Dusk on the Blue Ridge

For a number of reasons, I chose to spend Thanksgiving at home alone with Fergus. Mind you, I could have joined friends or family in their Thanksgiving Day plans, so don’t feel sorry for me. This was, in fact, the first time I’ve ever spent the day on my own, and I found the time to be peaceful and an opportunity to reflect on the past, present and my future. Memories of My Darling Husband threaded through the week, as they tend to do around significant days. I think he’d approve of how I marked the day.

I am not Scrooge, but Thanksgiving dinner has never been my favorite. The traditional meal takes hours and days to prepare, minutes to eat, more hours to put away leftovers and clean up the remains of the day. Turkey isn’t that great, in my humble opinion; there are expected side dishes and desserts I like a lot, however. I love dressing. Pie.

Some of my favorite Thanksgiving dinners have been served in restaurants. On this, Keith and I were in hearty agreement. Many years, he’d indulge me as I prepared the huge, traditional menu — kicking me out of bed before sun-up, “Time to go stick your hand into that frozen bird,” schlepping a 30-pound roaster filled with a brining turkey, popping champagne at a civilized time in the morning to take the edge off my exhaustion and aching back and feet.

One thing Keith loved to do was watch me prep and cook. He was no cook himself (although, he was superior at microwaving), but he enjoyed the process and eating good food. We were a perfect pair. I love to cook — from planning an interesting menu (or throwing something together with whatever’s at hand), to organizing the preparatory steps, to the execution and presentation of a meal, whether it’s for two or a large gathering of friends or family. Or for one.

The last wedding anniversary meal we shared was at a favorite restaurant in Manhattan, and we had my all-time favorite food: duck confit. Since that time, I’ve made duck confit many times for dinner parties, including last Thanksgiving when my sister and a friend joined me for the holiday weekend. When I was thinking about how I wanted to spend this holiday, I decided to treat myself to my most prized dish.

Which takes some advance planning. Moulard duck legs can’t be found in my local grocery stores, so I order them. There are probably other sources, but I like D’Artagnan. Their website is a rabbit hole for me, soooo many things I want. Beware, if you visit the site. Temptations galore.

To accompany the duck confit, I decided to make my favorite side: Brussels sprouts gratin with Gruyere and bacon, and my favorite dessert: pecan pie (gluten free, of course) made with maple syrup.

Next step: more cheese, into the oven

Best pecan pie, ever








Every time I make duck confit, I do it a little differently, and mainly that’s because I forget to start a dry marinade 24 hours in advance. This year, I got my act together and started it a day ahead, but then I realized I didn’t have some of the traditional seasonings (e.g., juniper berries), or didn’t want to mess it up with strong flavors, like garlic. I like my confit to taste like duck. So, I made up my own concoction: I whirred coriander seed, green peppercorns and a few bay leaves in a coffee grinder and rubbed the result, with Kosher salt, all over the skin of the legs and put it in the fridge to spend the night. It’s true that the salt will draw things out of the duck legs given 24 hours, so I guess that’s good, but the end result didn’t taste noticeably different than my last-minute approach. The seasonings proved to me that this easy dish can be made with any flavors you prefer. It’s pretty much fool-proof, and, yes, it is easy. All it takes, really, is time. Time to render all the silky duck fat from the meat and turn the skin into a crispy delight.

About three hours before you want to serve it, wipe the seasonings off the duck legs, prick or score the skin lightly so the fat has portals to bubble out of, place skin side down in a large oven-proof pan (or a skillet; the legs can be moved to a roasting pan or baking dish to go in the oven), and brown until the fat has started to render. Flip the legs skin-side-up and roast in a 275 degree oven (or 300, or 325 — it hardly matters) simmering in duck fat for at least two hours. I roast until a meat fork easily sinks into the thigh.

The traditional method of confit is intended to also preserve the meat, so the duck is roasted submerged in gently bubbling duck fat and then can be stored in the fat. I imagine French farmers “harvesting” a raft of ducks during their migration season and needing to prepare and store them in quantity. That’s not really the modern experience; we eat what we cook now, or soon thereafter as delicious leftovers. Still, I add duck fat to the roasting pan so the legs really are basting themselves as they cook and come out moist where they need to be, crisp everywhere else.

Is your mouth watering, yet?

Arteries slamming shut

If not, let me share this link with you for the Brussels sprouts gratin. Creamy, rich and cheesy, bacony … at one stage, the shallots are simmering in both bacon drippings and butter. How could that be anything but decadent?!

Table for one, please

After one duck leg and a scoop of Brussels sprouts, I had no appetite for pecan pie. I saved it for breakfast the next day.

This year, I popped my own champagne to sip on as I prepped and cooked. And smiled at the memories of Thanksgivings past.

Am I alone? Does anyone else take a step back from the excess of traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Or do you love turkey, all the trimmings and napping the tryptophan off in front football marathons? What’s your go-to TV lineup for Thanksgiving Day? Macy’s parade? Dog show? Wizard of Oz?