Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Duck with Cherries — My Life as a Sauciere

Duck with cherries
We have made a couple of attempts at duck with cherries; each time, I’ve taken the position of making sauce. This is where all the work is, since the other part of cooking duck is score the skin and slap it down on a hot skillet. Then you sauce it.

The New York Times had a recipe for duck breast with cherries, and we wanted to make it during that window when cherries are in season. My (minimal) research showed me that there are variants of this dish, including caneton aux pêches, duck with peaches, so it can be thought of as duck with some stone fruit. James offered the opinion (and I concur) that the dish needs some acid with the sweet, so instead of duck with peaches, maybe apricots.

But we were using cherries. The first time I made this dish, I tried pitting the cherries with a knife, and in the end just halved them. But I knew it would look so much nicer with the whole, round cherries. So I bought a pitter.
Cherry pitter. That was fun!
Those are fun. It took a little practice to reliably hit the pit, but after that it just took the presence of mind to make sure that the pitter was pointed toward something that would catch the pit, so they wouldn’t scurry across the counter (that only happened once).

The problem we had with the recipe is that it tells you to reduce 2 cups of liquid to 1 cup of liquid. That’s a lot of reduction, and it tells that it can be done in a fairly small amount of time. This is not possible in a saucepan, at least not in the time they suggest. So the second time around, I did it in a skillet, which is quite efficient for reducing, maybe too much. I actually reduced things down to about a quarter cup. A nice, thick, quarter cup. I had to thin it out again, though I did notice that thinned out to a cup was going to be too thin. The photo at the Times shows a nicely thickened sauce. It’s a little thicker than you would achieve with the recipe (they also show unpitted cherries).

Part of the big difficulty of this dish is sourcing: it’s tough to find fresh duck breast around here. I went off to Bristol Farms (after calling them). When I was in the checkout line, the woman behind me asked what I had bought. “Duck breast.” And she wanted to know what one did with them. “Cook them like steak.”

Stirring the cherries into
the sauce
“Can I touch them?” I agreed, and she gave one of the duck breasts an experimental poke. When I went to buy the cherry pitter at Sur la Table, I had a similar conversation. People probably buy cherry pitters because they have a specific dish in mind. She had seen the article.

David Tanis’s recipe needs a bit of reorganizing for the recipe box though. He’s got you scoring the duck before you’ve made the spice rub. I suppose you can take the duck out of the fridge before you make the spice rub, but scoring can wait. I also found his prep on the sauce a little confusing.

I made two substitutions, which I will include here. Instead of turbinado sugar, I just used brown sugar (turbinado sugar is sort of “honest” brown sugar, as it’s a stopping point, while brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added back in, to undo the full refining process). I also used a half teaspoon of powdered ginger, which was much less intense than the tablespoon of fresh ginger. We preferred it that way.
Duck Breasts with Cherries
Adapted from the New York Times

2 Muscovy duck breasts, about 1 pound each
Kosher Salt

For the rub 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon allspice berries
4 cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

For the sauce 1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon powered ginger
Pinch of cayenne
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound ripe cherries, pitted
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brandy

In a mortar or spice mill, pulverize the peppercorns, allspice, cloves, bay leaves, and fennel. The spice mixture can be applied to the meat up to several hours in advance.

Trim excess fat from duck breasts. Trim any ragged bits. Score the fat layer diagonally in two directions, though not all the way through to the meat. Season with kosher salt on both sides. Apply the spice rub. If not making duck immediately, store in refrigerator overnight, in any case, bring duck to room temperature before cooking.

For the sauce, in a pan, dissolve the brown sugar in the red wine vinegar, and simmer until syrupy. At the red wine and chicken broth and reduce at a brisk simmer. Stir in ginger, cayenne, and a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Set aside. (Tanis recommends reducing this to 1 cup; I think 3/4 cup is better. You want something that isn’t going to run.)

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, place the duck breasts skin side down, cooking for about 7 minutes. Turn breasts over and cook for 5 to 7 minutes more. Internal temperature should be about 125°. Let rest for 8 to 10 minutes.

For the cherries, but the butter in a pan. When it has stopped foaming, add the cherries and the granulated sugar. Cook until heated through and the cherries are juicy. Add the brandy, cook for a minute, then the sauce prepared earlier. Bring to a simmer.

Slice the duck breasts at an angle, arrange on a platter. Spoon some of the sauce and cherries over the meat. Server the duck the additional sauce.
We'll certainly make this dish in the future. I'll probably remain the guy who makes the sauce. And that's ok. I don't mind being the saucier. That's where the action is.
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