When it comes to managing the household budget, there are three luxuries I consistently choose to spend money on: a monthly massage, quality hair-care products and high end groceries. When my husband and I began planning our life together, I warned him about my love of expensive food items. Other women spend money on shoes, clothes or home furnishings. My vice is gourmet foods. For many years, I lived in Dallas and there was no shortage of gourmet grocery stores and specialty shops. If I wanted imported capers packed in sea salt, Meyer lemons or hatch chilies, I didn’t have to travel far to find them. Celebrated purveyors such as Central Market and Whole Foods were a stone’s throw from my neighborhood. But since moving to rural New Hampshire some years ago, I’ve found it challenging to find the kinds of gourmet shops I’m used to. There are a few nice places in the region, but they are not convenient to where I live. Every couple of months, I drive an hour to Lebanon to shop at the Lebanon Co-op, which has an amazing selection of excellent foods and wine. And I’ve made friends with a few local producers and farmers, which helps.
For the past few years, friends have told me about a gourmet market in Portsmouth, which is also about an hour away. I’ve been very curious about this place. I recently had occasion to be in that area and I found it – Philbrick’s Fresh Market. When I walked in the door, I felt at home. And as I started to make my way through the store, I knew I’d found my new favorite haunt for the gourmet foods I love. I tried not to go too crazy, but there were some things I just could not walk away from. I bought a couple of fresh porcini mushrooms. I bought a slice of Bucheron, which is a goat cheese formed into a log with a rind, somewhat like brie. I bought a box of my favorite salt – Maldon flaky crystals. Philbricks has an impressive meat and seafood section. Their fish was amazingly fresh and beautiful, so I bought a piece of black cod, also called sablefish, and a magnificent filet of sockeye salmon that’d been swimming around only a couple days before. When I approached the meat counter, I almost swooned with delight as I saw three different grades of beef, some grass fed, some grain finished and some dry aged. I ended up with a couple of perfect looking lamb sirloin steaks. But the most exquisite item I came home with that day was a couple of duck breasts. Ahhhh…duck. Nothing is quite as decadent as a perfectly seared duck breast with crispy skin and pink, juicy interior. That was the inspiration I needed. The service at Philbricks was amazing and the lovely gentleman at the fish counter gave me a cooler and some freezer packs to keep my perishables cold on my drive back to Concord. I floated home in a daze.
The next day was Saturday and I spent the early hours of the day dreaming up a recipe for those duck breasts. I made a quick trip to the local supermarket for some last minute staples. When I got home and flipped on the TV, there was an episode of The French Chef and I found some added inspiration from the great Julia Child. She was making a puff pastry stuffed with spinach, mushroom and ham. Luckily, I’d picked up a bunch of rainbow chard at the store. In that moment, I devised a final menu.
DUCK WITH ORANGE-GINGER SAUCE
2 medium sized duck breasts
1 cup of chicken broth
1/4 cup of Cointreau or another fruit flavored liqueur
1 tbsp of grated ginger
2 tbsps of honey (orange blossom honey is perfect, but any honey will do)
RAINBOW CHARD AND PORCHINI MUSHROOMS EN CROUTE
1 bunch of rainbow chard (plain green chard is also good)
1/2 medium onion
2 slices of bacon
3 fresh porcini mushrooms (these are hard to come by, use creminis if necessary)
1/2 a granny smith apple
2 cloves of chopped garlic
1 tbsp crème fraiche, sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 tube of prepared crescent rolls (actually, philo dough would’ve been perfect)
CRISPY YUKON GOLD POTATOES
5 small Yukon gold potatoes
For a meal like this, it’s important to prep everything before any cooking begins. I started by thoroughly drying the duck breasts, scoring the fat in a cross-hatch pattern and seasoning them with salt, pepper and a light dusting of garam masala, which is a sweet and fragrant Indian spice. A tiny bit goes a long way. I washed the chard and separated the stems from the leaves. The stems take longer to cook, so it’s important to cook them separately. I cleaned the dirt of the mushrooms with a damp cloth. I sliced the potatoes into quarters lengthwise. I chopped the onion. I cubed the bacon. I diced the apple. I zested the orange, then cut the peel off and took out the sections. The technique is called “supreming.” I squeezed all the juice out of the orange remains into the bowl with the orange sections and set it all aside. I turned the oven on to 375. Once all the prep work was done, I was ready to start cooking.
I put a medium sauté pan on high heat for the duck breasts and when the pan was screaming hot, I placed the duck skin side down to render. While the duck was searing, I rendered the bacon in a large skillet until it was crispy, then removed the crispy bits from the bacon fat and sautéed the porcini mushrooms on high heat until they browned. I took the mushrooms out of the pan, set them aside and threw in the onions and chard stems. When they just started to get slightly cooked, I threw in the diced apple and garlic. At this point, the duck skin was rendered and crispy, so I turned them over for a quick browning on the other side, then took them out of their pan, put them into a pie plate and put it in the oven briefly to finish cooking. I poured the duck fat into another pan, placed it over high heat, added the potatoes, some salt and pepper and covered it.
Now, the onions and chard stems were cooked, so I chopped the leaves and added them to the pan, along with salt and pepper. When cooking any greens, they’ll appear to be overflowing out of the pan, but remember that they will wilt significantly as they cook. Just stir them around and they’ll start to break down very quickly. Once the greens were wilted, I added the mushrooms back in and stirred in the crème fraiche. It was just enough to add a slightly creamy element, but not enough to make the whole thing runny. If you’re using yogurt, make sure you have the thick, Greek yogurt or strain the water from whatever yogurt you’re using. You want this mixture to be tight.
At this point, I removed the duck from the oven. It had only been in there for a few minutes, but I didn’t want it to overcook. Unlike chicken, duck breast should really be served pink inside. It’s better to have it underdone than overdone. I set the duck aside and shook the potatoes around in the pan. They were getting nicely browned in that duck fat. Yum.
With the duck resting the potatoes browning, I was able to make the chard-filled pastry packets without distractions. I unrolled the prepared crescent rolls and made rectangles by pinching two triangular pieces together. This stuff is pretty pliable and easy to manipulate. The tube had a total of 6 triangular pieces, so I ended up with 3 rectangles of pastry. I put heaping spoonfuls of the chard stuffing on one end of each rectangle, folded over the other end and sealed the seams. I put them in the oven for about 15 minutes to bake.
Now it was time for the sauce. I brought the same pan in which I browned the duck back to a front burner and turned the heat up high. Since I’d poured the fat off to cook the potatoes, the pan was left with caramelized duck juices stuck to the bottom. Once the pan had heated up, I threw the ginger in there to quickly sauté. And I deglazed the pan with the Cointreau and chicken broth. I added the juice from the orange, which was about 1/4 of a cup, and the honey and, of course, a little salt and pepper. I wanted this to reduce down to a thick, syrupy consistency. While the sauce was reducing, I turned the potatoes again. They were dark brown and crispy, exactly how I wanted them. I uncovered them and turned off the heat to allow them to stay crispy while everything else finished cooking.
When the pastry was dark brown, I took these little packets out of the oven. This experiment looked like it worked! But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The sauce had reduced by a half, and was forming a syrup, so I added the orange zest, orange segments and chopped thyme and turned off the heat. Everything was done; it was time to serve this masterpiece.
I sliced the chard packets in half. The pastry wasn’t quite as crispy as I’d hoped, it had softened a bit. Had I used philo dough, this would have turned out flaky and crisp. I sliced the duck breast on the bias and fanned it out on the plate. I lined the potatoes up along the edge. And I spooned the orange segments and sauce over the duck.
And how did it taste? UNBELIEVABLE!! The slightly bitter chard, pungent porcini mushrooms and tart apples made a brilliant combination inside that pastry. And the sauce kind of soaked into the bottom of the pastry, which was heavenly. The duck was perfectly pink inside and the subtle hint of perfume from the garam masala was an unexpected surprise. The potatoes were deeply browned on the outside and fluffy on the inside. It was a home run. The best quality ingredients always seem to have the power to ignite my culinary creativity. Go out and find some great groceries, get inspired and cook something remarkable. And tell me how it turned out.