Duck with chocolate and marsala

If it's possible for food to be sexy - and of course I believe it is, otherwise my life as a food blogger and aspiring food journalist would be very barren indeed - then this dish might just be the epitome of blushing, pulse-quickening, supple-fleshed sexuality. 

Think tender, succulent, meaty duck legs, smothered in a powerfully rich and complex sauce. It's glossy and dark with molten chocolate, enriched with the creamy bite of toasted pine nuts, sweet and juicy with plump raisins and laced with alcohol. It dribbles seductively off the spoon over the crispy skin of the duck, a dark and dramatic waterfall leaving sweet-savoury nuggets of powerful flavour in its wake.

This is a recipe from the Bocca cookbook by Jacob Kennedy, acclaimed head chef of Bocca di Lupo in Soho. I've been there twice and it's one of the best restaurants I've ever visited. It serves Italian food, but not as you'd know it; the dishes are often unusual, highlighting recipes, flavours and combinations from all over the diverse gastronomic melting pot that is Italy. Flavours are hearty and robust, the cooking is exquisite, and eating there is a fascinating tour de force of Italian cuisine at its lesser-known and best.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Bocca cookbook has no time for lasagne, spag bol and carbonara. Instead it treats you to underrated classics: caponata, the amazing sweet-sour aubergine stew from Sicily; guidelines for making your own Italian sausages; octopus with olive oil and peas; baked pigeon and bread 'soup'; cassata, a sublime confection of ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit from Sicily; tuna tartare, and other wonderful and exotic dishes. 

(Incidentally, I'm not being asked to write about this lovely book...I just thought I'd share my passion for it with you.)

I've started bookmarking recipes in new cookbooks as soon as I first read through them, to make it easier to find them later on. I take this a bit too seriously, having created a geeky colour scheme of page markers (blue for fish, green for vegetarian, pink for desserts, purple for meat...) to categorise the recipes. It's lucky I'm going back to university in October, really, isn't it?

This recipe was bookmarked immediately. Just the title had my mouth watering in anticipation.

Perhaps because it just rolls off the tongue in this incredibly sexy fashion. Perhaps because the word 'chocolate' is effortlessly inviting, conjuring up images of dark, sweet, melting goodness; of the voluptuous flow of a chocolate fountain or the warm, molten centre of a chocolate truffle. There's something beautiful about the word 'marsala', too, its soft sounds reminiscent of a seductive whisper, a romantic sigh, the letters curling around each other like slumbering lovers.

I've always been fascinated by cooking with chocolate. It's not a new concept; the Aztecs used it in this way before we Europeans got hold of the stuff and pumped it full of fat and sugar. You still find chocolate used as an ingredient in some savoury Mexican cooking. I've been experimenting with its deep, tannic richness recently, finding it a perfect partner for smoked duck, caramelised pears and goats cheese in this beautiful salad, though it's also commonly paired with venison. If you use good quality dark chocolate, it can add an intriguing complexity of flavour to a dish; a hint of bitterness, a touch of fragrance, a soft and melting mouthfeel.

This recipe starts by browning duck - it states to use a whole duck, jointed, but duck legs were on offer at the supermarket so I went with those. Once the duck skin is brown and crisp and has rendered down a lot of its fat, you remove it from the pan and fry chopped onion, pine nuts and raisins along with a cinnamon stick, fennel seeds and bay leaves.

The scent emanating from the pan as I stirred this heady mixture was intoxicating. The combination of spicy fennel, warm cinnamon and perfumed bay is unusual, wonderfully fragrant in a way that manages to be both sweet and savoury simultaneously. The pine nuts toast, offering up their nutty aroma, while the onions soften into translucent slivers.

To this you add a generous amount of marsala, or medium sherry (I went for the latter as marsala is pretty expensive). The duck legs sit in this sauce, covered, for around 45 minutes, braising gently away while infusing all of their meaty liquor into the sherry.

The finishing touch, once the duck is cooked, is to stir some dark chocolate into the sauce, where it melts and colours the whole thing a deep, dark brown. Being dark chocolate, it lends more of a bitterness than a sweetness to the mixture, which is already quite sweet from the alcohol, rounding off the complex mixture of spices, nuts and raisins. It also thickens the sauce, turning it glossy and unctuous. I stirred in a little parsley at the end, to lend its welcome freshness to the whole affair.

The recipe suggests no other accompaniment than plain couscous or wilted spinach, owing to the complexity of the flavours. I'd have to agree. I served my duck with bulgar wheat (slightly nuttier and chewier than couscous, so a good match for the strong sauce) and the suggested spinach, which worked perfectly.

I'm hoping I don't even need to tell you how unusual and delicious this dish is, because the title has already caught your eye, like it caught mine, and made you think "Right. I can go no longer without this in my life". It's just a fabulous combination of ingredients that work in total harmony. It's sweet yet bitter with cocoa, it bursts with juicy raisins and the crunch of toasted nuts, it melts in your mouth like chocolate. It doesn't overpower the rich flavour of the duck meat, instead complementing it perfectly and allowing its iron-rich gameyness to shine. It is incredibly rich, though, so a little sauce goes a long way. In future I might try it with pan-fried rare duck breasts, which are less intense in flavour than the legs.

I'm not going to give you a recipe, unfortunately, as I cooked the dish word-for-word from the Bocca cookbook, and I think it would probably infringe some kind of copyright to replicate it exactly on this blog. But do go out and buy Jacob Kennedy's excellent book; you'll find far more delights than just this gorgeous dish nestling in between its hallowed pages.

Seared duck breast with figs and red wine

There are few culinary events more rewarding than slicing a perfectly cooked duck breast into thick slices. The way the knife meets resistance as it hits the golden, crispy skin, flecked with crunchy pieces of dried herbs; the springiness of the grainy meat underneath; the way the pink juices pool in the centre of each slice, promising a mouthful packed with flavour. It looks beautiful fanned out in slices across a mound of creamy mashed potato. Duck is definitely one of my favourite meats; it's gamey and rich in flavour but lacking the dryness that is characteristic of some game; there's a wonderful contrast in texture between the crispy, fatty skin and the moist, rare meat; and it is strong enough in flavour to partner fruit, which goes perfectly with its richness and guarantees a good meal, in my opinion. 

Duck breasts in the freezer, some rather sad-looking figs in the fruit bowl, celeriac languishing in the vegetable drawer, half a bottle of red wine to use up in the cupboard. An occasion where the end result is so much more than the sum of its parts:

It's probably one of my easier recipes but also one of my favourites, and pretty good considering it occurred to me halfway through a swim yesterday morning. The first thing to do is put the mash on: chop a baking potato and half a celeriac into cubes and boil until tender. While doing this, slash the skin of the duck breasts and rub all over with a mixture of dried sage, fennel seeds and dried/fresh thyme (you can do this several hours in advance for more flavour). Season. Get a pan quite hot and add a splash of olive oil and a knob of butter. When it is bubbling, put in the duck breasts, skin-side down. Press down - you will hear the most incredibly satisfying sizzling noise. Cook for a couple of minutes until the skin is crispy, then flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Then put the duck in a preheated oven, at around 180C. It's hard to give timings because it depends on how rare you like your meat - the easiest thing to do is to take it out after a few minutes and cut into it to check the done-ness - you'll be slicing it anyway so it doesn't matter. I like mine quite bloody, but not everyone has my vampiric tendencies when it comes to meat.

To the hot duck pan, add a couple of sprigs of thyme and splash of red wine. Again, that beautiful sizzling noise will occur, steam will rise, the wine will bubble and the kitchen will be full of the smell of duck and wine - no bad thing. Put some figs, halved, into the pan along with a teaspoon of honey and some salt and pepper, and let the sauce bubble up and soften them for a few minutes (you may need to turn the heat down). Keep tasting the sauce - you may need to add more honey, or more pepper, or more salt, depending on how it tastes. A knob of butter is nice stirred into it too, though there's probably enough flavour there from the duck fat.

When the potatoes and celeriac are tender, drain and mash. I add a bit of creme fraiche and lots of salt, pepper and nutmeg to mine. Spread the mash out on a plate. Take the duck out of the oven when it is done to your liking and slice widthways. Don't waste any of the juices on the chopping board - pour them back into the fig pan and stir.

Finally, place the figs around the duck, and pour the jus over. Garnish with fresh thyme.

You could use pears and white wine, or even oranges, French-style. The important point is the contrast between the rich, gamey meat and jus and the lighter, sweeter fruit, brought together by the earthy notes of celeriac in the mash (though normal mash would be fine too). This really is good.

Also, many thanks to my exceptional boyfriend and duck-eating companion for the beautiful photos.

A duck salad, and more figs

This is one of those "put many of my favourite things in a bowl together, stir, and hope it tastes nice" recipes. Couscous, parsley, fresh mint, coriander, pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachios, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, and then the shredded meat from roasted duck legs, tossed with more pomegranate molasses before adding it to the couscous. It's delicious. Sliced rare duck breast would work well too, as would lamb. 

For dessert, poached figs and ice cream. These specimens were not quite luscious enough to eat raw with cheese, but simmering them for five minutes in a syrup of honey, saffron, orange flower water and cinnamon rendered them rather lovely. 

Duck with pomegranate

Genuinely one of the best lunches I have had in a long time. Although I probably say that quite a lot, I definitely mean it. I love days when I cook from a recipe that I am not sure about and sounds like an odd mixture of ingredients, and it ends up tasting amazing. They had lovely Gressingham duck breasts on special offer in Sainsburys the other day, and I found a pomegranate in the reduced section in Tesco yesterday (£1.25 full price for a fruit the size of a small orange?! I miss the days when they were five for a pound at Oxford market...fortunately I got this one for 50p, and it made me a little bit happy). I know duck goes well with pomegranates from my excessive reading of various recipe books (and because duck and sharp fruit is a pretty standard combination - cherries, quinces, oranges...) so I did a quick google and found a recipe that sounded quite nice.

It was. The duck breasts are coated with honey and pomegranate molasses and pan-fried then finished off in the oven, and served with a pilaff of bulgar wheat, pistachios, dried cherries, red onion, parsley and mint. Sounds like a combination that could never work, but the end result is truly delicious and I urge you to try it. I think the secret is the pomegranate molasses: I bought a bottle in the Moroccan deli in Oxford a few months ago and ever since have been finding recipes that use it. It's just pomegranate juice boiled down to make a sticky syrup, and has a wonderful sweet-and-sour quality to it that enhances everything you put it in. I made a really good Ottolenghi recipe for sardines stuffed with couscous that had pomegranate molasses in it, and also an aubergine and chickpea stew. Its flavour is addictive and intriguing: people always ask "what is it that makes it sort of sweet and sour?" It's a bit like orange flower water in that respect: it adds a flavour note that isn't too overpowering but somehow gives the dish something extra.

It's lovely in this, mixed with caramelised red onion and sour cherries and used to flavour the pilaff, and also rubbed onto the duck to give it a lovely crispy, tangy coating. The duck stays wonderfully moist (hate that word, but there is no alternative really) - I have cooked duck breasts a few times but these were definitely the best I have ever eaten, which may be down to finishing them off in the oven rather than drying them out by cooking in a pan. Although, that said, I could have eaten the pilaff all on its own - I think the key is using vegetable stock (Marigold bouillon powder in this case) to cook it in. The scattering of fresh pomegranate seeds at the end brings everything together, and also makes the dish look beautiful. A wonderfully aromatic, sweet, sour, savoury plate of delights.