Menus from proximate restaurants in rural France can seem eerily similar, as though all aligned along the same invisible lines of culinary force emanating from the specialties of the region. This restaurant has fois gras; that restaurant has foie gras. This restaurant offers grilled duck breast; that restaurant offers grilled duck breast. Whether you find this state of affairs delightful or vexing depends on your perspective. If I were living in the same village for several months then menu similarity might start to get tedious, but in the Sud-Ouest, that lower left corner of France heading toward Spain, I had no problem with encountering a familiar selection of foie gras, duck and rabbit, accompanied by eggplant and tomatoes, not to mention the incredible local dessert pastry, Pastis de Quercy, the subject of a future post. I enjoy foie gras, but I love duck. For me, duck has more there there than any other animal protein. I’d give up beef in two quacks if I had to choose between it and duck. Legs, breast, liver – no matter. It’s all great to me. You can make up your own mind with our Grilled Duck with Peaches entrée this week. You can also eliminate the potentially irksome challenge of cooking duck inside, dealing with the fat. We cook it outside. On the grill.
Ducks–and their breasts–come in different sizes and flavors, according to breed. Pekin ducks, the most common in the US, are the smallest, the mildest, and the least expensive. When you order Long Island Duck on a restaurant menu, you’re getting Pekin. Muscovy ducks are larger, richer–some would say gamier–and more difficult to buy, especially retail. Moulard ducks, the dominant duck in France, is a cross between a Pekin and Muscovy. It has plenty of meaty ducky flavor while stopping short of Muscovy’s gaminess. Also, a single moulard duck breast is quite large, enough to feed two people. We’ve scaled up the portions here. In France, a moulard duck breast in a store ranges from 8 – 16 ounces. An 8-ounce breast is expected to provide duck for two. In the recipe below, we assume that a 16-0unce duck breast will feed two hungry Americans. In real life, we’d probably go with the French, or portion a breast for three. As it happened, we purchased our duck from a local butcher, but I’ve also seen them at Whole Foods. Expect to pay for it what you’d pay for a rib-eye steak the same size.
If you’ve ever dealt with smoking fat from cooking chicken or a fat-rimmed rib-eye on a grill, you’ll know how to deal with a duck. Prepare your grill with two heating zones: one with medium-high heat, another with little or no direct heat beneath. This is easy to do if you have gas grill–just leave a set of burners turned off. If you cook with charwood, arrange the coals so they sit to one side, heating beneath one side of the grill, but not the other. The fat beneath the skin melt as the breasts cook. If the fat lands on coals, it will ignite and smoke, which you don’t want. Keep a squirt bottle of water handy to extinguish any flames. Also, if there’s room, put an aluminum pie plate beneath the cooler zone of the grill. As the fat drips it will land on the pie plate, not the coals. The idea is to start the duck skin-side down on the hot part of the grill and keep it there just long enough to get a good sear, then move it to the cooler side of the grill where it will finish cooking. For this technique to work the grill needs to be covered. With the grill cover in place, monitor the interior temperature, keeping it below 450 degrees. Believe me, we cooked three different duck breasts to fine tune the recipe. If the grill gets hotter than that the breasts will cook too fast. Check beneath the cover from time to time to time to make sure no fat is burning. Grill the peaches briefly after the duck, on the hot side of the grill.
As I was riding in taxi on the way to Toulouse a truck loaded with live ducks passed us on the highway. I asked the driver why I hadn’t seen chicken on the menus of any of the restaurants I’d visited in the area. “Seulement en famille,” he replied. “Au restaurant ou pour les fêtes c’est de canard!” We eat chicken at home. At restaurants or for a celebration, it’s duck! Enjoy. Ken
*Duck terminology works like chicken. That is, when people say “breast” they usually mean a half-breast, since poultry have only a single breast that encompasses both sides of the chest. So when I say “a breast is enough for two people” I’m actually referring one of the two half-breasts that come from a single duck.
TRANSLATION NOTE: Thanks to Leah Klein for pointing out that foie gras is NOT spelled (as I had it in the original post) fois gras. Also I put où instead of ou in my French taxi driver’s mouth. Où means where, not or. I can only plead the effects of medicating myself to the gills for bronchitis. Ken
Grilled Duck Breast with Peaches
- 2 large Moulard duck breasts, about 1 pound each
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped summer savory or thyme
- 1 tablespoon high-heat safflower oil
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 peaches (or plums or nectarines), they should be just ripe, so they’re still a little firm
- ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground fennel seed (use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder)
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- Score the skin of the duck breasts with a cross hatch pattern. Cut no more than ¼-inch deep into the fat – do not cut into the meat. Season the breasts with salt and pepper. Combine the ginger, shallots and summer savory in a small bowl. Rub this mixture into the breasts. Put the breasts in a plastic bag and refrigerate. Allow to marinate at least two hours.
- When you’re ready to cook the duck heat a grill to medium-high. Push the coals to one side so one portion of the grill is hot–heated directly over the coals– and the other is cooler, heated indirectly. Have a squirt bottle of water handy to put out any flames that result from melting duck fat.
- While the grill is heating, cut the peaches in half, remove the pits, then cut the halves so you end up with 8 peach quarters. Combine ½ tablespoon of the olive oil, hot red pepper flakes and fennel in a large bowl. Toss the peaches in the mix.
- Set the breasts on the grill skin-side down over the coals until the breasts get a good sear, about a minute, then move them to the cooler part of the grill, still skin-side down. Cover the grill. The temperature of the grill should be between 400 and 450. The breasts should cook ¾ of the way through, about 8 minutes for medium rare. Start timing as soon as the breasts go on the grill.
- After 8 minutes, brush the exposed side of the breasts with the safflower oil. Flip the breasts onto the meat side and move them to the hotter part of the grill and cook 3 minutes. Transfer to a rack. Allow the breasts to repose for 10 minutes.
- Place the peaches on the hot part of the grill and cook until marked and tender, about 3 minutes on each cut surface and the rounded side. While they’re grilling, combine the remaining olive oil, honey and vinegar in the same bowl. Toss the grilled peaches with the olive oil, honey and vinegar.
- Slice the duck crosswise into diagonal slices ¼-inch thick. Fan the slices on each of four plates, add a couple of peach quarters to each plate and serve.
My first job as a restaurant line cook was at Seasons in the Bostonian Hotel in the 1980’s under chefs Lydia Shire and Gordon Hamersley. My fellow line cooks and I were so eager and committed, we’d arrive 2 hours before our scheduled shifts to collect the raw materials from the walk-ins and store rooms in the basement of the hotel for our mis en place–all of the stuff we’d need, from meat or fish down to ingredients for sauces, to prepare the menu items for our stations. We schlepped everything up to the 6th floor kitchen via the service elevator. Inevitably, we’d wheel our laden carts past Uriel, now Lydia’s husband, in a white butcher’s coat smeared with blood, making his way through a stack of raw ducks with a butcher knife, muttering under his breath, “F***ing ducks… f***ing ducks…” The Seasons’ duck was great–and demand for it was endless.
After marinating the duck legs overnight in a mixture of soy, ginger and a bunch of other stuff we’d roast the legs slowly ahead of time so they were rich, crispy and falling off the bone. The breasts were marinated just before service, then cooked to order as needed on a low heat so the fat beneath the skin melted away, leaving the skin crisp and the meat medium-rare. Later, I used what I’d learned at Season’s to create the slow-roasted Rialto duck with balsamic vinegar, mustard, rosemary and a bit of soy sauce, applying the technique I’d learned from Lydia and Gordon to the entire duck–slowly cooking legs and breast until the meat was meltingly tender. I should also have taken a lesson from watching Uriel–if you create a popular dish, it will haunt your menus for the rest of your career. The Rialto duck has never disappeared from the menu–we’ve tried, but we get too many complaints.
For years I’ve preferred duck legs over the breast, but this last trip to France softened my opinion. So often in France you see the legs and breasts separated, with the legs reserved for confit, and the breasts featured as a main course. After the fabulous duck breast we grilled with our friend Tom in Burgundy, I realized I’d been missing something yummy. It was time to bring it back.
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