Comparing the table qualities of North American waterfowl
The short answer to the question posed in the title of this blog is, of course, any duck Michael Pendley is cooking.
Actually, I don't think any duck tastes bad, provided you care for and cook it properly, maximizing its good natural qualities and not accentuating the challenging aspects of its flesh. I've had goldeneyes in stews and baked dishes that were outstanding, and whistlers, sea ducks and, yes, even mergansers taste wonderful in jerky or sausage. On the flip side, I've had a few mallards I overcooked or otherwise botched that made me wince.
But if we're comparing the inherent culinary qualities of ducks, here's how I'd rank them.
First, forget whistling ducks and sea ducks. I've never had the former and fewer than 20 of the latter, so any comparison would be unfair. Then, let's toss out mergansers and goldeneyes. Again, I've sampled some really fine examples, but you can't throw the breasts of either on a grill side by side with those from a wood duck and expect them to compare.
Next, I'll eliminate ducks that, to me, have a muddy taste, including shovelers and ruddy ducks. While I'm at it, I'll cross off buffleheads, too. I love those little birds, and they are pretty good when eaten fresh. But again, we're seeking the crème de la crème here.
So, we're left with the pochards — scaup, redheads, ringnecks and canvasbacks — versus teal, wood ducks and big puddle ducks. With apologies to my beloved divers, I must nix scaup, redheads and ringbills. Hey, they're all good, especially when consumed fresh and trimmed of all fat, but we're going toe to toe with the best.
Now it's cans versus the glamorous dabblers, all of which are excellent. I'll remove wigeon, gadwall and blue-winged teal from the list. They are fantastic but can't quite take the crown. That leaves us with canvasbacks against pintails, mallards, woodies, black ducks and green-winged teal. At this level, we're splitting hairs, because all of these birds offer five-star dining. You could mix them in a bowl right off the grill, and no one in camp would complain about any bite.
Still, some have to go, so I'll start with … the mallard. Yes, the mallard — widely acknowledged as one of the best-tasting ducks in the world. Why? Depending on their diet, you can occasionally encounter a poor-tasting one. Maybe it would sooth some feelings if I admit that I'd rather eat a plucked late-season mallard than the most expensive filet mignon.
While I'm on a roll offending people, I'll scratch off wood ducks, too. Before you start pelting your monitor with rocks and garbage, hear me out. To me, woodies are the only puddler with a genuinely unique taste — one that probably reflects their fondness for acorns. Occasionally, I like the purer taste of other big puddlers a bit better. That's no slight to the mighty woodrow. This is a tough competition.
Greenwings, pintails, canvasbacks and black ducks must slug it out for the crown. Only a fool would pass up any of these tasty birds, and I can find no fault with any of them. So, I'll choose the winner the old-fashioned way: subjectively, based on personal experience.
Ultimately, the title game boils down to a fresh greenwing done just rare on a red-hot grill against a canvasback that's pan-seared, with crispy skin on one side. Both are among the finest wild fare I've eaten.
Ah, to heck with it. I can't choose a winner. I'll break my own rules and let greenwings and canvasbacks share the trophy. In fact, because all ducks taste so good when prepared with care, I'll invite them all to the stage to help hoist the prize (mergies in the back, though, if you please).
And I'll also make sure to extend an awards-ceremony invite to Pendley. All this talk of wild-duck dinners has me really hungry.