I recently spent two glorious barbecue-filled weeks in Austin, where I happily cooked for 1,200 hungry folks at a food festival.
While these events tends to be crazy busy, they also involve a fair amount of down time. In this case, that down time was while I patiently waited for 50 briskets to slowly smoke to tender perfection. To fill the time, I decided to experiment with smoked duck.
I'd had an idea to try something new that would make the ducks cook faster with less tending, and deliver a crispier skin. I was eager to try this. I also decided to up the flavor ante and celebrate one of the classic tastes of summer by bathing the ducks in a spicy watermelon glaze.
This is a technique and glaze I frequently use with chicken. I butterfly the chicken so it opens wide and flat. This helps it cook fast and produces a wonderfully crispy skin. I wanted to know if I could do the same with duck.
Using poultry scissors, I removed the backbone of the duck and flattened it like a book, twisting the wings behind the breast (this is called "wings a kimbo" and makes the duck lay flat). I coated the duck with a thin layer of olive oil and sprinkled both sides with a classic Texas barbecue rub of salt, butcher-grind black pepper and enough cayenne to turn the rub a light pink color.
Then I put the duck on the pit and patiently waited to see what would happen. After a couple hours, the butterflied duck was beautifully caramelized, and almost done, ready to be slathered with the spicy watermelon glaze. A few juicy passes with my mop and another few minutes in the pit, and the glaze set.
I took the duck out, and let it rest for about 10 minutes to make sure it would be juicy.
It was, no doubt, the best duck I'd ever made or tasted. It amazes me that a small change in the technique could make that much of a difference, and I wonder why I never thought of doing it before. It also makes grilling duck so much more accessible for everyone. It's as easy as cooking chicken, yet far more impressive (and tasty!).
Now, I'll never cook duck another way. It cooks faster, more evenly and renders the fat from the skin, leaving crispy duck skin and moist succulent meat.
This summer, duck will be my new chicken!
SPICY WATERMELON GLAZE
Start to finish: 10 minutes
Makes about 1 cup
1 cup seedless watermelon flesh
1/2 cup apple jelly
Zest and juice of 1/2 lime
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon jalapeno hot sauce
Pinch of salt
In a blender, puree the watermelon flesh until smooth. Set aside.
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium, heat the apple jelly, stirring constantly, until it is melted. Add the watermelon juice and stir to combine. Stir in the lime zest and juice, red pepper flakes, jalapeno hot sauce and salt. Mix and taste, adjusting the seasoning if desired.
The glaze can be used warm or cooled. It can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed jar for up to 2 days.
GRILLED BUTTERFLIED DUCK WITH SPICY WATERMELON GLAZE
Start to finish: 2 1/2 hours
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Spicy watermelon glaze (recipe above)
Heat one side of a grill to medium and the other side to low. During cooking, if you get flaring from the duck fat, you may need to turn off the low side completely.
Use paper towels to pat dry the duck. Using poultry or kitchen shears, cut along each side of the duck's backbone and remove it. Turn the duck breast-side up. Open the 2 sides of the duck as if you were opening a book, and lay it flat. Break the breast bone by firmly applying pressure and pressing down. Tuck the wing tips under the upper wing and place on a sheet pan. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together the salt, pepper and cayenne. Brush the duck all over with olive oil. Season lightly on both sides with the spice rub. Place the duck skin-side up directly on the grill grates on the cooler side of the grill. Grill for about 2 hours.
After 2 hours, brush the glaze on the duck. Continue grilling for another 20 to 30 minutes, brushing with the glaze 2 more times during the final grilling time. Grill until the juices run clear and the thigh registers 190 F.
Remove the duck from the grill and brush with glaze one last time. Let the duck rest for 10 minutes. Cut the duck into halves or quarters and serve.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 1,050 calories; 710 calories from fat (68 percent of total calories); 79 g fat (27 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 230 mg cholesterol; 30 g carbohydrate; 52 g protein; 0 g fiber; 640 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."