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.