In Tribute to Sally Schmitt: Portuguese Duck and Sausage in Rice
Before it was Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-starred French Laundry, the old stone building in Yountville was variously a bar, laundry, brothel, and rooming house, that languished in decrepit condition for years.
It took Sally and Don Schmitt to see its potential, and to pour heart, soul, and untold hard work into transforming it into the original French Laundry in 1978, a cozy, one-menu per night restaurant. Sally did all the cooking, while husband Don greeted guests and poured the wines. It was a beloved institution that drew such acclaim that it attracted the likes of Robert Mondavi, Marion Cunningham, and Julia Child to dine.
When it came time for the Schmitts to retire from the taxing grind of restaurant life, they put the French Laundry up for sale in 1990. It took three years to sell it, as chef after chef deemed it too small or the area too rural. That is, until a down-on-his-luck chef named Keller came by, took one look, and fell hard for the place. The Schmitts generously gave him 18 months to raise the money necessary, because in their hearts they somehow knew Keller was the perfect successor.
As Sally Schmitt once deadpanned in an interview with me years ago about choosing Keller, “That worked out pretty well, didn’t it?”
Last month, Sally Schmitt passed away at age 90 — following her husband who died in 2017 — and just one month before the debut of her cookbook, “Six California Kitchens” (Chronicle Books), of which I received a review copy.
The book is a fitting legacy for a woman who was a true pioneer. Through words, photos, and recipes, it tells the story of the six kitchens that shaped her life: From her mother’s homestead kitchen outside Sacramento where vegetables came from their garden and butter from their Guernsey cow to The Vintage Café, which brought her to Yountville in the first place to oversee, and the nearby Chutney Kitchen, where she first tried her hand at creating prix-fixe dinners that grew so popular they prompted wait lists, to the iconic French Laundry, followed by the neglected heirloom Philo Apple Farm that she and her family nurtured back to life, and finally to the worse-for-wear Elk Cottage that she lovingly refurbished in retirement.
Get to know this remarkable, salt-of-the-earth woman through dishes such as “Cauliflower Souffle with Browned Butter,” “Scallops in Tequila Lime Cream with Cilantro Gremolata,” “Braised Lamb on Saffron Couscous with Tomato Concasse,” and “Frozen Lemon Meringue Torte.”
Sally was especially fond of duck, and it often showed up on her menu at the French Laundry. So, I couldn’t resist trying my hand at her “Portuguese Duck Sausage in Rice.”
With meaty duck legs atop seasoned rice with andouille sausage and sun-dried tomatoes, this dish is a little reminiscent of paella in taste. But it cooks in the oven for the most part, rather than on top of the stove.
The duck legs get trimmed of excess fat and skin, then roasted till cooked through. Onions and garlic get sauteed before being added to a large roasting pan with the andouille slices, sun-dried tomatoes, toasted rice, and chicken stock, with the duck legs arranged on top.
Sally’s recipe didn’t specify what type of sun-dried tomatoes — dried or preserved in oil — so I used the ones in olive oil. She also didn’t state what type of rice, so I went with jasmine.
The cook time for the rice mixture will depend on how large your pan is and thus how thick your layer of rice is. The recipe states it will take at least 30 minutes to cook the dish in the oven. Maybe because my baking dish was filled to the brim, I found it took more like 60 minutes. I also found that it was worthwhile to give the rice, especially the grains underneath the duck legs, a stir halfway through the baking time to ensure even and thorough cooking. So, I added that tip to the recipe below.
When you initially roast the duck legs separately, you’ll end up with a generous amount of rendered duck fat. You can save that in the fridge to cook other things. Or use it to make cracklings out with the trimmed fat and skin from the duck legs. Just dice the trimmings and cook in a small pan with the duck fat until the little bits become browned and crisp. Although Sally wrote that process would take about 10 minutes, I found it took more like 40 minutes. Still, it’s worth doing because the cracklings get as crunchy as bacon bits, and even more irresistible.
Serve the duck legs atop a mound of rice, strewn with cracklings. The duck legs end up very tender, with papery-thin skin, with all the fat underneath rendered. The rice is so flavorful and bountiful with spicy sausage and tangy, chewy bits of sun-dried tomato that it could be a satisfying meal all on its own even without the duck.
Together, though, they combine for a comforting dish that’s emblematic of an unforgettable woman who always knew that no fancy equipment was ever needed to cook a superlative meal.
Portuguese Duck Sausage in Rice
6 cups chicken stock
6 duck legs, with thighs attached, trimmed of any excess skin and fat (save to make cracklings), at room temperature
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large onions, sliced lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slices
2 andouille sausages, sliced into coins
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 cups rice
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
Cracklings (see recipe below), for garnishing
Coarsely chopped fresh parsley, for garnishing
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Lower the heat and keep the stock hot.
On a work surface, place the duck legs. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a roasting pan and cook the duck legs in the love until deeply browned, about 35 to 45 minutes. Turn off the oven.
Pour off the excess fat, setting aside 3 tablespoons for this dish, and saving the rest to make cracklings. Return the duck lets to the oven to rest while you proceed with the recipe.
In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the 3 tablespoons of reserved duck fat. Add the sliced onions and garlic. Saute until softened and season well with freshly ground black pepper.
Transfer the onion and garlic mixture to another large roasting pan, a casserole dish, or best choice, and earthenware cazuela.
In the skillet, gently saute the andouille sausage slices until browned. Discard the fat, and transfer the sausage to the roasting pan with the onions.
Add a little of the hot chicken stock to the skillet, heat turned off, and use a pastry brush to dissolve the bits and pieces on the bottom of the liquid. Turn the heat to low and cook, stirring, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Pour into the roasting pan with the onions and sausage.
Remove the duck from the oven and reheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a clean skillet over medium heat, warm or melt the butter or olive oil. Add the rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is hot and just showing a little color, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the roasting pan along with the sun-dried tomatoes.
Arrange duck on top. Pour over 4 cups of the reserved hot chicken stock. Cover the pan loosely with foil and bake until the rice is cooked, 30 to 60 minutes, giving the rice underneath the duck a stir halfway through baking time to ensure all the grains cook evenly.
Uncover to let the duck crisp up again, about 10 more minutes.
The dish will hold, loosely covered in a 300-degree oven, for at least 1 hour. The extra time in the oven actually improves the flavor and texture. I like the crisp, brown edges around the pan.
To serve, spoon some of the rice on each plate and place a duck leg on top. Sprinkle with cracklings and chopped parsley. Spoon a little of the remaining chicken stock over each serving.
Reserved skin and fat trimmed from duck legs, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Reserved duck fat from roasting duck legs
Warm the reserved duck fat in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the trimmings, and cook the diced trimmings until they render their fat and are nicely browned, about 40 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and salt immediately. Keep warm or rewarm in the oven when ready to use. These also make a delicious snack for a hungry cook or helper.
Adapted from “Six California Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt with Bruce Smith
Another Sally Schmitt Recipe to Enjoy: Cranberry and Apple Kuchen with Hot Cream Sauce