Tue. Feb 27th, 2024


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Special feature: Feathers – The Game Larder

4 min read

Around 4.5 million mallards are found across wetlands in New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

Feathers – The Game Larder by José Souto and photographer Steve Lee is a passionate production covering the preparation of a range of game birds, guiding the reader through the journey from sky to fork. He shares some handy tips on game cooking.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, is the most common duck in New Zealand and is found in abundance where there is suitable habitat. They are an introduced species, with around 4.5 million mallards found across wetlands in New Zealand today, making them a wildfowl hunting staple.

The males are drakes, and the females are hens. The flavour of wild duck can be a bit hit-and-miss, depending on their habitat and age, especially if the mallard are older ducks shot over muddy ponds. But if you are buying them, nowadays, the majority of the duck sold are good quality young ducks.

Carcase and portions

There is considerable variation between the weights of the duck species. Teal weigh in at around 220–250g, wigeon 600–700g and mallard 750–850g.

From a teal, you will get one portion per bird, from the breast, which personally I would only cook on the crown or as a whole bird since the breasts on these birds shrink and overcook quickly. Cooking on the bone gives a better flavour.

Wigeon and mallard give you two small portions per bird, mainly from the breast (one per person). I like to remove the legs. I cook wigeon and mallard on the crown and cook the legs separately as confit to serve with the breast.

The breasts can be removed as a double breast and stuffed with a farce using leg meat. The skin from a duck can be used for wrapping, as shown in my mini three-bird roast recipe (also in the book), in which the fat in the skin retains the moisture and gives a great texture. For all preparation, remove the wishbone first.

Should you hang game?

Photo: Supplied

Nowadays, we tend to enjoy more subtle flavours in food, so hanging game birds to give a strong, high flavour is no longer desirable. Also, the game of old is not the game of today. Our game is younger and more tender so does not need the tenderising that was formerly deemed necessary. But there are no fixed rules about this: it can be eaten completely fresh, roasted, or the meat can be hung for a day or two, depending on personal preferences.

The traditional preparation methods were from a time when tastes, climate, and the birds themselves were different, and these rules can be abandoned now. It is better to understand the cooking parameters of game birds and work with them, enjoying their natural flavour.

Top tip: removing duck and geese preen gland

Ducks are a little more time-consuming to pluck as they have a layer of down that is difficult to remove. They are prepared the same way as any other bird, but once plucked, they need one extra step, which is to remove the oil or preen gland just behind the tail.

To remove the oil or preen gland, place the duck on its breast, find the small nipple-like gland just behind the tail, and cut it out in a scooping motion or just cut the tail off completely. Many commercial game processors do this to their ducks before you buy them. The preen gland needs to be removed as it will taint the flavour of the entire dish.

Advice on portions

From a mallard, you will get two portions. Cook for 15 mins per 400g.

Season birds and seal in a pan with hot smoking oil to give a good colour. Place the mallards in the oven on a trivet, start cooking at 220°C for five minutes, then turn the heat down to 180°C. Once cooked, remove from the oven and rest for eight minutes in a warm part of the kitchen but do not cover. Meat should be medium rare and pink.

Remove the legs, then the breast. Serve breast and leg as a portion, although there is little meat on the legs and often only the breasts are served.

Removing the wishbone

Lay the duck on its back and lift the skin at the neck end to expose the breast and wishbone.

As with removing the wishbone in other game birds, place the knife tip under the wishbone on one side and cut down towards the bird’s back. Do the same on the other side to detach the wishbone.

Pull the wishbone out towards you so it is only attached by the tip, take hold of it, and twist it round and round until loose, then pull it out.

Removing duck skin

Duck and goose skin can be used to wrap meat and it can also be dried, roasted, or deep-fried to make crackling.

Place the bird on its breast and make a cut along the backbone through the skin.

Using a small paring knife, carefully pull the skin away from the meat, working around breast to the backbone. Lay the skin out and trim it into a square.

Try José Souto’s mini three-bird recipe

If you enjoyed this information from Feathers, there are 55 modern, international recipes from master game chef José Souto in the book. It is part of The Game Larder Series, along with companion title, Venison – The Game Larder. The author imparts the beauty of game in the field, with the best advice in practical butchery, and innovative culinary creation.

The book is available to buy (RRP: $79.99) via Nationwide Book Distributors

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