Chooks and geese and ducks and things

Duck breasts with figs and pickled walnuts
Duck breasts with figs and pickled walnuts

Duck breasts are one of my favourite foods though I eat them rarely – they’re so rich and it always feels like a great indulgence – which it is. Cooking duck breasts is tricky – don’t cook them long enough to render the fat and they’re impossibly tough. Cook them too long and you’ve lost that wonderful ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ texture, flavour and succulence. Plus they go grey – never an appealing colour to have on your plate.

My favourite duck breast dish is one accompanied with cabbage and roasted pears. Doesn’t sound very enticing but it is a perfect accompaniment to the richness of the duck. Finely shred cabbage and mix with half a finely sliced red onion. Briefly saute in some of the leftover duck fat – the cabbage should just be wilted but still have a crunch and a gloss to it. Season with salt and pepper and a splash of verjuice or white wine. I put the pears (beurre bosc or corella), peeled and halved in a small baking tray, cut-side down with a drizzle of oil and a good splash (ok, a generous pour) of white wine to cook for around 20 mins. The duck only takes 10 minutes in the oven so timing is key: I first pan fry the duck then put them in the baking tray with the pears. By the time the duck has rested (sigh) the pears should be cooked. I sauté the cabbage at the last minute so it doesn’t wilt further.

Recently I’ve been trying other recipes. One was a Maggie Beer recipe for cabernet jelly glazed duck breasts with a salad of baby beetroot leaves, pickled figs and walnuts. Seriously. It looked good and I assumed that the Maggie Beer cabernet paste and  pickled figs would be readily available from places like the Essential Ingredient. I found the cabernet paste but no-one had heard of pickled figs. Oh well, time to get creative. Beetroot leaves ditto. I did however find walnuts!!!
This recipe just didn’t work:

  • Place duck breasts, skin side down, into a pan over medium heat and leave to render the duck fat.
  • When crisp on skin side, turn breasts quickly over and seal the underside for 1 minute.
  • Pour out fat and brush skin side with cabernet jelly and turn.

You have to repeat this process every 2 minutes, turning and brushing the duck with the cabernet jelly until its cooked to medium rare – approx 10-12 minutes. Problem is, the jelly burns and then the duck skin burns. Maybe it would have worked on a gas stove but on my electric one I couldn’t really control the temperature. Admitedly the flavour was lovely but it seemed like too much of a process.

Having an extra packet of duck breats in the fridge I decided to try this recipe again –  but with a variation. Nowhere could I find pickled figs but I did manage to find a jar of pickled walnuts and some lovely fresh figs.  I cooked the duck in the usual way and made a salad with the following:

  • Rocket
  • fresh figs, halved and grilled
  • lightly roasted walnuts
  • pickled walnuts (sliced)
  • pomegranate seeds (just because I had them)
  • dressed with some vino cotto and olive oil. Delish.

Unfortunately I was on the phone while cooking the duck breasts and lost track of time.  At first thinking I hadn’t cooked the underside long enough I left them in the oven a little bit too long.  Damn.  Although the duck was tender it was a bit over cooked for my liking (I like them to be pink).  Fortunately I could hide their greyness amongst the green rocket leaves and the bright red jewels of the pomegranate.  And for those who are wondering what pickled walnuts look and taste like:  the walnuts are pickled whole in their shell and are very soft to slice through – they really no longer resemble walnuts – and they taste much like caper berries.  Nice amongst things (and perfect in a pigeon terrine) but not something you would eat on their own.

My endeavor to master the perfectly cooked duck breast continues.

Jellies for adults

Today I went and packed up my office.  Having just been made redundant at work – effective immediately – I had no opportunity to think about ‘what’s next’ or about what I would do with all the things I had accumulated in my office , my personal space for the last 5+ years.   It was where I spent the majority of my time.  Full of paintings, books, reference material, a pinboard with postcards I had collected on my travels and from colleauges from theirs as well as momentos from exhibitions and celebrations.  The usual stuff.  And my Bose stereo system. A quick half hour and a station wagon loaded and I was gone.  So much for 5+ years work.

The thought of just going back home to unpack was unappealing.  I needed to do something nice – a drink and nibble somewhere.  We headed to 4Fourteen (or is that Four 14?) in Bourke st – Colin Fassnidge’s place where at first opening it was difficult to get a seat. A few years on and its just walk in and not a fashionista in sight.  Pretty empty by the time we got there at 2.30 but kitchen staff all working hard.  Its an open kitchen so you can see everything.  The place is large and bright and beautifully set up – the banquettes at the back are gorgeous tan leather, they serve wine in proper glasses and the place has the feel of a NewYork loft.  But its the food that really makes this place worth coming to.

We just wanted a drink and something light: seared bonito with ginger ale jelly and apples accompanied by a glass of Duval Leroy champagne. It was a perfect match – more so because my husband had ordered the champagne before we had considered what to eat – champagne being the  drink for all occasions, and in this instance, to toast the end of one phase of my life and the start of something new.  What that new is, I don’t yet know.  But the dish was certainly one that suggested good things to come. When did jellies become so adult?  The flavours and textures just sang in my mouth.  It was so playful – beautifully cooked slices of just just cooked bonito scattered with the jelly and grated green apples in a dressing I couldn’t really figure out, but absolutely perfect. It was joyous.  How do people think of these dishes?  Its what makes the difference between just good food and really exciting food. Food worth celebrating and food for celebrating.

Our other dish was a chargrilled lamb tongue – and I’ll bet if this was presented to you without knowing what it was you’d just think it was perfectly cooked meat that your knife sliced through like butter – tender and succulent. Accompanied by a glass of Spanish red, again a perfect match and a perfect way to farewell 5 years of dedication and welcome my unkown future.

Occasions are worth celebrating, no matter what the event.  This quick meal did that for me.  Good food, good wine, good company.  Life’s OK.