Make This Now: Cosme’s Showstopping Duck Carnitas Tacos
I have a rule of thumb when dining out: Order the dish you’d never cook at home.
But this past week I found myself, at 10 o’clock at night, moving the contents of my fridge around like a sliding tile puzzle to make room for a five-pound duck and a tub of duck fat. I was preparing duck carnitas, a riff on the Mexican taqueria dish traditionally made with pork. I—and much of food-loving New York—had tried a spectacular version recently at Enrique Olvera’s new Manhattan restaurant, Cosme.
I got to this point because I just couldn’t get that bird out of my mind. Against the black cast-iron skillet it arrived on, the duck’s golden skin and white onion crest gave the bird a starlet quality. And it tasted as ethereal as it looked. The melt-in-your-mouth meat had an enticing barnyard funk and gently salty skin. Served with limes and sour onions on warm tortillas, it was the best rendition of carnitas I’d ever tasted.
Carnitas are generally made from pork shoulder, braised in lard, with such spices as bay leaf, oregano, sometimes cinnamon, then crisped to finish. But Daniela Soto-Innes, the commanding chef de cuisine at Cosme who introduced the dish to Olvera, reasoned that she could make carnitas equally as delicious using duck.
When I called her up, hoping to learn more about this colossal dish, Sotto-Innes explained that to make these carnitas, she’d combined her mother’s methods of cooking pork (in Mexican Coca-Cola, oranges, and tomatoes) with Cosme’s finesse and technique. She and Leovardo Garcia, her sous-chef and the man responsible for cooking the ducks day in and day out, invited me to their kitchen to see how it’s done.
Cosme serves 55 half-ducks on a busy night. In the basement kitchen, I hovered over Garcia as he salted and strung up 24 of the 100 heritage Rohan birds that had arrived that day from D’Artagnan, the New Jersey-based purveyor. “Sometimes I wish that I never came up with this idea,” said Soto-Innes, explaining that her cooks are physically exhausted from making the popular dish. “But I know if we take it off the menu, people are going to freak out.”
Inside the walk-in fridge, rows of heavily salted ducks hung in midair. The birds cure for four days, which gives the salt time to flavor the meat evenly and dry out the skin. “We have a joke around here that we’re gonna turn our office into a refrigerator for ducks,” said Cosme’s co-chef de cuisine, Mariana Villegas.
I watched as Garcia prepared the birds for hanging. He clipped the meat above and under the wishbone, then looped butcher’s twine around the bone with ease. Garcia came to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico, when he was 15 and has been cooking French, Spanish, and Italian food professionally ever since. Cosme’s kitchen is the first where he’s cooked Mexican food. “A lot of people think Mexican food is just salsa, chips, and guacamole, but Mexican food is complex,” he said proudly, reaching for another bird.
Duck fat fired across the stovetop as Garcia flipped 10 ducks, his arms gracefully dodging the oily bullets. Once he browned the skin on all sides, Garcia set the birds aside to prepare the braising liquid: He sautéed garlic, onions, and carrots, adding tomatoes and orange slices, and finally a mix of evaporated and condensed milks, and Mexican Coke.
Soto-Innes explained that the condensed milk is for sweetness and browning, while the evaporated milk helps tenderize the meat. The ducks are cooked overnight in this fragrant liquid, along with enough duck fat to nearly cover them. Morning-shift cooks debone the birds and roll them back up. The process sounds intricate, but Villegas assured me the bones pull away easily from the meat if you use your fingers.
My tutorial was over. It was time to see for myself. Rohan ducks, which Cosme prefers, proved hard to find—I figure Cosme is snapping them up—but I found success with slightly fattier Pekin ducks from Long Island. It took some time, but I enjoyed all the stewing and sautéing. And except for the duck fat vapors, which created a temporary greasy sauna sensation in my kitchen, it was painless.
Eight hours later, I awoke to perfumes of savory caramel from the oven. I pulled the duck from the fat (Cosme’s cooks use gloves; I wish I had, too) and nibbled on the wings. I tasted orange, warm spice, sweet and savory meat. It was worth the wait.
After dividing the duck in two and removing the bones—a tedious but therapeutic exercise—I tucked the meat back over the skin, rolled the skin over itself, and popped the misshapen cylinders under the broiler to crisp the skin. These steps kept the mess in the kitchen and not at the table. Served with flash-pickled onions (double the quantity that Cosme uses), limes, and the best store-bought tortillas I could find, it was a hit.
Cosme’s duck carnitas is project cooking at its best. If you’re serving it to a large group, make it ahead (the boneless duck halves keep well for several days under the braising liquid), and it you have a vessel large enough, make two ducks. It’s that delicious. I’ve since updated my dining rule: Order the dish you can’t make at home, then learn how to make it.
Duck Carnitas Tacos
Recipe adapted from Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme
Serves 4 to 6
Prep Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Cook Time: 8 hours
Total Time: 10 hours, 10 minutes
For the Duck
1 5½- to 6-pound duck
4 to 5 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt
About 6 cups (2¾ pounds) duck fat (available for order from D'Artagnan)
1 ancho chili
Grapeseed oil, as needed
1 garlic head, halved horizontally
1 large white onion, cut into ¾-inch dice
2 large carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into ¼-inch slices
2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1-inch dice
1 large orange, cut into sixths, and then crosswise into ½-inch wedges
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk
½ cup Mexican Coca-Cola (American Coke is fine)
2 bay leaves
8 whole allspice
Lime wedges, for serving
Warm tortillas, for serving
For the Topping
½ large white onion, very thinly sliced
2 medium radish, sliced into very thin rounds
2 teaspoons thinly sliced cilantro leaves, plus a few whole leaves to garnish
½ Serrano chili, sliced into very thin rounds
1. Four days before cooking, remove the insides of the duck; if you choose, reserve gizzards for another use. Cut off excess fat; if you choose, refrigerate to render later.
2. Using kitchen shears, clip the flesh above and below the wishbone until you can wrap your finger around the bone. Fold a 15-inch piece of butcher’s twine in half to create a loop. Slide the twine, loop-side first, around the wishbone, then pass the two twine ends through the loop to secure it, so you can hang it. (If you can’t hang it in the fridge, skip the twine and just lay the salted duck on a wire rack over a baking sheet so air can circulate around the duck, and rotate the bird twice a day)
3. Sprinkle the duck generously with salt, inside and out. It should look like it has been heavily snowed on.
4. Using the twine, hang the duck in the refrigerator so air circulates around it. Set a baking sheet under the duck to catch juices.
5. Four days later, cook the duck: Preheat the oven to 275°F. Melt the duck fat in a medium saucepan; keep warm.
6. Set a small cast-iron pan over high heat. When hot, add the ancho chili and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute per side. Remove the chili from the pan; set aside. If you choose to render more duck fat, add the reserved duck skin pieces to the hot pan and sear on all sides until the fat has rendered; set the fat aside.
7. In a 7-quart braising pan or Dutch oven, heat just enough grapeseed oil to coat the pan over medium-high. Once hot, sear the duck on all sides until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes total. Transfer the duck to a baking sheet and pour off the fat; discard fat.
8. Add enough oil to the hot pan to coat, then add the garlic and toast it over medium-high heat, about 30 seconds. Add the onions and carrots and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often, until they just soften, about 2 minutes. Add the oranges and cook for another minute. Add the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and Mexican Coca-Cola and bring to a simmer. Move the vegetables aside and place the duck into the pan. Tuck the toasted ancho chili, bay leaf, and allspice into the braising sauce. Add enough melted duck fat to nearly cover the duck. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan, then transfer to the oven and cook until tender, about 8 hours.
9. Let the duck cool slightly, then pull it from the braising liquid onto a rimmed pan or baking sheet. Strain the braising liquid and reserve.
10. Debone the duck: Wipe the braising bits off of the duck. Remove the wings; set them aside to nibble on later. Cut the skin around the end of the leg bone to release it from the bone and pull the small piece of skin off; discard. Slice down the breastbone). Slide your fingers into the incision and run them along the bone to release the meat from the bone. Repeat on the other side. Remove and discard the central carcass and any loose bones. Carefully twist the leg bone until it releases, then pull it out. Repeat with the other leg bone (be sure to remove the small dagger-like bone of the leg). Tuck any loose meat into the center of a deboned duck half. Starting at the wide end of a duck half, roll the skin over itself and into a cylinder, skin-side up. Transfer to a pan and cover it with the reserved, strained braising liquid. It will keep covered in its braising liquid in the refrigerator for several days.
11. About an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 300°F. Pull the duck from the braising liquid. Place it in a cast-iron pan and warm the duck through, for about 20 minutes. When ready to serve, place under a broiler until just browned, 30 to 60 seconds.
12. Just before serving, make the topping. Place the onion slices in a large bowl and the radish slices in a small bowl. Add the juice of 1 lime to the onions and the juice of ½ lime to the radish. Season both with salt and toss each often. After 1 minute, taste the radish, seasoning with more salt or soaking in the lime juice for longer, as needed. Remove from the lime juice and blot dry. After 5 minutes, taste the onions. If sour enough, remove from the lime juice. Season with salt and toss with cilantro leaves.
13. To plate, cover each duck half with the pickled onions. Place a few radish slices over the onions and Serrano slices over the radish. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve with lime wedges and warm tortillas.