Spiced duck for Pinot
By and large, when I'm thinking about what wine to have with dinner, I start with the main dish and choose a wine to match. But every now and then, circumstances will turn the process around, prompting me to come up with a dish to go along with a specific wine.
Faced with the pleasant duty of taste-testing a very fine New World Pinot from California Wine Club's Connoisseurs' Series last week - the 2002 vintage from Sonoma Coast Winery - I wanted a dinner that would show it off well.
Without having tasted the wine but with a handful of experts' tasting notes on hand, it was clear that it would be a fairly big, bold wine with a lot of structure and fruit. It would probably be too much wine for wild salmon, which would otherwise have been a strong candidate. Something darker and richer would be needed here ... beef, perhaps?
I set out on a shopping trip with beef in mind, but before I got to the butcher counter, something even better caught my eye: A fresh, boneless Muscovy duck breast, weighing in at almost a pound. I love duck, and find that it makes a great match with a variety of red wines, from Northern Italian reds to Rhones to international Pinot Noir.
So duck it would be. I didn't want to do anything grandiose with it ... when I have a very good wine, I'd just as soon let it be the star of the show, with the dinner as backdrop. But since I expected this California Pinot to be on the big side, if not a monolith, I decided to kick the duck up a notch with a simple, bold-flavored spice rub. Nothing fiery - I don't really like hot-and-spicy flavors with excellent wine - but an exotic mix of aromatics that would bring together the earthy duck meat and the wine.
At that point, it came down to a simple matter of sniffing, tasting and experimentation. Normally I don't like to mix a lot of herbs and spices - it's easy to "muddy" the dish and turn it into as much of a mess as a schoolchild smearing oil paints on a canvas. But working with care and sniffing as I went, I was able to come up with a palette of five spices (plus salt and pepper) that worked very nicely with each other and the duck.
At that point, everything fell nicely into place: I sauteed the duck, browning it first in its own fat (and rendering out and discarding as much as possible), then patted on the spice mix and finished it in the oven. Cut into thin slices with a bit of crispy skin on each and infused with the spice-rub aromatics, it was an easy treat, and the flavors worked every bit as well as I had hoped with the first-rate Pinot.
It might be interesting to vary the spices and see how the changes work - crushed fennel seed ought to be interesting, for one; or dried oregano. But I'm prepared to testify that the combination featured here is going to be hard to beat. If you try it, please let me know.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 boneless duck breast with skin (14 to 16 ounces or about 400 to 500g)
1/2 teaspoon (3g) ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Asian five-spice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Rinse the duck breast and pat it dry. Cut a few slashes in the skin in a checkerboard pattern and place it skin-side down in a small skillet or nonstick saute pan over medium heat. You won't need any additional oil, as the duck will give off plenty. Cook for 10 or 15 minutes or so, turning occasionally but keeping the skin side down, mostly, pouring off the fat from time to time, until the skin is crisp and brown and much of the fat has rendered off. (Save the fat in a clean container; it will keep for a week or two in the refrigerator and makes a fantastic sauteeing medium, if you're not nervous about animal fat.)
2. While the duck is browning, preheat your oven to 400F (200C), and combine all the spice ingredients in a small bowl.
3. Take the duck off heat, drain all the remaining fat, and pat the spice mixture all over. (To avoid burns, I used the back of a spoon to spread and pat the spice.)
4. Using the same pan (assuming it has an oven-proof handle), put the duck into the oven for 10 minutes or so, skin-side down, to finish cooking. A little pink at the center is fine, although rare duck breast is a bit of an acquired taste; check with a meat thermometer and pull it out at around 155F internal temperature if you don't want to go by guess and feel.
5. Slice the duck crosswise in fairly thin strips, with a bit of crispy skin along the edge of each, and serve with a starch (I like it with steamed rice) and something green and a very good Pinot Noir.
As noted, this dish was designed specifically to go with a big, bold but not monolithic North Coast California Pinot Noir, the Sonoma Coast Vineyards 2002 Pinot Noir featured in the California Wine Club Connoisseurs' Series report in Monday's <I>30 Second Wine Advisor</I>. It would certainly fare well with any good quality New World Pinot or even a Burgundy in the bigger, riper style (including many of the 2003s).