A long time ago in a land far away, I had my first taste of duck breast. Having taken voluntary redundancy from a dot com boom job, I decided to do a little travelling with the pay off cash, and I found myself staying with some friends who had abandoned the London rat race in favour of a life in rural France. They had a beautiful house in the middle of nowhere where we drank the local wine and ate locally produced food and I can scarcely remember a more relaxing, enjoyable and tasty time. It was summer and the weather was good, warm but not scandalously hot so we still did most of our eating outdoors on the terrace. The barbecued duck was so delicious I couldn’t imagine how I could reproduce the taste and I forgot about duck until recently.
I kept on spotting duck breast in my local bargain-market and memories of balmy duck and Armagnac fueled evenings on the terrace came back to me. With Christmas approaching I decided to give quackmeat a go for myself, with an eye to having it for the festive feast. It’s relatively cheap now, and you can pick up two breasts for roughly a fiver.
I am not a fan of the traditional turkey and ham dinner, it is quite difficult to get right and even the best turkey dinners I have eaten have been marred by the palava of producing anything vaguely edible from a bird the size of a small car. Smarmy TV chefs will assure you their way is the best way or the easiest way, but whatever way you approach this fowl, it is going to be hard work. They are also ridiculously large so unless you are feeding a multitude of people who demand a traditional Christmas dinner, I would steer clear.
As I have mentioned before, I generally just cook for myself but I still like to treat myself for Christmas, I often have steak and chips for dinner, a treat for me. Last year I had vegetarian guests so I made my moussaka which we ate with salad and garlic bread and it was grand. This year my brother is visiting, we usually would have had a roast chicken dinner but this year I want to try something new.
Duck breast to the rescue. Duck meat is an odd thing, the meat itself tender and lean and you can treat it almost the same as red meat. There is a layer of fat on duck which needs to be melted off it in the cooking, but which adds a delicious flavour to the lean meat, and anything else it comes in contact with. I googled and youtubed my way through various ways of handling duck breasts and after a few test runs I think I have my Christmas menu set.
I am nodding towards the brassica family of underloved veg with Savoy Cabbage. Savoy is easy to prepare and responds very well to almost any way you’d care to cook it. Unlike its evil cousin the sprout, which chefs never tire of trying to disguise the flavour of. I have had sprouts many, many different ways, with pancetta, with almonds, stir fried, roasted, all sorts. Some of these variations were perfectly edible but there is no disguising the fact that the taste of sprouts needs to be disguised! So why bother? Instead of gravy I’m going for an orangey sauce which is a classic (almost clichéd) combination with duck.
This recipe will feed two people, you could of course make more but this isn’t really suitable for a Christmas style horde of 6 or more.
Duck Breast for the win
- 2 duck breasts
- 300 grams-ish of par boiled potatoes sliced to about 1 centimetre thick
- A clove of garlic finely chopped optional
- Some chopped fresh parsley optional
- Half a Savoy Cabbage
- 50 grams of pancetta or bacon lardons
- Balsamic vinegar and/or red wine vinegar
- Olive oil
- A shallot
- A generous tablespoon of marmalade
- The zest and juice of an orange
- Salt and Pepper
This recipe has a few steps and requires a little juggling but it is actually remarkably easy and the results are definitely worthy of a Christmas table. Get a few things organised a little in advance and you can’t go wrong. Par boil (half cook) as many potatoes as you think you’ll want and set them aside. Core and trim and finely slice the savoy cabbage and set aside.
Chop the shallot and garlic and fry up the bacon or pancetta so it’s ready to be warmed later... and that’s all the prep done really! The rest is just juggling.
From the various methods of cooking duck breast I investigated, I decided to go with Gordon’s, it’s easy and gives you time to breathe which is always good when cooking. I love cooking but I hate stressful cooking, which is why a career in a kitchen was never an option for me. Anyway, Gordon tells us to season the duck breast with salt and pepper and place skin side down in a cold frying pan with no oil or butter or anything, Gordon does not mention scoring the skin of the duck but other chefs do and it makes sense to me so I did just that, it looks good too. Bring the heat of the pan up to medium/low and marvel as the duck fat melts away. You should have your oven on by the way, pre-heating to 200℃. Duck breast releases a lot of fat as it cooks so remove the excess fat with a tablespoon and reserve, you’ll want it later. After about 6 to ten minutes, depending on how thick the breasts are, and how well you want them done, flip them over to the flesh side to sear and brown the meat. The skin by now should be a lovely, crispy, deep golden brown. As with any poultry, there’s always the chance that the duck harbours harmful bacteria, but duck is different to chicken and turkey because it’s a red meat. Like other red meats, some people may prefer to eat duck that’s cooked medium or medium rare so it’s still pink inside. I lean towards medium myself, but if you are worried by all means go for well done, well done duck will still taste a hell of a lot better than overdone turkey! Once you have seared the flesh side for a minute you should pop the duck in the hot oven, skin side down, for 5 or 6 minutes.
Now for some juggling, fry the potatoes in the pan you have just removed the duck from, yes there’s a lot of fat but come on… it’s Christmas! Add the chopped garlic and fry until browned. While you are waiting on the potatoes to brown make the orangey sauce. Don’t forget to take the duck out of the oven after a few minutes! Duck needs to rest a few minutes before you carve it anyway.
Fry the shallot in some of the duck fat you removed and reserved, add the marmalade, a tablespoon or two of red wine vinegar, the zest and juice of the orange, and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can add more vinegar or marmalade if you wish. Reduce the sauce down to a thin syrup, kind of consistency.
When the potatoes are browned, remove them from the pan and keep them warm in the oven as you reach the final straight.
Into the same pan goes the cooked bacon and savoy cabbage, stir fry for a minute and add a splash of water to help the cabbage wilt a little.
Go back to your breasts and slice them diagonally, not too thinly, fan them out on your plates, and spoon over the orange sauce, add the sauteed potatoes and the cabbage and bacon to the plate, garnish with chopped parsley. There should be juices left in the dish the duck breast was resting in, make a quick dressing with 2 parts olive oil to one part balsamic (or red wine) vinegar and add the juices to this, drizzle the dressing over the cabbage.
That’s it, Christmas dinner, or any half swanky dinner is ready.