Fall on Long Island: warmer ocean, uncluttered beaches, shorter days, cooler evenings, wild ducks and geese flying in formation in still-sunny skies. Hunting season, fattening-up time on poultry farms, the harvest moon. Heated ovens taking the bite out of post sunset. Late summer and early fall’s bounty borne to the dinner table, alternating outdoor grills and indoor stoves to showcase the prodigious produce of local farms.
Duck: still the pride of Long Island, thanks to the perseverance of the remaining growers. Whole dressed ducks are available in most supermarkets. Not the net seven-pounders my father raised in the ’40s and ’50s but still meaty enough for two people to feast on. Crescent Farms even makes a pair of halves available precooked: You can finish the duck on the grill or in the oven, use their sauce or make your own. You can’t beat these as a shortcut to one of my favorite preparations, duck confit.
By the time I was seven, I’d watched the rabbi ritually slaughter the huge white birds on our inland farm, the only kosher producer on the island, then as the ducks were dipped and plucked, airborne feathers swirling through the steaming picking house to settle on the netted hair, sweaty necks and dripping rubber aprons of the cheerful Polish women whose skills are unheard of today, stuffing feathers and down into sacks for processing at the feather plant in Eastport, speedily filling slatted wooden crates stamped “Bernstein’s Ducks.” Dad drove the black-garbed rabbi to our house for a dairy lunch on paper plates served by my mother at our non-kosher table. The rebbe safely on his train back to the city, we uncrated ducks that we’d eviscerate for our home freezer. I learned to slide a hand inside between the slimy transparent sac containing the innards and the ribs, gripping at the neck to slide out the entire mass cleanly from the inside, separating and setting aside the giblets, liver, heart, gizzard and spleen for frying or soup. I only had to break the ugly khaki-green gall once, its bitterness spoiling the entire duck, never again!
Uncle Sam and Dad trucked the dressed Pekin ducks into Brooklyn and lower New York, to Schmulke Bernstein’s (no relation that I know of) and to the Mott Street Chinese restaurants. Bloodless kosher ducks sold at a premium for Pekin Duck. Dad loved to tell how he and his brother once backed the refrigerated delivery truck to a busy loading dock when another truck pulled up and the driver ordered them to move so his truck could go ahead. Uncle Sam, a pugnacious wrestler in his youth, said they were there first, and they were unloading first. Daddy just smiled his Errol Flynn smile. Uncle Sam and brother, Abe, peacefully unloaded their crates after the three belligerent challengers limped back to their truck cab to wait their turn, minus their bats and brass.
Mom roasted ducks a pair at a time for our family of two adults and three young daughters. Neighborhood pets joined our own cats and dogs with eagerly twitching noses and whiskers sniffing the aromatics wafting through the kitchen door, across the screened back porch, awaiting the scraps once we’d finished eating the crispy, thinly fatted spice-pungent skin, the moist, dark roasted meat and chewed the last tender strand from the bones. With the duck came a giant bowl of rough-mashed potatoes stirred together with onions fried in duck fat, peas or snap beans dripping with butter, fresh sliced beefsteak tomatoes, probably some sliced cukes, maybe sliced carrots, also buttered—whatever we’d picked in the garden that day, including salad greens. Along with bakery bread (and butter!). We were a working farm family, and we ate accordingly. As children, my sisters and I were chubby, but we were strong, sturdy and healthy kids.
Contemporary chefs are searing and grilling duck breasts, serving them rare, as if they were steak. I disagree. Ducks, along with wild and domestic game birds—squab, pheasant, quail, Cornish game hens, chicken, turkey and any other feathered critter that ends up on the table—are poultry. Would you eat pink chicken or turkey? At a celebratory banquet just a few years ago, chef Todd Jacobs served delectable-looking medium-rare duck breasts, with lovely trimmings and typical flair. He was kind enough to sauté mine to my taste: cooked all the way through. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I want my poultry done.
Here are four duck recipes we compiled.
WHAT’S IN SEASON
OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER
MEAT & SEAFOOD
Chicken & Eggs
Milk & Cheese
Greens (Chard, Collards, Kale & Mustard, Lettuce & Salad Mix)
Mushrooms (Farmed and Wild)
Contemporary chefs are searing and grilling duck breasts, serving them rare, as if they were steak. I disagree.
Along with bakery bread (and butter!). We were a working farm family, and we ate accordingly. As children, my sisters and I were chubby, but we were strong, sturdy and healthy kids.