About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Roast Duck Dinner (From Post Office to Plate) - Part 2

The thing about eating roast duck is that you really need that nice crispy skin to complete the dish as a whole.  We raise and butcher about 30 Cornish-Rock cross cockerels (male chickens) a year.  They are an amazing meat bird going from hatchlings to table in 8 weeks or less.  Their feed conversion rate is astounding with most of what they eat going directly into muscle growth.  Anyway, when we butcher the chickens we skin rather than pluck their feathers.  It's very fast, easy and have never missed eating the skin even once.  I knew this wouldn't be so with the ducks.
Plucking birds is messy hard work, and especially so with waterfowl like ducks.  The traditional way to pluck birds is:  Kill and bleed the bird, give it a quick dip in very hot water, yank out the feathers.  There are a number of poultry plucker machines of various sizes and duty ratings available to help with the "yanking" part.  They range from several hundred dollars to a few thousand. We were only planning on butchering out 10 drakes at most and it didn't seem to make any sense to invest in any of these machines.  On the other hand, we knew all-hand plucking was going to be a real chore. 
A little online research came up with a  gizmo variously called a "slum- ghetto-, or hillbilly-plucker".  It was a home-made attachment for an electric drill made from a PVC pipe fitting, some rubber bungee straps and a bolt. There were a few YouTube videos of them in action and they seemed effective (on chickens at least) so I splurged on $20 in materials and cobbled one together.
Scalding the birds is also messy and the whole process is much better done all outdoors.  These ducks were getting BIG and I was going to need my big 15-gallon stock pot for the hot water.  Well I didn't have any kind of burner big or sturdy enough to hold that pot except for my candy stove and NO WAY was that going outside for a slaughter day!  Online shopping to the rescue again and I found a very nice LPG Cajun Cooker Burner designed for handling large crawfish-boil dinners.  Perfect. Pass the credit card, please and thank-you.
Once all the necessary equipment had been delivered, built or, otherwise readied we set the date and prayed for good weather. 
The night before Slaughter Day we closed as many of the ducks as we could wrangle into the chicken coop area and took away their food. This makes for a much cleaner butchering experience and lessens the severity of one of the many unpleasant aspects of the process (the gutting).
The following morning, as soon as possible after all the morning chores, we set up our poultry processing station near the pen where the birds were being held.  I'm not going to go into great detail about our set-up(see pictures below) but there were the killing cones, the scalding station, the hillbilly plucker station, the hand/finish plucking table, the gutting station and various washing and chilling buckets, tubs, knives, cutting boards, thermometers, timers etc. 
Our plan was to catch and kill the first duck and while it was bleeding out, catch and kill a second.  We would then take the first and scald/pluck and gut it while the second one bled.  The first one would go into the ice bath to chill and we'd scald/pluck and gut the second one.  With any luck we'd be able to get a third one killed and hanging somewhere during all of this and just keep working our way through all the drakes we'd selected.
<Sigh>  My wife has a saying "People plan: Goats laugh".  It's a reference to the fact that despite all best efforts goats will usually come up with a way to outsmart/outmaneuver/out-something we humans with the theoretically more highly developed brains and those marvelous opposable thumbs.  This day the people planned and the ducks laughed.
To start with, the weather could have been better.  It was way too windy for comfortable outdoor work, making everything harder than it should have been.  The plastic wrapping on the stand for the killing cones was flapping all over the place, the burner for the scalding pot kept wanting to blow out etc.  It's a busy time of year for us  and we weren't exactly sure of when the next opportunity for a couple of open days for a project like this might be, so we forged ahead anyway. 
The first part of the plan went flawlessly the ducks were easy to catch and calmly went to their demise.  We were concerned that the killing cones we had made years before for chickens would not be big enough for the ducks but they worked perfectly and the first two volunteers died quickly and cleanly, bleeding out well without any fuss or drama. 
Next up: Scalding...
Remember I mentioned that plucking waterfowl was especially messy and difficult?  I'd read that in a book.  A couple of books, actually. I had NO IDEA how difficult they were talking about!  Try just this side of impossible!  The best info I could glean suggested scalding for maybe a minute in 140 degree water "just until the tail feathers come out easily". Ha, ha, ha, ha. Very funny! One minute in the hot water and the tail feathers wouldn't budge. Two minutes and one feather came out with extreme effort.  Three minutes and a small handful did come out as did some of the large wing feathers.  I was afraid that any longer and I was going to have boiled duck. 
Onto the Plucker...
I'd mounted the drill-wielded Hillbilly Plucker on one of the forks of my tractor's forklift attachment.  It was as solid as a rock and I was able to set it at a comfortable working height.  There was no easy electricity where we were working so I'd brought over one of our portable generators to power the drill.  It fired up on the first pull and the plucker spun into life but after a few minutes of trying to hold the very heavy, soggy and hot bird against the flapping fingers I realized that this was not going to be as easy as all those YouTube videos had made it look. In the videos they were, of course, plucking chickens and the feathers absolutely FLEW off them, leaving 95% denuded carcasses in about 2 minutes flat.  Definitely not so rewarding with ducks.
After several very soggy minutes of holding the bird against the flappers I'd gotten off maybe 40% of the feathers and had gotten completely soaked in the process.  Imagine that: soaking wet bird meets fast-flying-fingers.   At least as time went on it was cool water instead of very hot water I was getting sprayed with.  Anyway, I tried with the grain, against the grain and  perpendicular to the grain of the feathers, but nothing gave that satisfying cloud of flying feathers I had been hoping for.  I was making progress especially on the middle-sized feathers (the big ones definitely needed hand pulling and the tiny fluff feathers seemed determined to stay no matter what) but it was slow and tedious. 

After another few minutes of work we decided that the bird was as plucked as this method would accomplish so we moved it to a table and Kathryn started hand working it while I scalded the second duck.  I'd left the burner under the scalding pot on full blast and despite the wind fighting it the temperature had gone up quite a bit during the protracted plucking work.  It was almost to 170F but I figured "What the Hell..." The lower heat wasn't great so what did I have to lose?
Again with the timer... one minute - nothing, two minutes - barely a budge on the feathers, three minutes - seemed about right again so off to the plucker we went.  This time I actually did get a couple of explosions of feathers off the bird and the plucker was definitely getting more of the feathers off with less work.  After a couple of minutes I had about 80% of the feathers off (which sounds pretty good until you think about the remaining 20% as being the hardest ones still needing to be dealt with).
By this time Kathryn had about half the first bird once-over hand plucked and it was starting to look a lot more like food than road kill so I joined her and we each worked on a bird until they were close to done.  We figured we could fine-tune them inside, out of the elements, so I quickly gutted them (saving the hearts and livers), tossing the heads to the dogs.  
After a fresh water rinse we transferred the ducks to an ice water bath and moved the operation indoors.
Inside, in more comfortable working conditions, we were able to get the rest of the stubborn feathers persuaded out, get the feet peeled of their outside skin layers and, using a Mapp gas torch (hey, it's all I had), singed off the remaining hairs.
Finally they looked like something that belonged in a kitchen and I had hopes that this whole fiasco was going to be worth it.  Maybe.  Time expended: 4 hours for two people to ready 2 ducks.  Ridiculous!  The ducks went into the fridge for their resting period (time to allow the muscles to pass through rigor mortis).
We obviously needed to improve and refine our technique but were way too beat to try any of our new ideas until the next day.

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