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I like duck. I like its moist, juicy richness, its firm texture, and its dark and meaty flavor that, at least in domestic duck, stops well short of gaminess. It's peerless as a simple roast, but works just as well in a world of ethnic preparations that circle the globe from Europe to the Americas to Asia. And it makes an excellent foil to an all-star roster of wines that range from Burgundy through the Rhone to Italy.

Yes, duck is one of my favorite foods ... but for a couple of reasons, I don't often get to enjoy it. First, it's terribly fatty. Darwin could explain the evolution of this coldwater aquatic bird, whose tender flesh is lined with an extra-thick layer of buoyant, insulating fat. Second, it's not all that easy to deal with in the kitchen. The fat, the high ratio of bone to meat, and perhaps simple unfamiliarity make duck seem like a more challenging culinary project than its cousin the chicken.

This week, however, I tried a different approach that eliminates much of the hassle and may just turn duck from a bit part into a regular player in our kitchen drama. By starting with a boneless duck breast rather than a whole bird, I was able to bypass much of the prep work and roasting time. Then, by the simple expedient of rendering and discarding much of the fat and trimming off the rest, I ended up with two generous servings of duck meat that remained succulent but that wouldn't give a cardiologist heart palpitations.

A few quick finishing touches turned the unadorned meat into a delicious and simple pasta dish that took well under an hour to complete and made a first-rate companion to an excellent Italian red wine.

You might not find boneless duck breast at every supermarket, but gourmet-style groceries and specialty food stores should have them. (For those looking on from this part of the world, Burger's Market in Louisville almost always has them frozen). Further, at the price I paid here ($11.99 a pound) it's a lot more pricey than chicken or hamburger. But you don't need much of this rich meat. As a pasta topping or stir-fry ingredient, a 3/4-pound full breast ($8.77 for the package I brought home) is plenty for dinner for two.

Here's the dish I came up with this week, thin-sliced duck breast and caramelized onions turned into a quick topping for rigatoni or other short pasta.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 whole boneless duck breast, skin on, about 3/4 pound (0.34 kilo)
1 large white or yellow onion
1 large clove garlic
Black pepper
Asian "Five Spice" (optional)
1/2 cup (120 ml) chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 ounces (120 grams) rigatoni


1. Thaw the duck breast, if frozen (I used a few cycles of the microwave's "Defrost" setting to get the job done quickly before dinner).

2. Chop the onion coarsely and mince the garlic fine.

3. Put the duck breast skin-side down in a skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until the skin starts to crackle and give off its fat; then turn heat to medium low and continue cooking for 5 to 10 minutes, pouring off the fat occasionally and turning the breast once or twice. (Unless you're frightened by the idea, I strongly recommend saving the fat, which makes an absolutely delicious frying medium for potatoes and other good things. Use it in moderation, right, you bet ... )

4. While the duck is cooking, put a large pot of salted water over high heat (for the pasta) and bring it to the boil.

5. When the skin side of the duck breast is brown and crispy and the meat heated through, remove it to a plate and set aside until it's cool enough to handle. Don't worry if it's still rare at the center, it will cook a little more later on. What's more, pink duck breast = good. Overcooked duck breast = dried out, not so good.

6. Pour off most of the rendered duck fat, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the skillet. Use it to brown the onions and garlic over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it's caramelized and dark golden-brown.

7. While the onions are cooking, put the pasta in the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 12 minutes according to the package directions for rigatoni. Feel free to substitute other pasta of your choice. I like the short tube shapes such as rigatoni, penne or ziti with this dish, although my wife wants me to try either conchiglie (shells) or long pasta next time.

8. While the pasta is simmering, carefully trim the thick skin and fat layer off the duck breasts, which should leave you with two perfectly lean, rare fillets. At this point, obviously, you can go in any of a number of directions, serving them whole, cutting them into stir-fry pieces or wherever your imagination takes you. Here's what I did: Slice them into long shreds, and put the result in with the caramelized onions. Over low heat, add a little chicken broth (or duck broth if you have it), season to taste with salt, black pepper and the optional "five spice;" and, if you wish, thicken with cornstarch dissolved in a little cool water to make a more full-bodied sauce for your pasta.

9. When the pasta is done, drain it and mix it in with the sauce. Pour in bowls and serve with a salad or your choice of green vegetable.

WINE MATCH: I could hear a red Burgundy calling my name, but I usually like Northwestern Italian reds even better with duck; and thanks to a recent Care package from a friend, I had a fine one at hand: A just-mature Antoniolo 1996 Vigneto Osso San Grato Gattinara made a beautiful match. As noted, I wouldn't turn down any robust red from Burgundy through the Rhone and Provence to Northern Italy - or the New World equivalents - with this or just about any other duck dish.

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Duck!"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: True blue (Jan. 8)

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Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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