I love the fall. The cool, crisp weather, despite periods of rain, marks the advent of car camping, cozy fires and a return to more substantial meals. For me, mid-October is also the beginning of my holiday preparations; I recently sent an email to Grace and Tina– the holiday meal arbiters– to see what they wanted. I’ve learned not to bother to suggest my own menu because it’s ALWAYS modified. Once we’ve come to a consensus on the meal (usually with some form of “I’ll bring my own food then”), I start to plan the rest of the holiday season.
Last weekend I cooked my monthly Mommy dinner. We were a small group since I had to reschedule a week later. Only four of us came together, but I have to say we are the Fearless Four. My Old Guard, survivors of a Catholic girls prep school in Washington, DC: Linda, Kath, Jacki and I.
We lived four years of summer and winter uniforms (two sets, one for lower and another for upper classes), one-way staircases, the ugliest uniform shoes ever, no prom, prayers before EVERY class, no male teachers, a crazy Chemistry teacher (whom we all swore used the same palette knife for both mixing chemicals and peeling her apple), and no makeup.
Yet, we managed to graduate, go to university and grow up.
Our dinner ran late into the evening; we re-told old stories, tried to think of classmates who seem to have disappeared into thin air, and discussed our current successes and worries. Among the four of us, we have 9 children and decades of parenting, marital and work experience; there’s NEVER a topic we can’t discuss!
For our meal, I attempted a dish (and ingredient) I’d never prepared: pan-seared Magret duck breast (imagine the crispy skin!) with a cherry balsamic reduction. Magret duck is on the pricey side, but it’s a dish that is worth every penny! Make it a special occasion meal (which is what the Mommy Dinner is supposed to be) and enjoy it as we did.
I found the recipe as part of a dinner menu by Emeril. Duck is so rich that I started with a Provençal pissaladière, served with sparkly prosecco with limoncello.
Along with the duck, I served two dishes inspired by Ozzie’s, a local restaurant in near-by Fairfax. The first was a starter salad of peppery baby arugula with sweet and chewy bits of dried Mission fig, crunchy sliced almonds and curly shavings of Parmigiano, dressed in a simple lemon vinaigrette. As a side, I lightly mashed boiled Brussels sprouts with butter and cream, then added salt and pepper. With duck fat on hand, I followed Emeril’s suggestion, filling out the sides with a platter full of blue, red and white-skinned fingerlings roasted til they were crispy on the outside, tender and creamy within.
We indulged in a final course of chocolate torte made with just four ingredients: extra bittersweet Valrhona chocolate, eggs, sugar and butter. Decadent with a bit of raspberry coulis and a dollop of whipped cream, its flavor was enhanced with a cup of coffee (decaf– we’re old) and a shot of Irish cream.
It was almost midnight when we said good-bye.
My husband and son also tried the duck, and requested I make it for them. So here it is, my culinary reprise on Emeril’s seared duck; I changed the quantities of aromatics as well as some of the cooking times. It’s not a difficult dish to make; I can get it ready in an hour along with the sides. For my guys, I roasted fingerlings and half-circles of delicata squash.
Magret Duck Breasts with Cherry Balsamic Reduction (from Emeril)
for the cherry balsamic reduction:
- 1 medium shallot, chopped finely, about 1/3 c
- 1 large garlic clove, finely minced, about 1 tsp
- 1/2 c dried cherries, roughly chopped
- 1/2 c balsamic vinegar
- 2 – 3 sprigs of sage, leaves picked and minced, about 2 tsp
- 1 1/2 c chicken stock
- 1 TB cold butter for finishing the sauce
for the Magret duck breasts:
- 2 Magret duck breasts with skin
- salt and pepper
To prepare the reduction/sauce:
Finely chop the shallot, garlic and sage leaves; the cherries only need a rough chop, and you can leave them whole if you want bigger pieces in your sauce (I did not).
Heat a little oil (enough to coat the bottom) in a small sauce pan over medium high heat. When it begins to shimmer, add the chopped shallot, garlic and cherries.
Saute in the olive oil until the shallot begins to caramelize. Add the balsamic vinegar, stir to pull up all the bits stuck on the bottom of the pan, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer and let the vinegar reduce until it is almost completely evaporated. This step can take a while, depending on how hard you simmer the liquid.
Add the chicken stock and chopped sage.
Bring the liquid to a boil once again and simmer until thickened to your desired consistency. (I go pretty thick because the butter will thin the sauce).
Turn off the heat and add the COLD butter. (The butter and acid from the vinegar is a classic technique for making a sauce).
Note: I usually make the sauce ahead to the point of adding the butter. While my duck is resting, I warm the sauce and beat in the butter. It works out just fine.
To prepare the Magret duck breasts:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (F). Rinse and dry the duck breasts and place them on a cutting board.
Using a sharp knife, create a cross-hatch of diagonal cuts through the skin; don’t cut all the way to the flesh– about 1/8 inch. This helps with the fat-renderng process.
Generously season both sides of each breast with salt and pepper.
Place the breasts, skin side down, in a oven-proof skillet and place the skillet over medium-low heat. You are starting in a cold pan, so you won’t hear any sizzling for a few minutes. Do not panic; you want the fat to slowly render and for the skin to brown and crisp without burning.
Check the breasts after 10 minutes; if most of the fat has rendered and the skin is golden brown, the breasts are ready for the oven. If not, cook another minute or two until they’re ready.
Remove the breasts to a plate or board; pour off the excess fat (you can save this to use for roasting potatoes, etc). Add the breasts back to the pan, skin side up, and place in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. (10 minutes gives you medium rare, 12 is just a touch of pink– too cooked for my family’s taste, but that is how long I held it for the moms, as a compromise for multiple preferences). Duck should not be served well-done!
Remove the breasts from the pan let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes. (This is when I finish the sauce). Slice the duck cross-wise, place on a platter and drizzle a little sauce over the slices. Serve the sauce alongside the duck.
Here’s what we had tonight:
the plated meal–