Mallard is an underrated bird. It has several advantages over its farmed counterpart, duck. First of all, it takes a fraction of the time to cook. Roasting a duck will take you at least an hour or maybe two; mallard needs only about fifteen minutes in the oven, if that. Secondly, you can pretty much guarantee it's free range and has lived a good life, as with a lot of game. Thirdly, it's much lower in fat than duck but still delicious. And finally, it has a stronger, gamier, richer flavour than farmed duck, making it ideal for pairing with slightly more flavoursome, fruitier sauces.
One thing you must know: never, ever overcook a mallard. Like pigeon, this is a bird that has to be served dark, at most medium rare, and preferably oozing a little blood. You may find recipes suggesting you can pot roast or braise a mallard for hours to tenderise it: please don't. Sear it in a very hot pan, scorch it in a very hot oven, then serve it pink and delicious. Otherwise you may as well eat your own shoes.
The last time I cooked mallard, I served it with quince and a star anise sauce. Quince goes beautifully with mallard, as with duck, but this time I wanted to try a more classic flavour combination. Duck and orange is a bit retro, and something I've actually never tried, despite it being almost traditional. I figured I'd put a seasonal twist on this pairing by using Seville oranges.
The woman in the greengrocers looked earnestly at me when I bought my two wrinkled oranges. "You do know those are marmalade oranges, right?! They're not for eating!" I nodded, as if it was obvious. Apparently there had been several instances of customers complaining about these extraordinarily sour citrus specimens. I can't help but be amused by imagining the facial expression of someone who's just popped a segment of seville orange in their mouth.
Instead of making the traditional marmalade with these, I thought they'd be a lovely contrast to the gamey mallard. Mallard, marmalade, they sound quite similar. Although you probably wouldn't put duck on your morning toast. I've used Seville oranges once before, in a cake with almonds, which was lovely. They're not the most versatile of citrus fruits, unfortunately, being both hugely sour and also containing about a million pips per orange, but fortunately that suits this recipe well.
I made a light, sharp sauce with the oranges, rather like a jus, if you wanted to be all fancy and Mastercheffy about it. This involved blanching strips of orange zest in boiling water twice, to remove most of the bitterness, then making a kind of caramel with sugar and white wine vinegar. To this I added chicken stock and the juice of the two oranges. It looked rather like melted marmalade in the pan, with those gorgeous marigold strips of zest and its light, tawny colouring. I roasted the mallard in the oven, having seared it first in a pan, and served it with the sauce, some steamed cabbage, and celeriac mash.
This sharp sauce makes a wonderful contrast to the iron-rich meat of the mallard, which stays moist and delicious because of the fast roasting time. The mash soaks up all of the lovely sauce while the crunchy cabbage is a nice texture contrast and, obviously, good for you. You could make this sauce with any orange, though Seville and blood oranges are good because they're slightly sharper. It would also go well with normal duck, roasted until crispy, or pan-seared rare duck breasts.
A wild twist on an old classic; seasonal, comforting and delicious.
Roast mallard with Seville orange sauce (serves 2, with sauce left over):
2 Seville oranges (or any kind of orange - blood oranges are good)
3 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
400ml chicken stock
Olive oil and a knob of butter
Salt and pepper
One oven-ready mallard
A handful of fresh thyme
Mash and greens, to serve
First peel the rind from the oranges using a potato peeler. Slice this into long thin strips. Boil for a couple of minutes in a pan of water, then drain and boil again. Set aside. Bring the sugar and vinegar to the boil in a small saucepan, lower the heat and cook until it has turned a light caramel colour. Add the stock and boil for 5 minutes or so until reduced by a third. Add the juice from the oranges along with the rind, and keep warm.
Pre-heat the oven to 200C (190C fan oven). Season the mallard with salt and pepper. Warm a glug of olive oil and the butter in a pan and sear the mallard on all sides over a high heat until the skin has browned. Put on an oven-proof dish and place in the oven for 12-15 minutes (for rare to medium rare). Remove, place on a board and cover with foil. Leave to rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving with the sauce, some greens and mashed potato - garnish the plates with the thyme leaves.