Otherwise known as
Magret de Canard en Cocotte Comme en Bigorre
Bigorre in the Pyrenees is well known for the Tarbais bean and an ancient breed of black skinned pig and that’s as much as I know about this region. What I do know is what adjoins it, the region of Gascony is known for its foie gras (yeah!); and where there is foie gras there is duck and confit. I always thought that I am an authority when it comes to how a duck should taste. But in my route to discovering the many facets of this underused fowl (at least in U.S. homes) , I have come to a realization that I know so little about how a duck should be prepared so as to savor its unique and rich dark meat. I have to remove the barrier in my head that poultry should always be cooked “well done”. It is with this mentality that I have almost ruined this casserole and I am seeking a middle ground here or I would forever be consigned to ending up with very tough stringy duck. Is there a way to cook a duck breast all the way through and still end up with tender succulent meat? Or maybe cook it to just about pink in the center (middle ground), and still have wonderful flavor and texture? Some of you might even say, why even bother if you are going to cause such abomination by overcooking this fowl’s lovely meat?! Well for one thing, I love roasted duck, Peking duck and of course duck confit;which are all cooked to well done and still tender and succulent. This leads me to believe that it might be the type of duck I am using. Duck meat in itself is very lean. But they vary very much in terms of the fat content under their skin and the taste of their meat. The three types of duck are the Pekin, Muscovy and Moulard. The Moulard is a cross between pekin and a Muscovy and is sterile and is prized for its wonderful gams which are specially used for confit. This duck has the most fat in it so it is ideal for rendering duck fat, plus it is vaunted to be the best tasting of all three. Muscovy has less fat and should be brined or you’ll always end up with tough meat. The pekin, I have not really tried dry cooking, I have used it to make duck stew so that does not really count. So far, in cooking duck, I have had moderate success in browning the skin first on a sauté pan and finishing it in the oven at 350 °F. My favorite so far was using a cherry sauce for the duck.
In looking for another recipe and a full understanding of duck, I have found Paula Wolfert’s book, “The Cooking of Southwest France”. In here she has a gamut of different preparations and she explains in detail the difference between all three breeds of duck. I’ve decided to try her “Bigorre” way of preparing duck since it seemed in my mind then, the simplest.
2 boneless Moulard duck breast halves (magrets) 1 to 1 ¼ pound each
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbs rendered duck fat
1 large sweet onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 ounces finely diced ventreche or pancetta
2 lbs. red potatoes
½ tsp. finely chopped fresh garlic
1 tbs chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- Score skin of each duck breast in crosshatch lines without piercing the flesh. Season with salt and pepper. Place breast halves skin side down, in a 3 to 4 quart flameproof casserole set over moderately high heat. Brown skin to a beautiful caramel in about 4 minutes while continually removing the fat by tilting the casserole and spooning off the fat. Turn the duck breast over and quickly sear the other side. Transfer to a plate line with paper towels, tent with foil, and let meat rest for about 30 minutes. Discard the fat and wipe out the casserole.
- While the duck is resting, heat the rendered duck fat in the casserole over moderately low heat. Add the onion and ventreche, cover, cook for 10 minutes, or until the onions are silky and the ventreche is crisp.
- Meanwhile, slice the potatoes ¼ inch thick and pat each slice dry with paper towels. Raise the heat under the casserole to high, add the potatoes, and turn them in the fat for 2 minutes making sure all are coated before pressing down to form a disk. Continue to cook until some of the slices begin to brown. Again press the potatoes with a spatula to form a flat round cake. Reduce the heat to moderately low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Lift the cover and wipe away any moisture on the inside of the lid. Add the bay leaf and toss the potatoes gently so that the crisp bottom pieces mix with the rest of the potatoes and onions; cover and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Gently press down with spatula to reshape. Season with a little salt and pepper, cover and cook for 5 minutes more, shaking the casserole to keep the potatoes from sticking. Uncover, toss with the garlic and parsley, reshape by pressing down, and cook a few minutes more.
- Carve the duck breasts into ¼ inch thick slices. The meat should be very rare. Spread the slices over the potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cover the casserole tightly, raise heat to high and cook for 2 to 3 minutes to brown the bottom of potato cake and finish cooking the duck. Bring the covered casserole to the table and serve hot.
RANT #1 Although “the hungry hubby” was very appreciative of the meal, I was a bit harder on myself. I burned the onions, therefore there was not much I can do to brown the potatoes properly or we will end up with a smoke filled kitchen. I think in this case it would be better to use a nonstick casserole, it did say cocotte so I should have used my enameled cast iron Le Crueset pot. Instead I used a regular sauté pan. Seriously, don’t any of you scratch your head and pause when the instructions call for a sauce pan or a sauté pan or a skillet or a dutch oven or a cocotte and now a casserole and wonder which pan it really is? Given some of them are obvious but I always mix up which one is the skillet or the sauté pan. Anyway, the picture of the casserole pan looked like my sauté pan so that was what I used.
RANT #2 Sometimes you need to leave well enough alone or should you? When I sliced the duck breast my knife slid perfectly through which hinted at the tenderness of the duck, but like the book said it was very rare. I looked at the hubby and we both knew that we wanted it cooked more than that. So I finished cooking more than the 3 minutes than the recipe stated taking a peek every now and then until the duck had a respectably pink center (not as the book wanted I assure you)
Though the duck was tasty it was quite chewy. So should I just stick to the "finishing in the oven" business? That seems to yield very acceptable results. So why am I messing with a procedure that works? Because this is a (insert expletive here) test kitchen! Ok, even if they say that moulard yields the best taste, I think I will try the pekin now. I am after all an evolving gastronome (hey that sounds like a good blog name). My palate changes and can be faulty at times and if my hubby can be converted to finally eat lamb (which now he cannot have enough of) maybe we can be converted to eat medium rare duck. So please if anyone can have any words of encouragement, it will be well appreciated!