With Valentine’s Day looming, here’s an elegant entree that any basic cook can execute with ease. I’m talking about duck breasts with a five-ingredient sauce, the making of which requires all of 15 minutes of hands-on time.
But first, let’s address a few common misconceptions about duck. Pekin duck the kind of duck called for in this recipe and the one most readily available at stores and online is not gamy. It’s also not fattening, especially if you remove the skin. (I’ll confess that I love the skin. It’s where all of the crispiness lives.)
Finally, though, there are at least three other reasons to roll with a duck breast on this special occasion, none of which has anything to do with health: it’s scrumptious, it cooks as quickly as a steak or a pork chop, and it’s a great landing pad for any of the sauces you would put on either of those meats.
The sauce in this recipe for Sauteed Duck Breasts is a classic of French cuisine: shallots, wine, cream, mustard and peppercorns. The cream doubles as a thickener because that’s the superpower it develops when it’s reduced. Don’t have green peppercorns at hand? Use crushed black peppercorns. Or, if you’d prefer to lose the sauce’s peppery bite, leave out the peppercorns entirely.
Two tips about cooking duck breast: First, let it cook for the majority of the necessary time with the skin side down so that the skin becomes crispy and the fat is rendered out. Leave the hot fat in the pan as it accumulates; it helps to melt even more fat from the skin. Secondly, be sure to let the duck breast rest after it’s been cooked. As with any other animal protein, cooking the breast chases its juices to its outside layers. As the breast rests, the juices are reabsorbed, which prevents the duck from drying out when sliced.
SAUTEED DUCK BREASTS
Start to finish: 40 minutes (15 minutes hands-on)
2 Pekin duck breast halves (about 8 ounces each)
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon drained green peppercorns in brine
Using a very sharp knife, lightly score the skin on each duck breast half in a crisscross pattern, all the way down but not through the meat. Pat the duck dry. Sprinkle the skin side lightly with the salt and in a large, cold skillet, place the duck, skin side down. Turn the heat to medium and cook until the fat starts to render out into the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking the duck breasts until the skin looks very crispy, about 8 minutes. 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 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pan (reserve it for another use, such as sauteeing 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 for 10 minutes before slicing.
Add the shallots to the pan and cook them over medium heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine to the skillet, increase the heat to high and simmer until the wine is reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Add the cream, bring it to a boil and simmer until it is reduced by one-third and thickened, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the mustard, peppercorns, duck juices from the plate the duck is resting on and salt to taste.
To serve: Put the duck breasts on a cutting board, skin side down, and slice them very thin at an angle. Transfer the slices to each of two plates and spoon some of the sauce over each portion.