Yes, as Hank enters the final weeks of his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour - also known as The Incredibly Long Period When I’ve Had to Cook for Myself – I have found the bottom of our freezer.
I have roasted the succulent mallards and pintails and teal.
I have turned all the delicate cottontails into stirfry. Quite successfully, I might add, with that velveted rabbit recipe.
And I have failed to kill a deer or a pig, which probably has something to do with having been too busy to hunt them.
So what did that leave me?
The Stinky Butt Gadwall.
I can already hear my duck hunting buddy Charlie guffawing, and fellow hunting blogger Ryan Sabalow saying, “Ha! They’re called ‘gagwall’ for a reason!” And to you two, I say shush!
Hank and I have eaten many a gadwall that tasted not just fine, but downright delicious. We ate one for Christmas a couple years ago when a family get-together was canceled due to snow, and it was one of our most memorable duck dinners ever. Yes, in a good way.
But I freely admit that some gadwalls can smell – and taste – like poop. Literally.
I don’t say this because I’ve eaten poop. I have not, unless you count the crap found in the factory- farmed beef and chicken that I used to eat regularly before I started hunting. But I have done some volunteer work banding gadwalls before, and when I did, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife guys warned me that 1) the birds would crap all over me out of fear, and 2) gadwall crap is the most ferociously disgusting crap in the duck world.
They were right on both counts.
Last season, Hank and I killed not one, but two gadwalls whose flesh reeked of that famous poop.
I remember mine distinctly. I was plucking in the garage, and Hank came out, wrinkled his nose, and said, “Ew, it smells like shit in here.”
I hadn’t noticed. (Yes, Tamar, I can smell a ruffed grouse in the woods, but not a stinky duck in my garage.)
I examined the duck I was plucking to see if it had poop on its feathers. It did not.
But when I went into the house and cut the butt off the bird so I could gut it, a foul stench erupted from its body cavity. I think it’s safe to say I would’ve preferred being tear-gassed (something I have experienced before).
What happened next, though, is where I made my mistake. I continued cleaning the bird normally, and we vacuum sealed it, labeled it and stuck it in the freezer. I was assuming that Hank would work his culinary magic on the stinker. Little did I know he would stick me with it.
Last night was when I bottomed out. I needed food to bring to work today, so I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.
Step One: I skinned the duck. And it hurt, because he was a total fattie. Normally a bird that fat, skin on, is something we save for roasting whole. Fatty duck skin is the crack cocaine of wild game cookery.
But fat and skin is where a bird's distinctive flavor resides, and in the case of the Stinky Butt Gadwall, that's no bueno. It felt like sacrilege tossing that skin in the trash, but it had to be done.
Step Two: I cut all the meat off the bones and trimmed all the excess fat I could find. You can't well roast a bird without a skin, and roasting is pretty much all I know how to do with whole ducks.
Step Three: I brought a handful of the meat up to my face and took a deep whiff.
Doh! I would have to take drastic measures: brining overnight.
Brining can be a great way to add moisture and flavor to meat, but it can also help draw out any off flavors. I combined 2 cups of water with 1/8 cup of salt (for the math-impaired, that's a 16:1 ratio), boiled it, let it cool, then poured it over the gadwall meat, which I'd cut into bite-sized pieces.
Hank's instructions for brining off-flavored birds called for a four- to eight-hour soak. It ended up being more like ten by the time I got up this morning, had a cup of coffee and returned to preparing my duck.
Step Four: I melted some lard in a cast-iron pan (I wasn't going to forgo fat entirely), browned the duck bits briefly, tossed some minced garlic on them, then added a couple tablespoons of some mole poblano de guajalote I happened to have on hand. (The recipe for mole is elaborate, so when I make it, I make a lot and freeze it.).
Step Five: At school today, I whipped up some rice in my single-serving rice cooker, threw on about half a cup of the duck in mole, and dug in.
And ya know what? It was actually good.
OK, that's not entirely true. I'd brined the duck for way, way too long, so it was too salty. When I cook the last remaining Stinky Butt Gadwall - remember, we killed two last year, and Hank left both for me - I'll make sure I brine it for no more than four hours.
But there was no hint of this duck's eponymous stench, and that was what mattered. I don't think I even needed something as strong as mole to mask it. It was gone.
I feel like I've passed a test, like I've graduated to a new level of culinary self-sufficiency, like I've found a get-out-of-jail-free card that I can use anytime I find myself behind bars with a smelly duck.
I am no longer afraid.
OK, Charlie and Ryan. You can laugh now.
© Holly A. Heyser 2011