Hank Shaw blasts a handmade duck call into the still morning. If you were a mallard, you'd think a ducky friend was nearby, so convincing is the loud quack. Shaw manipulates the call with his mouth, fingers and by sliding a slat in and out to change the sound.
Shaw is author of "Hunt, Gather, Cook," a book about foraging food in the wild, including duck. Also hanging around his neck are more handmade duck calls for widgen, pintail and teal, also known as Peping duck.
"The call for teal sounds like a police whistle," Shaw says.
But even with all the artificial quacking, the Pacific Flyway's duck season that ended Jan. 29 was just OK. It got off to a late start with dry sunny weather that does not inspire ducks to fly south.
"Ironically, we had great weather for humans, with a nice dry climate," Shaw says. "That's terrible weather for ducks."
But when the rains finally came and the ducks flew in heavy formation over the Central Valley, you could say the duck season went out with a bang.
Which is not to say you need a duck call or a gun to cook and eat duck.
Chef John Paul Khoury has come to the Capital Public Radio kitchen, well, our break room -- to show me why it's better to cook a duck breast longer on its skin side than the other side. He's cooking "magret."
"It's m-a-g-r-e-t," Khoury spells. "You look at it and it looks like "magrette", but it's actually magRAY. Magret is the breast off a duck or a goose that's been raised for foie gras. Just think of it as poultry tri-tip. It's rich it's meaty."
Khoury is the company chef for Preferred Meats, an Oakland-based high-end farm-to-table vendor of meats and poultry raised on small farms. Khoury is clear: Duck isn't cooked like chicken.
He's already got a pan over medium heat. He's unfazed by our electric stove.
There's just two ingredients - salt and the duck. Khoury has already sprinkled kosher salt into an empty enamel-coated cast iron pan. He set the duck on top of the salt, skin-side-down.
Khoury starts to pay attention. "As you see the pan heating up, the fat is starting to come out of that collagen matrix in the skin. And you hear it crisping. …."
The heat will stay medium for the entire cooking process. Here's why.
"It is the slow absorption of heat that allows us to have to beautiful color all the way through and not layers of well-done, medium, medium-rare and then raw in the center," Khoury explains.
Golden fat melts out of the duck and fills the pan. But we get ahead of ourselves. The night before, Khoury had scored the skin in a pretty diamond pattern and left it overnight in his refrigerator, uncovered - a home cook's way to extract excess moisture to ensure crisp skin.
This process really is all about the fat. After about 12 minutes, there's so much sputtering, rendered fat in the pan that Khoury now has a third ingredient to work with. With a spoon from the staff silverware drawer, he scoops fat and repeatedly bastes the side that's still facing up. It gives him a moment to muse on a chef's love of duck fat.
"Duck fat, to me, is better than pork fat," Khoury says. "I mean, everything in moderation. It's better for you than, you know, Splenda."
Khoury returns his attention to the stove. He peeks underneath the breast to check the skin. He likes the color. It's a beautiful mahogany.
It's time to flip. He cooks the second side only three minutes. But it rests in the golden fat, heat off, for 15 minutes.
Finally, the breast is on a cutting board.
Note to fat-o-phobics: Khoury pours ALL the fat out of the pan and starts a sauce in the pan's drippings.
A splash of red wine vinegar erupts in a loud sizzle. Next, a big spoonful of homemade cranberry chutney is stirred in.
Khoury cuts the first slice. The magret is perfectly medium-rare, a desirable doneness for duck because, Khoury says, duck doesn't have the same bacterial exposure as chicken. He spoons the scarlet cranberry over and around the duck.
It's what Chef John Paul Khoury calls poultry in motion.
PAN-COOKED DUCK MAGRET BREASTS WITH CRANBERRY CHUTNEY
By Chef John Paul Khoury
Makes 4 servings
2 magret duck brests (about 12 ounces each)*
Splash of red wine vinegar
½ cup jam or chutney (Examples: orange marmalade; fig, cherry, blackberry or apricot jam; cranberry chutney -- or any good quality jam product right out of the jar)
1. The night before, score the breasts' fat layer in a criss-cross design with knife strokes about ½-inch apart, making a diamond pattern. Sprinkle scored breasts very lightly with salt. Refrigerate, skin side up and uncovered, overnight, to air-dry.
2. To cook: Use a heavy skillet about 8 to 10 inches wide. (Chef John Paul likes enamel-covered cast iron). Warm pan over medium-heat. Sprinkle the dry pan lightly with salt.
3. Lay breasts on the salt, fat-side down. The fat from duck should slowly melt out and render without having the heat too high. Neither should any burning occur; this is a low and slow process.
4. As fat renders out, use a spoon to bathe the fat over the tops of the breasts. Continue bathing the breasts in the rendering fat occasionally for about 10 minutes.
5. When rendered fat quadruples in quantity and the scored skin is nicely browned and crisped (lift a breast to take a look), flip over breasts over so scored skin is on top. Cook in the fat about 3-4 minutes. Turn off heat. Let breasts rest in the fat 15 minutes. The breasts will continue to cook slowly in the fat's residual heat.
6. Remove breasts to a cutting board. Pour off all rendered fat into a heat-resistant container. (May use fat for other purposes, such as making confit, in sautéed potatoes, or as the cooking fat for another sautéed dish.**)
7. Keeping pan over medium heat, to the pan's drippings, add a splash of red wine vinegar, then jam of choice to the pan. Stir and cook down about 30 seconds to a minute, until sauce is glossy and slightly thickened. Taste, it might need a pinch more salt.
8. Slice breasts lengthwise into pieces about ¾-inch thick. Magret should be a perfect medium-rare. Arrange on plates: fan out, if desired. Spoon sauce around and over duck breast.
* Available by ordering from www.atmytable.com or at Corti Brothers.