Roasted Duck Legs Smothered with Cherries

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

This dish was inspired by a recipe for whole duck from Lagier Ranches. The marriage of cherries and duck legs is simple and succulent.


At his two-hundred-acre diversified organic farm in Escalon, about an hour and a half east of San Francisco, John Lagier raises almonds, grapes, berries, and cherries. Each spring, market shoppers await the arrival of his cherries—fat, deep red Bings, named after a Chinese worker employed by an early American cherry grower, and creamy yellow Rainiers blushed with red, the result of a cross between the Bing and the Van.

The Lagier family has been farming in the San Joaquin Valley for four generations. The earliest members settled there in 1874, to raise cattle, grain, and grapes. John started farming cherries organically in 1979, on eighteen acres.

The cherry season is short, running only three and a half weeks. By the time it ends, John explains, “each tree has had four passes by pickers to make sure all the ripe cherries are found-the ripe clusters are grabbed by the stem and pulled off. Then the cherries are hand sorted from a conveyor belt to eliminate any defects [doubles or spotted cherries].” The irregular cherries go through the pitting machine, destined for jam making. The good ones are exposed briefly to forced air to remove the orchard heat and then sent off to market.


Late spring through early summer.


Yellow varieties, such as the Rainier, should have a reddish blush. Ripe Bings should be deep red-black and have a healthy sheen. All cherries should be firm and plump. Since cherries can be chosen by the piece, select carefully, avoiding any with bruises. Bright green stems indicate recent picking. Always taste before buying.


Eat as soon as possible or store in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days.


Just before serving or using in a recipe, rinse with cold water and remove the stems and, if directed, the pits. For the latter task, use a cherry pitter-the simplest hand model pushes a plunger into the fruit, forcing out the pit-or a paring knife.


Cooking Methodroasting


Total Timeunder 4 hours

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Formal Dinner Party

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, halal, kosher, lactose-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free


Taste and Texturecrisp, fruity, herby, meaty, winey


  • 4 whole duck legs (thigh and drumstick), trimmed of excess fat
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced, or 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ¾ pound bing cherries, stemmed and pitted 
  • 1 cup port


  1. As soon as you get the duck legs home, rinse them, pat dry, and season generously with salt and pepper and the thyme. Rewrap and refrigerate until ready to cook. This can be done up to a couple of days in advance.

  2. Bring the duck legs to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

  3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until it is very hot. This will take a couple of minutes. Add the duck legs, skin side down, and cook until browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the legs over and brown on the second side, 3 to 5 minutes longer, pouring off the excess fat as you go.

  4. Arrange the onion and garlic in a baking dish large enough to hold the duck legs. When the legs are nicely browned, place them, skin side up, on top of the onion and garlic. Roast, turning the legs once at the midway point, for about 1¼ hours. If the fat released during roasting begins to brown and smoke, pour it off. Also, agitate the onion mixture underneath the duck legs every now and again so that it does not stick or blacken.

  5. At the same time you put the duck legs in the oven, combine the cherries and port in a small enameled cast-iron or other nonreactive saucepan, place over medium-low heat, bring to a simmer, and simmer until the cherries are soft and the port has reduced a bit, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

  6. During the last 15 minutes of roasting the duck legs, pour the cherry mixture evenly over the top. When the duck is done, the meat should fall easily from the bone.

  7. Transfer the duck legs to warmed individual plates or a platter, spoon the cherry-port juices and the onion-garlic mixture over the top, and serve.


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