As I mentioned in an article just about this time last year (Jan. 15, 2004), I go quackers over the joys of duck. With its dark, almost "beefy" flavor, it's one of my favorite forms of poultry, and ranks among my favorite meats of all descriptions.
For years, duck was only an occasional indulgence for me. It was only available whole, and usually frozen, making it both time-consuming and messy in preparation. But the ready availability of fresh and frozen duck breast, leg-and-thigh parts and even duck confit has turned it into a staple, an ingredient that can be kept handy and pressed into service as a quick dinner, whether you pan-roast it or oven-roast it or slice it into bite-size bits as a pasta ingredient or star player in an Asian-style stir-fry.
The thick layer of fat and skin on duck puts a lot of people off (just as it attracts others). I'll often trim it off either before or after cooking so I can use only the lean duck meat in a recipe. But never throw it away, as the "rendered" fat, melted out by long, low-heat cooking in a small and heavy skillet and kept in the refrigerator, makes a remarkably good sauteeing medium for potatoes, onions, omelets and lots of other good things. And a little taste of the delicious crackly skin left over at the end of the process isn't going to kill you. I hope.
Duck is very friendly to red wines ... I love it with Burgundy and with dry, acidic Italian reds ... so with a tasty Umbrian Sagrantino awaiting my attention the other night, I came up with this dish, a rich but not overwhelmingly calorific duck pasta sauce that gets its "creamy" quality from a reasonably healthy bechamel sauce rather than dollops of heavy cream. I can't credibly call it an ethnic recipe because it's entirely my invention, but I don't think it's inappropriate to declare it compatible with the Northern Italian tradition even if I did add a cross-cultural touch of smoky piquancy with a Mexican dried chipotle pepper.
The recipe may seem a little complicated because it involves several steps - prepare the duck breast, prep and sautee the vegetable ingredients, and fashion the sauce - but each step is easy, and none terribly time-consuming. You should be able to put it all together in well under an hour.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1 boneless duck breast, about 8 ounces (240g)
1. Pan-roast the duck breast. This may be done in advance. Put the breast in a dry skillet, skin-side-down, and put it over high heat until it starts to sizzle. There's no need for butter or oil, as the duck skin will soon emit all the fat you need and then some. Reduce heat to very low and let it cook, turning the breast occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until the skin is crisp and has rendered much of its fat, and the meat is cooked through but still pink at the center. Remove from heat, reserve the cooked breast, and pour off and save most of the fat, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the skillet. When the duck has cooled enough to handle, cut off the skin and any remaining fat, and slice the duck into thin strips. (I actually ended up using only about half the duck, saving the rest for another day, but this is chef's choice. Use it all if you're hungry, or in the mood for a meatier dish.)
2. Prepare the vegetables. Cut the red and green bell pepper into julienne strips, and cut the red onion into quarters, then slice crosswise so it falls into strips of roughly similar size. Saute them with the chipotle pepper in the skillet with the small amount of duck fat until they're soft and starting to brown, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and set aside. (NOTE: The combination of red and green peppers makes for a striking dish and adds a bit of flavor complexity, but if you prefer, you could certainly use 1 whole red or green pepper rather than having to deal with two leftover halves.)
3. Boil water and start your pasta; while it's cooking, make the bechamel, the basic French white "mother sauce," also known as, um, "milk gravy." Put the reserved chipotle pepper in the milk, bring it just to the boil, then turn off heat. (You can use whole milk, 2 percent or skim. I started with skim and added just a drop of cream to bulk it up slightly.) In a saucepan or saucier if you have one, melt the butter over medium heat, cooking it until it stops bubbling. Put in the flour all at once and whisk until the butter and flour are well mixed. Pour in the hot milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly until the sauce is thick and smooth. Take out and discard the chipotle.
4. Reduce heat under the sauce to very low, and stir in the reserved duck meat and sauteed vegetables. When the pasta is cooked, drain it well and mix the pasta into the sauce, stirring gently until everything is warmed through. Check seasoning, put in warm bowls and serve, adding a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano at the table if you like. I like.
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