Baked sauerkraut casserole, known as podvarok or podvarak, is a winter and festive specialty across the Balkan region. Historically, podvarok was a versatile vehicle for several types of meat and poultry, including duck, goose and turkey, which inspired this version with duck legs. Nowadays, podvarok is often made with pork, though it is also typical to prepare meat-free versions of it, especially in the lead up to Christmas for families who may be observing the Nativity Fast. My family, from North Macedonia, loves podvarok prepared simply with leeks, rice and a little paprika and this often forms part of our Christmas Eve feast. It works beautifully as a basis for the duck legs. The accompanying salad is known as “Macedonian salad” in North Macedonia, and its acidity cuts nicely through the richness of the podvarok.
For the duck leg podvarok: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Prepare the duck legs by trimming any excess fat. Prick the skin of each duck leg all over (6 to 8 times) with a sharp knife. Massage 1 tablespoon of salt all over the duck legs. Place them skin-side up on a roasting rack in a roasting pan and cook in the middle of the oven, rotating the pan halfway through, until the skin has just started to crisp and some duck fat has rendered, about 30 minutes. Transfer the duck legs to a large plate and set aside. Reserve any rendered duck fat for future use (for example, roast potatoes).
Meanwhile, make the sauerkraut base. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, then add the sauerkraut and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the moisture has evaporated, and the sauerkraut is starting to crisp and turn a light golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer the sauerkraut to a large rectangular deep-sided baking dish (9 x 14 inches) and spread it out evenly.
Next, heat the oil in a separate, medium sauté pan on medium heat. Add the leek and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the leek is soft and jammy but not browned, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the rice and cook until warmed through and well coated in the sauteed leek, around 2 minutes. Add the paprika and cook for a further minute or so, taking care not to burn the paprika. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and a generous grind of black pepper. Using a wooden spoon, stir to combine for no more than a minute, scraping along the bottom of the sauté pan to loosen the leek mixture. Remove the sauté pan from the heat and set aside.
Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees F.
Put the leek mixture into the baking dish with the sauerkraut. Stir everything well to distribute the leek mixture evenly through the sauerkraut, then add the rest of the chicken stock. Place a bay leaf in each corner of the baking dish nestled in the sauerkraut mixture. Arrange the duck legs skin-side up on top of the sauerkraut mixture. Add 2 cups of water around the duck legs and over the sauerkraut mixture, or as much as needed to ensure the sauerkraut is well covered in liquid but the duck legs are only half submerged, with no liquid covering the duck skin. Sprinkle a pinch of salt all over the duck legs and sauerkraut, and top everything with a good grind of black pepper.
Bake, uncovered, rotating the baking dish halfway through cooking and adding another 1/4 cup of water if the sauerkraut base is becoming too dry, until the duck legs are cooked through with the skin crispy and deep golden brown, and the sauerkraut has a nice golden red crust but is still moist underneath, around 70 to 75 minutes. Rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serve either in the baking dish or transfer to a large serving platter and sprinkle with a generous pinch of Aleppo chile flakes if desired.
For the Macedonian salad: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.
Spread the peppers out on a large parchment-lined baking tray and roast, turning them over once or twice during cooking, until they are soft and lightly charred on all sides, around 30 minutes. Place them in a lidded food container. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the peppers and remove and discard the stems and seeds. Cut the pepper flesh into 2-inch pieces and set aside.
Meanwhile, make the dressing by whisking together the oil, vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of black pepper in a large bowl. Add the tomatoes, shallots and parsley and gently toss with the dressing. Transfer the tomato mixture onto a salad serving platter and arrange the roasted peppers over the top. Spoon any dressing left in the bowl over the peppers. Sprinkle with the cheese and parsley leaves. Serve right away.
Use the ripest tomatoes you can find for the Macedonian salad. The peppers for the salad can also be prepared up to 2 days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator until using.
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