By Chris Larsen
Whitetails are king in my neck of the woods. Yes, there are some duck hunters but by the second week of the season I often have my favorite marsh to myself. When I bring up duck hunting to most of my hunting buddies in Northern Wisconsin they look like they just smelled a dead skunk. The words “I can’t eat those things” usually follows the ugly face. The problem is not the duck, it’s the preparation.
All great duck meals start in the field. Birds should be field dressed as soon as possible to cool their body temperature. Duck should be given time to age so don’t freeze or eat in the first 24 hours. This time will allow the meat to tenderize. All bloodshot meat should be cut out and discarded. The biggest mistake you can make is to soak it in saltwater. A saltwater bath simply sucks the flavor out of the meat. Place the meat in a plastic storage bag, push all the air out, and store it in the refrigerator to age for a day.
For the initiated, all wild duck is red meat. Duck isn’t going to taste like chicken. If you’re hungry for chicken, buy some chicken. Wild duck has a taste all it’s own. Actually, there are big differences between species of ducks. Puddle ducks like mallards, widgeon, and gadwalls will taste more mild than diving ducks like bluebills, redheads, and mergansers. Puddlers eat waste agricultural grains, wild rice, and other marsh vegetation. Divers eat vegetation as well, but their diet is also made up of fish and crustaceans. Divers will have more of the “gamey” taste often frowned upon on.
The best way to handle divers is to embrace their flavor. Use them in spicy stir fry or Thai recipes. I like to slice the meat in thin strips and mix them with pheasant in wild game fajitas. Prepare the peppers and onions in a separate pan. Coat the bottom of a skillet or wok with vegetable oil, then add seasoned pheasant strips. Cook the pheasant for a few minutes on both sides, then add the seasoned thin sliced duck strips. A few minutes on either side should give you perfect, medium rare meat. Use your favorite fajita seasoning for a flavor kick. The two different types of meat keeps the meal interesting.
The mallard is known as the Great American Duck. Mallards are common everywhere and they are a blast to hunt. They are also great table fare. If you are going to pluck a duck for roasting, mallards are probably the duck for you. However, I have never pulled off a successful roasted wild duck. I prefer to breast out my ducks. Leg and thigh meat is saved for the crock pot or sausage. Legs and thighs are also tasty in chili or stew. Sear the meat on both sides and drop it into the concoction.
Mallard breasts are the filet mignon of duck meat. My favorite way to eat them is to grill them. Heat the grill up to 400 degrees and cook the breasts for four minutes on both sides. Keep the lid closed between turning the meat. Propane does the job, but a charcoal grill makes it magical. The trick is to cook them medium rare. The more you cook them, the tougher they will get. If you’ve got some leftovers, slice them up, add blue cheese, and toss in a salad.
There is no reason to not enjoy a duck dinner. I place the blame solely on our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. These old timers cooked all of their game in iron skillets with slices of onions. The meat was usually cooked for an hour or more and ended up with the consistency of boot leather. Hungry hunters choked these meals down while slipping a few pieces to the dog. While I admire many traditions of the past, when it comes to cooking wild game, the iron skillet treatment has got to go.