fat and some crispy skins.

My love of crispy poultry skin is the reason I will be using some sort of motorized scooter to navigate the aisles of said Mens Wearhouse XL

I thinly sliced the skins and put them back in the pan for another five minutes to make sure I cooked out as much fat as possible.  After that was done, the strips were removed to dry and the majority of the duck fat was put into a storage container for future use.  Not sure what I will eventually use that for, but I’ll think of something.

While the fat was rendering I peeled and boiled a couple russet potatoes for the mashed potato cover that is key to a shepherds pie.

Wanted these smooth and creamy which is why I went against my general stance and peeled these

After boiling, I mashed with butter, milk, salt, pepper, and a little garlic powder.  The key to getting a smooth texture was a rotation of mashing and stirring while adding milk.

Back to the gravy.  Ater an hour on the stovetop the broth had reduced by about half.

Loved that the blackberries gave the broth a purplish color

In the manner my mommy taught me years ago, the gravy started off with the duck fat in a pan over medium-high heat, a whisk, and a container of flour.  The flour was whisked into the fat a spoonful at a time.

I pretty much wing everything when it comes to cooking, but whenever I make gravy I feel like I am truly improvising something great. Its just throwing flour, fat and broth together until it looks right, total guesswork

Eventually the flour absorbed all of the fat in the pan, at which point I let it cook for a bit to give the gravy some flavor and color.  After a couple minutes, I started adding ladles of broth and whisking them into the pan.

Yep, just a 31 year old dude calling his 9 month pregnant wife into the kitchen to take some "action shots". I should confiscate her computer so she can't google legal statutes related to my behavior

Again, making gravy is nothing special, but when you’ve gone through the process of rendering fat and making a solid broth, you get excited as the gravy takes form.

In the final stages of the gravy coming together, I hit it with a splash of sherry to enhance the flavor and add a bit of bite

The main purpose of the gravy was to mix with the meat and veggies.  I ended up adding about three full ladels and stirring it all together.

With each ladel, the mixture in the bowl looked more appetizing. Also, I love when gravy bubbles

With that mixed, the filling was ready for the pie.  And speaking of pie, the true reason I wanted to make a shepherds pie in the first place was that I had an extra pie crust in the fridge.  Makes no sense since I have eaten every other shepherds pie in my life without a crust, without complaint.  But, I’ve stopped trying to figure out why I make odd decisions like that in the kitchen, so lets move on.

I hope I am not alone in thinking how good this looks as a shepherds pie base

Then a thin layer of corn.

I have made shepherds pie a few times and I find that using thawed frozen corn vs. cooking corn and cutting it off the cob is almost indistinguishable. Hence the lack of corn prep mentions earlier in the post

Then a heavy layer of potatoes to cover the top completely.

Spreading the potatoes is a much trickier part of the shepherds pie process than one would guess. If you go over any parts of the potato a second time to smooth it out, the potatoes will stick to the spoon and flip corn on top

Remember the duck skin cracklins?  I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.  Instead they sat off to the side, possibly being nibbled on occasionally by this DB, waiting for a final use.  Just as I was placing a few pieces on top to give a little texture and flavor contrast, Kristi walked in and demanded that no duck skins be on any piece she would be eating.  Again, she is 9 months pregnant, so she’s the boss.

The whole pie headed into the oven at 375 for about 30 minutes, at which point we had this:

She would only let me put cracklins on half the dish, critiques everything I cook like she writes for the New York Times, and chides me over my misused apostrophes in "it's". 'Cuz she's my wahf... ... ... and that's mah life

After resting for twenty minutes, it was time to slice in.  I was stunned to see that it actually held together well when it was time to remove each piece from the pie pan.  A spoonful of gravy over the top, and you’re ready to eat.

I have had a slice of this every day for the past three days and will look at this photo longingly when it's all gone

There was a lot going on in every bite of the shepherds pie.  You could taste the sherry and bourbon in the gravy and a hint of the cloves and blackberries as well.  I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether it was a chicken or duck base if I hadn’t know, but the gravy was great.  The duck filling was rich and flavorful and almost creamy from the soft carrots and onions, as well as the gravy that was mixed in.  The pie crust was a welcome addition, and the cracklins were a surprising burst of duck flavor on the bites that had them.

Overall, I think it came out really well and Kristi, who is not usually a duck fan, enjoyed it as well.  Shepherds pie is usually such an easy meal to make, but I definitely overcomplicated it and added a lot of steps.  I was happy the effort was rewarded, though.

Next week is the opposite of this meal; cheap ingredients and simple prep.  I am loving having this kitchen back.