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Quarantine Cuisine: Duck breast

Rounding out our order from D'Artagnan was a beautiful breast of duck, one of my favorite proteins to cook, and one that is sure to make an impression on your diners!

Duck might seem like an intimidating protein, or perhaps one that you'd not think about preparing on an average night, but with a bit of practice it makes some of the most magnificent red meat you can find, complete with a mouthwatering layer of crispy, succulent duck fat.

One key thing to think about with duck is what type of sauce or condiment you plan to serve alongside. Duck benefits from acidic or sweet sauces, which help serve as a foil to the rich layer of fat on the duck breast. My typical recommendation is a gastrique, a sugar and vinegar sauce, with some sort of fruit, which I wrote about last time I wrote up duck breast on the blog. For this meal, I decided to serve the duck with some of the ramp jam I had made earlier in the week.

Like many food-minded folks out there, I have a love affair with ramps, or "wild leeks." I first had them at Cobble Hill in Cedar Rapids, and have been in love with their garlicky-oniony pungency ever since. They only appear for a handful of weeks in the early spring, and in limited locations––I was surprised to see them stocked at my beloved Central Market in Austin every March, and I always purchased a bounty of them. Little did I know that ramps actually grow wild in parts of the midwest, including Iowa! When on a walk one afternoon, I spotted some amongst the trees just a ways off the trail, and harvested some for a wild ramp pesto to be served with gnocchi that night. Heaven.

We are at the tail end of ramp season, so we went back to our ramp hunting site and grabbed some more earlier this week, supplementing them with some more robust ramps acquired at our food co-op. The entire ramp can be used, so I cleaned the ramps and separated the roots and leaves, minced the roots, and cut the leaves into roughly half-inch pieces.

The ramps were then cooked down a bit in olive oil before adding white balsamic, balsamic, and apple cider vinegar as well as sugar and some bay leaves, and the mix was boiled until reduced by about half before pectin was added and the jam was cooled and canned. Tangy and savory, and absolutely delicious. The whole house smelled of ramps for hours. Accepting bids for the remaining jars...

Tonight's protein was a substantial duck breast that D'Artagnan gets from Hudson Valley Farms, where they raise Moulard ducks for foie production. Moulard is an excellent breed of duck for a rich and succulent breast without the iron-y game flavor you can sometimes get from duck.

Atop the breast is, of course, a show-stopping layer of duck fat, which you should score at intervals of about an 8th of an inch for the length of the breast, and then repeat at a 90 degree angle to the first scoring. A sharp knife makes all the difference here, and my knife was able to slice through the skin with just the weight of the blade doing the work. Be careful not to cut too deep, or with too much force, or you might dislodge the skin or cut into the flesh.

The scoring is a critical step for getting the duck fat to render in the pan, and producing crispy, delicious skin. Duck does best in a cast iron skillet, started cold without any fat; the duck skin will produce plenty of fat. Preheat oven to 400. Season the breast liberally on the skin side with salt and pepper, and lightly on the rest of the breast. Place the breast, skin-side down, in a cold skillet, and increase heat to medium-low. To keep the skin from curling as it heats, and facilitate even better rendering, I like to put another skillet on top of the breast as the skin cooks, ensuring the skin is in constant contact with the heat.

Once you have a good pool of sizzling duck fat, it's a good bet the skin is nice and crispy. Flip the duck over with tongs to check, and if the skin looks good, pop the breast, skin-up, into the oven for a few minutes until an instant read thermometer in the middle of the breast reads 120–125 degrees. Remove the duck from the oven and pan and rest it under foil for about ten minutes. Save the rendered duck fat! You can use it for any number of mouthwatering dishes later.

Meanwhile, prepare whatever you'd like to accompany the duck. Feeling springtime-y, and having some fennel I needed to use, I made a rich, vegetal fennel and leek purée, and harvested some dandelion greens from the yard, making a strawberry vinaigrette to dress the greens. Word to the wise––dandelion greens get much more bitter the bigger and more mature they are, so if you want a palatable sampling of these abundant greens, pick the smaller leaves!

The ramp jam spooned on top of the duck was the glue that held the meal together. Tangy, yet savory, it was a perfect complement to the duck.

Bonus tonight––mama made some strawberry-rhubarb pie with the last of the rhubarb in our backyard. We've been enjoying margs with homemade rhubarb syrup, but a pie seemed to be just the ticket for a lovely dessert. Perhaps I'll let mom do a guest post about her pie-making abilities!

Wine to cook by: Story of Soil Martian Vineyard Gamay from the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. Story of Soil is one of my favorite spots in SBC, and has been making waves, much like many wineries, with the wines they're making from new gamay plantings in the county. Gamay is the primary suspect in Beaujolais, and tends to produce slender, high-acid aromatic wines with a bit of vegetal grip and funk. This one was a baby, bottled in 2019, but was already showing really nicely, and the high-toned fruit and green pepper character of the wine was perfectly suited to the tangy ramp jam and helped temper the rich duck. A very lovely pairing, and perfect in our new wine glasses from Zalto!

Hope everyone had a great weekend! Have some wonderful upcoming posts I have saved, as I take a brief hiatus from cooking for the week. Stay healthy and safe.

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