As a rule, I serve our dinners family style so that everyone can help themselves to what they like and in the amounts they like. This way, nobody is compelled to eat what they don’t want to; food doesn’t get wasted and guests don’t have to feel embarrassed if they didn’t finish something on their plates or took 2
But once in a while, when there’s just two of us, we like to play restaurant and have our meals thoughtfully matched and plated. Like the other night, when I served pureed cannellini beans and sautéed fennel with a pan-seared duck breast with pearl onions in balsamic sauce and crispy fried sage.
Duck is amazingly delicious poultry. A major misconception about duck is that it is a heavy unhealthy food because it has too much fat. However, in reality duck is not much fatter than chicken. It doesn’t have any significant amount of intramuscular fat. Most of duck fat is located under skin and is easily removed by rendering.
So even if you’re on a diet, you can still enjoy duck meat, given that you either render the under skin fat till the skin is thin and crispy or simply remove the skin completely.
I had balsamic onions cooked in advance, so I only had to bring them to room temperature while I took care of other things.
Take out duck breasts, 1 per person, from the fridge, place them on a paper towel to absorb moisture and let them warm up to the room temperature.
Meanwhile, cook the pureed beans and fennel.
For the sautéed fennel, take 1 large or a couple of smaller fennel bulbs. Give them a rinse, pat dry and cut off the top with stalks and fronds. Pick off the fronds and set aside. Quarter each bulb and thinly slice. In a wide skillet, preheat about 3 Tbsp light olive oil (or a mix of olive and Canola oils) on a medium high heat and add the sliced fennel. Sauté, stirring often, until golden brown all over. Add 1 large garlic clove, finely minced; juice from the half of a small lemon, and the fennel fronds. Season with salt, black pepper and a pinch of red hot chili flakes (optional) and remove from the heat. Keep warm.
For the pureed cannellini bean, you will need:
- 1 can cannellini beans
- ¼ onion, chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- A sage top with 4-5 leaves
- A generous pinch of khmeli suneli (can be replaced with ground fenugreek and cumin)
- ½ small lemon
- 2 Tbsp canola oil
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- Water, vegetable or chicken stock, as needed
- Salt and black pepper
Saute onions in the mixture of oils until lightly golden. Stir in garlic and in a minute add beans and a sage top. Add lemon juice and a splash of water and cook on a medium heat for about 5 minutes or until everything is tender and almost no liquid left. Season with salt, black pepper and khmeli suneli.
Pick off 2-3 sage leaves of the cooked sage top and discard the rest. Put the beans including the sage leaves in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add some water if the puree is too thick.
Transfer back to the pot or a bowl and keep warm.
Once the sides are done, keep them warm. Meanwhile, gently score the skin of the duck breasts with a very sharp knife, Chef’s or slicing. It’s important to score only the skin and leave the meat under it intact.
Scoring will make fat rendering faster and more even. On the other hand, if you’re not quite sure in your knife’s sharpness or your knife skills, you can do without scoring. Take a toothpick and prick the duck skin multiple times. You can also do it with a tip of a paring knife.
Season the duck breasts with salt and black pepper all over and put skin side down in a cold pan. Put the pan on a burner and turn the heat to lightly above medium low. Let the skin fat render slowly for about 15-17 min. Check on the progress often and scoop out the rendered fat into a small bowl. Every now and then, gently press the breasts with a spatula to ensure the close contact of the skin with the surface of the pan. But avoid pressing too hard or the breasts will release their juices. If the skin starts to brown too quickly, reduce the heat. If after 10 min it’s still too pale and thick, increase the heat to medium.
After 15-17 min the skin should become significantly shrunk, thinner and lightly golden brown. Increase the heat to medium high and let it become a bit darker and crisp up.
Flip the breasts over and add about 2 Tbsp of rendered fat back to the pan. Cook the breasts on the other side until a desired doneness has been reached. For a 0.5 lb duck breast, 3 min on a medium high will result in medium, 4-5 min in medium well. Turn the breasts on the sides and cook briefly.
Transfer the duck breasts to a cutting board and let rest for about 5 minutes. Arrange the pureed beans and the fennel on plates and top with sliced breasts. Drizzle lightly with the balsamic sauce and arrange several onions around.
I also top the pureed beans with crisp fried sage. Take a bunch of small sage leaves, give them a rise and pat dry thoroughly with a paper towel. While the duck breasts are resting, add the rest of the rendered fat back to the pan and heat on medium high. Add the sage leaves and fry briefly until they get golden brown and crispy. If there’s not enough fat to submerge the leaves during frying, tilt the pan slightly so all the fat gathered on one side and fry the leaves there. Remove from the pan and put on a paper towel to absorb extra fat.