Recently I've been re-reading Pierre Koffmann's fabulous Memories of Gascony. Part memoir, part recipe book, it follows the young chef as he makes his annual visits to his grandparent's farm; charting the local food, festivals and familial exploits through the changing seasons. It's a wonderful window into rural South West France; celebrating the simple things in life. And it always fills me with a yearning to eat foie gras and drink Armangac.
This is my interpretation of a dish in the book (the original fed 12) made using duck legs and prunes, two of the best known exports from the Gers region. I love prunes, and it saddens me they always seem to get such a bad rap - seen merely as a fruity laxative or 'health' food and something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Good prunes (the best are from Agen) have a wonderful, smoky liquorice-tinted edge and can work equally well with both salty or sweet flavours.
Duck is another underrated ingredient which I never seem to see enough of. As with chicken the legs are more flavoursome, more forgiving to cook, and much cheaper than the breast. Duck fat is also the nectar of the gods, and any extra gleaned from cooking this recipe should be saved for brilliant roasties or for making confit. With the life expectancy of the French being only second to that of the Japanese the antioxidants in the prunes and red wine seem to be successfully counteracting all the saturated fat. Luckily the rest of the bottle used for making the sauce also makes the perfect accompaniment for the finished dish.
To serve alongside I wanted some sort of root veg, and what better than the humble winter carrot. Instead of just chopping then up and chucking them in the pot, or steaming them in the usual batons, I decided to serve a whole glazed carrot per person. After peeling and trimming I covered them and slowly cooked in the oven alongside the duck, before finishing with a light butter and brown sugar glaze. Very simple and looks great on the plate, too.
Koffmann uses duck livers pounded with Armagnac to thicken his sauce, If, like myself, duck livers aren't forthcoming then remove the lid and cook uncovered until sauce is reduced, or alternatively, thicken with beurre manié - mix a small knob of butter with the same amount of flour, whisk into the sauce and cook out for a few minutes until it is thickened and glossy.
If you want to keep things simple, and a little more rustic, then you can omit straining the stock. Just add the prunes to the dish about half an hour before the duck legs are ready and serve straight from the casserole - thicken as above, as needed. You might want to add a few lardons of bacon, for an extra smoky savouriness, along with the duck at the beginning. Cook until gently browned and continue as per the rest of the recipe.
Duck Legs with Prunes and Carrot
Serves 2 (double up as necessary)
2 duck legs
1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1/2 bottle of red wine
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of thyme
Splash of brandy or Armanac
2 large carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 small knob of butter
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180c
Salt the duck legs on both sides, place in a casserole, skin side down, and lightly brown on each side.
Add the onion and garlic and cook until they have both softened. Drain off any excess fat, then add the wine, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. The liquid should be almost covering the duck. If needed top up with a little water or chicken stock.
Add the herbs and place in the oven for about an hour, or until the duck legs are tender.
Remove duck legs to a plate and cover, strain the liquid into a clean pan, add a splash of brandy or Armanac and reduce until glossy - alternatively thicken with beurre manié (see above)
Add the prunes and simmer for a few more minutes.
Add the duck legs and any resting juices to the pan and heat through gently.
Serve the duck and prunes with the glazed carrots, the rest of the red wine and some French beans or puy lentils
For the carrots
Place the carrots in a small roasting dish, add the butter, sugar, salt and a good splash of water.
Cover with foil and roast in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots are cooked through but not mushy (put them in the oven about halfway through cooking the duck).
Remove foil and put back in oven until the water has evaporated and the carrots are lightly glazed and golden.