This is the story about my trip to Blogger Duck University 2014 at Maple Leaf Farms. Maple Leaf Farms paid for the classes, my meals, and my lodging. The thoughts are my own. Phew, now I’m good with the FCC.
Duck Fact: Only the female duck quacks!
I love duck. It’s one of my favorite things to order at a restaurant, usually as sliced duck breast with crackling crisp skin, or duck leg confit, shredded and melting in your mouth. Rotisserie duck with drip pan potatoes is one of my favorite recipes on this website.
Duck fat is marvelous - it has a rich flavor that no other fat has. Potatoes cooked in duck fat are one of the best things to eat, ever, hands down.
My problem: while I love duck, I’m a duck novice. I know how to pan sear a duck breast, I can make a decent duck leg stew, and like I said, I love my rotisserie roast duck. But I feel like I’m in a duck rut, stuck for new ideas, and I need help to get out of it.
Enter Maple Leaf Farms
Maple Leaf Farms produces 70% of the duck sold in the United States. I got lucky when I sat down next to Nora from Maple Leaf Farms at breakfast at a food conference. She introduced herself, and I pulled out one of my business cards - the one with the picture of rotisserie duck on the back of it. She suggested I stop by their booth and get an application for Duck University, featuring Sara Moulton as the celebrity cooking teacher. Doesn’t everyone have business cards with pictures of rotisserie duck on the back? Just me? Oh.
I signed up as soon as I got home, was accepted, and in early June was on my way to Warsaw, Indiana for two days of duck fun.
|Don't we look dashing in our biosecurity suits?|
Maple Leaf Farms Tour
Our first day was a tour of the different parts of Maple Leaf Farms. They are vertically integrated - they make their feed in their own feed mill, partner with local family farms to raise their ducks, process the ducks in their plants, and ship from their warehouse to distributors. They are a (4th generation) family owned business, located in Leesburg, Indiana, and are proud of supporting local farms and businesses.
The tour made me feel better about being a committed carnivore. The ducks we saw on the farm were healthy and happy, waddling around in flocks in their duck houses, and obviously cared for. (We had to dress up in biosecurity suits before entering the house - they want to protect the ducks from any germs we might be carrying.) The duck processing plant was modern, efficient, and clean. And cold… They keep the plans at refrigerator temperature, for food safety. I thought that was kind of chilly - and then we walked through the –10°F cold storage room. Oh, my. It felt like a summer day when we got back out to the “refrigerated” are. (Last winter had a few days where it was colder outside than in the cold storage room. That tells you how ridiculous last winter was.)
The knife skills on display on the processing line were humbling. I like to think I have good knife skills for a home cook, and I can (and have) cut up my own ducks in the past, cutting the breasts and legs away from the carcass so I can cook them separately. It takes me a few minutes to section a bird, and I’m pretty efficient. On the line they had the breasts off of the bird in, I’d guess, less than five seconds. And they weren’t even working that hard. I think I need to work on my knife skills some more.
Most impressive was how much care the people at Maple Leaf Farms. Everyone we talked to was passionate about their jobs, and about doing everything they could to raise healthy ducks. (With, as they put it, “thorough, science based safety practices”, for both the ducks and the people.) And they keep trying to improve. After all the horror stories I’ve read about factory farms, it was good to see a large scale operation that keeps pushing to raise their own standards.
|Our crew, R to L:
Sara, Jenny, Mike, Melissa, Me, Angela
The best part of the class was my fellow classmates. After our opening dinner, we went back to the hotel, and a group gathered at the hotel bar. We had a few tasty beverages, and the stories started to flow. People who love food are good people - we write to share our love of food with others - and suddenly I had a bunch of new friends:
- Jenny B of Honey & Birch from Chicago
- Angela Buchanan of Seasonal & Savory from Colorado
- Sara Croft of Solid Gold Eats from Indianapolis
- Melissa and Mike Yob - husband and wife video team from New Jersey
These people made the class for me - sure, I would have enjoyed it without them, but they’re the ones who made it sing.
My only regret is the class didn’t go on long enough to get to know the other attendees - I had some great, but short, conversations, and kept overhearing food discussions that I didn’t have time to crash. Maybe next time…
|Sara loves to teach|
When I took my first, tentative steps to being a foodie, Sara Moulton was on the Food Network every weeknight at 6PM, hosting her live call in show. Her friendly, common sense approach was a helpful influence on my early attempts at cooking. (She’s on PBS now with Sara’s Weeknight Meals, which I haven’t seen, because with this blog I don’t watch TV any more - just short internet video clips from time to time.)
Sara is even nicer in person than she is on TV, if you can believe it. She hopped on our bus and joined us for the entire day’s tour of Maple Leaf Farms, chatting with us, sharing what she knew, asking questions, keeping the conversation going (we were still recovering from our late night at the bar…and a little quiet until the caffeine kicked in.) She spent the rest of Duck U with us, taking the tour and attending the classes like she was just one of the students. She didn’t act the tiniest bit like a “famous television personality”, just another food lover, wanting to learn and share what she knows.
The next day she switched into her chef’s coat for our cooking class. She’s doing Sara’s Weeknight Meals in part from her experience keeping family meals going for her own kids - while juggling her day job as the executive chef at Gourmet magazine and “moonlighting” on Cooking Live at the Food Network. Sara knows what it’s like to be a harried parent trying to get food on the table, and loves to teach what she knows. She told us some fun stories about her years in professional kitchens and as a television host (only 6 obscene phone calls in 6 years of live, call in TV!), and gave us some great tips about how to cook duck…like how to cook duck breast:
Sara’s Duck Breast Instructions
- Score the skin on the duck breast in a crosshatch pattern, being careful not to cut into the meat. Season the skin side with salt and pepper
- Put the duck skin side down in a cold fry pan (she likes cast iron or nonstick for this) Turn the heat under the pan to low and let the duck cook, rendering out the fat, until the line of fat has disappeared from the side of the duck and the skin is browned and crispy, fifteen to twenty minutes.
- Season the meaty side with salt and pepper, then move the duck to a plate, skin side up.
- Pour off all but a tablespoon of the fat from the pan, then put the pan back on the stove over medium-high heat. Put the duck back in the pan, skin side up, and sear until the bottom is browned and the duck is medium-rare, about 3 more minutes.
- Rest the duck on a plate, skin side up, for five minutes (while making a pan sauce), then slice the duck crosswise and serve.
|Serve a bunch of bloggers, then wait for picture time to be over...|
And, of course, there was the food. From the opening dinner to the donuts on the last day, we ate well. The highlight was a six course duck dinner by Certified Master Chef Dale Miller. The dinner had duck in every course, from appetizers (duck mousse…oh, my) to dessert (berry crumble with duck bacon). And each course was more fantastic than the one before it. *Certified Master Chef means that Chef Miller passed the rigorous CMC test at the Culinary Institute of America - the one described in Michael Ruhlman’s Soul of a Chef.
|I'm official! Thanks, Nora!|
Thank you, Maple Leaf Farms
Can you tell I had a great time? I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and expect a lot more duck recipes from me in the future.
Thank you to Terry Tucker, CEO and son-in-law of founder Donald Wentzel, for your hospitality - I loved every minute of it, and you have a great team of people working for you.
Thanks to Karl and Janelle, our bus drivers and tour guides. (And thank you Karl for the late night drive to the local speakeasy, and to Janelle for the side trip on Friday to get us “Crack Donuts”, which were every bit as addictive as advertised.) Thanks to Beth and Nora, who taught our classes. (And thank you Beth for gliding around on your kick scooter - I hope your foot feels better, and to Nora for sitting next to me at breakfast at IACP and starting this trip.) They all took time off from their “real jobs” at Maple Leaf Farms and worked to make sure we had a great time.
|Selfie with Sara|
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Favorite duck recipes? Leave them in the comments section below.
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