My dad was in town visiting from CT this weekend and we celebrated halloween with a decadent feast. Cauliflower steaks on a cauliflower puree, brussels sprouts with pearl onions and pancetta, and this fantastic duck recipe from Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook: crispy sauteed breast meat and roasted leg meat, rubbed with a delicious orange-kissed aromatic rub and topped with a heady sauce of tart cherries and sage. Traunfeld’s recipes have always served us well, and this dish was no exception.
I don’t understand why duck hasn’t become more of a mainstay in home cooking. Ok, I do understand – the breasts aren’t oversized and white and they are a bit higher in fat. Between a general aversion to fat and an attraction to big white breasts, chicken tends to get all the attention. But duck is far more flavorful than chicken, and not much more expensive. The breast is padded with the tastiest fat you can find, and duck leg confit is pure bliss. The following recipe uses a whole bird, but requires that you cut it into pieces first. This allows you to cook the legs and the breast separately, in ways that complement their different cooking requirements. If you don’t know how to cut up a whole duck, here’s a quick video showing the process (music by The Bad Plus) and a more instructional video is available here.
The carcass is put to good use here, creating a rich duck stock that gets reduced along with some red wine to create a really rich and full flavored sauce. That richness is nicely balanced by the tart cherries and earthy sage. I could eat a bowl of this sauce alone. Be sure to seek out dried tart cherries, which are usually processed with sugar and have a brilliant tangy flavor. They are becoming more common, and we were able to find them at our grocery store here in Seattle.
The original recipe calls for 2 ducks, but we found this halved version of the recipe to be more than sufficient for 3, and probably even 4 people with accompaniments.
Herb-Rubbed Duck with Tart Cherry and Sage Sauce
Adapted from the Herbfarm Cookbook
- 3 fresh bay laurel leaves, or 1 dried
- 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 Tbsp fresh English thyme leaves
- 2 tsp juniper berries
- Thinly sliced zest of ¼ orange (removed with a zester)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 whole 5-pound duck, Peking or Muscovy
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ½ yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 small carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
- 4 3-inch sprigs fresh English thyme
- 1 bay laurel leave, fresh or dried
- 1 cup full-bodied red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot
- 1 small shallot, finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
- ½ cup dried tart cherries
- 1 Tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
- 1 tsp fresh English thyme, finely chopped
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Herb rub. If using fresh bay leaves, pull out the center veins. Combine all the ingredients for the herb rub in a spice mill or blender and grind to a coarse paste.
Marinating the duck. Cut up the ducks by removing the 2 legs and the 2 boneless breasts (with skin) from the duck. Reserve the neck and carcass. Trim excess skin and fat from the legs and breasts as necessary, you want the piece of fat on top of the breast to be equal in size to the breast meat (in other words, I should have trimmed slightly more in the video above). Likewise, you want the legs to be covered in skin and fat, but not hanging with lose skin. Remove the silver skin on from the breast meat and score the skin on the breasts by drawing a very sharp knife across the skin in a diagonal crisscross pattern, at least 4 or 5 lines in each direction. Be careful to cut only into the skin and not into the flesh. This helps render the fat quickly when the breasts are cooked. Rub the duck breasts and legs with the herb paste as evenly as you can, rubbing some inside the scored cuts. Put them in a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or as long as 24 hours.
Stock. Cut the wings off the duck carcass, remove as much skin and fat as comes off easily, and cut the wings and neck in half and the carcass into quarters. Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add the 2 halved wings, 4 pieces of carcass, and 1 halved neck to the pot and brown them for 10 to 12 minutes, turning once or twice. This step is important for building flavor in the stock but not all of the surfaces need to be evenly brown. Adjust your heat so as not to burn the duck, or it may taste bitter. Pour off the fat that has accumulated in the pan, then pour in enough cold water to barely cover the bones. Bring the stock to a boil, turn the heat to very low, and skim off any fat or foam that rises to the surface. Add the onion, carrot, celery, thyme, and bay leaves and gently simmer uncovered for 2 to 3 hours.
Sauce. Strain the stock, discard the bones, and return the stock to the pot. Reduce the stock until you have only about 2.5 to 3 cups left. Add the wine, shallot, and cherries. Boil the sauce until it is thickened and reduced to about 1 cup, 45 to 60 minutes. (The sauce can be made a day ahead and refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
Roasting the legs. Preheat the oven to 425°F. About 45 minutes before serving, heat a large (10- to 12-inch) ovenproof skillet (cast iron works well) over medium-high heat. Pour in a film of vegetable oil or duck fat and heat. Add the duck legs skin side down and cook until the skin side browns, 4 to 5 minutes. Without turning the legs over, put the pan in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Turn the duck legs and continue to roast until the skin is very brown and crisp and the meat is tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 to 20 minutes longer. Remove them from the oven and let rest on a plate in a warm spot.
Sautéeing the breasts. When the legs have been in the oven for 20 minutes, begin to cook the breasts. Pour a thin film of oil or clarified butter into another large skillet and heat it over medium heat until hot. Add the duck breasts skin side down, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let cook slowly and undisturbed. You should hear only a gentle sizzle. After 5 minutes, a significant amount of fat will have rendered into the pan, which will help render the remaining fat from under the skin. Continue to cook the breasts until the skin is very brown and crisp, another 5 to 10 minutes. If the rendered fat rises above the level of the skin and the duck meat begins to be submerged, pour some of it off into a small bowl. This will prevent the breast meat from overcooking before the skin is crisp. When the skin is crisp but not blackened, turn the breasts over and cook just 1 minute for rare or 2 to 5 minutes for medium-rare to medium. The meat should feel firm but still springy and an instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into the breast should register 120°F to 125°F for rare, 130°F to 135°F for medium-rare to medium. I prefer to stop the duck right around 130˚F. Be careful, as this happens quickly and you do not want to overcook the duck. The temperature will continue to rise about 10° as they rest. Transfer them to the plate with the legs and let them sit on the back of the stove for 4 to 5 minutes before carving.
Finishing. As you are tending the duck breast, bring the sauce to a simmer and stir in the chopped sage, thyme, and balsamic vinegar. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Optionally, you can add about 1 tablespoon of butter to the sauce: remove from heat and whisk in the butter. Arrange the duck legs on a warmed platter or individual plates. Using a sharp thin knife, slice the breasts on a diagonal ¼ to ½ inch thick and arrange the slices in a fan shape leaning against the legs. Pour the sauce over and around the duck.
Serves 3 or 4 with accompaniments