Duck is one of my favorite foods. No matter how you make it -- roasted, braised, the legs confitted, the wings fried, the breasts grilled like a steak -- it's just plain scrumptious.
I'm a particular fan of whole slow-roasted duck, a recipe I've been perfecting ever since I was a restaurant chef. But that's hardly a dish to dash off most weeknights, so I save it for special occasions. Duck breasts, however, are a very different story; we probably eat them for dinner once a week at home.
Why? There's the simplicity. They're so delicious all by themselves, they require almost no dressing up. There's the health aspects. Eaten without the skin, duck breasts are as lean as white meat chicken or turkey. They also contain more iron per serving than most other poultry, and even some cuts of beef. There's also the ease. Duck breasts are as easy to cook as steak and can be prepared in 15 to 20 minutes.
Duck often is sauced with fruit; humans long ago realized that the acid in fruit acts as a great counterbalance to the richness of the duck. A classic of French cuisine, canard a l'orange (duck with orange sauce) employs bitter oranges, which are not readily available in this country.
So for this recipe, I added orange slices to the juice in the sauce. The white pith in the peel provides a bitter edge. The sherry wine vinegar and Dijon mustard are there to offset the sweetness of the orange juice.
One whole duck breast -- two halves -- can feed two to three people. (Each breast weighs from 1 to 1 1/4 pounds.) Cooking it is so simple that my teenaged son learned how to do it the first time I showed him. After it is cooked, while it rests, the duck will give off a delicious liquid that you can either add to the sauce, as in this recipe, or pour over the plain sliced duck breast, if you don't make a sauce.
Whether or not you end up eating the skin, I recommend cooking the breasts with the skin still on, which guarantees better flavor and prevents the breasts from drying out. If you want to avoid the extra fat, just remove the skin before serving. The fat is in the skin, not in the duck meat.
By the way, here's something counterintuitive but true -- duck fat has properties similar to olive oil, with a good combination of poly- and monounsaturated fats. Duck contains some saturated fat as well, so you don't want to go duck fat wild. But it's so flavorful that a little goes a long way. You might want to scoop up the duck fat generated by the making of this recipe and pop it into the freezer for future use. It will perk up your vegetables, potatoes in particular, in ways you never imagined.
DUCK BREASTS A L'ORANGE
Start to finish: 40 minutes (15 minutes active)
2 whole Peking duck breasts, (4 halves, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds total)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 medium shallot, minced (about 1/4 cup)
3 small oranges
1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Chopped fresh chives, to garnish
Using a very sharp knife, lightly score the skin on each duck breast half in a crisscross pattern. Sprinkle them lightly on all sides with salt and pepper.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high until hot. Reduce the heat to medium and place the duck breasts, skin side down, in the skillet. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the skin looks very crispy. Do not pour off the fat; the liquid fat in the pan helps to render out the fat in the skin.
When the duck skin is crisp, transfer the breasts to a plate. Pour off all but 2 teaspoons of the fat from the pan (reserve it for another use, such as sauteing vegetables). Return the duck to the skillet, skin side up, and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer the duck to a clean plate, skin side up. Cover it loosely with foil and let it rest while you make the sauce.
Juice 2 1/2 of the oranges (you need about 1/2 cup of juice). Thinly slice the remaining half.
Without cleaning the skillet, return it to medium heat and add the shallots. Saute until they are golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the orange juice and simmer until reduced by half. Add the sherry vinegar and simmer 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth and the orange slices and simmer until slightly syrupy, or reduced by about 1/3.
Whisk the cornstarch mixture to make sure the cornstarch is dissolved, then whisk it into the sauce. Simmer, whisking for 1 minute. Add the mustard and any juices that have collected in the plate the ducks breasts are on. Season with salt and pepper.
Remove and discard the skin from the duck, if desired (separating it by slicing off the skin with a paring knife). Thinly slice the duck and arrange on 6 plates. Spoon some of the sauce with the orange slices over each portion, then sprinkle with chives.
Nutrition information per serving: 450 calories; 70 calories from fat (16 percent of total calories); 8 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 430 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 84 g protein; 530 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."