If the word "stew" conjures up less-than-positive memories, perhaps you should consider saying "braise" instead. It is really just a question of semantics, but your dining companions may react differently if you tell them there are red-wine braised duck legs on the menu, rather than calling the dish duck stew.
At its best, braising is an art, not a frugal attempt to concoct a meal with a few scraps of meat and a lot of gravy. A good braise always trumps a steak or a roast, both in terms of complex flavors and satisfaction. It wants to be served with a really good bottle of wine.
Braising is essentially cooking with liquid, but gently, not at a full gallop. A combination of liquids is best: wine, a touch of tomato perhaps, and a flavorful broth. The addition of aromatic vegetables and herbs, and a slow, careful simmer, are keys to coaxing a morsel of meat to tender succulence and producing an equally praiseworthy sauce.
Shanks are a good choice for braising: think lamb, veal, beef. They respond well to this kind of cooking, thanks to their natural gelatin content, which keeps the meat moist and adds body to the sauce. But duck or chicken shanks, more commonly known as legs, are excellent, too, and they take less time.
I had purchased beautiful Muscovy duck legs, large, meaty and not terribly expensive. My plan was to cook them like osso buco, with a few minor changes. I used red wine, not white, and added more than the usual amount of tomato. I wanted a rich sugolike sauce, because I planned to serve them with wide, eggy pappardelle. I also tweaked the traditional gremolata garnish. Usually made with parsley, garlic and lemon zest, my version also has chopped capers, olives and orange zest.
One great advantage of a meaty braise is the fact that it can be cooked a day, or even several days, before serving. The flavors seem to deepen and improve the longer it sits in the fridge, and any surface fat is easier to remove when it is cold. Simply reheat the braise in a moderate oven, covered, adding a splash more broth if necessary. (Or you could take the cold meat from the bones and cut it into thin strips instead. Reheating in the sauce turns it into a duck ragu.) But chop the gremolata ingredients just before serving, so its bright, fresh flavors are not diminished.
And whether you decide to call it a braise or a stew, you'll find it's the solution for a festive winter meal.
New York Times columnist David Tanis is a former Chez Panisse chef.