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.
Click on any photo to see it individually or to scroll through the photos one by one.
…my. thanks.. Ken
That looks fabulous. I just bought some duck breasts and was going to cook them with spiced blackberries. Now I’m dithering! Thanks for sharing, once again.
Magnificent! Thanks for sharing this, yummy… it’s been saved, we’ll try it out. :-)
Mmmmm….I think I’m making duck this weekend.
Thanks for the stimuli :)
Looks terrific — but the duck is a little pricy for my budget.
Perhaps I should do what visitors to Bethlehem, PA do. Apparently, the Sand’s Casino which opened a few years ago, relies on tourists bused in from NYC. Some of the visitors enjoy the cheap bus ride, skip the casino and take advantage of cheaper food prices at local supermarkets. And, they help themselves to ducks from ponds in local parks dotting the area. Oh my.
Ha! Something similar happened in Providence RI a couple of decades ago. People noticed that the ducks from the parks were disappearing. A bit of investigation revealed that Hmong families, newly arrived in the US, were netting them for food, unaware that it was illegal. If my circumstances put duck out of my reach my next choice would be chicken thighs or turkey legs, but before you make up your mind I’d check out the duck in Asian supermarkets. They’re orders of magnitudel less expensive, but you do have to buy the whole bird. Ken
Good idea — I’ll try the Asian markets. Thanks!
Reblogged this on Urban Farm Foodista.
Thank you! Ken
Wow. What a beautiful and informative post. Such vivid descriptions and photography. I love Jody’s story about working in the restaurant with the duck man and learning to prefer the breast and the leg. And Ken, I hope you feel better. Thanks for all of the information on the different ducks. I usually cook Long Island, Pekin duck. It’s all I’ve ever seen. I’d say that before I started my website that was my most ambitious culinary undertaking…roasting a whole duck for half a day, stuffed with orange and thyme, basting, etc. I’ve only made duck once since then, the breast. But boy do I love it and I always get anything duck related in a restaurant. Great stories, great photos, great recipe. Yum. My kingdom for a grill here in nyc.
You know, there’s a certain irony in your location–I’m positive with just a bit of culinary sleuthing you could find both moulard and muscovy ducks, BUT you can’t have a grill. I’m sure there’s a metaphor about Tantalus lurking about your neighborhood. Ken
I just can’t get over how perfect this dish looks. Your pictures are just outstanding. Great job and great post :-)
Thank you, Jess. Maybe a grilled duck breast is in your future. Ken
How do you manage to produce good writing and photographs for every post, even while dosed up for bronchitis? (I hope you are feeling better by now)
I’m also in the camp of duck for special occasions, especially beautifully cooked duck and peach like this.
Well, I woke up this morning, checked to see that the blog had posted and immediately noticed that I had used “aligned” and “lines” in the same uneuphonious sentence. It went downhill from there. But thank you. I’m told it’s a ten-day cycle. Only 7 left to go. I hate being sick. Ken
Magnificent! I’ve been missing your posts!
Thank you! It’s nice to be missed. Ken
wow. i love that shot of the sliced duck and grilled peaches.
Thanks, Mimi. It was pretty tasty for lunch afterward too. Ken
Beautiful. I love the thought of peach with the duck breast. It seems they are destined to go together, both being regional to the South West of La Belle France. Do I need to gush any more about the standard of photography?
Thanks, Conor. Attempts to keep a little piece of our visit alive while back in the hubbub. Your duck also looked exquisite. Ken
Thanks Ken. I have a couple of trout to follow and a rabbit and prune stew to finish the series. Love that place. When is Jodie doing the cycle? I have been hard at it this summer and I am feeling great as a result. It allows me eat all that fine food!
I’m going to include something about it in our next post–it took place last weekend. Tow days, 200 miles, the first in a horrible driving rain (I bought a bottle of Oban for medicinal purposes for riders as they came across the line the first day). People are still donating, but so far Team-Rialto Trade has raised over $125,000. The PMC brings together a great community of riders, cancer survivors and donors. I’m just starting to get back into distance riding and our daughter has expressed interest in doing it next year. Who knows–it may become a family undertaking. Looking forward to the rabbit. We’ve got one planned for the fall. Ken
Great stuff Ken. Doing it with a purpose (other than deferring the inevitable) really makes it worthwhile. Great fund raising.
Stunning dish – that duck looks great (though personally I like it slightly rarer still). Lovely pairing of ingredients and cracking photography as per usual.
So do we, but it took us awhile–and three duck breasts–to figure out the time. The times in the recipe are actually a bit shorter than what we used. The next one will be rarer. :-) Ken
I’m with you on duck. I could almost be a vegetarian … except for duck and pork. Beautiful dish.
Thanks, Michelle. I THINK I could be a pork lover if I had access to great pork as easily as you guys. Then again, maybe it’s best kept at a distance. :-) Ken
Combien de fois avez-vous mangé du foie gras?!!
Thanks for all of the FABULOUS ideas so beautifully explained and illustrated… I’m looking forward to my next meal at Rialto.
Salut, Leslie–Au moins qu’une fois par jour, pour cinq jours. But purely for research purposes, you understand. After that, I took a breather and switched to rillettes for the duration of our trip. Say hi to Jody when you’re in the restaurant. Ken
Will do Ken, hope to be there with Amy in October! Before then, will surely try the duck with peaches (or mango?). Cheers.
Oh, how I LOVED the duck I had at Rialto!! The peach combo sounds fab. I like the little blue dishes. :)
Hi, Ayako–We were so happy you and your parents had a good time at Rialto! The blue dishes are fun when we can use them together – can’t remember where we got them. Ken
WOW, I love duck (one of my favorite recipes is thai fried rice with duck) and this recipe looks absolutely amazing… I cannot wait to try it! Your photography and writing are both beautiful. Looking forward to future posts!
Thank you, Connie. I’m happy you found us. Ken
hmmm…not sure why I missed this, but wow, it looks amazing. Your process photos are great, Ken, and really helpful. I wonder where you bought large duck breasts? Thanks for all the details on cooking them on the grill–it’s a tricky process to get it right, but so worth it.
Thanks, Sally. The duck breasts came from John Dewar and Co., but I’ve also seen them at the River Street Whole Foods. Ken
Lovely – I too missed this, not sure why or how. But am glad i popped in for some duck and peaches and for your throw-away lines such as “As I was riding in a taxi on the way to Toulouse a truck loaded with live ducks passed us on the highway.” Thanks. Sophie
Y!C! keeps threatening to make duck. I should show him this recipe and maybe he would get on the stick. Looks delicious.
Duck is something special. Worth the care and effort. If and when my wife ever withdraws from the restaurant world I’m am definitely going to miss my access to duck. Ken
I could live on duck but have never cooked it on a grill for fear of serious flare-ups. May have to swallow hard and face my fears though because this is one seriously delicious looking meal.
Flare-ups are an issue, but nothing that a determined griller with a spray bottle can’t handle. My own experience taught me that you inevitably screw up the first time–everybody’s grill adjust temperature different–then the second time you have it down cold. Good luck. Ken
Had duck once because I was fooled into eating it lol. But this doesnt sound to bad! I love peaches and the duck is actually a great taste and texture. Thanks for sharing!
Duck is great! Not too long ago it was the fashion to serve the slice breast really really rare (what the French call ‘bleu”). And I think that turned a lot of first-time tasters off. But the flavor is really rich, even when cooked a bit more (as in this dish)–I’d swap it for steak any day. Thanks. Ken
It literally taste like chicken but richer and full with more flavor. The way mother made it, it was a brown stew like how she would do her chicken and I said it was delicious lol. Had no idea it was duck and no problem again
Duck stew! Your mom was clearly a more intrepid cook than mine. I don’t think I ever tasted duck until I was in college. Ken
Haha yea he’s defiantly the chef in our family! Her food is out of this world !
I’m not much of a food critique, but I would say eating is a hobby of mine. I’ve never actually had duck before. This recipe looks sooooo good. I’m sure the fruitiness of the peaches goes well with the meat. Might have to try it out!
Thanks. Use some yellow peaches with some acid in them. I think you’ll enjoy it. Ken
Thanks was so yummy. We did sous vide duck and so we pan browned the peaches and used a local honey from Woodstock, Ga. It was so yummy with the wonderful hint of heat. Thank you so much.
Thanks for this ! I had duck breasts with white nectarines from Fauchon’s take-out ‘deli’ the other night (I live in Paris) and was inspired to try to recreate in my Normandy country house but could not find a French recipe ! ….so I did an English google seach and happily landed upon your page. Since we are in a heat wave I’m delighted this is an outdoor grilled version ! Bon appetit !