Why you ask? Because it caught my eye. Sitting next to the well butchered chicken thighs were whole ducks (necks included -- sadly no head nor feet). Impulsively, I went with what was fresh and what looked great. (I also had never broken down a whole duck before which was an inviting challenge)
(Upon checking out, the cashier said "when you open the bag, it might smell a little, and there may be a little blood. Don't worry. It is just because the ducks were killed this morning. Very fresh. You will love it." I did. Free range Mary's Ducks raised locally, in Fresno California.)
I set out to use the entirety of my duck that weekend. I brined and seared the duck breast, I tea smoked the legs, I made stock off the carcass and wings, I saved the bits of meat for soup, and saved the fat for potatoes. I wanted to make the most of this sacred poultry.
Duck is fattier than chicken. Unlike its "whiter" fleshed friend, duck breast is very rich and very tender. It hardly needs preparation. A quick pan fry. But that doesn't mean that I can't optimize the results with meticulous preparation. To do so, I brined the breast in a sugary spiced brine for 6 hours to infuse flavor and ensure succulence. I dressed the breast simply with lemon, ginger, duck broth, and pickled grapes.
The flavor profile was a take on Carena's Duck Duo published in Gourmet Magazine's September 2008 issue on Paris. Carena is somebody I look up to. She owns a small restaurant in Bellville. The greatest chefs in Paris are her patrons. Despite her following, she has remained in her modest shop rather than opening a large restaurant.
Carena came to Paris 20 years ago, via Argentina. Her food is the natural intersection of her past and present influences. It is Argentinian, French, Asian, and Spanish. Her dishes surprise and inspire. Her chocolate mouse uses sichuan peppercorns.
Her recipe for duck also incorporates the whole duck. She braises duck thighs in duck broth and then sears the breast. I have edited the recipe for brevity but maintain the flavors. I also add pickled grapes from smitten kitchen for a tart element that sings well with the spices in the Zuni Cafe duck brine. I serve it with pillowy mashed potatoes, a hearty yet subtle backdrop.
This recipe is magical and well edited. Please enjoy!
SEARED DUCK BREAST W GINGER, LEMON, AND PICKLED GRAPES (SERVES 2) Total time 8 hours, Active time 1 hour.
SUMMARY You will carve and seared your breasts early in the day, so that when you are ready to eat, all you will do is dry them off, sear them quickly and dress.
- 2 duck breasts (mine were small, but they can be up to 8 oz)1. 8 hours before eating, carve you duck breasts and pat dry.
- duck brine (6 c water, 3T sugar, 6T sea salt, handful of spices - allspice, cloves, mulling spices, avocado leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns)
- 1/2 lemon zested and 1/4 lemon juiced
- 1/2 inch ginger knob, grated
- 1/2 c duck broth (recipe below)
- 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
- 3 T pickled grapes (1/2 grapes, 1/2 c vinegar,1/2 c sugar, 1/2 t mustard seeds, 1 stick cinnamon, 5 cloves, 1/2 t peppercorns, 1/8 t salt)
Serve with mashed potatoes (1 large potato, 2 T heavy cream, 1/2 c duck broth, salt/pepper) and fresh grapes
2. Fix a brine by bringing 1 c water to boil with spices of your choice. I used around 6 cloves, 1 avocado leaf crumbled, 1/2 t mustard seeds, a stick of cinnamon, 4 allspice berries, 1/2 t mulling spices w/ dried orange peel. Bring to boil, and simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the water. Allow to cool and mix with 5 c cold water, sugar and salt until well incorporated. Submerge breasts in water, cover, and refrigerate for 6 hours (up to 2 days if desired).
3. Make the duck broth 4 hours before eating time.
4. Pickle grapes by bringing 1/2 c vinegar, 1/2 sugar, spices, and salt to a boil. Remove from flame, allow to cool and pour over sliced grapes in pickling jar. Seal and refrigerate.
5. 45 minutes before serving, boil your potato, cubed, for 15 minutes. Test to see if done. Boil longer if needed. When tender, drain, add cream, and duck broth. Fluff to a creamy consistency. Adjust liquids if needed. Salt and pepper to taste.
6. 15 minutes before serving, remove your breasts from the brine, rise off excess brine, and pat dry with a clean towel.
7. Heat a small saucepan on med-high and add a bit of render fat from the duck broth. When the fat shimmers, place the duck skin side down and fry for 5 minutes until a crispy skin develops. Flip and sear for 4 more minutes. Remove. (My breast were small. For a 7-8 lb duck, sear the breasts for 6-8 minutes on the skin and 6 minutes on the other side)
8. Deglaze the pan by adding the duck broth, lemon zest, garlic, ginger, and lemon juice. Reduce until the suace is velvety. Salt and pepper to taste. Toss in a couple tablespoons of drained pickled grapes.
Slice and plate the duck breast on top of mashed potatoes with the sultry sauce and more grapes for garnish.