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Ducks have many uses for thrifty cooks

They’re a gift that keeps on giving.

Ducks — beginning the week after Thanksgiving — typically go on sale at prices too tempting to pass up. Although the smaller birds elbow aside turkeys as the holiday centerpiece for some households, their prices after the national feast day make ducks affordable everyday fare. I like to stash several away in my freezer as an insurance policy for Christmas dinner.

While roasting a chicken yields stock in the thrifty cook’s kitchen, duck offers another invaluable byproduct. Their substantial fat layer produces a laudable amount of high-quality drippings that can be collected, reserved and reused like bacon grease.

Duck skin, stripped from a roasted bird and saved, is a delicious addition to Asian-style noodles, carnitas-style tacos and as a rich, crispy salad topper. That fat layer keeps duck meat moist and tender, making for almost foolproof cooking.

And when cooks are ready to dispatch a roast duck’s remains, the resulting stock is much richer and more flavorful than chicken stock. When I have duck stock on hand, I often use it in Asian-style noodle soups, such as udon, ramen and pho, as well as in Thai-style curries.

Indeed, cooks looking to extract maximum value from their grocery dollar can consider duck a smart investment. The superior, high-heat cooking fat rendered from a duck typically costs more than a dollar an ounce. Roasting a 4- to 5-pound duck produces about a half-pint of fat. If a duck can be procured for as little $3 per pound, a price I’ve secured over the past few years, about half of its cost can be recouped in the fat alone. Refrigerate or freeze the fat.

To facilitate rendering duck fat, prick the bird all over with a fork or skewer. Then either plunge it into a pot of boiling water, or carefully pour boiling water over the skin to scald it. This process also helps the skin to crisp.

Browning a duck first on the stovetop before roasting is another technique for crispy skin. Transfer the duck to a preheated oven and roast for about 20 minutes per pound. I like to start ducks breast-side down in a 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, then flip them over and roast until cooked through. Maneuvering an aerodynamically shaped duck with its squatty limbs is simple, compared with the gymnastic routines required for trussing, tucking and generally manhandling a chicken or turkey.

The simplest way with duck, of course, is to cook only its breast. An 8-ounce duck breast that feeds two people is readily available frozen at local grocers, and the portion thaws quickly for easy weeknight dinners. Duck breast also helps to pay for itself in reserved fat. Score the skin first to promote crisping, then cook duck breast in a skillet on the stovetop, periodically pouring off fat.

Cooking duck skin a second time produces exquisitely crunchy morsels that accent a variety of dishes. Once a duck — or just its breast — has been roasted, the skin can be removed and saved for another meal.

Lay pieces of duck skin, fat side down, in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sizzle skin for 1 to 2 minutes to crisp undersides and render any clinging fat. If a darker color and crisper texture is preferred, flip skins and sizzle briefly on opposite side. Transfer skins to a cutting board and slice into slivers for garnishing dishes of leftover duck meat.

Tacos are a handy way to showcase leftover duck, particularly the legs. Pull off any meat remaining on a leftover duck and brown it for 1 to 2 minutes in a skillet over medium heat. Pile meat into heated tortillas and top with shards of crisp duck skin, if desired, as well as finely chopped white onion, fresh cilantro leaves and salsa. Serve with radishes or pickled carrots and jalapenos on the side.

My family also loves leftover duck in gravy made from duck stock over tater tots or fries, garnished with cheese curds for Canada’s staple poutine. Cut this dish’s richness with leftover Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.

While ducks often come with a package of base for duck a l’orange, I prefer this recipe calling for kumquats, which taste much fresher, lend vibrant color and look festive.

Roast Duck with Kumquat Sauce

1 (4-1/2 pound) duck

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 stalks celery, diced

1 onion, peeled and diced

2 cinnamon sticks

2 star anise

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

2 cups orange juice

1 tablespoon butter

10 kumquats, each sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare the duck: Poke skin all over duck with a fork. Season duck all over with the salt and pepper, rubbing seasoning over skin.

In a small bowl, stir together the celery, onion, cinnamon sticks, star anise and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Stuff mixture into duck’s cavity and tie legs together with tail to prevent stuffing from falling out.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Brown duck, turning every few minutes to color each side evenly and well, for about 20 minutes total.

Place duck and any juices in a baking pan and roast, basting every 15 minutes, until juices run clear when you prick a thigh, for about 1-1/2 hours.

Remove duck and set aside to rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving.

While duck is resting, make kumquat sauce. Place the honey in a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat. Bring honey to a boil and cook just until it begins to darken and caramelize. Immediately remove pan from heat and add the vinegar and orange juice, stirring to combine. Cook over medium heat until liquid is reduced by three-fourths, for 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the butter and kumquat slices and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to allow flavors to marry. Remove from heat and serve with duck.

Makes 4 servings.

Duck Breast

1 duck breast, about 8 ounces

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

1/2 cup dry red wine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up

Rinse and pat dry the duck breast. Turn it skin-side up on a cutting board. With a long sharp knife, cut through skin and fat (but not meat) in a series of parallel stokes, forming a pattern of small squares or diamonds. Season all over with the salt and pepper, rubbing seasonings into meat.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Keep handy a small saucepan for collecting duck fat. Heat a medium, cast-iron skillet over medium. When good and hot, settle in duck, skin-side down (big sizzle), pressing to make sure skin is flat against hot surface. Cook until skin is beautifully crisp, for about 8 minutes. Every 2 minutes, lift duck with tongs and pour off accumulated fat.

Pour off fat again. Turn duck meat-side down in skillet; slide it into preheated oven. Cook until duck reaches 135 degrees inside, for about 15 minutes (see note). Set duck on a carving board, uncovered, and let rest.

Set skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, scraping up browned bits, until shallots turn soft, for about 1 minute. Pour in the wine, and cook until sauce begins to thicken, for about 4 minutes. Stir in the butter. Pull pan off heat.

Thinly slice duck on diagonal. Mix juices from carving board into sauce. Pour sauce onto each of 2 plates; fan duck slices over sauce. Enjoy. Makes 2 servings.

Later, strain reserved duck fat into a small jar and chill. Use fat to crisp potatoes, sauté vegetables and even pop popcorn.

NOTE: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking all poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you have health concerns about rare meat, skip duck.

Recipe from the Chicago Tribune.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.