Whenever I cook with nuts, I find myself thinking about which is my absolute favourite. I suppose in the same way I often wonder which meat or fish I would choose if I could only eat one for the rest of my life (I still ponder this question in moments of boredom, but I think it'd have to be lamb, for its sheer culinary versatility, and mackerel, again for the same reason). I can never reach a conclusion, though, I think because nuts have such diverse flavours and are suited to such a range of different culinary applications. Hazelnuts, to me, belong firmly in the realm of sweet things - desserts with chocolate or pears or bananas, for example. Then there are almonds, which are usually too bland to use in desserts but taste wonderful toasted and added to fragrant Middle Eastern or Indian dishes. Pistachios have a toasty gorgeousness that I love both with fruit - apricots in particular - but also with some meat dishes. I wouldn't normally cook with brazil nuts, but their grainy creaminess is wonderful in muesli.
Sometimes, though, I think the pecan is 'the one'. Attractively shaped, easily crumbled (unlike almonds or hazelnuts, which are an absolute pain to attempt to chop without a food processor), the pecan possesses a richness that makes it interesting enough to stand up to strong flavours, both sweet and savoury. Pecans are wonderful with chocolate and bananas, for example, but also delicious in savoury dishes, as this amazing recipe proves.
I received Diana Henry's beautiful book Roast Figs, Sugar Snow for Christmas. I admit, I largely requested it on the strength of its title, without really looking at what it was about. Anyone who reads this blog will know I am a fiend for figs. When it arrived, I discovered it to be a book full of recipes from colder climates - "food to warm the soul", as its subtitle proclaims. What a brilliant idea, I thought - how has there not been such a book before? Having just returned from a week of skiing in the Alps, I recognised the familiar tartiflette and cheese fondue gracing its pages, as well as other dishes to be reserved for days of strenuous physical activity, such as an Austrian pasta creation that includes nearly a litre of sour cream. Might save that one for a time when I'm not still eating my way through the Christmas cake.
The book is beautiful, divided into chapters based on classic warming winter ingredients, like chestnuts, apples, quinces, smoked food, game, cream, pork and beans. I particularly liked the section on cranberries, where Diana bemoaned the fact that we reserve them for the Christmas sauce only, rather than making the most of their refreshing tart sweetness in recipes all year round. There's a recipe for a pecan and cranberry upside-down cake that I am dying to try.
However, one of the most intriguing recipes was this one - a wild rice salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans, green beans, a maple-cider vinaigrette dressing, and sliced roast duck breast. Fruit with meat? Check. Toasted nuts? Check. Wild rice? Check. Maple syrup? Check. Thinly sliced rare duck breast, barely seared in a hot pan? Check.
All these things I love - it just had to be made.
This is a very simple dish to make - after cooking the rice (I used a mixture of basmati, red carmargue and wild rice, which you can buy from Waitrose and is delicious), you stir it together with dried cranberries (soaked in hot water to plump them up), toasted pecans, blanched green beans, chopped parsley, and the dressing.
The dressing is what really makes the dish - it was a complete revelation for me. I eat wild rice a lot, in salads, but I have never added a dressing. This simple elixir of maple syrup, vinegar, mustard and oil lifted the combination of ingredients to a totally different level. It coated the rice, giving it a gorgeous silky feel in the mouth, and it also provided a sort of salty-sweet flavour that brought all the other ingredients together perfectly.
It's honestly so hard to describe the incredible deliciousness of this salad. If you're sceptical about all those ingredients together, don't be. The nuttiness of the pecans and the wild rice is a perfect match for the sweet cranberries and gamey duck breast, and then you have the freshness of green beans and parsley and the tang of mustard to balance everything.
I can't wait to make this again. I could probably eat it every day for the rest of my life.
In which case, I might have to change my 'desert island' meat to duck.
Wild rice, toasted pecan and cranberry salad with rare duck breast (serves 4):
(Barely adapted from 'Roast Figs, Sugar Snow' by Diana Henry)
50g dried cranberries
250g mixed wild and basmati/brown rice
500ml chicken stock
Salt and pepper
3 large or 4 medium duck breasts, skin on
200g green beans, trimmed and halved
3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the dressing:
1/2 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tbsp maple syrup
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
Cover the cranberries with boiling water and leave to plump up for 20 minutes or so. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Toast the pecans in a dry frying pan, then let them cool before crumbling them roughly.
Put the rice in a pan and pour over the chicken stock. Put on a lid, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for around 25 minutes, by which point the rice should have absorbed all the stock and be cooked but still with a slight bite (different rice mixed vary, so follow the packet instructions with regard to timings). Leave the lid on to keep it warm.
Make the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Season the duck breasts, then get a frying pan really hot and sear them, skin-side down first, in the pan until golden brown. Once browned, put them in an ovenproof dish and place in the oven for 5 minutes (this will give you rare meat - if you like it a bit more well done, allow 7-8 minutes). Remove, cover with foil and rest for 5 minutes.
Cook the beans in boiling water until just tender, then drain. Put the rice in a large mixing bowl and add the beans, cranberries, pecans, parsley, and the dressing. Toss it all together well and check the seasoning. Divide between four plates or bowls.
Slice the duck breasts thinly and arrange over the salad. Garnish with a little extra parsley and toasted pecans.