This past summer I took a three week trip to Paris, taking cooking classes and soaking up all the knowledge and calories that I could. I will no doubt write about those experiences SEVERAL times over the coming months, however this entry focuses on one meal and one place: Magret de canard at Le Temps des Cerises.
While I spent my first week traveling with my fiancé (who speaks French - thank God!) my final two weeks found me absolutely alone, navigating a city I wanted so desperately to belong to. The scariest prospect of being alone wasn't the language barrier or getting lost in the labyrinth style streets of Paris. It was having to eat alone at a restaurant. It sounds trivial, but I had never done it before and the thought of having to say "table for one" was only made easier by the fact that I could at least say it more fancily as "table pour un".
For my first experience, I figured I would stay close to home. Right next to my apartment was a small, unassuming restaurant on the corner of Rue de Petit Musc and Rue de la Cerisaie called Le Temps des Cerises. I was seated, by my burly French waiter, at the end of the bar by a window looking out into the street. I began my meal with a bottle of Chablis and a savory version of a millefeuille made of layers of thinly sliced cantaloupe, serrano ham, and parmesan crisps drizzled with a sweet plum sauce. Très délicieux! Then came the main event. Duck.
Much like an amateur cannibal after their first human morsel, in Paris I became overcome with the "hunger"...for good duck. After a life of chicken or steak, I became "food-woke" to this magnificent bird. While duck leg confit can feel rich and fabulous, nothing quite compares to a well prepared duck breast. Much like a good steak, it needs minimal seasoning and just enough time on the heat to develop a crust on the outside but maintain the pink on the inside (don't try this with your other poultry). I also developed a whole new respect for duck after having to chop off one's head and gut the insides during a poultry course I had enrolled in. I'll never look at Donald Duck the same way again, but God damn was he delicious.
At Le Temps des Cerises, I had ordered Magret de Canard (duck breast) off the menu not knowing anything else about the dish or what it might be served with. I was presented with the most beautiful piece of duck breast cooked "à point" - rare to American standards but medium-rare to French tastes. It was served with pan seared bananas, a kumquat sauce and creamy parmesan polenta. Heaven. Sitting in the restaurant eating this perfection, listening to Parisians talk and laugh inside, and finishing off that bottle of Chablis are all part of one of my favorite nights in Paris. I still wasn't a native, but I felt one step closer to belonging to the city.
Flash forward two and half months, I was back at work in Washington D.C. I was living in a beautiful apartment in the epicenter of the putrid, rotting heart of our current government and loving every minute of it. I was looking for a local butcher to get a great cut of meat from. There was only so much I could get or expect from the butcher at Publix and I was looking to treat myself.
So I ventured far out of my neighborhood on this Meat Rumschpringe to Harvey’s Market, a local, family owned butcher shop located in Union Market. The stand was small and plain so I was shocked at the variety of meats and poultry they had to offer. As I was browsing through the meat it appeared to me. Like manna from the heavens, in front of my very eyes lay the most beautiful pieces of duck breast. Why is this so amazing you ask? YOU go to your nearest chain grocery store and see if you can find duck breast. I bet you my “Liza with a Z” album that you won’t be able to. While other countries celebrate duck meat, Americans seem to be obsessed with chicken breast and chicken breast alone. FREE THE TATAS! Find a butcher in your area and request some duck breast! Not only will you be thrilled with your decision, you will also be supporting a local business. Stop N Shop doesn’t need more of your money.
With my beautiful piece of duck breast in hand, I scoured the rest of Union Market for ingredients that I thought would get me to something close to the meal I ate two and a half months earlier at Le Temps des Cerises. I am very happy with my product and I hope you will be too!
*A note on Union Market, and places like it. No doubt near where you live there is a warehouse space chock-full of specialty vendors in the middle of the area of your town where turn-of-the-century factories once flourished. Developers are desperately trying to tap into the potential of these areas by using these old factories and warehouses for over-priced condos or markets where the post-pilates crowd goes to buy goods they cannot find around the corner at ShopRite. However, next time you go, if you drive a little past it, go back into the alleys, walk a couple more blocks...you might find the real treasure. Back in the corners and out of sight from the bougie markets, you can usually find wholesale vendors where local restaurants get their produce and meat from. While this back alley world is not at all as glamorous, it is far more thrilling and feels like a much more authentic experience. Behind Union Market were slews of wholesale vendors and there was not a neatly trimmed chicken breast to be found. There were barrels of seafood, meat hanging from ceilings, people crowded in getting what their establishment desperately needed for the dinner shift later in the day. Now, I was not able to find duck breast there, but had I needed it I would have had access to a bucket of oxtails, or a pigs head, or a bag of unplucked pheasants. It was so exciting and gave me a new appreciation for the behind the scenes work that goes into the plate that you are served at the restaurant.
Magret de Canard
1 Medium Duck Breast (10 oz)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
salt and pepper
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups orange juice
2 Tablespoons butter
10 thinly (1/8th inch) sliced kumquats
2 Tablespoons sugar
*This recipe makes a modest meal for two, or a mammoth meal for one. You can alternatively use as many duck breasts as you like and use the same recipe and timing schedule for the duck. The sauce makes enough for TWO breasts of this size so you can multiply that recipe accordingly, but know that it will take longer for a larger batch of the sauce to appropriately cook down. And as for the bananas, go nuts! You can make as many of these as you want, as long as you cook them in one layer on the bottom of the skillet and don't cook too many at once!
1. First, score the fat on the duck breast. Now, it's not necessary to score duck breast BUT when you score the duck, you break up the sheet of fat on top of the breast exposing more of it. All those exposed edges result in more crispy duck fat in your end product. When you score, don't break through the fat into the meat of the duck. After you score the fat, sprinkle salt onto both sides of the duck, pat it in, and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.
2. After 15 minutes, put the vegetable oil into your non-stick/cast iron skillet. Pat the duck dry with paper towels and place the duck FAT SIDE DOWN into your skillet. Using tongs, use the duck to spread the oil out over the entire base of the pan. After that, turn on your burner to medium/medium-high heat. You heard right. AFTER the duck is sitting in the skillet and the skillet is sitting on the burner, THEN turn on the heat. We want to render some of this duck fat, so we want to heat it up gradually rather than throwing it on a searing hot skillet right away.
3. Salt and pepper the exposed duck breast as the fat side of the duck begins to cook. Once you hear a sizzle, continue to cook it for 8 minutes more on this side. Adjust the heat in order to maintain a healthy sizzle. It should NOT sound like you are vigorously frying the duck, and if it does, turn down the heat. You want to maintain that moderate sizzle sound for all 8 minutes while the fat side of the duck cooks.
4. After 8 minutes, flip the breast over. The fat should be brown and crispy. Lightly salt the exposed fat right away. This helps absorb oil on the skin to keep it nice and crispy and prevent any sogginess. Cook for 4 more minutes. This should get you a medium rare piece of duck breast. This, or rare, is the preferred way to cook and eat duck breast.
5. Turn off the heat, remove the duck breast from the skillet and let it rest on a plate or cutting board for 7-8 minutes. Do not cover the breast while it rests. You want the fat to stay crispy so you don't want added moisture developing on the duck underneath a covering. After the duck breast has rested, slice and serve.
THAT'S IT! You could stop right here and serve this beautiful hunk of bird boob with mashed potatoes and broccolini or asparagus and call your Sunday dinner finished. OR you could go full on Le Temps des Cerises and continue on. Now lets look at making our orange/kumquat sauce and pan seared bananas...
*If you are making this sauce with the duck, make the sauce through Step 2 and THEN start making the duck as instructed above.
1. Place the honey in a 2 Quart sauce pan over high heat. Bring the honey to a boil and cook until it begins to become a dark caramel color.
2. Take the honey off the heat, mix in the 2 cups of orange juice and 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar, and place the pot back on the heat. Reduce the heat to MEDIUM and cook the mixture for 20 minutes until the sauce has reduced by half.
3. After twenty minutes, stir in the 2 tablespoons of butter and the sliced kumquats and cook for 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally.
*If you cannot find kumquats at the grocery store, never fear! Just go without them. They have a similar flavor to oranges and clementines so if you have no kumquats you can add julienned shaved orange peel or about a tablespoon of orange zest. Alternatively, you could add nothing. The sauce can be enough without any extra addition.
PAN SEARED BANANAS:
*Make these bananas once you have moved the duck breast out of the skillet to rest. Remove the majority of the duck fat and grease from the pan (pour it through a sieve and save it for use the next time you need grease to fry something). Leave the equivalent of a tablespoon, or slightly more, of rendered duck fat in the bottom of the skillet. If you make these without the duck, just use one or two tablespoons of butter.
1. Peel both bananas, cut them in half length-wise and then in half again. You should have 8 pieces of banana. Now sprinkle half of the sugar over the cut side of the bananas.
2. Place your skillet (with either duck fat or butter) over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, place the bananas, CUT AND SUGARED SIDE DOWN, in the skillet. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar on the non-cut sides of the bananas that are "face-up". Cook for 1 1/2 - 2 minutes until the underside of the bananas are caramelized.
3. Carefully flip and cook for one minute to caramelize the bottoms of the bananas. Once cooked, gently remove the bananas from the pan so as to not break them up.
Now PLATE UP!
I just made some quick polenta and added a small handful of freshly shredded parmesan and a couple pinches of black pepper. You could also serve this with rice, creamed potatoes, or plain! Another idea, which is equally tasty, is to spread the sauce on the cut insides of a crusty baguette and then layer on room temperature sliced duck, the pan seared bananas, and a green (arugula, etc.) to make a delectable sandwich that will be to DIE for!
Chairman of the Itty-Bitty-Duck Titty Committee,
Kenneth James Francoeur