We’ve been having some real crap weather in Northern California. I know I should be thankful for the rain since it means we won’t have to worry about a drought this year, but I’m not feeling it. When I got home from the farmers market this past Saturday, we were getting pounded with freezing mix and high winds. My “kitchen” (it’s a barn) has no hot water, no heat, no insulation, and poor lighting, and I was absolutely not going in there to start a cooking project….
Hence this delicious dinner, cooked in the warm, cozy “living room” (also a barn, but with insulation and wood stove):
I have a big cast iron dutch oven that I really don’t use very often, but on really cold days I can just throw a bunch of ingredients in the pot and set it on the wood stove, letting it simmer in my living room for the whole afternoon. If I have the fire burning already, it’s such a convenient way to cook a big meal without a lot of trouble. (I suppose this is really the pre-cursor to the electric crock-pot.) Whether you decide for the wood stove or a conventional oven, I can’t emphasize enough that this dish is all about flexibility and convenience; no need to search out obscure ingredients and make life difficult.
If you do want to cook this on a wood stove, keep a good base of hot coals going to ensure an even temperature for your dutch oven.*
First you need a protein. I used wild duck, which is delicious. It’s very low fat compared to farm-raised duck, so the stew doesn’t get greasy or feel too heavy; the duck adds a rich flavor vaguely like beef or lamb.
Season your meat with salt and pepper, and then sear in the hot dutch oven with some aromatics. Since I was lazy and tired, (getting up at 6:30 a.m. picking lettuce in the pouring rain for the farmers market doesn’t always make for proper cooking technique) I didn’t mince the garlic, but it would be better if I did. I put the sprigs of fresh herbs in whole and pull them out later, before serving.
Pick out your favorite veggies, and dice them up for the stew pot while your meat is searing (or before you start cooking, if you’re into planning in advance).
I wild-harvested these from the a forest grove in the product section of the grocery store. That’s right! Whenever I shop at the grocery store I feel like a criminal, like I’m buying crack on a street corner. I realize that this is totally irrational. Anyway, though, the sweetness of the root vegetables pairs really well with duck, and the firm texture holds up really well in a stew.
Saute your vegetables in the fat from the meat for a few minutes. This develops the natural sugars in the vegetables and makes them taste amazing. Once you’ve done that, you deglaze the pan with the red wine. (When you pour the red wine into the hot pan with all kinds of crusty pieces of duck fat stuck on it, you pull all of those intense flavors off the pan and into what will become the best sauce you’ve ever tasted). Add some stock, and then some tomato sauce for body and thickness.
Throw a lid on the pot and let it cook, covered, for a few hours. This roasts the meat and cooks the vegetables. Then take the lid off for another hour and let the sauce slowly reduce, concentrating the flavors and achieving the right thickness. You can always add more red wine or stock if you need more broth. Remember to re-season with salt and pepper before you serve the stew. Serve over mashed potatoes, buttered egg noodles, brown rice, quinoa, or whatever you think tastes the best drowned in juicy stew goodness. A loaf of bread good be a good thing here too. I decided to make the Wild Stinging Nettle Spaetzle from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook instead of plain old noodles. Spaetzle taste like a cross between a dumpling and an egg noodle, and are the perfect medium for soaking up the saucy good part of stews just like this one. Hank Shaw’s recipe for nettle spaetzle paired well with my duck stew, with the brightness of the greens balancing out the richness of the duck. If you want to give them a whirl, go here for my full post on how to process nettles and make the dumplings.
Wild Duck alla Cacciatora …. Fire up that woodstove!
This is a cacciatore in the loosest sense of the word, meaning a “hunter’s style” braised meat dish with wine and vegetables.
Special Equipment: Cast Iron Dutch Oven, Woodstove*
Cooking Time: 7 hours, with 20 minutes of active cooking
- 2 California wild ducks** (enough for 1 1/2 c. shredded cooked meat)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- fresh herbs: 1 sprig marjoram, 1 sprig sage, 3 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 parsnip
- 2 large carrots, sliced into rounds
- 1 large parsnip, sliced into rounds
- 1 medium rutabaga, diced into 1/2″ cubes
- 1 garnet yam, diced into 1/2″ cubes
- 1 c. zinfandel, or whatever red wine you have open
- 1 pint of chunky tomato sauce (I have this in my pantry, but you can substitute 1 16-oz can of crushed tomatoes. Just know that you’ll need to add some more seasonings, since my sauce is already seasoned in the jar)
- 1/2 pint chicken stock (or 1 8 oz. can of low-sodium chicken broth)
- salt and fresh cracked pepper
Start a fire in the wood stove and set a cast iron dutch oven on top of it to preheat. (This is the dutch oven I use; It has feet on it so the whole bottom of the pot doesn’t sit on the stove. It’s really meant more for cooking directly in the fire, but I like the low, consistent temperature that I get using this method.)
Season ducks with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Once the pan is hot, add in the two ducks, fresh herbs, and minced garlic. The ducks will release fat into the pan, but feel free to add an extra tablespoon or two of olive oil if you think the pan is too dry and the garlic is burning. Put the lid on the pan, and cook for 10 minutes.
The duck should be sizzling and starting to get a little color at this point (add more wood to the fire if it’s not hot enough). Add in chopped root vegetables and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the red wine, followed by the chicken stock, tomato sauce, and parsley. Give the pot a stir or two to mix everything together, cover, and cook for about four hours. Open the lid and stir the stew every so often. If the fire gets really hot and it starts bubbling like crazy you may want to add more stock to prevent anything from sticking.
Uncover the pot. Remove the ducks. (At this point I discard the skin because I don’t enjoy eating that much fat, but if you like it, leave it in). Pull the meat off of the bones and discard the carcasses (or reserve them for duck stock or soup). Shred the meat into smaller pieces, whatever size you’d like in your stew. Return the meat to the pot and cook, uncovered, for one more hour or until the stew reaches the desired consistency. If the stew reduces too much, add some more stock or red wine to the pot to thin the broth out again. Season with salt and pepper, and serve over spaetzle, noodles, rice or mashed potatoes.
*If you’re not the wood stove – cast iron type, this recipe will work with a conventional oven and any type of dutch oven. Start the cacciatore on top of the stove to sear the duck and saute the vegetables, and once you add liquid, move the pot to the oven and cook at 300 degrees for 3 hours.
**Meat substitutions that I would recommend: two chicken quarters, 1 lb of beef stew meat, pork tenderloin, or 1 lamb shank or 1 lb. of lamb stew meat. Be creative though, this is just a stew with meat, wine, and root veggies.