Duck breasts, fresh raspberries and demi-glace add a luxe touch to intimate holiday dinners with little effort. Duck with Raspberries recipe below.
Last week was all about taking humble ingredients and dressing them up—braising short ribs in wine and serving them atop puréed cauliflower. This week, I’m starting with fancypants ingredients to make a simple, elegant main course perfect for an intimate dinner for friends over the holidays.
December is rife with occasions for food. At one end are the big holiday dinners with their attendant traditional dishes. At the other are cocktail parties with finger foods that run the gamut, from elegant little appetizers to chips still in their ripped open bags. In the middle are nice little dinner parties, sometimes with just another couple, a chance to take advantage of time off and catch up with friends we don’t see enough.
Duck is perfect for just such occasions. It’s splurgy enough to feel like a celebration, and in this dish, simple enough to pull together without spending the day in the kitchen. Duck breasts can be cooked quickly, and the sturdy flesh carves easily without shredding for beautiful presentation. The flavor is richer, meatier and more intense than chicken. While considered “white meat,” duck breasts are darker than chicken or turkey. According to the USDA, it’s because they are birds of flight, and “more oxygen is needed by muscles doing work, and the oxygen is delivered to those muscles by the red cells in the blood.”
Ducks are also notoriously fatty, particularly in the skin. This increases their bouyancy when swimming and insulates them against cold water and weather. It also makes them delicious. As I began casting about for ideas for cooking duck, I came across one recipe that began “Take duck and remove all skin and fat.” Um, no. But you do need to remove some of the fat as the duck cooks. Doing so is easy; the recipe will explain.
If you’re going to cook duck—especially for the first time, like me with this dish—duck breasts are a great way to start. They’re sold fresh or frozen, already halved or whole and typically with skin but no bones. And they cook at a uniform rate, no covering the breast while waiting for thighs to catch up [or is it the other way around?]. Perfect. I found fresh duck breasts at Treasure Island, prepackaged four breast halves to the pack. Next you’re wondering what kind of duck they were, I’m betting. Me too. The package didn’t say, and I didn’t think to ask. According to one source, most ducks and duck breasts sold in supermarkets are Pekin, or Long Island ducks [which now, interestingly, mostly come from Indiana]. According to The City Cook, it might also be Moulard, “a cross between a female Long Island/Pekin duck and a male Muscovy duck.” It goes on to say, “You can also buy Muscovy duck breasts which are larger and about 40% leaner than Pekin or Moulard ducks, but they also cost more and are scarcer to find.”
You’ll also come across the term magret when you start looking for duck recipes. This is one of those words like champagne. In France, magret refers specifically to the breast of a Moulard duck that has been fattened to produce foie gras. Elsewhere, it simply means duck breast.
Because of duck’s inherent richness, many recipes call for a sauce with some tartness to it. The raspberry sauce in this dish adds just the right brightness—and its gorgeous red color adds a festive visual note to the plate.
Duck with Raspberries [Canard aux Framboises]
4 boneless duck breast halves with skin [about 1-1/2 to 2 pounds]
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoon raspberry vinegar [I used raspberry balsamic vinegar]
1/2 cup demi-glace [or substitute—see Kitchen Notes]
1-1/2 cups fresh raspberries, divided
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits
Preheat oven to 400ºF. Pat duck dry and trim off any excess fat. Score skin in a crosshatch pattern at 1/2-inch intervals with a sharp knife; this will allow duck fat to escape as the breasts cook. Season with salt and black pepper on both sides, but don’t go overboard; the demi-glace will add a fair amount of saltiness. Heat a 12-inch ovenproof saute pan over medium-low heat. Place duck breasts, skin side down, in the hot, dry skillet. No oil or other fat is needed—the duck will produce plenty. Cook the breast until the skin is crispy and most of the fat has rendered, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Transfer breasts to plate and pour off the fat from the pan, reserving 1 tablespoon [actually, save it all—what you don't use in the sauce can be used for making delicious roasted potatoes]. Return duck breasts to the pan, skin side up, and place in the hot oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until an instant-read thermometer inserted diagonally into center registers 125°F for medium rare [unlike chicken, this is perfectly safe—and delicious]. Remove from the oven. Transfer breasts to cutting board, tent with foil and allow to rest.
NOTE: Place a towel or potholder over the handle of the pan—it will be hot, he said from experience.
While duck rests, add 1 tablespoon reserved duck fat to the sauté pan, then add shallots and garlic and sauté over medium heat until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and cook, stirring, until dissolved—a minute or so. Stir in vinegar, scraping up brown bits. Add demi-glace and bring to a simmer. Stir in half of raspberries.
Force sauce through a fine-mesh sieve into a small saucepan, discarding solids. Over low heat, swirl in butter. Remove from heat and add remaining raspberries.
Slice duck breasts, fan on individual plates and top with sauce. Serve.
Demi-glace. First, what is it? As Reluctant Gourmet so eloquently puts it, it’s “the reason professional chefs can serve you an incredible rich, velvety brown sauce in your favorite restaurant.” Specifically, it is a mix of veal or beef stock espagnole sauce and madeira or wine reduced to a thick consistency. Producing it takes hours or even days, letting it just simmer on a back burner in a stock pot.
Happily, commercial concentrates are available for home cooks; with a little hot water and a few minutes on the stove, you have a thick, intensely flavored liquid that will add a beautiful sheen and rich flavor to your sauce when added near the end of the cooking process. One kind we like is More Than Gourmet’s Demi-Glace Gold. It’s available in many supermarkets and comes in 1.5-ounce containers of concentrate that produce a cup of classic demi-glace.
Demi-glace substitute. If you can’t find concentrate and don’t feel like cooking veal bones for hours, you can use good quality beef stock or broth [preferably home made] and reduce it by half to intensify the taste. It won’t deliver the silkiness of true demi-glace, but the butter stirred in at the end of making the sauce for this recipe will help in that regard.