Duck is one of those dishes, like fish, that people order in restaurants far more often than they cook them at home. It’s a shame because duck is delicious, and it is hardly more difficult to cook well than chicken. One obstacle, however, is that it is hard to find. Few markets carry it regularly. Sometimes it can be found during the holidays, sometimes frozen at the supermarket. Fortunately, it can also be mail-ordered here and here.
Cooking a whole duck can be challenging, but cooking the legs and breasts separately is relatively easy. We’ve been cooking duck breasts all month at the restaurant, and I’ll describe the process here.
Pan-seared duck breast with rosemary & garlic, accompanied by braised chard (serves 2)
Begin by scoring the skin of an 8-ounce duck breast with a very sharp knife in a cross-hatch pattern, and generously season both sides of the duck. Duck has a great deal of fat which needs to be properly rendered, and the scoring of the skins facilitates this.
Let the duck rest for an hour or two at room temperature, or even a few hours longer in the refrigerator.
The first step in cooking the duck breast is to render the fat. Because duck breast is traditionally served medium (a little pink), we need to do this with care so that most of the fat renders without the breast becoming overcooked.
Place a pan over high heat and add just a little olive oil. As soon as it begins to smoke, pat the duck breast dry with paper towels and place in the pan, skin side down. Immediately lower the heat to low or medium low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the fat is rendered but before the skin burns or becomes too dark.
Remove the duck from the pan and place on a plate, skin side up. Unlike chicken fat (aka schmaltz) which doesn’t taste very fresh and is unappealing to most people, duck fat is a treasured substance, perfect for cooking all types of dishes, from eggs to sautéing vegetables. Even one breast will render a shocking amount. Simply store the fat in the fridge, where it will keep a very long time.
While the duck is browning (or while it is resting), slice or chop a little onion and sauté over lively heat in a small pan with a little olive oil or duck fat for a few minutes until softened and beginning to take on some color. Add a large handful of chopped chard or spinach leaves and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine and add a bit of water to steam the greens. Lower the heat and turn off once wilted.
To finish the duck, return the pan (the one you used before and poured the fat from) to high heat. Add a little duck fat or fresh olive oil. When the pan is very hot, add the duck breast skin side up. After 30 seconds or so, add a little chopped garlic, rosemary, and hot pepper. About 30 seconds later, remove the pan from heat and deglaze with some white wine, broth, or water. There will be a lot of steam, so I just hold it right up to the exhaust fan.
Place the pan under the broiler for about 2 minutes. Every broiler is different, but mine is strong and so I place it in the middle or lower third of the oven to crisp the skin without burning. You may need to do it differently.
Return the pan to high heat for just another minute or so and remove from heat.
Place the duck on a cutting board and slice into thin strips with a very sharp knife.
Place the chard on two plates and top with the duck. Pour over the pan juices and serve at once.
Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm