Cooking Off the Cuff: A Sweet-tart Sauce for Duck, But With Beets

The plate looked gorgeous: dark brown duck skin; red duck flesh; redder beets and sauce.
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We often associate duck with fruit-based sauces -- for good or for ill: when balanced with acidity, a rich stock and maybe some bitterness from darkly caramelized sugar, fruits make terrific accompaniments to roast or braised duck, but if not carefully calculated, these sauces can taste as if they came out of a jar of supermarket jelly. There's also a set of duck dishes using savory fruits and vegetables such as olives and turnips; they can be great too. (And I'm not even getting into the whole world of Asian recipes.)

There was recently a nice big Moulard duck breast in the fridge, and one of the standout crops in that day's farmers' market was strikingly fresh young beets, not something I'd ever thought of as the basis for a duck dish. But beets straddle the divide between sweet and savory and I figured they might make a good partner. They'd certainly look good.

Before proceeding, I did what I typically do to help generate a sauce for a pan-fried duck breast: make a sort-of-duck sauce-base. To do this, I tidied up the duck with a view to generating some scraps: I cut a little strip of skin and meat off each edge and trimmed silverskin and sinews from the flesh side. All of this I cut into little pieces and put into a small saucepan over medium-low heat so the fat would render out of the skin and everything would brown a little. After ten minutes or so, I deglazed the pan with white wine and when this had reduced to nearly nothing added chicken stock. I had about 3/4 cup (175 ml) in the fridge, so that's how much I used. This simmered over very low heat for around half an hour, partially covered to minimize, though not entirely prevent, evaporation. The result was a flavorful hybrid jus with a distinct duck aroma. I strained it and set it aside to cool; oddly, it wasn't particularly greasy, but if it had been I'd have skimmed off some of the fat. There was a bit less than half a cup (120 ml) -- plenty for a two-person duck breast.

To make the sauce/garnish, I peeled the little beets and cut them into one- or two-bite wedges; had the beets been larger I'd have cut each wedge in two crosswise. Without any pre-cooking, they went into a small pan with a pat of butter and some salt and pepper over medium-low heat. I stirred them regularly, but not continuously, and they soon started to exude their beautiful red juices. When they had just begun to become tender but were by no means done, I stirred in a tablespoon of sherry vinegar (my favorite with beets, and indeed with many other things); when this had reduced I added the duck stock and simmered it until the beets were done (just tender enough to spear with a fork). I checked for salt and vinegar: all was well.

I set the beets aside and employed a nearly smoke-free method for cooking the duck breast (which I had salted well in advance): Over medium (even medium-low) heat in a heavy skillet, I cooked the skin side for about six minutes, tossed most of the accumulated fat, then began turning the breast every minute until the skin was deep brown and the internal temperature had reached around 118 to 120 degrees F (48 to 49 C) for juicy red flesh. I set the duck aside leaning on the rim of a soup plate (so it wouldn't swim in juices) and left it in a warm place to rest for -- how long? Probably eight or even ten minutes: this is really important and will yield an evenly cooked, tender piece of meat.

When the meat had rested, I reheated the beets and their rich, red sauce and added all the juices that had accumulated in the plate on which the duck had reposed. I carved the duck into slices 3/16- or 1/4-inch thick (5 mm or a little more). I carved it the long way, which is counterintuitive but which results in beautiful, tender slices that both look and eat well.

This dish hit many targets: The beets are naturally sweetish, which made sense with the duck, but this was not an overtly sweet sauce. It was earthy and ducky and slightly tangy from the vinegar. The plate looked gorgeous: dark brown duck skin; red duck flesh; redder beets and sauce. The sauce needed no herbs or spices beyond pepper (though if you wanted to spice it up you certainly could), and it needed no final butter liaison because the beet juices, the reduced stock and the original pat of butter had come together nicely.

If I'd wanted to be cute, I could have served the beet greens on the side, but they were better saved for another purpose (a pizza topping, as it happens). The best additional side dish would have been crunchy potatoes of some kind, but Jackie and I were happy with duck and beets and a few glasses of wine.

A Sweet-Tart Sauce For Duck, But With Beets