My favorite protein of all isn’t bacon, or short ribs, or smoked pork shoulder – it’s duck, duck legs specifically, which are best cooked slowly until the meat falls off the bone, after which the skin is cooked over direct heat until crispy and slightly sweet, while the fat rendered out during the slow cooking process is saved for another dish, like potatoes or bitter greens or even fried eggs. The one issue with duck legs is, once cooked, figuring out how to serve them, since they tend to fall apart before they even get out of the pot. I’ve tossed duck leg meat into risotto, which is fabulous but also a lot of work, and more of a special-occasion meal than a weekday-night dish. I’ve also had them served in crepes (at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill) or in tacos, but again, that’s a lot more work, and not a complete meal in and of itself.
Enter farro, a whole grain that can be prepared similarly to brown rice or barley but with a starch that is released during cooking to produce a slightly creamy texture similar to that of risotto. Farro is an “ancient grain,” an unhybridized plant found in Egyptian tombs and still popular in northern Italian cuisine, part of the wheat family but very low in gluten. It’s related to spelt and einkorn but is easier to cook than the berries of those two members of the wheat (Triticum) family), and, in my opinion, it tastes better too. You can prepare farro using the liquid/farro ratios below and treat it like a risotto, starting with onion and garlic, finishing with grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano and a little butter, or you can treat it like a pilaf and stir or fold in greens or peas after the cooking is finished. Here I use it as the platter for the duck, finished with some peppery leaves for color and to make it a one-dish meal.
As for the duck meat itself, I use the braised legs recipe from Ruhlman’s Twenty, which is foolproof and can be made a day or two in advance – it’s a great thing to throw in the oven on a cold weekend day, since it makes the house smell amazing, and braised meats always taste better a day later anyway. Just store it in the braising liquid and skim the congealed fat off the top the next day. You can even strain the defatted liquid and use it in place of some of the stock in this recipe. If your local Whole Foods or similar high-end market sells prepared duck confit, that will work as well.
Farro with duck legs and arugula
4 duck legs, braised or confit
1 tbsp rendered duck fat or olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 cup farro
¼ cup white wine or 2 Tbsp brandy
3 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
½ tsp salt
1 handful of arugula, radish leaves, or other peppery greens
1. Shred the duck meat by hand. To prepare the skin, remove it from the legs, keeping it as intact as possible, and scrape any remaining fat off the inside of the skin using a paring knife. Crisp the skin in a dry, non-stick skillet until brown on both sides, and set aside until serving. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Heat the fat/oil in a large (3-quart) saucepan until hot and add the shallot, sweating for 1-2 minutes until translucent but not brown. Add the farro and toast in the oil 2-3 minutes until the grains smell slightly nutty.
3. Add the wine/brandy and stir until the alcohol has mostly cooked away and the pan is dry when you separate the grains. (Lean over the pot and inhale. If you get dizzy, it’s not ready for step four yet.)
4. Add the stock/broth and salt, stir once to combine thoroughly, and bring to a boil. Cover and place in the oven for 35 minutes, at which point the farro should have absorbed all of the liquid.
5. Once the pot is out of the oven, add the duck meat and green leaves, stir, and cover for ten minutes to heat the duck and wilt the leaves. Serve in bowls topped with sliced crispy duck skin and freshly ground black pepper.