One of the wonderful things about duck is how baroque it sounds on the menu. Casually telling friends you're cooking duck breasts on a Tuesday night usually provokes raised eyebrows and imaginary moustache twirling. Duck breast isn't actually that outré price-wise; it's cheaper than a good cut of steak, and certainly cheaper than the more extravagant seafoods. Duck breast is an even better value because, unlike a T-bone, it is 100 percent edible, from the gamy, dark, boneless meat to the thick layer of succulent fat that hides like a birthday-cake stripper under the skin. Yet it retains its deserved reputation for luxury, as well as an undeserved one for being difficult.
Duck breasts don't warrant any particular handwringing; they are practically fool-proof to cook, easier than fish because of the lovely protective fat layer. All one needs to do is sear the duck, skin-side-down, in a good solid cast iron skillet, to let the skin get gloriously crisp and render some of the fat away before finishing the meat off in a nice hot oven or covered in a sauce bath on the stovetop. My father, through much trial and error, has decided 11 minutes to be the optimal cooking time (post sear) for your average duck breast. Some recipes say more, but dark meat gets dry with overcooking. And, anyway, the breasts should have a nice rest before slicing so they cook a little more from residual heat and the juices congeal instead of just running out on the cutting board. Unless the breasts are grotesquely thick, 11 minutes works. Scoring the skin is not strictly necessary. It lets out a little more of the rendered fat, assuming that's your goal, but it's primarily decorative. I am a big fat fan, so unless the layer is more bulbous than usual I leave it alone. If the duck was morbidly obese I may deign to slash.
Once you have mastered the elementary technique of sear, simmer, rest and slice, you can create many wonderful duck sauces. I love fruit and duck, so I often do things with plums and apricots. Stone fruits love duck. Berry jams can be added to pan juices to make simple sauces, as marmalade is in duck à l'orange. This recipe is adapted from Nigel Slater. His recipe includes duck's legs, but I don't like them as much. Sinewy and gamy. If that's your game, cook legs the same way. Preserved ginger may be bought at the grocery, but you can make it in about an hour. Julienne some ginger, cover it in cool water, boil it, drain it and repeat twice. Then boil the ginger in simple syrup over low heat for 30 minutes. It keeps in the fridge, and is nice on everything from yogurt to Chinese food.
Serve with kasha (we like Wolf's brand) and steamed asparagus with caper-aise (mayonnaise mixed with mashed capers).
Ingredients and method:
2 duck breasts
2 teaspoons preserved ginger, minced
4 tablespoons sugar syrup from preserved ginger
3 tablespoons warm water
1 teaspoon salt
1 orange, sliced thinly
1 lemon, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon sugar
Fresh ground pepper
Make 4 or 5 slashes, ½ an inch apart, through the skin of the duck breasts, if desired. Put them to brine in a plastic bag with 2 tablespoons of ginger syrup, the warm water and the salt. Seal and refrigerate for 1 to 4 hours. Save this liquid.
Heat a cast-iron pan over moderate heat until the handle is hot to the touch. Place the duck skin-side-down in the dry pan, and let it cook without shifting for 2 to 3 minutes. Peek underneath to see if the skin is nice and brown. If the fat is sputtering scarily, turn the heat down a bit. Once the skin looks seared and crisping, turn the breasts with tongs, pour off about half of the fat and add the lemon and orange slices along with the juices from the marinade. With the heat low, let the juices bubble before covering the pan and simmering for 13 minutes. I know I said 11, but this sauce has sugar, so you have to remove the lid and stir to prevent burning every minute or so, prolonging the cooking. Remove the duck and put it on a board to rest. Add the remaining syrup, sugar, fresh ground pepper and grated ginger to the pan. Then taste — it will need salt and possibly a little more sugar or orange juice. Adjust the seasoning, cook for another minute and taste it again. It should be sweet, piquant and slightly spicy. Slice each breast after 2 minutes of rest, arrange slices on plate and spoon the sauce over the meat. We left the fruit in the pan but eat it if you like.