From June 4 -6, 2014, I drove the Subaru up I-37 and I-13 to Warsaw, Indiana for Duck University at Maple Leaf Farms. They kindly asked me to join this program in which I would be given tours of their facilities, learn about proper ways to cook duck, enjoy a five course dinner with a master chef and receive cooking instruction and demonstrations from Sara Moulton (yes, THE PBS, Food Network Star, Restaurant Chef and Executive Chef Sara Moulton), in exchange for becoming a brand ambassador for duck and Maple Leaf Farms. Of course, I eagerly said YES, PLEASE!
As you can see, this is a long post. If there are only three things you can take away from this recap of my trip to Maple Leaf Farms, it’s this:
1. Duck from Maple Leaf Farms is humanely treated, the processing plants are extremely clean and the product is Grade A top notch duck.
2. Duck is healthier than chicken and just as easy (if not easier) to prepare and should be on your dinner menu once a week or more. Do not fear the duck! Maple Leaf Farms makes ready-to-eat products to help you understand how delicious it is with easy preparation.
3. Duck tastes GREAT. Plain and simple. They are not paying me to say this – I’m saying it because I have tasted almost every single type of duck product that Maple Leaf Farms offers and they are all outstanding.
And, you can buy it online if you cannot find it near you: http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/shop
THURSDAY NIGHT DINNER & INTRODUCTIONS
After driving 2.5 hours to Warsaw, I checked into the hotel room and waited in the lobby with the other members of our group before being escorted to our dinner at Noa Noa Wood Grill & Sushi Bar. (If you didn’t know, Warsaw is located near several lakes, Winona being one of the larger ones, so fresh fish is easy to find). At this time we began introductions, put our name badges on and started meeting everyone.
Our group consisted of recipe developers, competition cooks (and winners), restaurant reviewers, tourism writers and many other niches. I was joined by fellow central Indiana/southern Indiana bloggers such as Heather Tallman of Basilmomma and Leah Beyer of Beyer Beware, but much of the group either drove several more hours from Ohio or Chicago or flew in from North Carolina, Colorado, and New Jersey, to name a few.
While our dinner was delicious (I had the salmon with blue cheese and roasted vegetables), what I enjoyed more was the memorable conversation. I quickly became friends with Mike and Melissa Yob, a school teacher/videographer and a lady who loves her dog as much as her kitchen, and learned so much about them that I cannot wait to see what duck recipes they create next. Angela Buchanan (http://www.seasonalandsavory.com/) grew up in Muncie, Indiana but later moved to Michigan and then Boulder, Colorado, where she has been for the last 15 years. She taught me much about the gluten-free/composting/Paleo culture of Boulder, and I joked about how I figured Portlandia gave me some idea of what her everyday world is like. Jenny Bullistron (http://www.honeyandbirch.com/) from Chicago was similar to me in how long she had been blogging and what she enjoyed creating in her kitchen, and Mike Vrobel (http://www.dadcooksdinner.com/) from Ohio taught me how versatile the rotisserie cooking method can be.
After dinner, that small group and I gathered in the hotel bar and had quite the invigorating discussion about cooking, recipes, competitions, blogs and everything that we know. I could have sat there for hours with everyone, which is why I’m making a point to write about this. I cannot explain how much I learned on this trip JUST FROM THESE PEOPLE AROUND ME. Seriously. The networking and conversation was just as important as everything else, and I am so excited to follow everyone on their journey now that we know each other a little more.
FRIDAY TOURS, EDUCATION AND DINNER
Please note: We were not allowed to bring our phones onto the tours as to not share trade secrets and confidential information about Maple Leaf Farms. They provided me with photos to use that were OK per their guidelines.
Our first tour was of the feed mill. Ducks gotta eat, right?
Side note, we were driven in big vans from Warsaw, IN to Leesburg, IN, just a 20 minute drive north to the various locations for each plant. Indiana wore its best suit that day and I was proud to see the farmlands that I grew up with and to see everyone else’s eyes grow large as they took in the fields, barns and serene countryside. It made me appreciate Indiana even more (I know, that has to be pretty difficult, eh?)
The theme of the feed mill? Science is key. Think about it like this – for duck to be consistent in flavor and appearance each time you purchase it, someone has to make sure the ducks are eating the same thing. That means the corn and soybeans used to create their feed must be chemically analyzed to make sure the ducks are not only eating the same thing, but eating the RIGHT thing. This includes their water consumption as well. If you thought farming was anything but rocket science, you are mistaken.
Here is a photo from the chemistry lab where we were told all of these scientific facts about how the corn, soybeans and water are analyzed to make sure that the ducks are receiving the right nutrients.
This is Keith. It was his birthday. He has been with Maple Leaf Farms for over 32 years. It was a presiding theme throughout each tour we were given – the people who work for Maple Leaf Farms absolutely love their job.
After touring the feed mill, we were taken to an Amish duck farm. 90% of the duck farms that source duck for Maple Leaf Farms are Amish. Part of that is due to their location of Northern Indiana, where there are several Amish communities.
To enter the duck barn, we suited up in biohazard suits as to not bring in any foreign materials to the area where the duck eat, sleep and grow.
Say cheese! (And yes, Sara Moulton went on every tour with us and is seen in the front row all the way to the right. I am in the back row, second from the right)
The ducks we saw were in the building behind us in the photo above, a very large, open structure were the ducks have room to run around, drink water and eat food. We even picked one up and rubbed its belly.
Aside from all of the facts about duck that we were given, the most important takeaway I had from this part of the tour was about learning where the ducks live. Everything was clean and the ducks were well fed and taken care of. When they leave this home for the processing plant, they walk onto the truck and they walk off the truck. I appreciated knowing how clean and regulated the entire process was.
After seeing the live ducks, we were taken to the processing center, where we saw the ducks after they had been slaughtered and de-feathered. From there, the ducks were put on a line and evaluated by Maple Leaf Farms staff and USDA workers for quality. I’m not going to go in detail on the entire process, but understand that we saw whole ducks to the final packaged-and-boxed product that you purchase at a grocery store. It was stunning to watch people butcher the ducks down to the bones in swift, precise movements.
After spending half of the day walking through the different plants, we were taken to Maple Leaf Farms Corporate Headquarters for lunch and an afternoon of duck education.
From here we learned about the history of the company, the products they produce and the marketing challenges they face.
Here are some quick facts about Maple Leaf Farms that are important to share:
- Founded in 1958 near Milford, Indiana, Maple Leaf Farms has stayed a family-owned company since conception (read their full history here: http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/36)
- Maple Leaf Farms owns everything from the hatchery (duck eggs) to the feed mill to final production, which is called “vertical integration.”
- Maple Leaf Farms China started in 2009, where the company is now teaching China how to properly raise and process duck.
- They employee around 750 people domestically and around 200 internationally.
- Maple Leaf Farms makes use of every part of the duck – from selling blood to livestock companies to selling the feathers for pillows, nothing goes to waste (read about sustainability here: http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/sustainability)
- Over 150 family farms partner with Maple Leaf Farms to care for the ducks.
And a few facts about duck that you may not already know:
- The United States consumes roughly 18-20 million duck products per year – Asia, for contrast, consumes over 4 billion duck products per year.
- Duck is still seen as “special” in the United States and is found often during the holiday season but not always as easily available at other times of the year.
- There are four types of duck: White Pekin, Muscovy, Moulard and Mallard. 95% of the duck consumed in the United States is of the White Pekin variety and that is what Maple Leaf Farms produces.
- Farm raised vs free range – both are completely natural, but Maple Leaf Farms produces farm raised duck to prevent avian influenza disease and prevent them from being preyed upon by other animals.
However it seems as if there are more myths circulating about duck than there are facts. Let’s set the record straight:
- Duck is fatty – not true! A 3 oz serving size of duck has 2 grams of fat and is low in saturated fat.
- Duck is gamey – farm raised duck eats a natural diet of corn and soybeans. If you have had a duck from someone’s backyard, you definitely taste the gamey flavor that you will not get with Maple Leaf Farms.
- Duck is hard to prepare – I am about to bop you on the head ten times over with all of the reasons why it is not. This is also why Maple Leaf Farms produces ready-to-eat products that are frozen and just need to be reheated so that you can learn to love the flavor of duck without tackling an entire whole duck at once.
- Duck should be prepared like poultry – Actually, duck is RED meat. The USDA says to cook it to 165 degrees, but since it is red meat and does not risk the salmonella issues that chicken does, you can cook it to a lower temperature for a juicier taste. (That’s ME saying that, not Maple Leaf Farms).
Duck IS high in iron and selenium, which has been part of brain development and cancer studies. Duck fat, often called “liquid gold,” is second only to olive oil in amounts of oleic acid, the good fats that we hear about all of the time. People who live in southern France who drink red wine and cook everything in duck fat are actually healthier than people in many other parts of the world. Uh, let’s go to southern France???
Image courtesy USDA / Maple Leaf Farms – view the full nutritional information online here: http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/6
That chart really changed my opinion about duck. I know several people, including myself, have been introduced to duck and felt that it is fatty like dark chicken meat. Maple Leaf Farms’ duck has 30% less fat than their competitors due to their breeding standards.
Maple Leaf Farms offers so much more than just whole duck for cooking in your oven. Here is a full list of duck products that range from raw to fully cooked and ready-to-eat: http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/duck-products
I’m pretty sure we tasted a little bit of everything.
After we received our duck education, we went back to the hotel to rest before our five course dinner with Chef Dale Miller. Let’s just say that I had the dinner of my life that night.
THE DINNER: CHEF DALE MILLER
Our classroom was transformed into a fine dining experience where we enjoyed a five course dinner from Chef Dale Miller, a certified master chef. All I needed was to taste his food to know that Chef Dale Miller knew his way around a kitchen.
Before the meal even began we were greeted by a variety of hor d’oeuvres. I’ll say it only once right now – each and every dish included Maple Leaf Farms duck.
Duck Liver Mousse with Cornichons
Duck Tenders with a Berry Gastrique
Duck Bolognese with Pesto (using ground duck)
First Course – “Not Your Average Cold Duck” – Seared Duck Carpaccio, Horseradish Aioli, Crispy Capers, Reggiano Parmesan Shards
Second Course – “Duck and Cover” – Roasted Eggplant Tomato Bisque, Timbale of Duck Confit, Frizzled Leeks
Third Course – “When Smoke Gets In Your Duck” – Smoked Duck, Compressed Watermelon, Heirloom Tomatoes, Baby Arugula, Gorgonzola, Basil Pesto, Minus 8 Balsamic Vinegar
Fourth Course – “Ramped Up Duck” – Grilled Duck Breast with Ramp Charmoula, Warm Tuscan Potato Salad, Roasted Sweet Corn Crema, Seasonal Vegetables
Fifth Course – “Duck in a Jar” – Warm Peach and Blackberry Crisp, Almond Duck Bacon Streusel, Vanilla Gelato
If THAT doesn’t give you a ton of ideas for how to use duck, then maybe you don’t speak English. Or read it. Therefore enjoy the pretty pictures.
Of course I could dissect each dish for you and discuss why it was so delicious, but just trust me. They were. And we were all carefully rolled into the vans to head back to the hotel because we were beyond stuffed. And happy.
Really really happy.
Kudos to Chef Dale Miller and the entire Maple Leaf Farms culinary team (pictured here) who helped prepare each dish. They took the entire day to prepare this dinner. They also prepared the dishes we would taste the following day from Sara Moulton.
Here’s me and the group that I hung out with the most! New food buds!
And then there is Terry Tucker, the current CEO of Maple Leaf Farms. This man was quiet and slightly reserved, but when he did speak, he shared how much he appreciated us being in his facility, eating his duck. HIS duck! WE were the honored ones! I made a point to thank him for his generosity by not only allowing us to enjoy this delicious food, but for creating a company where people love going to work and a company that clearly treats their employees right.
While we were beyond tired from walking around all day and eating amazing food, we couldn’t help but explore what the city of Warsaw had to offer for nightlife.
Yes, there IS a nightlife scene in Warsaw.
Many of my Indianapolis friends are familiar with Cerulean, which actually already had a restaurant in Warsaw, IN off of Winona Lake, complete with delicious cocktails. Though as I was already familiar with Cerulean and we needed to find a place slightly closer to our hotel, we hopped in the big white van and went to Oak and Alley Public House.
Upon entering, Oak and Alley Public House might make you feel as though you’ve walked into a bar off of Meridian in downtown Indianapolis. It is slightly swanky and slightly rough around the edges with orange chairs, black and wooden tables and a brightly lit bar showcasing liquors, bitters and other mysterious cocktail ingredients that I couldn’t help but stare at.
I enjoyed a Hibiscus and Mate Collins, which included a signature Hibiscus-Yerba Mate infused vodka, lemon, San Pellegrino and Peychaud’s Bitters. It was a little purple, a little sweet, and VERY good. Also, it was only $6.
Mixologist Jason Bodley was extremely hospitable towards our group. He came over to our table to ask how we were, what we were enjoying and truly appreciated us as customers. Karl, our tour guide and big white van driver, ordered the poutine, which was outstanding. Their menu also includes various spirits, wines, brews and food.
They also make their own jams. Below is a rhubarb jam and a habanero jelly. Both were delicious. Who knew that they would send me home with a pint of the habanero jelly? Call it Hoosier Hospitality, call it generosity, I call it a mutual love of food.
I promise that after a few drinks and habanero jelly, I went back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep. But not without dreams of craft cocktails and and the appreciation for the passion that goes into creating a space within a city that may not be quite up to par with your ideas yet. If you ever find yourself in Warsaw, you MUST visit Oak and Alley.
FRIDAY COOKING DEMO’S WITH SARA MOLTON
I forgot to mention that during Chef Dale Miller’s dinner, Erica and Kristen discussed a potential early morning road trip for craft (or crack, aka addictive) donuts. With Friday, June 7 being national donut day, along with our overall desire to make a road trip just for food, we Yelped the location and determined it would take roughly 20 minutes to get to this donut bakery that everyone was raving about.
Of course, once Janelle, one of our amazing tour guides, heard that we were going to make this trip, she decided to go grab them for us. Did I tell you how hospitable these Maple Leaf Farms folks were? Seriously.
We were also told not to eat a heavy breakfast as Friday would primarily consist of…. tasting more duck!
I have not mentioned much about her so far, but Sara Moulton joined us for each tour on Friday including Chef Dale Miller’s dinner. She was an absolute pleasure to hang out with and I couldn’t have been more excited to sit in on her cooking demos which included three duck dishes.
I cannot say enough wonderful things about Sara. She not only demonstrated cooking techniques for duck, she also gave us insight into her world through each demo. We understood her from more than just a professional level. She is so relatable yet extremely knowledgeable about food and cooking methods.
I’m not going to give you each detail from the 3 pages of notes I took during her demonstrations, but here are a few highlights:
- Sara reads Cooks Illustrated cover to cover. Why? If you have ever picked up a copy, you know that each recipe is essentially a test of several cooking methods all in hopes that the best method will become apparent and the magazine can then guide you so that you don’t make the same mistakes they did.
- Even when Sara was producing two Food Network shows a day, her family ate dinner at the table together 6 days a week. If you don’t think you can cook dinner during busy weeks, just keep that fact in the back of your head. That’s why Sara offers so many weeknight meals that require few ingredients so you CAN get dinner on the table.
- Sara cooks duck at least 1 night a week.
- Any sauce you put on a steak can be put on a duck – remember what I said about duck being red meat!
- Sara recommends 10 minutes of resting time for cooked proteins and to add the juice from the rested meat to whatever sauce you are making.
Here are the dishes we tasted from Sara’s recipes, all which can be made for a weeknight meal:
Sauteed Duck Breasts with Apricot Szechuan Peppercorn Sauce – super stinkin’ simple and so, so good
Peking Duck Wraps – light, crunchy, a delicious dressing, filling and unique
Duck Confit and Frisee Salad with Blue Cheese and Grapes – included duck cracklins AND croutons soaked in duck fat
Of course, from there we had to finally wrap things up and say goodbye. What better way to do that than to officially graduate us from Duck University?
Phew. I think that’s everything. I must say that I left Maple Leaf Farms with a smile on my face that stuck for the entire drive back to Indianapolis. It was the just the kind of learning experience I needed to remind me WHY I have this little corner of the Internet and why I spend so much time sharing my recipes and food adventures with others. Not only did I get to meet fabulous people who do the same thing, but I learned from them and their experiences as well.
And if I haven’t reiterated it enough, the staff at Maple Leaf Farms was truly extraordinary. They were not only hospitable, each of them showed their love for Maple Leaf Farms. Many of them have worked with the company for the greater part of their lives. That’s saying something.
I really hope that my experience rubs off on you and that you get out there and try duck as well. From here on out I will be sharing duck recipes with you that range from quick weeknight meals to technical recipes that include several other unique ingredients.
Not sure where you can find Maple Leaf Farms duck in Indianapolis? I know for sure that you can get it at Kincaid’s Meat Market at 56th and Illinois, but you can also purchase all of Maple Leaf Farms’ products online. And if you want to get up early, head to the Broad Ripple Farmers Market on the 3rd Saturday of the month to purchase select products.
Leave a comment and let me know what questions you have about preparing duck or tell me what duck dishes you have prepared before – I want to hear from you!