I love duck. Nonetheless, for no good reason, I have a tendency to relegate it to items I only order at restaurants, forgetting that it's pretty forgiving to work with and therefore easy to make at home.
To my mind, cooking duck breast is more similar to cooking steak than chicken breast, since you’re cooking to a temperature range based on your preference for doneness. (I like mine medium-rare.) That said, duck needs to be cooked lower and slower than a steak to give the fat a chance to render. That fat is liquid gold—be sure to strain it and save it for another use, such as frying potatoes or to add decadence to roasted vegetables.
Adding a light glaze at the end gives the duck a little extra pop of flavor. In this case, I chose a base of plum sauce, mixed with soy sauce and ginger, as the combination of sweet and sour notes seemed like it would be a great complement to the natural richness of the duck.
For another contrast to the rich meat, I accompanied it with a simple Asian-inspired slaw, dressing red cabbage, carrots and snap peas with a mix of lemon juice, sesame oil, peanut oil and ginger. The brightness and crunch of the veggies, which come together quickly, provides a refreshing counterpoint to the rest of the meal in both texture and flavor.
I decided to try both a white and red wine to go with this dish, which I figured could straddle that line. Aromatic white wines often work well with the flavors in Asian cuisines, so I opted for a Gewürztraminer from California’s Monterey County. The spicy combination of rose, lychee, ginger, pear and peach worked really well with the food. However, this particular example was a little sweeter than is ideal for this dish, which has only a hint of sweetness and no heat to offset. A slightly drier version—though it wouldn't have to be totally dry—could have been a beautiful match.
In contrast, a Zinfandel out of California’s Mendocino County worked better than expected. On the fruitier end of the spectrum, to line up with the level of sweetness in the glaze, this Zin offered up spiced berry and cherry and a little orange peel, with enough liveliness to keep it from being overpowering. Pleasant notes of tobacco and coffee came out with the food and made for a solid match.
Pair with a fruit-forward red such as Paul Dolan Zinfandel Mendocino County 2015 (87 points, $15)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 to 40 minutes
Total time: 40 to 50 minutes
Approximate food costs: $41
1. Toss together the cabbage, shredded carrots and snap peas in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the lemon juice, toasted sesame oil, peanut oil (if you like a more acidic dressing, use the smaller amount of oil) and 1 teaspoon of the ginger paste. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Whisk the mixture together until it emulsifies. Gradually pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss until the vegetables are lightly coated; you might not need all of the dressing. (If there is extra, save it to serve on the side.) Set aside until you’re ready to serve.
2. Gently score the duck skin with a knife, pat dry with paper towels, then season liberally with salt and pepper, particularly on the skin side.
3. Lightly oil a large, oven-safe sauté pan; you will not need very much as the duck breasts will render a lot of fat. Place the duck breast in the pan skin-side down, then place the pan over medium-low to medium heat. Gently press the duck down into the pan as it starts to curl up. The duck fat will begin to render and bubble; you may need to pour out excess fat during the cooking process. (Strain and save this for another use.) If the fat is bubbling rapidly, lower the temperature. Continue to cook skin-side down until the skin is crisp and golden-brown and most of the fat has been rendered, about 15 minutes. Check with a meat thermometer to be sure the duck has reached an internal temperature about 5˚ F lower than your ideal final cooking temperature. (For medium-rare, you're aiming for around 130˚ F to reach a final temperature of 135˚ F. Note: The USDA recommends a final temperature of 165˚ F, which would be well done.)
4. While the duck is cooking in the pan, mix together the plum sauce, soy sauce and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of ginger. Turn on the oven’s broiler setting. Remove the pan from heat and flip the duck breasts over. Spoon or brush the sauce over the duck, then transfer the pan to the oven. Allow the duck to broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sauce is starting to caramelize and brown on the duck skin.
5. Remove the duck breasts from heat and allow them to rest for about 5 minutes. Plate whole or sliced with the slaw. Serves 6 to 8.