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With Valentines less than a month away I thought we’d get a head start on planning that special Day. I’m dedicating the next few weeks to sharing dishes fit for a posh restaurant to help you create a romantic dinner for two in the serenity of your own kitchen. Fashionable as it always has been to spend the evening dining out with your sweetheart, I have long since changed that unsuccessful habit. It’s hardly romantic when you’re sitting in a bustling restaurant hoping for service while your food’s out there somewhere getting cold. The hustling waiter (poor guy) is up to his neck and needs three pairs of hands to be able to captain your sinking evening in a favourable direction. This year though, I urge you not leave your picturesque plans in the hands of a total stranger, but rather put your own hands to work so you and yours can sit down to a good bottle and a great meal.

Duck Breast. Any respectable restaurant prides itself in offering a dish of duck on its menu, but the issue with fine dining is the exorbitant price tag, plunging us average folk into taking notes on how to prepare this exquisite piece of meat at home. If you’ve ever felt this gamey breast too challenging to take on, let me reassure you, it’s not as difficult as you might think. The thing to remember is that ducks in comparison to chickens, do possess quite a thick layer of fat under the skin to keep them warm from cold waters and that is the key to understanding how duck breast should be prepared. That fatty layer of skin is full of flavour and the last thing you want to do is slice it off just because you don’t know how to cook it decently. Rather keep it on and get rid of all that fat like professional chefs do. How?

The most effective way to melting the fat off and gaining a golden brown, crisp skin is to render it down. And this is where some people go wrong. Many beginners assume that cooking duck breast is like cooking a steak, fast cooking on high heat. Quite the contrary. If the breast is cooked too quickly on high heat, you are essentially sealing in the fat rather than melting it off. Reversely, if you let the breast cook on low heat, slowly, the fat will begin to render down, leaving only the tastiest, thinnest layer of crisp skin. You will literally see the melted fat accumulating in the pan. Once this is achieved the breast must be turned over to be seared on the underside and then placed in the oven to finish cooking. Rest the cooked duck for a few minutes and voila – restaurant quality duck breast. That is all there is to learning how to cook a perfectly moist and tender duck breast with crispy skin. Once you master this technique you are well on your way to making any number of duck breast dishes to die for.

In this recipe I’ve taken the traditional combination of duck and orange (an old favourite for most) and reformed it with contemporary Asian flavours. Duck breast should always be served with a good sauce or jus to round off the dish. For this sauce I’ve combined smokey sesame oil with citrus notes, a hint of liquorice from star anise, aromatic ginger, heat from red chilli, honey for sweetness and soy sauce for balance. These flavours when combined become veritably Asian and so I accompanied the meat with grilled Baby Bok Choy, a Chinese cabbage that when still young is quite tender, juicy and quick to prepare. Placing them on a hot griddle for less than ten minutes, marks the cabbage whilst rewarding it with smokiness, making Baby Bok Choy a beautiful accompaniment to the saucy duck. To extend the vibrancy and texture of the dish I’ve included raw carrot ribbons spritzed with the juice one of Asia’s widely used citrus fruits, lime.

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Duck breast is rich with bold flavour and very “meaty” for a bird and is conventionally served with a good bottle of Red like you would with red meat even though duck is considered white meat. It doesn’t take a wine connoisseur to know that Red wine pairs beautifully with duck but in my humble opinion that is so when the dish is more rustic. Wine snobs may judge me harshly for this, but for this dish I suggest a lighter fruitier wine than Red, like a Sparkling Rosè or a Sparkling Rosè Brut. Since this is a fresh, vibrant, exuberant dish, it does well served with a cool crisp wine. I would suggest the same for a Duck Salad. All said and done I couldn’t be more pleased with this dish and if you give it a try I think you will be well on your way to achieving Valentines success.

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Ingredients
  • 2 duck breasts
  • 4 baby bok choy
  • 1 large red onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • salt & pepper

For the Sauce

  • 1 large garlic pod
  • 1 thumb size piece of ginger
  • 1/2 tsp whole black pepper
  • 1 red chilli
  • juice  & zest of 2 large oranges
  • 100ml light soy sauce
  • 2 tbs honey
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
Preparation
  1. For my personal taste these breasts have a medium doneness. Reduce the cooking time or increase the cooking time to your preference. For rare duck breast, I would suggest not putting the breast in the oven but instead rendering the fat down and leaving it to rest. For a well done breast, increase the cooking time in the oven by five minutes.
  2. To make the sauce peel ginger and garlic, remove and discard seeds and ribs from chilli and chop the ingredients finely.
  3.  In a small saucepan add sesame oil on low heat and gently fry the ginger, garlic and chilli.
  4. Roughly crush black pepper and add to the pan with star anise.
  5. Give it a stir before adding orange juice and soy sauce.
  6. Let it simmer very gently with lid on so the flavours infuse for 10 minutes.
  7. After 10 minutes check the consistency, if still very liquid turn up the heat.
  8. Add honey and orange zest and reduce with lid off till the consistency is thick enough to coat a spoon.
  9. Switch off the heat and set aside.
  10. Preheat oven to 160°C gas fan / 180°C electric fan / 200°C conventional.
  11. Meanwhile pat the breasts dry with a paper towel and *score the fat.
  12. Season the fat side with salt and the under side with salt and pepper.
  13. Add breasts to a thick based oven proof pan skin side down.
  14. Render for 12 minutes until most of the fat has melted off.
  15. Turn the breasts over and cook for another 2 minutes.
  16. Place the breasts in the oven for 5 minutes.
  17. Remove the breasts from the pan and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing.
  18. Save the duck fat for another recipe.
  19. While the duck is resting, place a griddle pan on medium heat.
  20. Rinse bok choy and slice lengthways in half.
  21. Peel onion and slice into thick rounds.
  22. Brush the griddle pan with oil and place the vegetables on the griddle pan for 4 minutes on each side, remove from heat and brush again with oil.
  23. Sprinkle with salt.
  24. To make carrot ribbons, remove the skin of the carrot and using a carrot peeler, peel the carrot into thin long strands. Add salt, a drizzle of oil, pinch of crushed pepper and a squeeze of lime juice.
  25. Slice the duck breasts on the diagonal score line into neat slices.
  26. Pass the sauce through a strainer and pour over the meat.
  27. Serve with hot bok choy, red onions and carrots.
Maestros Need to Know

*To help the fat on the breast render down faster it is essential to score the skin and fat. Scoring is to make incisions in a criss-cross pattern on the skin. Be careful though, do it gently because you should not slice through to the meat. The knife must only penetrate the skin and fat. By keeping the knife away from the meat, the meat will not lose any juices when cooking and therefore will remain tender.

*Before scoring check that there are no feather needles still inside the skin. If they are protruding, you may use a pair tweezers to remove them.

*Ensure that the skin the of the breast is adequately salted before cooking because salt helps to extract the fat but more importantly it makes for a crispy skin.

*The resting of the meat once cooked will help the meat to become more tender and develop more flavour so do not eliminate this process. It is rather important.

*When the meat has rested it is bound to lose juices that is full of flavour at this point you may add this juice into your sauce and stir it in.
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