The Thank You Meals: Part Two, Duck Ragu for James (Plus A Wild Walnut Salad)

James, on the other hand, deserved a meal for taking my picture multiple times for my book’s “author photo.” You can see James’s terrific photography on his site, Snapshot Artifact. We went out a few times to get the perfect picture, but nothing was really working. Then James had the idea of taking pictures of me while cooking. It was a brilliant notion and a perfect opportunity to cook him a dinner of gratitude. And here he is looking grateful next to Diana looking ungrateful:

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The dinner was a real challenge. I’ve never done anything with duck before–except for engorge its liver and shape it into a torchon. The pasta I was going to make was from Mario Batali’s “Molto Italiano” (and maybe now is a good time to reveal a big piece of news…actually, no, I’ll save it…but stay tuned!). It’s Garganelli with Duck Ragu. Garganelli is a type of pasta Mario wants you to make from scratch but at the top of the recipe Mario says: “This duck ragu is even good with plain old penne out of a box.” Perfect! And so I focused on making the ragu.

I bought duck legs from Key Foods which sounds sketchy but the duck legs come from D’Artagnan which made me feel good because I know Anthony Bourdain really likes D’Artagnan. Look at my sexy duck legs:

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They’ve been sprinkled with salt and pepper. Then into a Dutch oven they go with 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil. You get the oil smoking hot and then brown the duck legs on all sides for 10 to 12 minutes.

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As you can see, I got those duck legs wonderfully brown but there was an unexpected consequence. A giant POOL of DUCK FAT:

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Now I know why Mario says at the start of the recipe: “4 duck legs, skinned, cut apart at the joint, visible fat removed.”

I tried to get rid of as much fat as I could before browning, but a duck leg is basically ALL fat. So instead, having rendered out all this fat, I just ladled out about two cups of it and left a thin layer for the next step: the sauteing of the onion, carrot, garlic, celery and sage.

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After this step, though, it’s easy. You add 2 cups dry red wine (preferably Sangiovese), 1 cup chicken stock, and one 6-oz can tomato paste and bring to a boil. You add the duck back, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.

An hour layer, you take the duck out, let it cool, and then tear off all the meat, putting the meat back with the sauce. You cook together until it’s quite thick. Then you transfer to a saute pan while you put the pasta on to boil.

When the pasta is just al dente, you add to the ragu in the saute pan and cook on high heat for two minutes. And that’s it! Serve with parmesan and enjoy:

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As a passionate pasta person, this is one of the best I’ve had. The sauce is SO rich and SO flavorful. James was perfectly elated.

“Maybe I should take some more pictures of you cooking tomorrow,” he suggested. “Just in case.”

But I didn’t fall for that line. As a side note (and a side dish, or a salad dish) I served this walnut salad from Patricia Wells’s Trattoria:

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It’s super simple. So simple I’m not going to even look for the recipe. You just take a bunch of walnut halves (about two cups) and toast them in the oven. Then add to a bowl, pour over some olive oil, squeeze a lemon over it too. Then add salt and pepper, a couple of dashes of oregano, and chopped parsley. Let cool and then add a bunch of cubed pecorino cheese. Your salad is done and your guests are happy.

As for my head shot picture, I’m really happy with it:

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That pecorino sure is sharp!

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