One of my dearest friends is a medical student, meaning she has even less free time than I have. Last year she faced the same problems I did with trying to eat healthy without sufficient time for cooking. We made a pact this summer that we would get together every two weeks and cook a feast that would feed us both for at least a week. Sad to say this weekend is the first time we’ve been able to make our schedules match to do so, but we’re both excited. As the weather has turned, it is the perfect time to make my famous chicken paprikash.
The best paprikash I ever cooked was in Athens, Georgia around 2007. I had a quart of duck stock in my freezer, left there by a generous and enterprising friend who had made it from the carcass of a duck roasted at our lovely foodie-centric house, and I thought it would make the paprikash more delicious. It did, but I was not able to take the duck stock with me when I moved across the country that year, and I have wanted to get some ever since.
Stock has been a mission of mine since I got the slow cooker, and I’ve been assiduously saving all the vegetable trimmings from everything I cook so that when it is time to cook down some bones, I have things ready in the freezer. Turns out making stock is harder than it looks though, so my previous efforts have been kind of meh. This time I was going to do it right.
This meant using a whole bird carcass, and not one that had already been destroyed by slow cooking, so I found myself buying a whole 5lb. duck Friday night. Once I got out of class on Saturday, the excitement would begin.
I plopped the duck into my giant paella skillet, shoved into its cavity a quartered lemon, a head of garlic with the top cut off and torn into 3 pieces, and a quartered onion. I added a few sprigs of thyme I had dried a couple weeks prior, and stuck it all in the oven at 425. I had already decided to save the breasts so they could be cooked to medium rare separately, but Dad advised that they would be easier to remove if they were parcooked, so after about 30 minutes I took the bird out and got to hacking.
I’ve never broken down a whole bird before, so I wasn’t even definite where the breasts were, let alone how far they extend. (After discussing this Mom and Dad have decided I need to own a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which I will gladly accept as this year’s birthday gift.) Anyway, I blindly hacked, the meat was nowhere near done so I might as well have done it with an uncooked bird and saved myself the danger of cutting in a 400-degree pan, but I emerged with two plump and relatively undamaged breasts, now hanging out in my refrigerator for as-yet-unknown future plans.
Bird back in oven. I had scored the skin with a knife and there was a huge pool of duck fat happening in the bottom of the pan, which is a good thing, but it didn’t render out of the skin as quickly as I hoped. After an hour the meat thermometer said the thighs were definitely done (if not overdone) but they were neither brown nor crispy. In the future I think I would cook this longer at a lower temperature to render more of the fat, and maybe broil the thighs to make sure they are nice and browned before serving.
I also realized on removing the bird that I had forgotten to salt and pepper it before cooking. This is not the first time I’ve made this mistake, I’m sad to say, but at least it’s one that can be remedied on the plate, as opposed to putting too much of something in there.
I let the bird cool on the chopping block for a bit and readied the crock-pot. I also poured the duck fat into a container to be saved in the fridge, because omg delicious! I now have a pint of solid rendered duck fat hanging out waiting to be a delicious base for so many future foods. I got to work on the bird, and hacked out wings and thighs, getting myself thoroughly greasy and messy in the process, and not worrying too much about any meat left on the bones as they would just add to the deliciousness of the stock.
For the stock I broke up the duck carcass so the whole thing could be sure to stay underwater, and threw in the neck and giblets that had come inside the bird. I added my frozen trimmings of onion, garlic, celery, carrot, celeriac, and I’m not sure what else, and threw in the onion and lemon that had been inside the bird while roasting, as well as another 1/2 head of garlic,another carrot, some thyme, parsley, and a bay leaf. This time I remembered salt, and put in a couple handfuls, and some peppercorns. I poured in probably 3 quarts of water, and put the crock-pot on high.
The aroma in my apartment this morning was heavenly. My cat agreed. I may have been over-ambitious with the amount of water, so I decided to cook some of it down in a saucier to reduce it by half, after pouring it through a strainer to get rid of the bits of bone, veg, herbs, and spent meat. Also, one of my cookbooks said that while the meat is no longer delicious after making stock, it’s still great to give to the pets, so I have a very spoilt and happy cat today. I just hope all the meat she’s enjoying doesn’t backfire on me!
So, lessons learned:
- The fatty duck skin means longer, low-temp roasting
- Pierce the skin more than you think it needs
- Might as well just take off the breasts before cooking, it will be easier
- Don’t forget your salt and pepper!
- Eat the roast garlic from inside the bird, because it is gloriously good
- When carving the bird, poultry shears are probably a good thing to own
- For stock: remember to throw in some herbs as well as veg for a good flavor
- Water’s high specific heat means a lot of it takes a really long time to heat up, so cook it hotter and longer than you would expect to in a slow cooker
- Don’t use more water than is necessary to just cover the bones and veg, or stock will be weaker than it needs to be
Now I’m excited to have so much great raw material to use in future cooking projects, and I can’t wait to have some delicious chicken paprikash tonight, with a duck stock base!