|Duck magret with figs. Photo by Steve Shanahan|
First published Canberra Times 6 June 2012.
A visit to our local Alsace village farmers market expresses perfectly the French immersion and dedication to all things food. Artisans lovingly share the provenance of their produce, bringing a real sense of accomplishment and enjoyment in the simplest of foods. This is mostly inspired through the intensity of flavour and the raw, earthy charm of dirt-smothered roots and unwaxed fruit and vegetables on display. There’s lots to love, even while waiting for long periods at the more popular market stalls in the cold weather, listening to the fresh weekly gossip and sage advice from Madame.
Ever a Francophile, that same sense of appeal arises for me, while foraging in our local farmers market and chatting with the stallholders who are passionate about their products. I want to know what I am eating, and that opportunity to learn of the provenance of the produce, influences the experience of cooking and eating the food I buy.
On a recent excursion to our local markets, I chat to my favourite poultry supplier and I am drawn to the red, small but plump duck breasts languishing alongside the marylands. He holds them up to show me the thick layer of fat under the skin, a quality revered by the French. He explains they are free range, organic and freshly butchered.
Although I hadn’t planned to cook any more figs this year, I still have a few late harvest globes dangling from my forlorn looking tree. I am lured towards a port and fig sauce to match these beautiful breasts. It’s a tasty cold night bistro style meal that will provide an excuse to knock the top off the lush 2004 Yarra Valley pinot that’s been waiting for this moment.
These days, I consider duck breasts to be a fast food, as they can be cooked in under 15 minutes from start to finish and they play perfectly well with any number of sweet and sour sauces that contain fruit, honey and vinegars. The other advantage is that you can easily slip in fruits available through the seasons, such as berries, figs and stone fruits. Thin slices of peeled apple also work well in this sauce.
The sauce can be made in advance, leaving it in the pan on the side of the stove ready to reheat and adding the fruit last, when the duck breasts are done. If cooking for more people, adjust the quantities accordingly. This is a rich dish, so you will not need large portions. Serve with green vegetables in season with a burnt butter and pinenut sauce.
4 boneless duck breast halves (about 200g each), rinse and pat dry with paper towel
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp port
salt and ground black pepper
8 fresh figs, quartered (you can use berries, or 3 to 4 sliced, de-stoned and peeled stone fruit)
1 thyme sprig
1 garlic clove, unpeeled and smashed
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp honey
2 star anise
2 tbsp unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 150C.
Using a sharp knife, score the skin of each duck breast in a crosshatch pattern, taking care not to cut the flesh of the duck. Heat a pan with high sides, (something like a casserole pot to contain the spatters) and pour in the olive oil. When the oil is very hot, place the breasts in gently, skin side down and cook for seven minutes, or until the skin is very brown and crisp. Turn the breasts over and cook for a further three minutes for rare, or five minutes for well done. A lot of flavour is lost by overcooking duck.
Lift the breasts out of the pot and onto a sheet of aluminium foil. Fold the foil loosely over the breasts to seal and place them in the oven on a baking sheet for five minutes to finish cooking.
Pour off the excess fat from the pot and heat over medium heat. Toss in the garlic, thyme and star anise and stir. Cook for five minutes. Add the figs and heat for two minutes, stirring gently to not damage the figs. Remove the contents to a bowl and set aside. Remove the star anise and thyme sprig and toss away.
Add the honey to the same pot and heat until melted. Pour in the port and vinegars and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper, lower the heat and using a whisk, gently stir in the butter in small pieces, until the sauce is glossy and smooth.
Remove the foil packet from the oven and pour the juices from the duck breasts into the sauce. Then add the figs to the sauce. Mix together gently to reheat for about 30 seconds.
Slice each breast into slices and serve drizzled with the fig sauce. Serve with seasonal vegetables and crusty bread.
Burnt butter sauce for vegetables
Heat an additional two tablespoons of unsalted butter in a saucepan on high. Add one tabelspoon of pinenuts or almond slivers and cook until dark golden brown. To serve, spoon over seasonal vegetables.