Ep. 523 – Hierarchy of Waterfowl from a Culinary Perspective

Chris Jennings: Hey, everybody, welcome back to the Ducks Unlimited podcast. I'm your host, Chris Jennings. Joining me on the show today, once again, is Scott Laseth. Scott, welcome back to the show. Good to be here, man. Scott, for any listener who does not know, is the cooking columnist for Ducks Unlimited magazine, among other accolades throughout the industry. Scott also has several TV shows, four to be in fact, on the Outdoor channel right now. We touched on that in the last episode, but Scott and I kind of got to talking about, you know, maybe this is more of a perspectives thing, but I think it's very, very obvious that there is a hierarchy of waterfowl from a culinary perspective. Some people prefer to only eat these ducks or maybe they don't eat diving ducks, but some people will only eat diving ducks or prefer diving ducks over puddlers. There's just, there is a hierarchy there. And so we wanted to go through that. And Scott, I want you to go ahead and kind of explain from your perspective where you're coming from on that hierarchy of ducks.
Scott Leysath: Well, you know, I've never been one to say, I'm just going to shoot green hits or, you know, don't shoot Spoonies. There are clubs in Northern California where they fine you if you shoot a Spoonie and they don't want you bringing, they don't want you bringing Spoonies into the club. Or if you're dropping them off at the pickers, if you've got a strap of Spoonies, somebody is going to be laughing at you. Now, I take those same spoonies and I prepare them and cook them for people and just don't tell them they're spoonies and they go, wow, this duck is good. I've done blind tastings where I've had mallard, gadwall, pintail, and wigeon and they were all prepared exactly the same and I would just have a little morsel and people would try it and I'd say, okay, you tell me which is which. They can't do it. There's a guy that I hunted with for years that said, the gadwall in California fly over to Nevada and eat snails, and then they come back to California and they taste really bad, and that's why he won't shoot them. And I said, you're an idiot. So on the back of the pickup, after we got done hunting, I took a gadwall breast, and a mallard breast and we had a third person there to make sure I wasn't mixing anything up and I said all right you tell me which one's the gadwall which one's the mallard it took him a while but he did choose wrong but just the fact that he had to really think about which one was which tells me that you know maybe the hierarchy isn't quite so, isn't quite so. Maybe you can make a gadwall taste like a mallard without wrapping it in jalapeno, bacon and cream cheese. So, but you know, we shoot a lot of spoonies in California. You know, and they shoot a lot of greenheads in Louisiana and Arkansas. And so greenheads are the thing. But I'm telling you, there's so many other ducks out there. Spoonies, surf scoaters, those, you know, diving ducks. But you have to prepare them a little bit different. It's not that one's better than the other. It's kind of one's easier to cook than the other.

Chris Jennings: I think, you know, we kind of joke around at our place and we make, we cook a lot of ducks at our little duck camp and make poppers and fried duck and all kinds of different things and people who visit and hang out there and we always tell them that we only cook green heads. you know, big fat green heads. And then when they ask, like, how many green heads you kill? You're just like, oh, we didn't shoot any. You know, it's like, just tell them they're eating green heads. They don't know the difference, you know, especially in a popper or a fried duck recipe or something like that. You know, you can always tell them, oh yeah, that's a green head, but you know, they won't know the difference anyway. So you're exactly right. But that hierarchy, you know, what would be your, you know, if you look at it, what people would say, what's the most common duck that people say is the best one to eat?

Scott Leysath: Well, probably here it would be a pintail. My guess is if I was to pull most of the hunters here, it would be pintail, mallard, teal, wigeon, gadwall, spoonie. Where's that wood duck? They don't shoot foot ducks here. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. There's wood duck boxes everywhere. We see what he's flying over and I'm still not convinced you can call a woody, even though people say that they do. I think the woody really, it has to be his idea or her idea. But it's some of the best tasting duck out there. But in California, we don't. Just don't shoot a lot of them. We try to typically let them go and wait for something else.

Chris Jennings: That's interesting. Yeah, that is. I guess maybe I'm just an equal opportunity duck shooter that if it's in range, it's getting shot at.

Scott Leysath: Well, and the ringnecks that you all shoot, people here in California, they don't shoot them unless it's by mistake. And yet I've cooked lots of ringnecks in the Southeast and they're great. There's nothing wrong with them, but out here, they're going, what was that?

Chris Jennings: You know, that's a perception with diving ducks, too, when what's actually really interesting about that is, you know, the canvasback used to be one of the most sought-after birds and almost to the point of extinction based on market hunting. You know, those things were fetching the most money in these markets, you know, early in the 1900s, late 1800s. And now, you know, people are like, I don't eat diving ducks. Like, that doesn't make sense. Like, well, what changed there? From your perspective, what do you think changed in that mindset?

Scott Leysath: You know, I'm not sure where that came from, why. You know, Mallards are king. I'm not sure when that happened. You know, growing up, and I've been hunting for 50 some odd years, mallards were the thing 50 years ago in Virginia where I grew up. And I don't know if we just had more mallards. I'm guessing we had more mallards then than we do now. Does that make sense?

Chris Jennings: Maybe in certain areas, certainly. I don't know.

Scott Leysath: Yeah. I really, I'm not saying that I don't want to bring home seven greenheads on a strap. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. It just doesn't happen all that often for most people. Unless you've got a high dollar duck club here would be in the Butte sink where, you know, if you can afford it, And be real picky and shoot the natural cover, you're probably just gonna shoot, you can pick and choose green heads. But most of us that have a seat and a blind somewhere or that are hunting refuges don't have that option. And very seldom are we gonna be able to come out with a limit of green heads. And you know, a lot of places you can only shoot so many green heads out of your limit anyway. Yeah. Again, I can take a Wigeon and make it taste just like a Greenhead just by putting a simple brine in it, not overcooking it, and being respectful with the animal and not trying to make it not taste like a Wigeon. I'm not a hierarchy guy. Again, I love shooting good ducks, so to speak, but I'll shoot them all.

Chris Jennings: Yep. And I think it's regional too. Like you said, there's some things that, you know, people may assume about certain species from our, like, I was surprised to hear when you mentioned your hierarchy, that the green winged teal wasn't higher. Cause California shoots a ton of green winged teal.

Scott Leysath: We do a lot of spooning and a lot of teal.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And I, and from my perspective, I'm a big green winged teal fan. On the table, you know, they're, they're very good. Like I get a chance to shoot six green wings. I'm taking it, you know, that's it. Um, but I was surprised to hear it kind of further down on your list. And I didn't know if that was maybe just a regional thing or if that was not, not that I'm saying you're the hierarchy list, but, you know, further down on what you would say, the perception of the hunter there may have.

Scott Leysath: Well, and teal is one of the few ducks that I'm going to cook whole and serve whole because, you know, a medium-rare teal leg is still edible. You don't really need to go low and slow on those. You just need to gnaw on it a little bit. But you're right, teal I think is, I mean, between teal, mallard, and pintail. You know, they're all right there on top as far as my personal hierarchy. But I think, you know, if I'm going to have a meal and somebody says, do you want teal or mallard? I think I'm with you. I think I'd rather shoot. I'd rather eat the teal.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. I mean, I, I, we've had this conversation with some of the buddies that I hunt with and like Teal, everyone is like, oh yeah, I'm, I'm going after that. If, you know, now granted, if I'm trying to, you know, live off of that, that larger mallard makes a lot, lot more sense. But, you know, with, with what I'm trying to cook and some of the recipes that I do, um, I want that green wheat too. So, uh, that's always an interesting, you know, perspective. But I will tell you this one story, and you'll probably appreciate this, you know, with like dead meat and all the things that you end up cooking and eating. I was on a hunt in the Northwest Territories, and we were hunting with a First Nations guide, and we shot a buffalo head. And so we were all sitting there and, you know, he immediately plucked that thing. It was ready to go by the time we got back to camp. And as like the appetizer before, you know, he went to, we were cooking dinner on the fire and kind of as an appetizer, he just rough pluck that buffalo head and just set it right on the, on the grate. And it basically singed all the feathers off and it wasn't on there long, I'll tell you that. And he didn't even turn it. He basically just set it on there with the breast down. I mean, this thing still has head on, feet on, everything. And he cooked it like, he's like, oh, this is, you know, this is how we cook these. And he was just explaining, it's just kind of a little snack, you know, buffalo head, small size, you know, it's just a little snack for them. And so he pulled that thing off, pulled out his pocket knife and just started slicing small, thin slices off that breast. And, uh, he starts handing it out to everybody and it tasted exactly what I thought it was going to taste like. It, it tasted like a Shiner in my mouth. Like I just put a fish in my mouth, but I think that that was, I think all of that, it was more of the approach and the, the process of the way he cooked it rather than the, the, uh, a buffalo head by itself, they're edible. What we were doing there, I don't know if I would do that again. So I'm sure you've had some experiences like that where maybe someone or maybe an accident when cooking that you have ruined a duck or something that you weren't expecting happened. Is that the case? Well, yeah.

Scott Leysath: And I'm sure you're the same way. If you've got a mallard that's got, you want to pluck it, you want all that fat on there, you take your time, you render the fat down, until that skin's nice and crispy. However, with some of the ducks, you gotta get rid of that skin. Whether it's a surf scoter or a buffalo head, you notice that that skin didn't help the flavor of the duck. It did not. But if you take that same duck and you peel the skin off, put a little brine on it, you'll find that it's a whole different duck. We hunted surf scoters on a dead meat show in the San Francisco Bay. It was great. You're in a large boat. You're shooting about three feet off the water. These surf scoters, they're flying on a string. They're not really working like you see other ducks work. And I was told that they're not edible. I brought them home and the skin on these things is orange, right? So it's obviously whatever they're eating is turning that skin orange. If you eat it with the skin, it's not good. If you peel the skin off, if you don't pluck it, you just peel it and then use it that way, it's a whole different duck. So for the diver ducks, I removed the skin. But for the for the puddlers, I try and pluck them and leave the skin on.

Chris Jennings: I was eider hunting in Maine several years ago and we'd shot several common eiders and we skinned those, you know, they breasted them out basically and sliced the breasts up, not real thin, but maybe the quarter to a half an inch and marinated them. And, and they were, people were like, I'm not eating that. You know, it's an eider. There's no way I'm eating that. And I'm like, I'll try, I'll try anything. And, uh, and I, I thought it was great, you know, no problem with it whatsoever. But again, like you said, it's all on the approach. So, and the, the perception, you know, Hunter's perception as far as, Oh, I'm not really crazy about eating those ring necks or, you know, blue bills where you may have another guy who's like, that's all I want to eat.

Scott Leysath: So the guy that says that's all I want to eat, I'm guessing. He only has access to Bluebills and things, I mean… That's probably right, yeah.

Chris Jennings: Well, you know what was interesting? When we were in that First Nations village in the Northwest Territories, some of the other locals there, they wanted, they would come to us and they'd ask, like, do you got any ducks? You know, they wanted ducks. But they don't, they wanted common mergansers. That's the bird that they wanted to eat. And we're like, yeah, we didn't, we didn't shoot any of the common we're getting. And I found that interesting. Yeah. But our, our guide was like, you know, they're there. Think about it from their perspective. They're bigger, you know, they're a little bit larger bird. They're very, very, you know, protein heavy diet anyway. And so like they lie, they want that more, I don't want to say fishy, but you know, something that's got a little bit of a different flavor than what maybe we would be accustomed to. Sure. So, I found that very interesting. Just like you say, you can add that to the hierarchy, the anomalies in that hierarchy where some, you know, these people wanted to eat common mergansers, where other people would say, nah, I'm not going to touch it.

Scott Leysath: And I, you know, I've always thought of mergansers as kind of bottom of the barrel. And, you know, if there is a bottom of the barrel, I think merganser might be there. However, on a dead meat show, we were in South Carolina, with a gal who's with the Gullah community, direct African descendants. She cooked merganser, and let's see, possum, marsh hen, and mullet, all the things that you really want to eat all the time. the merganser was good. I mean, and I've cooked mergansers before. They take a little work. They're a little strong. You don't want the skin. You don't stuff a merganser and roast it, but the breasts are fine. You want a marinade. You want a brine and a marinade. And if you need to disguise that flavor a little bit on the merganser, what I do, because not all mergansers taste the same, take a slice of that breast, put a little salt and pepper on it, brown it lightly in a skillet, and then just see what it tastes like. See if it needs work. If it's really bad, I'm not gonna eat it. I mean, whether it's any piece of meat, if it doesn't taste, if it's off-tasting, and I've had mallards that look gorgeous, and then you eat them and go, what in the heck was this thing at the landfill or whatever, I don't know what it is, but see how it behaves. But those mergansers, I think, can benefit just from a very simple marinade, Leave it on overnight if you want. The brining helps. But again, I don't typically target mergansers if I can help it.

Chris Jennings: Hey, how was that possum she cooked? Yeah.

Scott Leysath: People that say they love possums, I don't think they've ever had chicken. I'm telling you. Possum to me isn't good. And I know that If you take it and you purge it for a week or whatever it is you want to do to make your possum not taste like possum, to me, it's just kind of greasy and wonky. Coons, possums, those kind of things, they're not high on my list. I'll eat them.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I've had a, I've had a raccoon that was, like, braised for a long period of time. Almost, you know, cooked down to, like, reduced down. And… Right. It, it really wasn't bad. Like, I was like… Yeah, it shreds up, you know. It was shredded. It was, you know, kind of one of those deals. And it, it was at some beast feast that, you know, I went to several years ago. But, uh, it, well, I was, I was surprised at that. The possum, man, that's tough.

Scott Leysath: I know.

Chris Jennings: It's tough to get past that whole possum face.

Scott Leysath: I'm with you. I'm with you. Yeah, especially if you were the one that broke it down and then you're eating this thing. And yeah, it's got that horror flick look on it.

Chris Jennings: You're eating possum. You're hungry. I know that. You know, one thing we did kind of skip over here, and I think we talked about it before we went on air, goose, the hierarchy of all geese. And where would you say, you know, and I think it's pretty obvious where most people stand in cooking geese, but, you know, from white fronts to Canada's, you know, smaller Canada's, the subspecies, snow geese, You know, and then even, I'll add cranes in there, but I think most people know that crane is pretty good. That's not something to pass over. So, what's kind of your perception on the goose slash crane?

Scott Leysath: Well, we have a late season hunt here for the specks, for the white frogs. which we're really fortunate in Northern California that we're really, really long on speckled bellies, which is not a bad place to be. They are, in my opinion, they're by far the better eating goose. I think most people would say speck, canadas, and then snow geese. And I tell you, the people that talk smack about snow geese I don't know what they're doing with their snow geese, whether they're even eating them or not. I'll take a snow goose over a Canada goose most of the time, especially a big Canada goose. You know, when you're slicing into a honker, into a raw honker breast, it's tough. I mean, you can feel it. You're applying a fair amount of pressure just to get through that thing. And so, you know, the bigger ones are a little, you wanna do something with the, if you're gonna cook it medium rare, I like to tenderize a little bit. I'll take that breast out and I'll either use a mallet or a jacquard, which I don't know if we've talked about before. The jacquard, they're tenderizers. It's spelled J-A-C-C-A-R-D, and it's got these surgical steel flat blades on the spring-loaded deal, and you just push it into that into that goose breast and it doesn't turn it into hamburger. It just cuts through the connective tissue, makes it more tender, and that helps the bigger ones. The snow geese, I want people to give snow goose another try. You've got the late season snow geese where you've got People are putting them into ditches. They're taking them to landfills. That's not what we should be doing with these things. If nothing else, breast them out, grind them up, make summer sausage out of them, make chorizo with them. But it's disrespectful to do what a lot of people do. I mean, it's wanton waste. It's illegal. I was going to say, it's illegal. Don't do it. Yeah, don't do that. Don't do it. But I want you to give those snow geese another try. And I'm with you on the San Diego cranes. What's not to like about cranes, right?

Chris Jennings: That's why they refer to them as the ribeye in the sky. But when I say that, the ribeye in the sky, you know, just like California, where I hunt in Arkansas, we are blessed with an abundance of white-fronted geese. And our area where we hunt, we have a ton of them. And so we end up harvesting quite a few. But that is one of the birds that we have a hard time keeping around, you know, like there's nothing ever in the freezer because we eat. I mean, almost every meal, you know, we start off with a, you know, a white front of breast kind of appetizer where we got into doing this recipe where, and you might, it's probably a spinoff of one of yours that I pulled off a marinade, but it's, you know, soy sauce, brown sugar, heavy garlic, and a little bit of ginger. And basically, we'll breast that bird out, throw it in those bags while we're unloading gear, putting stuff up. It might marinate for an hour. Now, if you leave it in longer, it just becomes meat candy. But, you know, at an hour, hour and a half, maybe two hours, you pull that thing out and you throw that on a hot grill. and get that thing to medium rare, pull it off. And I have buddies that come from all over the country to stay at our house and hunt and we hang out. And almost every year, the biggest surprise for people is like, you just cut that breast out and just threw it right on the grill like it's a piece of prime rib. I'm like, yeah. You know, absolutely. You know, and they're like, this is fantastic. I need that marinade. And then they realize how easy it is and people are just blown away by it. Do you, do you have people where, do you use something like either a Sandhill or a, you know, Speck as a bird to introduce to people? Is that, you know, have you done that before?

Scott Leysath: Absolutely, and I'll tell you, I think it was last year I wrote one of my columns was on specs, and I had a real hard time finding a spec or two to use for the recipes, because just like your guys, there aren't any. As many as we have, We eat them. You know, meat doesn't get better in the freezer, and so you want to eat it as… I like to eat it as soon as I can. But, you know, I do exactly the same thing, and that same marinade you're talking about works well with any duck or goose or deer or possum.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I actually learned that from a buddy, I think. He did dove breasts. He had a bunch of doves. And he marinated them in there, and then we just kind of tossed these little bitty, he called them like meat candy. And I'm like, what are you talking about? And he would just throw them on the hot grill, turn them over real quick. I mean, they weren't on the grill for a minute. And he pulled them off and threw them in a big bowl, and we're all standing around eating. And it was doves. So the morsel's about the size of a quarter. And everyone there was just like, oh my gosh, like this is unbelievable. So, yeah, that's a good one to use for duck or geese.

Scott Leysath: So, I guess that's my contribution to a recipe right there, but not… And as an aside, by the way, we were in Uruguay with dead meat, and I don't know if you've done the South American dove hunt. I have not. We had two guys shooting over and unders in less than two hours, and we shot three cases of shells. So, you know, I've never seen anything like what I saw in Uruguay. I'm telling the camera guys, I'm going, you're not going to see this again. And I'm sure lots of people have seen it. But at any time, you could take a break, pick up your gun, and there's, you know, 200 doves within range. And there were tens of thousands of doves attacking us. And anyway, so if you can get to Uruguay and shoot doves,

Chris Jennings: You can make a bunch of that meat candy. You can do that, yeah. Are they preparing those things for you down there, or how does that work?

Scott Leysath: Oh, yeah. Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Purdees, Doves, Ducks, Axis, we ate it all when we were there. That's awesome.

Chris Jennings: Now, is there any recipe, before I get you out of here, is there any recipe that you like to recommend to people as, you know, maybe one that if someone, let's say this, someone has a snow goose and they're hesitant, like you said, a lot of people are hesitant to eat snow geese, what are you telling them to do? What's the Scott Laseth 101, let's take this snow geese, let's get it eaten. Here's what you do.

Scott Leysath: My go-to recipe for any duck or goose, for people that say they don't like it, is let's assume that I brined it. I'm going to rub it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I'm going to put it skin side down. If it's a snow goose, I may or may not have the skin on it, depending on when or where it was shot. I'm going to brown it on both sides. I'm going to add a little red wine, a splash of balsamic vinegar, some garlic and rosemary. And then once that duck or once that goose is done, I'm going to take it out at about 130 degree internal temperature. Let it rest for a minute. Meanwhile, I'm going to keep producing that wine and balsamic vinegar. I'm going to add a little bit of either fresh berries or a little berry preserves. I've said this recipe for I don't know how many years. I may have actually done it on this show. So you've got the balance of balsamic vinegar. You got a little sour. You've got the sweet from either the preserves or the berries itself. Finish that with a little bit of chilled butter. Take the pan off the heat. Whisk in some chilled butter into the sauce and just drizzle that over that duck. First, slice it across the grain. Drizzle that over there. Put a couple other fresh berries on there so it looks really pretty. We want it to look good. People go nuts over that recipe. And again, I'm sure I've done it for DU many times. I've done it on my TV shows and in the website, and it's duck with balsamic berry sauce, or goose with balsamic berry sauce.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, you have, and that's a good one. That is a good one. I've done several renditions of that, whether it's the berry, remove the berry, but the balsamic, man, that just jumps. And then, like you said, I think one thing that is important, the presentation. you're taking the time to put additional berries on it and the drizzle and all that, that can make a big difference for someone who's not real eager to try and eat duck or goose.

Scott Leysath: It does help, yeah. I mean, when you go to a duck feed of some sort and you got a bunch of people cooking whole ducks and then you're putting whole ducks on the table, it's kind of like when I catered weddings and they'd say, Oh, we want Cornish game hens. I'm going, no, you don't. Because you've got a Cornish game hen on a plate that you're going to be fighting to slice into it and all that. And you've got gals with nice dresses on. And it's going to end up in somebody's lap. So, you know, when you're cooking a duck, take those legs and thighs off. Give them about a two hour head start until they start to come off the bone. Then you cook the breast. You make stock out of the bodies. You're using the whole thing. To me, cooking a whole duck just doesn't make sense.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. Yeah. I know you've, you have said that and written that before, but it's always good to reiterate, um, to, to our audience, you know, that whole duck for as cool, sometimes it looks in the picture. We've had that conversation. It's not always practical. So keep that in mind. Yeah.

Scott Leysath: That, uh, that the Christmas goose that you see in the photo is a domestic goose, not a wild goose. Not those legs are not going to be any good at medium rare.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. They're going to be toasty. Yeah. All right, Scott. I appreciate it. Um, this has been fantastic. I'm sure that our listeners have probably gained a lot of, uh, insider knowledge here on cooking and, and different species of ducks and different things to do, different approaches. Also, you know, remembrance on focusing on the presentation too, you know, just as important sometimes. So this has been great, great conversation and I'm sure we'll get you back on here real soon.

Scott Leysath: Very good.

Chris Jennings: I'd like to thank my guest, Scott Laseth, the Ducks Unlimited Magazine cooking columnist for coming on the show today and talking about the hierarchy of ducks and geese. I'd like to thank our producer, Chris Isaac, for putting the show together and getting it out to you. And I'd like to thank you, our listener, for joining us on the DU Podcast and supporting wetlands conservation.

Creators and Guests

Chris Jennings
Ducks Unlimited Podcast Outdoor Host
Ep. 523 – Hierarchy of Waterfowl from a Culinary Perspective