Duck Legs, Sauerkraut and Alsatian Riesling

A-VineyardBy Davies

When I was a little boy of about 6, my dad took my brother Quentin and I to Jackson Park just south of the Museum of Science and Industry. We lived on the second floor of a three-flat walk- up on 63rd street near Halsted in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. An Irishman, Tom Ryan, who played the bagpipes, lived above us.

It was early evening in the late summer of 1949, and we were trying to escape the oppressive heat of our apartment, as well as the stench from the Union Stockyards, which were near Halsted and 47th.

At the time we were not the only ones that did this; whole families would camp out in the evening in the various parks along Lake Michigan to enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. I remember this particular time because we stayed until after dark. We brought pillows and a wool army blanket so we could lie back and look up at the stars. On this clear night, we could see the stars slowly emerging as the sun continued to set, something that you couldn’t see today because of light pollution and lying in that park after dark wouldn’t be advisable in 2014.

My father started to talk about the stars. He knew all the constellations and focused on Orion (The Hunter). He went on to explain all the parts of Orion including his sword and belt and how ancient peoples prayed that Orion would loosen his belt in order to get winter rains. He also told us that the ancients knew that the appearance of Orion signaled the start of autumn and the hunting season.

I still think of that evening fondly when I see Orion’s left shoulder (Betelgeuse) starting to poke above the southern horizon. I thought that in the interest of hunting, which is a major occasion here in Wisconsin, that I would focus on a duck preparation in honor of duck hunters and accompany it with sauerkraut, which is symbolic of the Germanic culture here and also of the fall season’s reward for preserving the its bounties, including cabbage.

This recipe is very rich in duck fat and bittersweet in the taste of fresh sauerkraut braised with apples. The perfect wine for this dish comes from the Alsace-Lorraine area of France where the recipe originated as well.

A-Vineyard2Presently, France claims this region but the area has been the subject of territorial wars between France and Germany since the 17th century. Alsace was conquered by Louis XIV, and Lorraine was annexed by Louis XV in the 18th century. Germany declared the area the Imperial Elass-Lothringen after the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. France reclaimed it after WWI. Then back to Germany during WWII. Now France has it but who knows, with all the recent European efforts to revert to pre-WWI nationalities.

The repeated change in sovereignty was a major influence in the development of wine styles and says a lot about the value of the areas wine production. The Germans continue to manufacture Riesling that are sweet; while on the French side of the Rhine River, the everyday Rieslings have been fermented to dryness in an effort to match the cuisine of the Alsace region. This recipe will work just as well substituting pork ribs and pork fat for the duck.

Duck Legs with Sauerkraut (serves two)

      1. Two duck legs with thighs
      2. Two lbs. fresh sauerkraut (Krissp Kraut)
      3. Two Macintosh apples peeled and diced
      4. Two bay leaves
      5. 8 Juniper berries
      6. 6 whole peppercorns
      7. One large yellow onion diced
      8. 1 cup riesling wine
      9. 2 cups chicken stock
      10. 6 small whole redskin potato’s peeled
      11. 2 tbs. butter

Put duck legs in a cast iron skillet and put skillet into a cold stove and heat to 350 degrees F. Cook legs for about 45 minutes to an hour depending on the size of the legs.

When legs are done remove the legs from the pan and set aside. Save the rendered duck fat and put it into an ovenproof casserole with two tablespoons of butter.

Sauté the diced onion in the casserole for about 8 minutes at medium heat (do not char the onion).

While the onions are cooking, rinse the sauerkraut twice in cold water. After the second rinsing squeeze all the water out of the sauerkraut. You may want to squeeze it in a dishtowel to insure all the water has been squeezed out. This step is important for two reasons.

      1. You want to have the right amount of saltiness.
      2. Too much water will dilute the flavor.

When the diced onion is translucent add the diced apple and Riesling and boil and scrape the bottom of the casserole for about three minutes.

Add the sauerkraut, bay leaves, juniper berries, peppercorns and chicken stock. Cover the casserole and braise in the oven at 325 degrees F for 1½ hours, checking the liquid level every half hour. Add more chicken stock as necessary.

Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes.

Add the duck legs and cook for another 15 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the oven, take the bay leaves out and serve.

The first suggested wine is the Riesling Cuvee Albert 2012, 12.5% alcohol, $25. This wine has a bit of sweetness. Think mandarin orange peel and lemon with ripe mouthwatering acidity and an underlying minerality that reflects the mostly marl limestone soils of the Rhine River valley. This producer was awarded winemaker of the year in 2012 by the Academie Du Vin and is among Robert Parker’s list of top Alsatian wine producers. The winery is certified organic and biodynamic. There is a certain amount of sweetness that is complimentary to the dry style that goes very well with the duck and apple scented sauerkraut. Cuvee Albert was our favorite of the tasting.

The second wine is the Gustave Lorentz Riesling Reserve 2009, 13% alcohol, $20. This wine had a touch of Brettanomyces or “brett” as industry insiders refer to it. Brett is a non-spore forming genus of yeast that is very important in the wine industry. In small quantities, brett can have a positive effect on wine giving it a degree of complexity that adds to the overall sensory experience. In large amounts, generally due to contamination of the cork or unsanitary conditions in the winery, brett can smell like old sweat socks or rancid cheese.

In this wine, the effect is positive and mixes well with the aromas of papaya, mangoes and green apples. The palate is crisp with some notes of lemon zest with again the dominant minerality of the clay and limestone soils of the slopes of Bergheim. The vineyard faces south and east which tends to allow more sunlight hence greater ripeness. My wife was put off by the brett but I thought it was a nice choice and pared well with the duck and sauerkraut.

The last wine is the Domaine Weinbach Riesling Cuvee Ste. Catherine 2012, 13.5% alcohol, $30. Domaine Weinbach was established in 1612 by the Capuchin monks. The Schlossberg vineyard which surrounds the estate was the first Alsatian vineyard to receive Grand Cru status. The winery is now managed by a triumvirate of Collette Faller and her two daughters.

All the grapes for this wine were grown on the estate which has applied for recognition as Ecocert (organic) and Demeter (biodynamic). The winery produces several styles of Riesling. The Ste. Catherine is rich and fruity with aromatic hints of blood orange and Meyer Lemon and citrus flavors with a tinge of ginger, pepper and again the minerality of the limestone soils of the Rhine river slopes.

These wines are not easy to find, but worth seeking out if you want a wine that will match well with sauerkraut. Alternatives to Alsace would be some of the Oregon and Washington State Rieslings that have been fermented to dryness. Look for references to “Alsatian style” on the labels.

“The synergy of well-made food and matching wines really makes a simple meal a great one”

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