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Tired of turkey? Bag your own bird on Sauvie Island

Mark Altstetter shares tips for cooking duck, goose

It has become the traditional centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table.

Many Americans have grown accustomed to eating turkey — a ponderous, nearly flightless bird widely farmed throughout the country, and slaughtered in droves in preparation for the holiday season — every November, along with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes and the usual accoutrements.

But turkey is not the only big bird that makes a fine Thanksgiving roast. In fact, the savvy shopper can pick up some alternative fowl locally without ever having to go to the grocery store — provided he or she brings a shotgun.

“Sauvie Island is definitely duck hunting mecca,” says Mark Nebeker.

Nebeker is the manager of the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. The 12,000-acre territory, which is administered by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, isn’t the only place to hunt wild game on Sauvie Island, but it is certainly popular.

Of waterfowl hunting before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Nebeker says, “I wouldn’t say it picks up, per se, because our waterfowl hunting is so popular overall anyway.”

He remarks, “We typically run between eight and nine thousand hunter visits for the season.”

Ducks are the main attraction at this time of year in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. Goose hunting is also permitted, but there are restrictions on the species that may be taken.

“I hear that, quite often, from the hunters on the private lands, they like to get a nice, big, what we call a ‘Western’ Canada goose for Thanksgiving,” Nebeker says.

Mallard drakes, or male ducks, are also popular holiday birds, he adds.

Waterfowl bear some resemblance to turkey in taste and texture. However, duck and goose have higher proportions of richer, fattier dark meat. In fact, duck and goose are sometimes considered to be “red meat” like beef and venison, rather than “white meat” like chicken and turkey.

Because ducks and geese spend much of their time floating on the water, they have a layer of fat beneath their skin to insulate them and make them more buoyant.

When rendered, duck and goose fat can be reserved for cooking — and roasting a mallard duck, or a Canada goose, yields quite a lot of it.

Mark Altstetter, who is the chef and owner of the Scappoose restaurant Mark’s on the Channel, recommends confit as a means of preparing duck or goose.

“Confit is a somewhat advanced cooking process but can easily be mastered even for the not-so accomplished cook,” Altstetter notes.

According to Altstetter, duck and goose legs are particularly good in confit, as the method “transforms the toughness of the cut into a tender and flavorful end-product which is then suitable for consuming as-is or for many additional preparations.” The meat can be eaten off the bone, removed and eaten, or shredded and used in quesadillas, sandwiches or other dishes, he adds.

Altstetter also recommends saving the bones, fat, juices and other remains of the bird for further use. Bones and meat juices can be used for stock and fat can be used for cooking.

“Never waste a thing!” he advises.

In order to hunt waterfowl in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, licenses, validations and permits must be obtained from the ODFW.

The private Sauvie Island Duck Club, which hunts on an area of about 300 acres leased from Eger’s Farm on Sauvie Island, also offers paid memberships by the day, week and season.

Cooks can also skip the hunting trip and purchase duck or goose directly from the supermarket. Fred Meyer in Scappoose stocks both birds year-round.

Editor's note: Pick up the Nov. 21, 2014, issue of the Spotlight for a recipe from Mark Altstetter for how to prepare and season a duck or goose confit.