It’s true that I no longer lie in bed on Christmas Eve straining to hear reindeer on the roof, but that doesn’t mean I have given up on the magic of Christmas. I’ve just transferred my fantasies from the prospect of new toys to a more grown-up enchantment: the promise of Christmas dinner. So while my practical friends are dutifully taking care of their shopping, I am dreaming up a special meal. To me, that often means a roast bird—especially goose, duck, and even game hens. The rich, all-dark, almost beefy taste of goose makes it perfect holiday fare (plus, who can resist the lure of a traditional Dickensian Christmas?). Whole duck is delicious brushed with a flavorful glaze during the last minutes of roasting. And halved Cornish game hens are ideal individual servings for an elegant meal. In the following pages you’ll find not only amazing recipes but also the best techniques for roasting each bird to perfection. Pair any one of them with your favorite sides, and you’ll create some holiday magic of your own.
Roasting the duck slowly at a low temperature (breast side down first) is the best way to render the fat from under the breast skin. It’s key to remove the rendered fat from the pan partway through roasting, so the duck won’t sit in its own fat as it finishes roasting, which would prevent it from crisping.
This combination cooking method involves steaming on the stovetop and then slow-roasting in the oven. Steaming eliminates the need to remove hot fat from the oven during roasting. Also, it renders a maximum of fat cleanly (without any roasted or caramelized bits), leaving you with lots of pure white goose fat to cook with. After pouring off the fat, the goose roasts slowly for 2 to 2-1/2 hours, making it tender and succulent, with crisp, handsomely browned skin.
Dry-Brining and Splitting
A dry brine of salt, pepper, and fresh herbs combined with air drying the hens in the fridge overnight helps crisp the skin during roasting.
Splitting the hens in half before roasting is convenient for serving (half a hen makes a perfect single portion) but also has benefits for the cook: It’s neater and eliminates any need for tableside carving; the split hens roast more quickly and evenly; and best of all, it leaves you with a pot full of backbones and wingtips that become the base for a rich sauce.
The Big Thaw
While Cornish hens and ducks may be available year-round, goose tends to be a wintertime specialty. Even so, many markets only sell these birds frozen, so be sure to allow time for thawing. The best way to thaw poultry is in its original wrapper in the refrigerator. (Put the birds on a rimmed tray in case of any leaks.) Allow three full days for a goose, two days for a duck, and one for a hen.