Duck occupies a position of such culinary esteem in my family that those autumn V's of migration are routinely referred to as "dinners."
Michigan may technically be prime duck territory, but our property is decidedly duck-free in the fall. For the Eisendrath boys a duck hunt meant being unceremoniously yanked out of bed, then dragged to the swamp that lay midway down our road to the lake. Sixteen and 14, bleary-eyed and clutching a shared shotgun in the pre-dawn woods, we were nevertheless in heaven.
As gray light rose, Dad would hyperventilate into his beloved duck call, producing a trailing series of squawks that didn't sound remotely duckish. A handful of these adventures actually resulted in the dispatch of a slow-thinking bird. More than actual hunts, they were opportunities for my father to teach my brother and me "character" or impress upon us that we'd soon be working at the car wash if our grades didn't come up.
Only after my brother and I left home did we all get more serious about returning with some actual grill fare. To this day, fall still includes a weekend in a Canadian duck blind; we are sometimes freezing, often soaked, and always full of criticisms of each other's subpar camouflage and shooting. Accuracy is never improved by our pretty-but-fussy shotguns, so longtime guide Tom quietly packs an extra one that actually works. Late on Sunday, Mom greets triumphant hunters and a microscopic duck harvest with good humor.
All duck straddles the line between poultry and red meat. The meat is savory, dense, and best served medium-rare. Its distinctive flavor can't easily be relegated to the background. Duck responds well to treatment on either side of the red/white meat fence but I prefer it red, in the vein of lamb, and paired with a sweet marinade.
If you are working with wild duck, you have an extra set of choices. Breasts will be leaner than the domestic sort and may benefit from a tenderizing marinade. Cover the breasts in red wine for four hours. The acid tenderizes and compliments the naturally earthy duck meat. If you or your dinner guests fear the wild note in game, there is another option: an overnight buttermilk bath to pull sharpness out of the meat. Only do this if you think the main course is too strong for less adventurous eaters (don't do both wine and buttermilk: you'll end up with tender piece of meat that tastes like nothing in particular). Note that if your wild duck is fresh—never frozen—you can and should skip all this and take it right to the grill.
Game should be grilled slowly over a low fire. As opposed to domestic cuts, which have their mild flavor complimented by dramatic outer crusts, wild meat has an outdoor edge that mellows over low heat. Even grocery-store duck retains a hint of the wild, so you should apply game guidelines when grilling it. On a wood grill, your fire pairing should be the medium-intensity hardwoods like maple and oak or clean fruitwoods like cherry and apple.
Prepare a sweet glaze or sauce to baste your duck with. Choose a base, preferably alcoholic (cognac, brandy), and mix in your favorite fruit and sugar to taste. I use cherry. The goal is a mix of intense alcohol and sweet fruit flavors. Brush the duck generously with oil and apply a light coating of salt and cracked pepper and place it on the grill. Begin basting with your marinade immediately.
Watch your duck carefully. If you are using a lidded grill, keep it open. Closed grilling is really baking and overcooking is too easy. Prod the cuts regularly to check consistency. Don't be afraid to cut one open to check the inside—provided you are basting with your sweet mix, you will not lose moisture.
Take the breasts off when they are just beginning to firm and you'd consider them a little underdone. They will cook themselves further after you take them off to rest. Taste one yourself and apply seasoning touches to taste, then serve surrounded by your fruit baste. Sit outside in the presence of fall.
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