John Dabney's Canvasback Duck
Enthusiastic newspaper accounts and the writings of his son, Wendell, tell us that John Dabney was famous for making "hail-storm" juleps, terrapin stew, and canvasback duck. Dabney wasn't able to document his recipes; born enslaved, he never had the opportunity to learn to read or write. But the stew and the duck were some of the most popular fine-dining dishes of the 19th-century, and Dabney mastered them. Through studying the recipes of his contemporaries—fellow chefs, black and white—we can recover the tastes and textures that Dabney knew so well.
In the film, chef-scholar Kevin Mitchell creates a dish inspired by the canvasback duck recipe published in Charles Ranhofer's The Epicurean: A Complete Treatise of Analytical and Practical Studies on the Culinary Art, first printed in 1893 and reissued in 1916 and 1920. Ranhofer, the celebrated, French-born chef of Delmonico's in New York City, was an oft-quoted authority on fine dining in the United States. His book documents dishes and techniques familiar to restaurant cooks of the era.
The recipe that follows draws from Ranhofer and from the writing of Rufus Estes, an African American chef born into slavery in Tennessee in 1857 who built a successful career through his work for the Pullman rail service. In 1911, Estes published Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus, an expansive, detailed work inspired by decades of cooking in fine restaurants and hotels similar to those that Dabney knew. Our recipe sits somewhere between the recipes of Estes and Ranhofer and the cooking of Kevin Mitchell, describing a dish that John Dabney would have recognized, with modern twists.
This recipe includes quite a few ingredients, but most are found in a well-stocked pantry. There are many steps, but they're designed to be tackled efficiently, so that you may make some components while others cook. Before beginning, read through the recipe twice to visualize the sequence of the steps, and make sure to do any prep noted in the ingredient list (such as chopping and measuring). You can make it from fridge to table in about two and-a-half hours.
Roast duck with braised Kale, Grits, currant chutney, and orange gastrique
Adapted from Rufus Estes, Kevin Mitchell, and Charles Ranhofer
for the duck
- 1 Pekin duck, about 5 pounds
for the grits
- 1 cup coarse grits, preferably stone-ground from a local mill
- 2 cups whole milk
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
for the chutney
- 1 onion, diced
- ½ cup red pepper, diced
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1¾ cup currants, or a mix of currants, golden raisins, and/or fresh cranberries
- ½ teaspoon allspice or garam masala
- ¼ teaspoon powdered ginger
for the kale
- 1 bunch lacinato kale, stems removed, leaves roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- ¾ cup chicken or duck broth
for the orange gastrique
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- ⅓ cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
- ½ cup chicken or duck broth
and for all components
- kosher salt
- freshly-cracked black pepper
First, procure a fine duck.
Then, preheat oven to 425°F. Pluck and rinse the duck inside and out until thoroughly clean. Prick the skin all over, and fold the neck skin under the body. Season generously inside and out with salt and pepper, and then place duck, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan.
Roast the duck for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, turn the duck over (using tongs, large forks, or other implements to protect your hands), and then roast 45 minutes more. Remove the duck from the oven again, turn it over one more time—so that the duck is once again breast side up—and drain liquid from cavity into the roasting pan. Return the duck to the oven and roast until its skin is brown and crisp—about 45 minutes longer. The roasting time will be a little more than 2 hours.
During the duck's first 45-minute cooking period, make the currant chutney. In a large saucepan over over medium-low heat, melt 4 tablespoons (½ stick) of the butter. Raise the heat to medium. Add ½ cup of the diced onion, and the diced red pepper. Sauté for about 2 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, currants (and/or golden raisins and cranberries). Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the allspice (or garam masala) and ginger. If you'd like some spice, consider also adding a few dashes of cayenne powder, to taste. Continue to cook, for about 10 minutes longer, until the chutney reaches the consistency of a slightly-loose jam. (It will firm up a bit as it sits.) Turn off the heat, and keep warm while you complete the meal.
During the duck's second 45-minute cooking period, make the grits. In another large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring to a boil 2 cups of water and the whole milk. Lower the heat and then slowly whisk in the grits, 1½ teaspoons kosher salt, and ¼ teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper. Continue to cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the grits no longer taste raw and they hold their shape on a spoon. (Depending on your grits, this could take as little as 50 minutes or as long as 90 minutes.) Add kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper to taste, and stir in 4 tablespoons (½ stick) of the butter. Turn off the heat, and keep warm while you complete the meal.
While the duck cooks for a final 45 minutes, make the braised kale. In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds; do not let the garlic brown. Add the sherry vinegar and stir once. Then, add half the kale; let it wilt for about 30 seconds, and then add the remaining kale. Add a generous pinch of kosher salt. Use tongs or two large spoons to mix well, making sure that every nook and cranny of the kale is coated with the garlicky oil and salt. Add ¼ cup of the broth and simmer until the broth has mostly evaporated; do not let the pan get dry. Once the broth has mostly cooked down, add another ¼ of the broth, cook until mostly evaporated, and then do this once more with the remaining ¼ broth. Turn off the heat, and keep warm while you complete the meal. Just before serving, cut some leg meat from the duck and stir into the kale.
When the duck appears done, test it with an instant-read thermometer at several points deep within the meat. The ideal peak temperature is 165°F. Your duck will continue cooking as it rests, rising 5-10° beyond the temperature when removed from the oven for the last time—so you may want to stop cooking before your thermometer reaches 165°.
Transfer the duck to a cutting board and let it rest 15 minutes before carving.
While the duck rests, make the orange gastrique. Warm a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and stir slowly until it melts. Keep cooking until the sugar turns a deep golden brown. Whisk in the sherry vinegar. The sugar-sherry mixture will harden; use the whisk to move it around until it melts. Then, add the orange juice and bring to a boil. Add the chicken or duck broth and boil for 5-8 minutes, until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Assemble your dish: Refer to the picture above to use Kevin Mitchell's dish as a model. Divide the kale among six plates or large, shallow bowls. Top with an equal quantity of grits followed by cuts of the duck. Garnish with one or two generous spoonfuls of currant chutney, drizzle the entire dish with some of the orange gastrique, and serve.