By: Bob Marsh
If you rate this past duck season by the number of ducks harvested, you might say it was a disappointment, but for me, it did what it was supposed to do—got me outdoors, walking through the Osage River bottoms woods. Most of our trips to the marsh land this duck season didn't involve ducks. Most of central and southern Missouri has experienced drought conditions recently, and the usual wetland was dry until the very end of the season. The little puddles in the ponds and the creek weren't appealing to the seemingly few ducks venturing south in the mild weather of November. Walking through the now dry fields of smartweed and millet was easy when it wasn't all mud and water so I loaded up the dog and went to see what there was to see.
The first trip out was a balmy day, unusually warm for November, not ideal for migrating ducks, but you take the days as you find them. Heidi and I heeded Wendell Barry’s advice to “breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air” and headed to the marsh, ducks or no ducks. We walked a lot through the woods, taking in the sights and sounds of the woods. We made a fire and cooked up some carne asada for a late lunch. We took a little nap on the ground and did a little work to make a blind for the season to come. But not much. The dog romped and sniffed and took a nap in the warm sun.
In December, my son, David, come to town to try his hand and duck hunting. We’d had a little rain by then so, full of optimism, we donned our waders and headed out. We put a few decoys in a small puddle. No ducks, but we watched lots of geese flying past, high overhead. It was good to be outside with David! Luna enjoyed being out too and didn’t have to work very hard.
In early January, on the last day of the season, I headed back out. Now there was a little water. I waded out to set some decoys by my favorite blind near the fire spot. The blind was still sparse, but would have to do. Luna was happy to be out and seemed to know her job. This time we got lucky and saw a few ducks. I took my shot and got a mallard drake. Luna ran out into the shallow water like a champ and retrieved the duck. One duck was enough for me so we packed up and headed home.
I cleaned the duck and cut away the two breasts, making sure to check for any shot that might be in the meat. Then I set the breasts in brine to lessen the gamey flavor and prep it for cooking. I left it in the fridge until we were ready to prepare it for dinner a couple of days later.
I saved a few feathers for making fishing flies, since spring will be here soon! Between now and then snow and rain will come, and the wetland will hopefully be full of water when the ducks head north. All of that smartweed and millet will be waiting for them.
Our favorite duck dish is the simplest, cooked like a lean cut of beef—think filet mignon— seared in the cast iron skillet with a nice fruity sauce. We didn’t use a marinade this time around and didn’t miss it at all, but here’s a recipe that we have used in the past. Marinating wild duck meat can be helpful to soften the gamey flavor that some find unappealing. We served our duck with a baked acorn squash and sautéed spinach for a delightful weeknight dinner.
Here's how we made it (this recipe is for 4-6 duck breasts, but of course we adapted it for two):
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
½ teaspoon of dry mustard
1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon of garlic powder
¾ cup dry red wine
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
¼ cup red wine
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
8-10 oz. of fruit jelly (we love red plum jelly here, but this time used a jar of red wine jelly that we had in the pantry and it was lovely)
~Remove the breast meat of the duck from the breast bone. Remove any skin, tendons, and fat. In a bowl, combine the marinade ingredients (if using) then add the duck and coat all sides. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
~For the sauce, melt butter in a small pan. Stir in the remaining ingredients and heat until the jelly melts and the mixture boils.
~On a stove top, preheat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Melt a small amount of butter, then add breasts to the heated skillet. Cook for up to 5 minutes per side, depending on thickness of the meat. Our duck was not large so we cooked the breasts for 4 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes on the second side. Flip the breast just once to cook each side.
~Remove from heat and let the meat rest for about 2 minutes. The meat will be rare to medium rare. Carve into ¼ inch slices and spoon sauce over the meat.