"For me, duck is, taste per ounce, a lot more attractive than chicken," Charlie Palmer says. The master chef has only just returned to his hometown of Healdsburg, Calif., after a long flight from New York City, but he animatedly dives into the details of cooking a rich, flavorful dish of duck breast for Valentine’s Day.
Today, the Charlie Palmer Group consists of 13 restaurants and three hotels; just last week, Award of Excellence–winner Charlie Palmer Steak in New York City officially opened its doors in a new location. Palmer is behind Healdsburg’s big annual Pigs & Pinot event, which raises funds for Share Our Strength and local charities, and supports scholarships for the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University and the Culinary Institute of America. (Palmer, a CIA graduate, was chairman for 12 years before becoming a trustee emeritus.)
Palmer has been honored by the James Beard Foundation and was featured on the PBS series Cooking With Master Chefs, hosted by Julia Child. His signature cooking style, characterized as "progressive American," reinterprets classical European cuisine using artisanal U.S. products. You can read about it in Palmer’s six cookbooks.
Culinary status of this nature doesn’t come without knowledge and appreciation of wine. Nine of Palmer’s restaurants have gained Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Award recognition for their extensive wine offerings, and Aureole Las Vegas has won a Grand Award since 2000 for its 2,700-selection list.
Palmer grows excited when he tells me this year will be the 10th anniversary of the launch of Charlie Clay wines, a Pinot Noir label developed with winemaker Clay Mauritson in Sonoma. "It was always my dream to grow grapes and make wine. I’ve been so fortunate," says Palmer. "We make some damn good Pinot Noir these days."
For Valentine’s Day, Palmer’s recipe checks off the things you want on a holiday that’s all about treating your significant other (and yourself). It's rich in flavor and denotes a special celebration. And yet, duck breast can be found at most grocery stores, and the preparation is not all that different than with chicken.
"Duck is something that's seen as adventurous, but the reality is that it’s very easy to do," says Palmer.
He also points to the bird’s versatility beyond special occasions. For example, home cooks wanting a lean meal could remove the skin and use the duck breast to create a light, savory broth. In the recipe here, however, he reserves the skin and uses it as tasty cracklings in the couscous.
The marinade keeps the duck moist, "so it’s pretty hard to overcook it," Palmer says. But it’s important to not let the duck marinate for too long, as the flavor can become overwhelming. If juniper berries aren’t accessible, try a spice like cracked cardamom to give a nutty, toasted flavor to the meat. The couscous, with a light citrus taste, serves to balance out the rich meal.
To drink, Palmer reaches for a glass of classic French red wine. "With this recipe, I like something more hearty," he says. "Pinot Noir’s great, but something like a Syrah or Châteauneuf-du-Pape works well because of the marinade."
A final treat from the recipe? Duck fat.
To clarify the fat, Palmer recommends pouring it through a single or double coffee filter—a trick he uses at his restaurants. You'll want to substitute the resulting rich, savory fat for oil or butter in just about every dish you make.
"There’s nothing better than caramelizing onions in duck fat with potatoes, or even with eggs. My kids do this all the time. Butter’s great, but duck fat with eggs is pretty good."
Palmer’s voice swells with pride as he talks about the four sons he and his wife Lisa have raised. Currently their sons pursue different careers, "but I’m confident at some point they’re all going to be in our business. They just don’t know it yet," he says.
His youngest, Reed, is currently attending the Culinary Institute of America, and all of them, Palmer asserts, are good cooks.
"I’ve taught them to be good cooks, because that’s the way to a woman’s heart," he laughs. His tone turns slightly sheepish. "That’s what I told them anyway. It worked for me."
Below, Wine Spectator recommends 14 Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine selections that have scored 90 points or higher and that show the elegance, depth and complexity to elevate this rich Valentine's Day recipe.
Duck Breast With Citrus Couscous
Recipe courtesy of Charlie Palmer, Charlie Palmer Group.
For the duck breast:
- 4 boneless duck breast halves, 6-8 ounces each
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground juniper berries
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 3 tablespoons Chartreuse
- Grated zest and juice of 1 small orange
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
To make the duck breast:
1. Remove the skin from each duck breast half and reserve.
2. Place the skinless breasts in a resealable plastic bag. Add the oil, lemon zest, juniper berries and pepper, plus 1 tablespoon of the Chartreuse.
3. Seal the bag and vigorously massage to evenly coat the breasts with the seasoning. Set aside for 30 minutes. (Take care not to leave the duck in the marinade for more than 30 minutes.)
4. Place the duck skin in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Fry, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until all of the fat has rendered out and the skin is very crisp. Transfer the skin to a double layer of paper towels to drain. Once drained, break into small pieces and set aside.
5. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the duck fat and return the pan to medium-high heat. Save the duck fat to use as a delicious butter or oil substitute in future recipes.
6. Remove the breasts from the marinade, season with salt and place in the hot pan. Sear, turning once, for about 6 minutes.
7. Place the breasts on a warm plate and tent lightly with aluminum foil to keep warm for 5 minutes while you finish the sauce.
8. Lower the heat under the pan and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of Chartreuse, stirring for about a minute or so to deglaze the pan. Add the orange juice and butter, stirring to blend well. Add the cream, raise the heat slightly and bring to a simmer.
9. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer for about 5 minutes or until reduced and slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange zest and chives.
For the couscous:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned nonfat, low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/4 cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- 2 cups couscous
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
To make the couscous:
1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes or just until softened.
2. Add the stock along with the orange and lemon juices. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Immediately add the couscous and return to a boil.
3. Lower the heat to its lowest possible setting, cover and cook for about 5 minutes or until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest, covered, for 5 minutes.
4. Uncover, add the lemon zest and use a fork to fluff the grains and incorporate the zest.
To plate the duck breast and couscous:
Place a mound of couscous on the side of each warm dinner plate. Using a sharp knife and working with one piece at a time, cut the breast crosswise, keeping the breast intact as you cut. When ready to plate, put your knife under the sliced breast and, using your other hand to hold the top together, transfer to the center of the couscous on each plate. Once plated, pull the knife back towards you so that the breast stays in place, but the slices open slightly.
Drizzle the pan sauce over each breast, the couscous and around the edge of the plate. Garnish with a few pieces of the crisp duck breast skin, sprinkled over all. Serves 4 (or 2 for a romantic meal, plus a second serving for the next night).
14 Recommended Châteauneuf-du-Pape Selections
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More red wines rated in the past year can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Château Maucoil Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
Shows good range and character, with lively anise, warm stone, smoldering tobacco and sage notes leading the way for a core of steeped plum and blackberry fruit. Has both silky and brambly accents through the finish, where tobacco and sage details linger. Best now through 2026. 3,000 cases made.
Château la Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Granières de la Nerthe 2014
A focused, restrained style, with a long thread of shiso leaf and incense running through the core of kirsch and raspberry coulis flavors. A pretty mineral edge guides the finish. Drink now through 2029. 1,500 cases made.
Domaine de la Solitude Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012
Silky in feel and very long, with lovely raspberry and boysenberry coulis flavors that glide through, flecked with anise, rooibos tea and well-roasted sandalwood notes. The long finish lets everything drape gracefully. Very suave. Drink now through 2027. 6,000 cases made.
Château de Vaudieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
A lovely, silky and refined style, with raspberry and plum coulis notes that stream from start to finish, underscored by subtle black tea, cinnamon and incense accents. Finely beaded acidity and a light echo of shiso leaf keeps this grounded through the finish. Hard to lay off now, but there's no rush. Drink now through 2029. 2,750 cases made.
Lucien Barrot & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012
On the chewy, old-school side of the ledger, with tobacco and bay notes mingling with leathery tannins while the core of cherry and currant fruit slowly unwinds. Sanguine and iron accents grace the finish. Drink now through 2025. 3,000 cases made.
Domaine de Beaurenard Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
This offers a lovely display of blueberry, raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors, entwined with dried anise, warm fruitcake and lightly singed juniper notes. Approachable, but with solid grip through the finish. Drink now through 2027. 5,000 cases made.
Paul Jourdan Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve des Olivers 2013
Features a mix of dark currant and blackberry paste flavors, with rustic singed chestnut, warm tobacco and fresh humus notes. The long, cedar-infused finish keeps the throwback feel going. Drink now through 2026. 1,700 cases made.
Lavau Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
Raspberry and blackberry coulis flavors glide along, stitched with dried anise, warm fruitcake and lingering black tea notes. Silky in feel but not shy on depth. Best now through 2026. 5,000 cases made.
Château Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2013
A ripe, strapping style, with bold black licorice and fruitcake notes leading the way, followed by juicy raspberry and plum paste flavors. Everything knits through the graphite-edged finish. Should age nicely. Drink now through 2025. 2,500 cases made.
Pierre Usseglio & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
Silky and fresh, with a light mint edge to the core of raspberry and plum coulis flavors. Flecks of lavender and violet line the finish, which has a pleasant mineral tug. Drink now through 2024. 5,000 cases made.
Brotte Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine Barville 2014
This offers succulent, fleshy plum and boysenberry fruit notes inlaid with singed juniper, violet and anise notes. Delivers a lingering warm stone accent through the finish. Drink now through 2024. 3,330 cases made.
Jean-Luc Colombo Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Bartavelles 2014
This has a broad, fleshy feel, with silky but ample tannins holding up a core of raspberry puree and plum sauce. Enticing anise and black tea notes line the finish. Drink now through 2024. 1,500 cases made.
Domaine Mathieu Châteauneuf-du-Pape Saje 2013
This has a sappy core of kirsch and cherry paste flavors, supported by lightly singed vanilla and cedar notes that extend through the herb- and tobacco-infused finish. Drink now through 2023. 1,300 cases made.
Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2014
Ripe and very silky in feel, with a beam of raspberry coulis streaming through, picking up light anise, shiso leaf and incense notes along the way. Offers a sneakily long finish. Drink now through 2024. 2,083 cases made.