This creation was me saying happy birthday to Benjamin, my über wonder dog of 18 years. That is to say, I’m not the only one in the family that gets weak in the knees when someone says “duck.” Truly, it’s a wonder that over the years I haven’t been beaned with a softball between the eyes because when I see that word on a menu, my own ears perk up like a terrier who smells dinner.
Not many dogs make it 18 years and quite frankly, the 18th or 19th birthday for humans as they reach the age of majority is a big deal too … it’s worth parties, over indulgence, and, I dare say, duck. It so happens that duck is on the better side of the protein ledger as well when it comes to being lower in phosphorus, the mineral I’m trying to keep out of Ben’s diet at this point because it is hard for his failing kidneys to remove it from his body.
Now I know that many of you might already be shaking your head that I cooked duck for my dog — or that I cooked him scampi last year for his 17th birthday — yet you might accept it if I ground it up and and made it look like dog food. However, if you’ve read my posts on Benjamin, you know he loves food, loves human food, and loves my cooking and the great majority of people who know Ben believe that his longevity is based on my love of him … and my cooking. So no, Ben wasn’t getting dog food for his birthday. He was getting something that would make me weak in the knees … duck with cherry sauce.
There is one inherent difference in this duck that I prepared vs. the Crispy Duck with Persimmon-Mandarin Sauce I made over the winter holidays. This time I chose to use duck magret instead of the Brome Lake duck. What distinguishes magret from most other duck breasts is its richness … a richness that comes from the fact that it is the same duck that is used to produce foie gras. I don’t think it is a coincidence that a duck that is being force fed to produce foie gras also produces the most amazing layer of duck fat I’ve seen … a layer easily twice as thick as that in the brome ducks I used previously.
The Sauce: Yes, a few words about this wonderful sauce. First of all, no, I know cherries aren’t in season … but my heart is wistful for the cherry blossoms that are in bloom right now in my home province. Perhaps that is the reason I was inclined to use sour cherries. So I chose a number of flavours that marry together well to accentuate the various qualities of the cherries:port for some more sweetness and richness, orange zest to add some citrus and fragrance, crystalized ginger for some warm spice and lasting texture, cinnamon for some richness, and balsamic for a bit more acid. I also pureed some cherries into the sauce to thicken it naturally and intensify the cherry flavour … and left some whole for a flourish of substance. It’s worth noting that the cherries I used were in some sugar, so if the cherries you choose are unsweetened, then you may need to add some sugar as well.
Cooking Duck Breast: fThe 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
Duck Magret with Sour-Cherry and Port Sauce …
- 1 large shallot
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) butter
- 175 grams (dry weight) jar pitted sour cherries, divided:
→ ½ cup coarsely diced;
½ cup whole
- ¼ cup (65mL) cherry juice, reserved
- ½ cup (125mL) chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon (2.5mL) orange zest
- 3-inch cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon (5mL) crystalized ginger, diced
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup (60mL) port
- 3 tablespoons (45mL) butter
- 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 (though you should), you can achieve this with a razor blade.
- Lightly season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
- To meanwhile, start the sauce. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the shallots and cinnamon stick and sauté for 2-3 minutes until shallots are lightly caramelized.
Add diced cherries and cook a few more minutes until they break down. The juice in them will dry up and the whole will start to caramelize, producing some essential flavour for the sauce.
Add the stock and deglaze.
Add in cherry juice and zest and ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes.
Remove (and save) the cinnamon stick and use an immersion blender (or transfer to a small blender or food processor) and blend until smooth. Careful not to splash and stain/burn yourself.
Add the cinnamon stick back in along with the balsamic vinegar and port. Return to a simmer until thickened, about 5-10 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick and taste for salt and sweetness. Add sugar or honey as necessary.
Add the final 3 tablespoons of butter and keep the sauce warm until ready to serve.
- 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 cherry sauce, ensuring each plate gets a few cherries for presentation as well.
Serve with a sweet potato with apple ginger mash or your favourite side.
Wine Pairing: Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah (2012)