October 3, 2011

Seared Duck Breast with Port and Cherry Sauce

More and more these days I’m disappointed by fancy restaurant meals. There’s so much hype about a restaurant, a chef, a dish. And then the experience is a letdown.

More often than not, we’ll go out for a special occasion meal, pay $32 for a piece of fish or steak and go “Well, that was…fine.”

There are exceptions of course. But considering that we like to cook, that we’re pretty good at it, and that cooking at home is always cheaper than going out (especially when you factor in the babysitter), my husband and I have been opting to stay in and cook lately, even for special occasion meals.

This past week was my husband’s birthday. Last year was a big one, so we went all out with a party at a downtown restaurant with friends and family. This year we decided to keep it low key.

One thing my husband likes to eat that I’ve never cooked at home is duck. It was a bit of a gamble. But I figured it would be a fun surprise to make him something that he wouldn't expect.

I considered making an entire duck then quickly realized that would be way too much work. (Not to mention way too much duck!) I wanted a dish with some “wow factor.” But I didn’t want to spend the entire evening stressing out in the kitchen.

I found a recipe for seared duck breasts that seemed manageable. It turned out that the hardest part of the dish was tracking down the duck breasts. I went to four grocery stores, including two specialty stores, and none of them had duck breast. Two places said they carry it occasionally but only in limited quantities since they’re in such limited demand. Another place had whole duck, but not duck breast.

I finally found it in an unlikely place  the freezer section. Bell and Evans sells frozen duck breast (2 individually frozen 6-ounce breasts). It was exactly what I needed.

Duck is notoriously fatty. The key to making duck is rendering that fat. You do this by searing the duck breast, skin side down. Once you’ve cooked it for about five minutes, most of the fat melts out into the pan. (I sucked up the melted fat with a turkey baster and discarded it.) You're left with a thin layer of the golden, deliciously crisp outer skin. 

In restaurants, duck is often cooked medium or even medium rare. But I just can’t get comfortable with the idea of serving poultry that’s as rare as steak. I cooked my duck closer to medium well so that it just had the faintest hint of pink. It was still tender and juicy.

The sauce was similar to one I’ve made for pork chops. A simple mixture of chicken broth, port and cherries. I added some cherry jam to help the sauce thicken and give it more of the fruit flavor.

We topped it all off with homemade black forest cake. 

Start with two duck breasts.

Score the skin diagonally, but don’t cut into the flesh. (Scoring the skin helps the fat melt away.) Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Saute skin side down, for about 5 minutes, in a hot skillet with a little bit of butter.

When you turn the breast over, the skin should be dark golden and crisp, and a lot of fat will have rendered out into your pan.

Cook for about 8 more minutes, until the breasts reach about 135 to 140 degrees. Then remove them to a cutting board and tent them with foil. They will continue to cook and stay warm while you make the sauce.

Drain all but two tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add the shallots and cook until golden brown.

Add the chicken broth, cherries, port, and honey.

Add the cherry jam. Whisk everything together until the jam dissolves.

Boil the mixture for about 10 minutes, until it reduces down into a glaze. Stir frequently.

Whisk in the cold butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, cut the duck breast into thin slices.

Top with port and cherry sauce. Enjoy!

Seared Duck Breast with Port and Cherry Sauce

Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit

2 6-ounce duck breast halves
2 Tbsp chilled butter, divided
¼ cup finely chopped shallot
½ cup chicken broth
8 halved, pitted sweet red cherries, fresh or frozen (I used cherries from a jar of sour cherries)
2 Tbsp tawny Port
1 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp cherry jam

1.      Using  a sharp knife, score duck skin in a diamond pattern. Do not cut into flesh.

2.      Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle duck with salt and pepper. Add duck, skin side down, to skillet and cook until skin is brown and crisp, about 5 minutes.

3.      Turn duck breasts over, reduce heat to medium, and cook until browned and cooked to 135 to 140 degrees (about 8 minutes). Transfer to cutting board. Tent with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.

4.      Pour off all but 2 tablespoons drippings from skillet. Add shallot to skillet and stir over medium heat for 30 seconds.

5.      Add broth, cherries, Port and honey. Add cherry jam and whisk until dissolved.

6.      Increase heat to high and boil until sauce is reduced to a glaze, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Whisk in 1 tablespoon cold butter. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

7.      Thinly slice duck. Fan slices out on plates. Spoon sauce over and serve.

Serves 2

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