There are a handful of things that I’ll order any time I see them on a menu. Thankfully those things don’t often compete in the same restaurants. One of those things is duck … a dish that makes my spine relax with the simple promise of a taste.
It might therefore sound odd that I’ve only prepared duck not many more than a handful of times. The first time I tried my hand at duck, I was probably 25, relatively newly married, and wanting to conquer the kitchen. What better place than to start with a whole roasted canard (duck) à l’orange? Near as I recall, it turned out well, but it’s a dish I never returned to again.
As winter grips us and the holidays surround us, it is a season that screams comfort food and decadence. Few things say this better than duck. It is at once primal — a ‘game’ bird — and sensuous for all the juiciness of its dark, tender flesh and which makes the dark meat of any other fowl shrink away as wholly inadequate.
Thus, wanting to create a dish that both befit the season and was special, I chose duck. However, I wanted something more than a ubiquitous “orange” sauce….
The persimmon: it’s an ingredient that has taunted me in grocery stores for going on 15 years. It’s not a fruit or an ingredient that comes up in recipes or conversations very often. Indeed, the few people who mention it seem like they’re harkening back to a yesteryear … a time when the snows were man-deep and the the sun a blister on the sky.
It’s a strange fruit which sitting in the produce section looks like an oddly formed and sometimes blotchy tomato. But, yes, it is indeed a fruit (though so is a tomato …). A few months ago, looking for something new to test my palette, I finally took the bait and bought one … with no clue whatsoever as to what I was buying or how to select an appropriate one save one phrase that hung in my distant memory: “they are best when almost mush.” Well, I couldn’t find mush in the store, so I bought one that was ripe-looking and brought it home. A few days later I opened it up and with a deep breath, I cut into it and then took a bite of the seedless interior. What I discovered was a unique and very sweet taste, something between a mango, peach, apricot, and something entirely new. The texture is the hardest thing to describe, but it is lovely in its tooth feel. What I also discovered and then confirmed when I did some retrospective research is that when not fully ripe the fruit also has a very tannic astringency to it that leaves your mouth dry and puckered … not from a sourness, but rather like the tannins of empty grape skins. What I later learned is that when fully ripe and soft (not just ripe ‘looking’), this secondary ‘taste’ vanishes and you’re left with a sensuous and amazing fruit. What a shame I waited this long to discover it….
I learned also that persimmons are a late season fruit — they emerge just as some of the early orange varietals are starting to ripen. So before I even settled on making duck, I knew I was going to use persimmons in my cooking, soon, and while in season.
On their own, the persimmons were lovely, floral, and sweet but they lacked the acid to work with the duck, so I decided to work oranges back into the sauce, but staying true to the season, I opted for the symbolic mandarin orange — though clementines would work just as well. Working from the mandarin, I decided to build the sauce up as a kind of ‘asian’ influenced creation and so added in the ginger as well and complemented this with Chinese five-spice as a rub on the duck.
Cooking tips: the key with the duck breast is to crisp the skin and cook off the fat in it that would otherwise leave it unappealingly ‘chewy’ … and to do so without burning the breast and leaving it a beautiful medium-rare. The trick: slow frying, finishing it in the oven, and finally a bit of a rest before carving. Truly, while it might feel like you’re walking a culinary tightrope here, it’s an incredibly easy dish to prepare … once you trust the technique.
Prep time: 15 + 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 + 10 minutes
Rest time: 5 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Crispy Duck with Persimmon-Mandarin Sauce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely minced
- zest of one mandarin orange
- 2 mandarin oranges, peeled and segmented
- 2 ripe persimmons, peeled and cored, and chopped
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons butter
- salt to taste
- 2 half-pound (250g) duck breasts with skin-on
- avocoado (or peanut) oil
- Chinese 5-Spice powder
- Kosher Salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
- Rinse the duck beasts under cold water and pat dry on a paper towel. Then, taking an extremely sharp knife carefully score the the duck skin on the diagonal, opening up the fat, but not so deep as to knick the meat. Keep your ‘lines’ about 1/4-inch (1-cm) apart. Repeat by scoring diagonally in the opposite direction so that you have ‘diamonds’ in the skin.
Note: Opening up the skin like this is essential to allowing the skin to crisp as this will allow the fat to cook ‘off’ leaving it perfectly crisp.
Tip: If you don’t have a sharp knife (and you should), you can achieve this with a razor blade.
- Lightly rub the the breast with avocado oil. This will just give the spices something to stick to but skip this if you want. If you do use oil, however, choose an oil with a high flash point and low flavour.Lightly season with salt and pepper and then sprinkle with Chinese 5 Spice powder on both sides of the breast. Set aside.
- Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Melt in a tablespoon of butter and then add the shallots and fry for 3-5 minutes until slightly golden.
Add the minced ginger and the mandarin zest and sauté for another 30 seconds.
Toss in the mandarin segments and the cubed persimmon.and the 1/2 cup of stock. Heat to a simmer and add in the honey and cider vinegar. Simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent burning.
Once the fruit has cooked down into a ‘mash,’ use an immersion blender to puree the sauce. Alternatively, transfer to blender and emulsify until smooth — just be very careful of the blender lid exploding off and seriously burning you.
Continue to cook for another 10 minutes, reducing it further. Add the the final two tablespoons of butter and melt it into the sauce. Add salt to taste.
Continue to cook on low until duck is ready.
- After you’ve pureed the sauce, begin the duck. Begin by taking a large pan with a heat-resistant handle (because it is going in the oven) and place the duck in it cold, skin-side down — I know starting meat cold in a pan is unconventional, but trust me.
Turn the heat to medium and set your timer to 10 minutes. Once you hear the duck fat start to melt in about a minute, immediately reduce to medium-low (or a bit lower if you can) and continue cooking. After a few more minutes, the duck fat will start to well-up around the breast.
Carefully spoon this over the breast, basting it in the process. Now remove the excess fat with the spoon into a waiting stainless steel or glass container … so that you can save it for another time that you need duck fat (this stuff is gold, so don’t throw it away.)
- After 10 minutes, use a pair of tongs to check under the breast for ‘doneness.’ The breasts will have ‘puffed’ up in the process: this is normal. You want it a dark golden to slightly light-brown. If necessary, fry for another 2-5 minutes depending on doneness and your preferred outcome, however, don’t overcook or burn the skin.
When ready, flip the breasts onto the meat-side and cook for another minute.
- Place the pan in the pre-heated oven and roast for 5 minutes (for medium-rare) or 6-7 minutes for medium to medium-well. Remove pan from oven and let the duck rest and cool in the pan for 5 minutes.
- Remove breasts to cutting board and cut them into roughly 1/2-inch (1-cm) medallions.
Spoon on the waiting persimmon-mandarin sauce and serve with your favourite sides.
Recommended sides include: roasted brussel sprouts with balsamic-glaze and barley risotto with kale (recipes to follow)
Wine Pairing: An Oaked Chardonnay Reserve.