Whenever I'm asked to cook a celebratory dinner, I think of duck. It's rich, it's special and it goes extremely well with pinot - which is just what I'm looking to drink on a special occasion.
What most people don't know, I think, is that duck isn't actually difficult to cook. Roast duck, for example, is incredibly simple (certainly just as easy as roasting a chicken), especially now that fresh ducks are readily available and are bred to be less fatty and more tender.
I have two rules for roasting duck: cook it in a hot oven and cook it until it's well done. A hot oven will get the skin all crisp and brown and help render the fat through the meat. Also, I find that if the legs are still pink they can be on the tough side, so that's why I think it's better to go for a well-done bird.
My friend Valerio Nucci, who is a brilliant cook, taught me to stuff the cavity of a duck with a whole orange, stabbed several times with a sharp knife to make the juices and aroma come out, along with a few juniper berries, a couple of fresh bay leaves and some salt. He then sprinkles salt all over the duck, closes the cavity with a skewer and puts it in a hot oven to roast until crisp and brown all over - about an hour to an hour and a quarter. This is the way I always roast my duck now, and I also lay it on a bed of mirepoix - carrot, onion, celery and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. The duck juices run over the bed of vegetables, and as they roast they combine to make a delicious sauce.
Once the duck is done (when a skewer in the thigh releases rosy to clear juices, or the leg yields when pulled gently), rest it in a warm place, pour the fat and juices into a large cup, then set the roasting pan on the stove. After a few minutes the fat will settle to the top and you can skim that off - you're left with duck juices. When the roasting pan is hot and bubbling, throw in a generous dash of good red wine, allow it to reduce a little, then add the skimmed duck juices. Check for seasoning, strain and voilà - a beautiful sauce.
One of my other favourite ways to cook and eat duck is to confit the legs. The meat is rich and falls off the bone, it's always succulent because it's cooked in its own fat, and, importantly, this is a dish that can be prepared well in advance. It's in fact better cooked a day or more beforehand.
Traditional duck confit is made by first salting the duck overnight and adding herbs such as thyme, bay, peppercorns or even a light sprinkling of quatre épices (a blend of peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves and ginger). The salt penetrates the duck and, with the herbs, helps to flavour and preserve the meat and give it a lightly pickled pink colour. It's important either to rinse off the salt before laying the duck legs in fat and cooking them, or to be careful not to oversalt them in the first place. The legs are then gently and slowly "poached" in duck fat until tender. They can then be kept refrigerated this way, covered in the fat, for days or even weeks. To serve, gently reheat the legs in the fat, remove them from the pot and crisp up the skin in a hot pan until golden brown.
With a dish as rich as duck confit, it would be a mistake to serve it with something equally rich, such as pommes purée or buttery Brussels sprouts. I prefer something piquant to cut through the richness, so I like to serve it with either braised Savoy cabbage with apple and pickled morello cherries, or bitter greens sautéed Italian-style (with a dollop of creamy potato underneath).
The wonderful thing about cooking with duck is that the meat is incredibly versatile: duck in a ragoût makes a rich and delicious sauce over homemade pasta, especially with porcini mushrooms; the fat is excellent for frying potatoes and whole garlic cloves, which you can then sprinkle with salt flakes and rosemary; and it is also beautiful cooked in a casserole.
A very special dish I sometimes make is Chinese red-braised duck. This involves browning pieces of duck, then simmering them in red wine, star anise, cassia bark, mandarin peel, white peppercorns, soy, Shaoxing wine and yellow rock sugar. The duck takes on an incredibly aromatic flavour.
Most fresh ducks on the market are the Pekin variety, but you might come across the muscovy duck, which is more closely related to goose. Muscovy duck has an intense duck flavour and is probably not as tender, nor does it have as much fat as the Pekin breed. I have rather unsuccessfully roasted muscovy ducks (three times) and found that, while the flavour is amazing, they are probably best suited to cooking in a casserole.