HIGH ON THE LIST OF SEATTLE’S favorite dining-out dishes is Wild Ginger’s fragrant duck, which requires diners to stuff cinnamon- and anise-scented tufts of tender meat into billowy steamed buns. The first time I ordered it, in a misguided attempt to win over our server, I asked for the Aflac. This did not work; he hated us for the rest of the night. On our way home, our car got hit by a city bus.
I’ve had worse luck with duck at home. I’ve made terrible turducken, the Thanksgiving bird blowout of a chicken in a duck in a turkey. Smoked the whole house out roasting a whole bird. But the real reason that, outside of the occasional holiday experiment, duck is an unlikely player on my own dinner table is because I consistently choose fresh, local poultry over anything I’d have to pick up in the freezer case, which is how most duck is sold. At least I used to, until I learned that Ben Roberts of Rickman Gulch Farm, a southeastern Washington poultry operation, sells fresh duck year-round at Seattle-area markets.
Roberts started producing duck just last year, and says already he cannot keep up with demand. “There’s a lot of difficulty in raising ducks,” explains the fourth-generation farmer. You can’t leave the ducklings outside at night until they have enough feathers to keep warm. They eat—and poop—a lot. And unlike chickens, you can only prepare waterfowl for the kitchen at certain times in their life cycle, when the plumage comes out easily. That’s what makes them so expensive. That, and if you’re Roberts, growing and grinding organic feed made from wheat, peas, and barley.
Nevertheless, duck aficionados are migrating toward Roberts’s birds because we’re learning that fresh duck tastes better than frozen—it’s firmer, richer, and more, well, ducky. “Once you freeze a product, you change the muscle tissue structure. Even after you thaw it out, it never comes back to what it was,” says Roberts, who estimates he’ll bring 5,000 ducks to market this year.
Kerry Sear, executive chef at Art Restaurant and Lounge (the eatery in the new Four Seasons downtown), agrees that freshness is crucial. At home, Sear saves the legs and skin for confit, crisps the breasts over high heat, and uses the rendered fat as a tasty substitute for butter or olive oil—for sautéing Brussels sprouts, for example, or making a quick salad dressing with vinegar and lemon juice and pouring it over warm spinach. Just remember that when it comes to quackers, it’s diet be damned. “Fat is a good thing,” says Sear. “Do not buy a skinny duck.” And if you’re ordering the bird in a restaurant, keep the Aflac jokes to yourself.
Rickman Gulch Farm’s duck is available at University District, Ballard, and West Seattle farmers markets.