Like Balanchine, But With Meat

For this month’s charcuteparoject, I made a ballotine. I’d been thinking about this for a bit, going back and forth about what I wanted to do, and then I heard that a friend’s birthday party was coming up, so I had an occasion for which to make something special. And that settled it.

I brought a big dish of shredded duck confit to their last shindig, and people were like unto slavering jackals over it, so I figured I should bring some more. Also, a few weeks ago I had some of Kim’s galantine, which was very well made and tasty. But the whole poached and cold thing seems more like a lunch than a dinner application, and I don’t see the point of wrapping something in chicken skin if you’re not going to make it all crispy before you eat it. So that led rather inevitably to a ballotine of duck, stuffed with lots of duck confit: crispy skin, served hot, and filled with what everyone loved last year.

I began by making the confit: rubbing the legs all over with salt into which I blended pepper, garlic, thyme, rosemary, and juniper berries and then refrigerating them overnight. Then I rinsed and dried them, submerged them in duck fat (I always have half a gallon in the freezer) and put them in a 180˚-ish oven to cook overnight. I wanted them shreddy and falling apart, so I left them in for 12 hours; I pull them after 10 if I want them to stay together for serving.

I gingerly removed them with tongs, draining as much fat back into the pot as I could, and arranged the delicate legs skin side down in the iron skillet, where I crisped up the skin most enthusiastically. Then I shredded all the meat, removed the bones, and cut the skin into crackling shards which I mixed back into the meat. It was difficult to not just eat this with my hands standing next to the stove.

Next, I took the final cluster of oyster mushrooms foraged on our hike last weekend, cut them up and sautéed them in–what else–some duck fat. I added garlic just before they were fully caramelized and then removed it all to a bowl. Next up, I melted onion and red pepper nice and slowly so they got all soft and glorious, then added the mushrooms, smoked paprika, sherry vinegar, and lots of thyme and minced parsley. I let this combine, then took it off the heat. It smelled heavenly. I added it to the confit.

Next up, boning the duck: I took off the wing tips, removed the wishbone, cut along the back, and cut the shoulder joints. Then I used fingers and knife to pull the meat off the carcass all around, working down toward the legs. I cut the hip joints to free the legs and used the knife to separate the breast meat from the ribcage so everything stayed attached to the skin. Last, I cut and scraped the flesh of wing and leg bones, breaking the leg ends so I could slip the bones out from the inside and leave the drumstick ends intact. I spread the meat out flat, skin side down, and used the knife to trim any thick spots and moved the meat to bare areas. I sprinkled salt and pepper over it all.

I beat a couple of eggs together with some flour, brandy, and a little kimchi brine for good measure and mixed it in thoroughly to the confit mixture to bind it. Then I spread a generous layer out on the skin, which I had formed into a pretty good rectangle as you can see. I cut the neck off for reasons you’ll also see in a minute.

Using these heatproof silicone bands that I like, I shaped and tied the bundle into a neat cylinder. It is vitally important to alternate red and yellow bands or the meal will be RUINED.

Then I vacuum-bagged it and dropped it in a 150˚F water bath to poach. The neck, which is a conical sleeve of skin, makes a nifty sausage casing in its own right. And since the birthday party in question is in fact next week, I needed to keep the ballotine pristine for the event. So I filled the neck up with confit, packing it tightly, bound it up with bands, and put it in the bath along with its much larger sibling. Sous vide is great for this sort of thing; the bags mean you don’t have to worry about having a few holes in the skin, and the gentle temperature allows for tenderizing everything without drying it out at all.

After five hours, I took out the little one and cut open the bag. I browned it all over in a small pan until the skin was nice and crisp, then cut it in half. For a sauce, I took some crabapple jelly and melted it with apricot vinegar, brandy, and pure mustard oil, then whisked in minced (and aptly named) “Ring of Fire” pepper, scallion, and salt. I was aiming for something that would cater to duck’s affinity for fruit but also have enough acid, heat, and mustardy zing to balance out the not inconsiderable amount of fat involved in the dish. It succeeded famously, and those notes remained distinct even as they swooned in submission to all that shreddy, fat-lubricated meat.

I garnished the plates with baby greens plucked from the fall plantings: radish, arugula, wrinkled cress, and chervil. New spring greens are exciting, of course, but in their way these fall greens are even more so, representing bright little bulwarks against winter’s gloom that I hope to enjoy until it’s time to plant again in March.

This was a good one. I’ll update the post with a picture of the big one when we serve it, but the flavor will be exactly like this one: decadent and elegant in equal measure. Duck confit is one of the most hedonistic foods there is, and to shape it like this and add an intense sauce makes for a sublime improvement over the normal leg plunked on top of vegetables. There’s a lot to be said for going to the extra trouble to take an unruly farce and give compelling form and contrasting texture to it with meat and skin. Being able to crisp the skin is a major benefit, and while chicken fat can be special, duck fat is just about the best there is. I’m already imagining some holiday uses for variations on this.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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