Shallots, garlic, tarragon, brandy and balsamic vinegar create a lively sauce for simply prepared duck breasts and sautéed pears—an easy, elegant Valentine’s Day dinner. Recipe below.
Ducks are funny. When we’re kids, they’re the subject of cartoons and homey barnyard stories. “Quack” is one of the great comic animal sounds we all enthusiastically learn. But put duck on a restaurant menu and suddenly it’s exotic and luxe, even in rustic preparations. Prepare duck at home and it’s sure to impress, making it perfect for a romantic dinner for you and your valentine.
Unfortunately, duck can also seem intimidating to some home cooks. And sure, preparing duck confit can be a long, involved process. But duck breasts are a breeze, not only easy to prepare, but quick.
Duck is richer tasting than chicken, with a meatier, deeper flavor. As usual, much of the flavor comes from fat. Ducks are impressively fatty birds, particularly in the skin [don't worry—proper cooking renders much of it]. Because of this fatty richness, duck plays very nicely with fruit and tart flavors.
Here, pan seared duck breasts are finished in the oven and paired with pear wedges sautéed in duck fat with shallots, garlic and tarragon. A sauce of brandy, balsamic vinegar and chicken broth is given a silky finish with a little butter swirled in at the end. The result is delicious, complex and indulgent without being overpoweringly rich.
Duck Breasts with Pears and Shallots
2 boneless duck breast halves with skin [about 3/4 to 1 pound—see Kitchen Notes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 firm ripe pear, unpeeled, cored and sliced into 8 wedges [see Kitchen Notes]
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup chicken stock or broth
1 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; broth will add some saltiness. Heat a 12-inch ovenproof, nonstick sauté pan or skillet over medium-low heat. Place duck breasts, skin side down, in the heated, 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 the fat from the pan into a bowl, reserving it. Return duck breasts to the pan, skin side up, and place in the hot oven for 5 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—so check at 5 minutes so you don’t overcook. 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, reheat pan over medium-low heat. Add 1 tablespoon reserved duck fat, then add pear wedges and sauté until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning gently and occasionally swirling pan to make sure pears are cooking in the fat, not scorching in a dry pan. Add shallots, garlic, tarragon and sugar and cook, stirring, until fragrant—a minute or so. Stir in vinegar, brandy and broth, scraping up brown bits. Let it cook down just slightly, about 5 minutes, then swirl in butter bits until they melt and combine.
Meanwhile, slice duck breasts into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices. Fan on individual plates along with pear slices and top with sauce. Serve. I served these with white rice and spooned some of the sauce over it.
Buying duck. Locally, I find duck breasts at Chicago grocery chain Treasure Island. There are also various online sources. In a post I did a little over a year ago on cooking duck with raspberries [another wonderfully elegant dish], I talk a little about the ins and outs of buying duck. As it happens, the Treasure Island duck breasts come in packages of four breast halves. I cooked all four to the point of removing the pan from the oven, then set two aside. Tonight, we had sliced duck breasts with cannellini beans and garlic and onion sautéed in reserved duck fat. Simple and delicious.
Slicing the pear. Like apples and some other fruits, pears will discolor if you slice them and then let them set. Prep your shallots and garlic ahead of time, but don’t slice the pear until the duck breasts are in the oven.