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Duck breast scaloppine

Here's another of those occasional culinary inventions in which an enjoyable dinner out led to a variation at home that was inspired by the original yet ended up almost nothing like it. That's the way the creative process works, or at least so it is for me.

It all started with a particularly tasty serving of vitello al limone at Porcini, a local Italian spot. This traditional favorite - tender boneless veal pounded into thin sheets of scaloppine, flour-dusted and quickly sauteed with a tangy lemon sauce and capers - was good enough to make me want to march right home and try something similar.

After 24 hours, though, something similar-only-different seemed even more appealing. With a boneless duck breast and plenty of citrus fruit on hand, it didn't take long to calculate that duck and lemon might be a little too tart, a classic duck à l'orange a bit too sweet, but a combination ought to turn out as just-right as Baby Bear's porridge. Add a lime for good luck, and a few compatible aromatic accents to lend flavor complexity, and a recipe was born.

I skinned the duck breast, rendered the fat to use as my sauteeing medium, and applied the pounding techniques detailed in the Nov. 20, 2003 FoodLetter, "Pounding chicken,"
Let the record reflect that duck breast doesn't pound out paper-thin as well as veal or chicken breast do. Like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps coming back. But be persistent - sufficient pounding will break down the meat fibers and yield a tender chunk of protein - and even if your thin slices puff back up to something like their original thickness in the sautee pan, it will taste the same. And that taste is ... good.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

Boneless duck breast, 12 to 16 ounces (350-500g)
Black pepper
1 lemon
1 lime
1 tangerine
1/2 teaspoon (2g) sugar
1 bay leaf
1 thick "coin" fresh ginger
1 sprig fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons (30g) butter


1. Carefully remove the skin and thick fat from the duck breast. Place the lean breast meat between sheets of plastic wrap and pound it with a rolling pin, wine bottle or similar implement until it is flattened. Cut it into four pieces of roughly similar size and shape, and pound them some more, seeking to get the meat as paper-thin as possible without shredding it. Season them with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. While you're working on the duck, place the fat and skin in a small skillet over medium heat and cook until most of the fat is rendered out.

3. Peel the "zest" (colored outer skin only) from the lemon, lime and tangerine, and put it in a small bowl. A standard grater or sharp peeler will work, but a "microplane" (available at food-specialty or hardware stores) makes it easy. Squeeze the citrus fruits into the same bowl - this should yield about one-half to three-fourths cup of juice. Remove any seeds, taste, and add a little sugar if it seems too sour. Assemble the other ingredients and mince the sage leaves fine - you should have about 1 teaspoon.

4. Put 1 or 2 tablespoons of the rendered duck fat, the ginger slice and the bay leaf in a nonstick sautee pan, reserving the rest of the duck fat for another use. Put it over medium-high heat until the oil sizzles, then put in the flattened duck-breast pieces and sear for about 2 minutes; then turn and sear the other side for 1 or 2 minutes more, depending on thickness - it's best to leave them a little pink in the middle. (NOTE: If you don't want to bother with rendering the duck fat, just use butter as your sauteeing medium. But the rendering step is easy, and the payoff is extra duck fat, which can be used to make the world's most delicious fried potatoes or potato pancakes.)

5. Put the cooked duck breasts on a plate and hold them in a warm oven while you make a quick citrus sauce: Wipe most of the excess fat out of the sautee pan, then melt the butter with the minced sage over medium heat, scraping with a wooden spoon to pick up any browned bits. Add the mixed citrus juices and zest, increase heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid reduces and thickens a bit. Put the cooked duck pieces back in, along with any juice that has accumulated on the plate, and turn them once or twice until they're warmed through and coated with the sauce. Check seasoning and serve. I plated them on cooked orzo, two pieces of duck per person; it would work as well with rice or mashed or roasted potatoes.

MATCHING WINE: The duck meat would work about as well with a rich white or a fruity red, but the citrusy sauce yelled "Sauvignon Blanc!" and I complied; the similar citrus flavors in the bright, snappy young South African Rostenberg 2004 "Brampton" Western Cape Sauvignon Blanc were perfect. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a young Sancerre would be fine, too.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

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 breast scaloppine."

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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Thursday, Oct. 28, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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