Classic French duck recipes, the kind Julia Child swooned for, are now considered old-fashioned. But an updated version of a dish like roast duckling with cherries can be stunning. And, because luscious red cherries are beginning to appear and the season is brief, it’s a way to put them in the main course. No need to limit them to dessert.
Instead of a whole bird, I use a pan-roasted large Muscovy duck breast, as easy to cook as a steak. For an elegant dinner any night of the week, it’s not at all hard to pull off.
Muscovy breasts are large, thick and meaty, about 1 pound apiece. They are also quite lean, so it is best to cook them rare to medium-rare (euphemistically called rosy in restaurants) to ensure succulence; otherwise the meat will be dry.
The first step is seasoning the meat with salt and a pungent rub of pulverized black peppercorns, allspice, clove, fennel seeds and bay leaves. This earthy spice mix permeates the duck breast and complements the cherries’ sweetness, too.
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My sauce maintains some traditional elements, but I like to add grated ginger and a good pinch of cayenne for more dimension and spark. It’s quick to make: Boil sharp red-wine vinegar and sugar together to make a sweet-sour syrup, then add red wine and good flavorful chicken broth — or rich duck stock if you can.
The cherries are sizzled with butter and splashed with alcohol, then added to the sauce. You can make the sauce ahead but wait to cook the cherries until right before serving for the freshest flavor.
To cook the duck, a cast-iron pan works best. Put the duck breasts in, skin side down, and adjust the heat to keep them cooking at a moderate pace. This crisps the skin gradually and takes about seven minutes or so. Once turned, the other side will take about the same amount of time, perhaps less, depending on thickness. Aim for just under 125 degrees. As the meat rests on a platter, it will continue to cook a bit more.
DUCK WITH CHERRIES AND RED WINE VINEGAR
For the duck:
2 Muscovy duck breasts, about 1 pound each
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon allspice berries
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
For the sauce:
¼ cup turbinado or raw sugar
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup red wine
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons butter
½ pound ripe cherries, left whole or halved and pitted
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon kirsch or cognac
1. Trim excess fat from duck breasts, leaving a ¼-inch layer covering the breast. (Save fat trimmings to render and use for another purpose.) With a sharp knife, lightly score fat cover diagonally in two directions, taking care not to cut too deeply and expose meat. Turn breasts over and remove the thin tenderloins from underside. Trim away any veiny or ragged bits. (Save meaty trimmings for making stock.) Season generously on both sides with salt.
2. Pulverize the peppercorns, allspice berries, cloves, bay leaves and fennel seed in a mortar or electric spice mill. Sprinkle spice mixture over duck breasts; massage seasoning into meat on both sides. For more-intense flavor, do this several hours ahead or overnight and refrigerate (recommended). Bring duck to room temperature before cooking.
3. Make the sauce: Put turbinado sugar and red wine vinegar in a saucepan and simmer over medium-high heat for two minutes, until syrupy. Add red wine and chicken broth and simmer briskly until sauce coats spoon, about five minutes. Stir in ginger, cayenne and ½ teaspoon salt. Set aside. You should have about 1 cup sauce. (Sauce may be made a day or two in advance, if desired.)
4. Place a wide cast-iron pan over medium high heat. When pan is hot, place duck breasts side by side, skin side down. Let sizzle gently for about seven minutes, until skin is crisp and golden, turning down heat as necessary to keep from getting too dark. Turn breasts over and cook five to seven minutes more. (Alternatively, finish cooking breasts in a 400-degree oven.) Check temperature frequently with an instant-read thermometer; internal temperature should be a bit less than 125 degrees. Remove breasts and let rest on a warm platter for eight to 10 minutes.
5. To finish sauce, put butter in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add cherries and sugar and cook for a minute or two, stirring, until cherries are heated through and beginning to get juicy. Add kirsch and cook 1 minute more, then add previously prepared sauce and bring to a simmer.
6. Thinly slice duck breasts at an angle and arrange slices on a platter. Spoon some of the sauce and cherries over meat and pass remaining sauce at table.