Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hitting bottom: The Stinky Butt Gadwall

I have finally hit bottom.

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.

Mmmmmmmm. Shit.

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.

But, as I told my friend Charlie last night, I might start being a little more selective with the ducks I shoot this year.

OK, Charlie and Ryan. You can laugh now.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Ryan Sabalow said...

Hank tried to help me unstinkify a couple of butt-shot mallards I let get too hot early last season on a 70-degree day.

Sounds like the stinky-butt gagwall turned out much, much better. The dog ended up eating them.

I'm most impressed you have a single-serving rice cooker in your office.

Try this recipe for gadwalls, spooneroos, divers and other 'junk' ducks. Of course, you have to part them out.

Simple stuff to make and it tastes like a spicier, duckier version of the Campbell's beef and barley soup I used to eat all the time as a kid.

It gets better the longer it sits in the fridge, and it's epic on cold days from a Thermos out hunting.

Holly Heyser said...

The rice cooker has made it possible to have palatable food at the office. Nuking rice is gross, but making it fresh is awesome. It's tiny, and it makes happy little bubbling sounds when it cooks.

Your duck soup recipe looks good, and I can see how it'd be perfect in the blind.

burntloafer said...

Hmmm. I have never had this problem, or even heard of it. Is this only with west coast ducks?

Holly Heyser said...

I've never hunted ducks outside of California, so I'm not sure. I hunt in rice country, so most of my ducks taste pretty good - even spoonies.

But I know we have lots of regional differences: Spoonies close to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are stanky, but much better the farther north into rice country that you hunt them. Wigeon in the Grasslands (south of Sacramento) can be nasty. Gadwall are generally fine, but some, like these two, are really icky. And up at Klamath (Oregon border), where the water is loaded with blue-green algae, spoonies have a really off taste.

Gadwalls definitely have a distinctive taste, but these two were something special. In a manner of speaking.

burntloafer said...

Heh-heh-heh. I do know a local Sportsman's Club that shoots trap so that the shot lands in the sewage treatment facility - always a flurry of ducks get up on that first shot of the night! I try not to hunt around that area...

Here on the MN-WI border, there are tons of woodies. You cannot take many, but they are extremely tasty. We have retrieved them with over twenty acorns in their crop.

To be fair, most of the gadwall we see here are from 'up north', presumably Canada, and I loved them because they were quite fat and had few pin feathers. Much like those little ring-necks, very tasty fare.

Some years our local birds are quite full of pin feathers, but after the opening weekend they are all gone anyway; I like to wait for the crowds to die off and I have always relished the chance at some gadwall. They tend to circle right back for a second look.

Thanks for the column, Holly, and keep up the good work. I look forward to your writings.

Holly Heyser said...

Interesting - ringnecks are not considered good eats here. Scaup can be pretty off too, but my boyfriend hunted scaup in Canada last year and said they tasted fantastic.

In duck hunting as in real estate: Location, location, location.

spotted face said...

Thanks for the brine. I'll remember it if I happen upon a stinky one - so far so good, but the olfactory isn't what it used to be!

Hil said...

I probably would have gone the old spoonful-of-peanut-butter route on a night home alone rather than cooking stinky-butt duck, but good for you. :)

Holly Heyser said...

Hil: I resolved to eat less peanutbutter while Hank is gone for the final leg of his trip.

Casey: I hope you never need it!

Hil said...

Why would anyone want to eat less peanut butter?! ;)

Holly Heyser said...

Point well taken!

Peebs said...

Ok here goes any duck with those funny little hairs in it mouth uses it to filter scum and sometimes it gets rice (ok) but somtimes it gets scum (yuk). I will and have shot gaddies but only when I know I have someone or something that will eat them. To me they would probably be ok using the BBQ carp recipe. You have seen it the looks I get when I swap gaddies and Widg for teal some think I'm nuts. If we get any Lakecounty bird Saturday you'll have to take a good look at them they are marginal at best except the woodies and Cans.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I've never had a bad gadwall, so your experience was interesting.

Figure out a good way to cook coot, and you and Hank will be demigods.

Otherwise, why have a season on them?

WV: culedshe. Yep, she culled some.

Holly Heyser said...

Peebs, given who's joining us tomorrow, I'm thinking we have a standing shoot-to-kill order on anything legal :-)

Chas, Hank CAN cook coot! When he taught himself to hunt ducks, that's all he got for a while, so he figured it out, but the solution bugs us: Skin 'em (fine) and just use the breasts (bugs me). It's such intense red meat that he could tell you it's venison and you'd believe him!

Peebs said...

Yeah your right even hooded merganzers around here they can actually be quite good. I know that we can get you two into some grays up on the hill and maybe a few quail to boot(talk about a stinky bird that eats like chicken).

Holly Heyser said...

Quail stink???

Peebs said...

Oh yeah they can gag you when you clean them but there is nothing better to eat their meat actually turns white when cooked.

Anonymous said...

Somebody asked me about the smell when gutting a pig or cleaning an albacore or something like that. I told 'em I turn my nose off.


Holly Heyser said...

It's funny - the smell of guts in a freshly killed animal doesn't bother me at all (most of the time). I think non-hunters/non-farmers associate the stench of rotting roadkill with death, so they expect it to be horrifying.

Anonymous said...

I will admit that turning the compost pile with partially decomposed tuna carcass/maggot party was giving me a little trouble. I could not find the full off position for the nose. So far, and in general, the smell of recently dead critter does not seem to bother me. Go figure.


Holly Heyser said...

Ewwwwww! Rotting tuna? With maggots? Blech.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

You and your nose, Caz!

It's heartening to see someone take heroic measures to make sure a life taken isn't a life wasted.

The only thing I've killed that I just wasn't able to eat was a false albacore, and I used it as lobster bait. But I plan to shoot some actual ducks this season, and I'll use your story as both template and inspiration.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

You and your nose, Caz!

It's heartening to see someone take heroic measures to make sure a life taken isn't a life wasted.

The only thing I've killed that I just wasn't able to eat was a false albacore, and I used it as lobster bait. But I plan to shoot some actual ducks this season, and I'll use your story as both template and inspiration.

oldfatslow said...

Scaup are sometimes called
flying shoes in Florida.
The only one I've gotten
actually cooked up quite