Friday, February 24, 2012

Valentine’s Day Dinner: Duck Breast with Red Wine Sauce and Cauliflower Two Ways

Lest you think I cooked my devoutly carnivorous boyfriend a mere salad for valentine's dinner, there was much more in store.  Admittedly, despite my affection for kale, a kale salad does not a valentine’s meal make. Though I'd told him a few times that I was planning on an entirely vegan valentine's feast (which he had, in fact, assured me he would devour without question), my plan was to cook something out of the ordinary. 
Yes, that is a little heart drawn in red wine sauce. Yes, I am a dork.
 I wracked my brain a couple of weeks ago, trying to remember the last time I cooked a piece of meat at home (bacon, soup and random meats cooked in the homes of others excepted).  From my recollection, it had been about four years.  Yes, seriously, four fucking years.  I am not a big meat eater - this we know - but this still shocked me.  Sure, I’ve cooked a few pieces of fish here and there, but even those were few and far between.  Valentine’s Day seemed as good a reason as any to test my meat-cooking chops again and see just how rusty I’d become.  This is not to say that, prior to the last four years, I’d been a huge meat eater / cooker – I never really have been, and my meat eating tends to be relegated to restaurants and the homes of family and friends.   Since this was a special meal, though, I decided to go big, and settled on duck breasts.  Duck, done well, is awesome – tender, juicy and so flavorful that any comparison to its poultry brethren is entirely misguided. 

So after our salads, I left Rob for a few moments with bread and room temperature Icelandic butter sprinkled with crunchy sea salt, and of course a glass of red, to keep him occupied for the few minutes it would take me to retreat to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on and plate our second course.  Everything was pretty much ready – the duck was removed from the fire just before I served the salad, so it was able to rest while we filled ourselves with roughage.  I had prepared the sauce and cauliflower puree earlier in the day, and had kept them over low heat during kale time, so those were the perfect temperature.  The only aspect I didn’t time quite well enough was the roasted cauliflower, which sadly got a bit cold – but it was delicious nonetheless.

Rob admitted as we were eating that he had been a bit skeptical when I told him I was making duck.  I don’t think he realized it’d been four years since I cooked a nice piece of meat, but he knew that it’d been a damn long time.  As we were eating, he admitted this to me, and said that he’d been worried for no reason.  I had to agree – the duck was really great – the skin was perfectly crisp, the meat soft and tender, and the simple flavorings spot-on.  The wine sauce was the perfect accent – leading with wine, deepened by the flavor of duck tenderloins; rich, yet light.  Since the red wine imbued a bit of sweetness to the plate, I paired the dish with cauliflower, which I find has a subtle, natural sweetness.  I also love having a range of textures on my plate, so I opted to treat the cauliflower two ways: pureed for velvety smoothness, and roasted for crunch.  The roasted cauliflower, which I took from Smitten Kitchen, was topped with pomegranate arils post-roasting, which provided for a tart-sweet-juicy pop; a bit of a surprise texture that also served to highlight the sweet notes in the cauliflower and tie it together with the sauce.  Once plated, I took a step back and felt pretty proud of myself.  It was a well-composed, pretty, thoughtful and frankly delicious plate of food.   And I didn't go bonkers in the process. 

Peppered Duck Breasts with Red Wine Sauce
From this New York Times recipe
Serves 2

My duck breasts were significantly smaller than those called for in the original recipe, so each serving was a full breast.  I couldn't finish nearly all of it, but Robbie cleaned his plate with no problems.   Though I thought the duck could have been taken from the heat a good 45 seconds earlier, Rob thought they were cooked perfectly. 

2 duck breasts, about 6 ounces each
Kosher Salt
1 tablespoon freshly crushed black peppercorns (I laid them out in a bowl so they wouldn't escape and used the bottom of a glass bottle to crush them)
2 garlic cloves, sliced
Thyme sprigs
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, sliced thinly
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste ( I like to use the tomato paste in the tube so that you don't have to open up a whole can for just a little bit)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons medium-bodied red wine
1 cups unsalted chicken broth
1 1/5 teaspoons brandy
1 teaspoons potato or corn starch.

Remove the tenderloins, thin strips of meat on undersides of the duck breast, and reserve for the sauce. (NOTE: My duck breasts were already trimmed for the most part, but there were a couple of small strips of meat that came off with trimming the rest of the fat away, so I used those and a bit of the extra skin for this purpose. I mean, can you go wrong with extra duck skin? (FYI - No.).) With a sharp knife, trim away any gristle from the undersides and trim any excess fat from the edges of the breasts, preferably without slicing away the top four layers of skin on your thumb (cooking with a paper towel bandaged around your finger is inconvenient at best). With a VERY sharp knife, core the skin in a diamond-shaped pattern, without cutting to the meat. Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides, then rub 1 teaspoon crushed black peppercorns all over. Sprinkle with the garlic and a few thyme sprigs, cover, and leave at room temperature for an hour. (For deeper flavor, refrigerate for several hours or overnight, then return to room temperature to cook.)

Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the unsalted butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and the reserved duck tenderloins; let them brown well, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and a small thyme sprig and let them fry for a minute, then add 2 tablespoons of red wine and the chicken broth. Raise the heat to a brisk simmer and let the liquid reduce to a bit less than 3/4 cup, about 10 minutes. Strain the sauce and return to the heat. Add the remaining tablespoon red wine and the brandy and cook for 1 minute more. In a small bowl, dissolve potato or corn starch in a tablespoon of cold water, then stir into sauce. Whisk in the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter. Taste and add salt as necessary. (Sauce may be made in advance and reheated, thinned with a little broth.)

Remove and discard the garlic and thyme sprigs from the breasts. Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, lay in the duck breasts skin side down and let them sizzle. Lower the heat to medium and cook for a total of 7 minutes, checking to make sure the skin isn’t browning too quickly. With tongs, turn the breasts over and let them cook on the bottom side, 3 minutes for rare, 4 to 5 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer to a warm platter and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice crosswise, not too thickly, at a slight angle. Serve with the sauce.

 Cumin-Roasted Cauliflower with Pomegranate and Mint
 Serves 2 generously
 Adapted very slightly from this recipe over at Smitten Kitchen

I didn't really measure anything for this recipe.  I drizzled olive oil over the cauliflower just until it was evenly coated, then spilled out waht appeared to be a teaspoon of cumin seeds into my palm. I decided to forego the yogurt, since we had a creamy element on the plate already, and I felt the tanginess would overpower the other items on the plate.  This recipe, if you can really call it that, is such a keeper.  The cumin seeds elevate it from the ordinary, and the mint and pomegranate give an otherwise earthy dish a load of brightness and a little bit of spunk.
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium - large head cauliflower
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup pomegranate arils

Preheat oven to 425°F.Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil or cooking spray.

Cut your cauliflower into bite-size florets and place on baking tray.  Drizzle over the olive oil and sprinkle with cumin seeds, salt and pepper.  Toss to coat evenly. Toss florets with remaining olive oil, cumin seeds, salt and pepper and spread out on prepared tray. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is cooked through and well-browned. Keep a watchful eye towards those later minutes - the line between crispy and carcinogenic is sometimes a tough one to toe when you're doing a bunch of things at once in the kitchen.  

That said, I LOVE those near-black pieces. When the cauliflower is done to your liking, remove it from the heat and sprinkle with mint and pomegranate seeds.

Cauliflower Puree with Feta and Garlic
Serves about 4
Inspired by this recipe

This stuff is so good, you may never turn to mashed potatoes again.  May... 
Yes, I put this in a bowl just to get a picture of it and then put it immediately back into the pot. Again, dork.

1 head cauliflower, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds
1 1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

Core the cauliflower and cut it into evenly-sized, about bite-sized, florets.  Pour the chicken broth into a steamer pot and add water so that you have about an inch of liquid.  Steam the cauliflower over the liquid until a paring knife inserted into the florets is met with little (but some) resistance, about 15 minutes.  Remove half the cauliflower from the steamer and place in your food processor of blender.  Transfer the cooking liquid (about a cup's worth) to a measuring cup, and pour about 1/2 of a cup of the liquid into the blender / processor.  Puree the cauliflower until it's smooth.  Add the rest of the cauliflower and the garlic to the blender.  Add a few more tablespoons of cooking liquid (just enough to allow the machine to process it) and puree until smooth.  Add more cooking liquid as needed, with the intent of adding as little of possible, as you don't want your puree to be watery.  Once smooth, add the butter, feta cheese, salt and pepper to the machine and process until combined.  Check for flavoring; you may wish to add more feta cheese, salt or pepper to suit your taste. 

I prepared my puree ahead of time, and let it sit over low heat.  This allowed for a bit of the excess liquid to evaporate, so we were left with a smooth, creamy, decadent-tasting puree that was really quite healthy (and really delicious).  

Note: If you're hesitant to plunk some raw garlic into your puree, you can place it in the pot with the cooking liquid while you steam the cauliflower.  This will imbue the cauliflower with a very faint garlic aroma, and will significantly take the edge off of the garlic before you puree it.   You can go halfsies too and keep one raw and one slightly leeched of flavor.


Dee said...

It was so great to see you and Robbie last night.
I must admit as I was reading this entry my mouth was watering. The Duck looked fabulous! Next time I go to Wegman's I'll see if they carry it.
I'm definitely going to give the Cauliflower puree a try . I love cauliflower.

Shelby said...

Thanks so much, Dee. It was great seeing all of you as well, thanks again for having us over (and for a delicious dinner)!