These duck breasts are rubbed with green and black pepper, salt and coriander, then slow cooked on a cast iron grill pan. The recipe for saffron rice comes from Moro in London.
I often think of recipes as living organisms. Like people, they evolve, sometimes in unexpected directions.
Oh there are recipes that don’t change. Family recipes will disappoint if they don’t precisely recreate remembered tastes. I’m thinking of B’s mother’s spaghetti sauce which was slow-simmered all day on the back burner until its tomato flavor had deepened and darkened, becoming rich, tangy and sweet. Did the sugar in the tomatoes caramelize? Who knows? We don't have her recipe.
I’m also remembering my German grandmother’s tangy string bean salad. In muggy Houston summers, the string bean salad shimmered like a cool beacon. It had chopped onions and a dressing made of vinegar, black pepper and bacon fat. Many years later I tried repeatedly to recreate its exact flavor and texture. Finally my mother told me that it can only be made with home-canned string beans from the garden.
Most recipes, though, do change over time.
We visit new places, hang out in other people’s kitchens, try a recipe from a magazine or a website. In Paris last fall I tasted buttery pommes de terre with a silken texture that forever changed my idea of what mashed potatoes should be. Mystica sent a luscious recipe for Sri Lankan fish curry to which B added a spoonful of mango chutney. All that sweet spiciness cut right through the creamy coconut milk, making the dish even more delicious.
Sometimes the tweaks are tiny, at other times they are dramatic. And sometimes recipes and new ideas merge, creating an entirely different dish that you were originally planning to make.
So it was with the peppered duck breasts glazed with pomegranate molasses. It’s a story that begins with a chef’s recipe, gets sidetracked by a session of pepper mill testing, and finishes with a trip to Turkey—or at least, a syrup that came home from Istanbul.
A few weeks ago, in an article on juniper in The Wall St Journal, I was intrigued by a Floyd Cardoz recipe for duck breasts rubbed with spices and cooked slowly in a cast iron pan on top of the stove, skin side down, until the fat had rendered and the meat was cooked to medium rare.
On my own stove, however, the skin was almost incinerated and the meat was about as tender as the sole of my shoe. Clearly I needed to make some adjustments. At the time I was also testing pepper mills and there were little piles of ground pepper all over the kitchen counter. The air smelled amazing. I wanted to use all that aromatic pepper right away.
So the next day I gave the dish another try, this time rubbing the duck breasts generously with ground black and green peppercorns, kosher salt and ground coriander seed. I cooked them very slowly skin side down until the skin was crisp and deep golden brown, then flipped them over and cooked them meaty side down just to medium rare.
This time it worked. A slower burner and a change in technique produced addictively rich skin with very little fat and meat that was tender. The spices were right too: the pungent pepper, sweet coriander and coarse salt came together in a way that coaxed maximum flavor from the duck.
But still there was something missing.
At times like these I consult the Bible—The Flavor Bible, that is. This is part of my secret arsenal, a book that is always sure to yield an unexpected ingredient. Sure enough there it was: on the list of ingredients that are especially tasty with duck, I found pomegranate molasses. This is a dark syrup made from cooking fresh pomegranate juice until it is thick and viscous. Despite a latent sweetness, its flavor is mostly bright and acidic. It is often used in the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.
And wouldn’t you know: There in the pantry was a bottle of pomegranate molasses that I brought back from Istanbul two years ago. It was tart and sweet, and still entirely delicious. At that moment I remembered a magnificent duck breast eaten at Locanda Verde a few months ago. Wasn’t it glazed with pomegranate molasses and perfumed with spices? Or was it?
Anyway, here was the final tweak: A glaze made with white wine, pomegranate molasses, and a little honey to offset the tartness, then simmered with cinnamon, cloves and fresh ginger. There was no leftover white wine in the fridge, but I did find, quite inexplicably, a split of champagne with a just swallow or two remaining.
I’ll stop here. Let me just say that I think you’ll enjoy this version of the duck. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t keep changing and getting better.
Maybe you’ll have some ideas? Let me know!
Peppered Duck Breasts Glazed with Spicy Pomegranate Molasses
To serve 2
Ingredients for the duck:
2 six-ounce duck breasts, boneless but with skin left on
½ teaspoon green peppercorns, freshly ground
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, freshly ground
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coriander seed, freshly ground
Ingredients for the glaze:
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons white wine
1 teaspoon honey
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 whole cloves
1 thick slice fresh ginger, smashed with the back of a chef’s knife
1. Using a sharp chef’s knife, score the skin of the duck, cutting through the fat almost to the meat. Turn the breast 180 degrees and score again, creating a cross-hatch pattern.
2. Combine the salt, pepper and ground coriander seed and rub the mixture well into the skin of the duck, working it into the cuts made with the knife. Turn the duck over and rub the rest of the mixture over the meat. Set aside for an hour.
3. Make the glaze: In a small saucepan combine the pomegranate molasses, white wine, honey, cinnamon sick, cloves and ginger over a very low flame. Heat just to a bare simmer and cook for 4 minutes until the glaze has thickened slightly. Remove from heat, but keep warm.
4. Place a cast iron skillet or grill pan over a medium flame. Let it heat up for 2 minutes, then place the duck breasts, skin side down, in the pan and immediately turn the heat to low. Cook the duck breasts very slowly for 20 to 25 minutes until most of the fat has rendered and the skin has turned a rich golden brown. Remove the duck breasts to a plate and pour off the rendered fat, reserving one tablespoon.
5. Drizzle a little of the fat over the duck meat and return the breasts to the pan, this time flesh side down. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes for medium rare, or to the desired degree of doneness.
6. Remove and let rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil for 10 minutes. Warm the glaze over a low flame. (If desired, you can remove the whole spices with the tip of a spoon). Brush the glaze over the crispy skin of the duck.
7. Serve, accompanied by saffron rice (there’s an excellent recipe for Iranian rice in the Moro Cookbook) and a simple salad of frisee in a light balsamic vinaigrette.