Duck Breast with Cranberry Blood Orange Red Wine Sauce

Magret duck breast is one of my absolute favorite proteins. This special kind of duck cooks and eats like beef (so it’s delicious served rare) and has a succulent layer of fat that, with the right preparation, is crispy, salty, meaty heaven. This is a protein that is fast and easy enough to cook for a weeknight meal (so I love to keep one in the freezer) but also feels fancy enough to serve to company. The meat is so juicy and delicious when you salt and cook it rare that I usually just serve it as is, like I do with steak, but this weekend, I made a cranberry blood orange red wine sauce to go with it. I made some Brussels sprouts with pancetta as a side dish.

To serve three people I bought two packages of Moulard Magret Duck Breast from Wegman’s – I can always find it there, although I’ve also found this product in many different grocery stores. One package is usually good for just James and I; we eat most of it and maybe have two or three slices left over for me to eat with salad the next day. This weekend I made two packages for me and my parents; that was way too much but it meant that both our households could have some leftovers.

Prepping the duck breast is simple. Leave it in the fridge until the moment you are ready to cut it (what comes next gets harder the warmer it is) then take it out, give it a quick rinse and pat dry, and lay it down with the fat side up. Use a thin, sharp knife to score the fat, first making straight cuts down the length of the breast, then making perpendicular cuts, basically turning the fat into a bunch of cubes. The key is to cut deep into the fat, but stop before you go all the way through – you shouldn’t see any of the red of the meat itself poking up. When it is neatly scored, rub a generous helping of kosher salt into the fat, massaging it around gently so it gets inside the cuts. Salt the other side, as well.

Cooking the duck perfectly is all about paying attention to it and not letting it overcook. Preheat the oven to 350F. As with bacon, I start the duck, fat side down, in a cold, oven-proof skillet. I don’t use cast iron for magret duck breast – I find that it holds too much heat and you risk overcooking the duck – so I go with a regular non-stick (but still oven safe) frying pan instead. Put the skillet on your stovetop and turn the heat to medium-high. Stick around – you want to slowly render out some of the fat, and then keep the heat at a place where it the outside gets nice and golden brown, but doesn’t get too hot and burn. After a few minutes, when there is a good amount of rendered fat in the pan and the fat coating still on the duck looks golden brown and delicious, flip the meat over and put it into the oven. At this point I usually put the timer on for five minutes. It might not cook in that time, but overcooking a protein this lovely is just not an option. I shoot for 120/125F in the thickest part, and let it rest thoroughly, like a steak, when it is done.

Be sure to save the fat for later – it’s absolute gold for sautéing, frying, roasting, etc. Just pour the hot fat into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve to strain out the brown bits and refrigerate.

Warm duck fat

To dress the duck up, I made a tart, fruity sauce out of cranberries, blood oranges, and red wine. I used:

  • 12 oz. fresh cranberries
  • Half a bottle of cabernet sauvignon
  • 2 T. Sweet Thai chili sauce
  • 5 T. white sugar
  • 2 T. mirin
  • A pinch each of nutmeg and cinnamon
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 blood oranges, zested and sliced

I started by bringing the cranberries and red wine to a boil. I added in the sugar, chili sauce, and mirin, stirring until the sugar dissolved. I sprinkled in the spices and blood orange zest, then squeezed the lemon into the mix. I added the whole blood orange slices and brought it back to a boil. I turned it down to simmer until the cranberries were really tender and the orange slices were falling apart, probably 15 or 20 minutes. I removed from the heat and used a potato masher to crush the berries and orange slices. Finally, I strained the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, stirring the pulp around to get all of the liquid out. The sauce was both sweet and tart, and with the cranberries and blood oranges it felt like a mixture of fall and winter – much like this past weekend has felt in New Jersey!

For a side dish, I used a big bag of Brussels sprouts, ends removed and halved, and three thick slices of pancetta (from the deli counter), cut into the cubes. You can use a package of already cubed pancetta for convenience, but if you have the time it’s better to do it yourself so you can make larger cubes, which have a better texture in the finished dish.

I browned up the pancetta, starting in a cold pan, then cooked until crispy. I removed the cooked cubes with a slotted spoon and drizzled the fat onto the Brussels sprouts, which I laid out on a baking sheet. There wasn’t quite enough bacon fat to coat the sprouts, so I also drizzled on a little olive oil. I sprinkled with kosher salt and roasted until they were brown and tender, stirring once while they were cooking.

Brussels sprouts ready for the oven

I served everything with white rice, because even when you’re cooking something that’s not Japanese at all, it somehow tastes better with a few scoops fresh out of the rice cooker.


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