There’s something rather magical about the pleasing and versatile word ‘glaze’. To coat porous pottery in a thick, impenetrable gloss that survives the trial-by-fire of the kiln is to glaze, combining aesthetics and ergonomics. To have one’s eyes glaze over suggests thoughts have slipped blissfully into the realm of reverie. Double-glazed windows reassure, promising warmth and comfort. Finally, there is my favourite, edible sense: to glaze food is to paint it with slick, concentrated flavour, to make it shine like a pot fresh from a kiln. It makes it glossy, inviting, shimmering with promise: think of a bountiful berry tart, multicoloured fruits nestling in a pillowy bed of pastry cream, their tops brushed and glinting with a sweet glaze of molten apricot jam; or a roast aubergine, its flesh collapsed into silken softness, smothered in a dark, umami-rich miso glaze.
A glaze is no more than a simple mixture of a couple of ingredients, usually involving sugar for that all-important stickiness, concentrated until thick, syrupy and perfect for brushing onto foods that need livening up. Here, maple syrup, whisky and treacly dark brown sugar mingle into a russet-coloured, butterscotch-scented glaze that is spread thickly onto hot-smoked duck breasts. Not that hot-smoked duck breasts need livening up, but the addition of this ambrosial sweet-smoky liquor takes them over the edge of deliciousness and into the territory of the ambrosial. It’s a recipe taken from Diana Henry’s excellent book, Salt Sugar Smoke, and one I’ve made several times. The flavour of still-pink duck flesh, heady with smoke, sea salt and brown sugar, its skin caramelized and doused in whisky and maple is addictive, appealing to an almost primal lust for flesh, fire and alcohol.
Incidentally, if you don’t have a smoker, this recipe will work almost as well with duck breasts that you simply sear, skin-side down, in a pan and roast in the oven (around 8 minutes at 200C). Paint the glaze on after searing the skin, again after roasting, and again after resting the meat for 10 minutes.
These beautiful pillows of meat need serving with something that will cut through the richness, and a salad of bitter leaves, caramelized beetroot, earthy walnuts and a tangy mustard-raspberry vinaigrette works perfectly. I used hazelnut oil, raspberry vinegar and a lovely nut-infused mustard that I bought in a French deli for the vinaigrette, but you can use whatever mustard, vinegar or oil you think would work. The point is the tang of the dressing against the peppery leaves, the toasted nuts and the sweet, fudgy roasted beetroot. It’s a glorious canvas for the treacly, glazed duck, and I love the autumnal colours: pale dusky pink meat, dark green leaves, golden nuts and magenta beetroot. Even better if you can get the beautiful candy-striped beetroot, which look like children’s lollipops when you cut into them.
If you want to really push the boat out, make the quick rhubarb chutney too. I live in a state of perpetual rhubarb glut, so it was a necessity more than anything else for me, but it also adds another delicious sweet-sour note to the meal. It takes a few minutes of simmering, but is very simple and bursting with the flavours of sultanas, rhubarb, vinegar, ginger and capers. Any leftovers are excellent served with rich meats (pork belly, for example) or cheese (perfect with goat’s cheese, feta or halloumi).
If you want a mindful, meditative food-based experience (and who wouldn’t?), be sure to pay full attention to the moment where you dip a pastry brush in the syrupy glaze and spread it thickly onto the seared duck skin, the scent of smoking wood chips and gamey duck mingling with the caramel maple aroma. It’s one to savour.
Whisky and maple smoked duck with beetroot and walnut salad & rhubarb chutney (serves 2):
For the salad:
- 250g beetroot, trimmed, washed and cut into wedges
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 handfuls of walnuts
- 80g mixed watercress, rocket and spinach
- 3 tbsp hazelnut oil
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tbsp raspberry vinegar, or 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
For the quick rhubarb chutney:
- 3 tbsp light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp sultanas
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp drained capers
- A pinch of red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper
- 150g rhubarb, cut into 1cm lengths
For the duck (based on Diana Henry's recipe from Salt Sugar Smoke):
- 2 duck breasts
- 150g flaky sea salt
- 150g light brown sugar
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp oak chips
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 2 tbsp whisky
- 2 tsp dark brown sugar
Put the peppercorns and bay leaves in a pestle and mortar and crush together. Mix with the salt and sugar. Lay half of this mixture in a shallow, non-reactive dish (e.g. glass or pyrex) and put the duck on top, skin side down. Cover with the rest of the sugar mix. Put in the fridge for two hours.
Rinse the duck breasts and pat dry with kitchen paper. Put on a plate and put in the fridge for 8 hours to dry out.
When ready to start cooking, roast the beetroot. Pre-heat the oven to 220C. Toss the beetroot wedges with olive oil and seasoning, then spread out on a baking tray. Roast for 30-40 minutes, turning occasionally, until tender to the point of a knife and caramelized around the edges. Set aside to cool. Lower the oven temperature to 160C and toast the walnuts on a baking tray for 10 minutes, then set aside.
Meanwhile, make the chutney. Put the sugar, sultanas, vinegar, ginger, capers, red pepper flakes and seasoning in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, until reduced and syrupy. Add the rhubarb to the pan and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the rhubarb is tender. Set aside to cool while you prepare the duck.
Make the duck glaze by putting the whisky, maple syrup and sugar in a small saucepan and simmering for 5 minutes until thick and syrupy. Set aside. Prepare a smoker with oak chips. Heat a large, non-stick frying pan over a high heat. Make four slashes in the fat of the duck breasts with sharp knife then put in the pan, skin side down, and sear for 3-5 minutes or until the fat is dark and crispy. Put on the rack in the smoker, skin side up, and smoke for 20-25 minutes over a low heat. Use a brush to paint the glaze onto the skin after 10 minutes, then 5 minutes before the end of cooking. Check for doneness by slicing into the centre of one breast with a sharp knife. When they are done, paint on the rest of the glaze. Set aside to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
To assemble the salad, toss the beetroot with the walnuts and leaves. Whisk together the hazelnut oil, mustard, vinegar and some seasoning to taste, then toss with the salad. Divide between two plates. Serve the duck breasts, sliced, with the salad and rhubarb chutney.