Thanksgiving is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity to give thanks, to be with family and friends. On the other hand, it’s a holiday that’s loaded with stress and unrealistic expectations.
Specifically, I’m talking about cooking turkey. In my family, that foul fowl is single-handedly responsible for raising the household holiday stress levels to undue proportions every year.
First, we go through the same dance every year trying to buy a small bird. Every year, the store takes our order, then calls us a few days before Thanksgiving and says that the turkeys are in. Unfortunately, the smallest bird they have is double the size of what we ordered. This happens every freakin’ year.
Then we have to clear out space in the refrigerator to hold the giant bird, which is just about mathematically impossible, given that you have about quadruple the amount of groceries in your fridge for the rest of your dishes.
Next comes the cooking. For the past 10 years, I have been bestowed with the responsibility of roasting that wretched bird for my family. I’m a good cook, and I’m especially good at cooking meat. And yet, every year, I somehow manage to butcher the bird, and not in a good way.
I’ve tried roasting it, brining it, barbecuing it, butterflying it, and braising it. And somehow, I’ve never managed to cook a good turkey. (Actually, braising works great, but I only braise the dark meat, so you still have to figure out what to do with the white meat.)
There are two things I hate more than anything: undercooking meat and overcooking meat. My little sister says that whenever I undercook or overcook meat, a little black cloud forms over my head. Yes, yes it does. Fortunately, it only happens a few times a year. Unfortunately, it happens every November.
Finally, there’s the eating. Despite the adversity, the bird has always looked good. And it’s always tasted okay. But why settle for just okay? It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! It should be mind-numbingly delicious.
The truth is that none of us even like turkey. We ate it every year, because that’s what society expected us to do. Well this year, after once again ordering a 12-pound bird and hearing once again (after our order had already been taken) that only 20-pound birds were available, we finally said, “Enough!” We decided that we’d eat duck for Thanksgiving instead.
It was shocking to realize how liberating this decision was. First, we all love duck. I mean, really, who doesn’t? Duck is a magical animal — all dark meat and hauntingly beautiful fat and skin.
Second, we never cook it. I had never even touched a raw duck before. So cooking duck would be special, perfect for such a festive occasion.
Third, preparing duck is an order of magnitude easier than cooking a turkey. It’s small, meaning that it fits in the refrigerator and that it cooks quickly. It’s all fatty, dark meat, meaning that it’s hard to overcook. And duck actually tastes great medium rare, which means that it’s okay to undercook as well.
Fourth, the Pilgrims ate duck at the first Thanksgiving. So we were still being consistent with tradition.
Win, win, win, win.
Armed with J. Kenji López-Alt’s helpful guide to roasting duck, I decided to prepare two: a jerk-spiced duck and a Chimaya chile-coffee rubbed duck. I dried both ducks in the refrigerator for a day, then rubbed them and let them dry for another day.
We roasted the jerk-rubbed duck for Thanksgiving on a soda can so that the fat would render out. It took about 50 minutes to cook, and we let it rest for about 20 minutes. It was without question the most stress-free Thanksgiving ever. Cooking was a breeze. We all pitched in as usual, and we made plenty of delicious sides, but we didn’t have to do any extraordinary prep, nor did we have to get up at some ungodly hour in the morning.
As for the taste… well, did I mention that duck is a magical animal? This was unquestionably the best tasting Thanksgiving meal any of us had ever eaten. At one point, we were all eating in silent, focused concentration as we savored this delicious food. My dad, who is the most critical eater in our family, spent most of the meal with his eyes closed and a blissful smile on his face.
We actually thought that we would need the second duck for Thanksgiving, which was ludicrous. We barely had room to consume the first duck. We ate the second duck the day after, which was like having Thanksgiving two days in a row. It was as good as our first meal, only much easier to prepare, as all of the sides were already ready.
Furthermore, the ducks were gifts that kept on giving. We made sweet potato fries with duck fat (baked, not fried, so that we could pretend they were healthy), which made my dad smile even wider. We boiled the duck carcasses overnight to make a rich, meaty stock, then combined it with butternut squash, garlic, and habanero to make an unctuous soup. I was even able to restore the boiled duck meat from the carcass — which had been literally rendered dry and useless from the stock-making — with a little dollop of duck fat and salt. It had a pulled pork consistency and tasted like duck heaven.
So this year, I’d like to express deep, stomachfelt gratitude to one of the most wonderful animals in the world for restoring peace, harmony, and joyous food coma to my family this year. I hope other families can learn from our experience this year.
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