Duck à l’orange, je vous adore. I admit to eating it year round, though it really is a dish to be emphasized during the autumn game season, when the crisp winds start biting.
Duck needs a good fruit forward, sweeter sauce. It’s just one of those perfect pairings that clicks. Sample duck breasts, we’re not talking duck confit here, with other partners, but the dance just isn’t as compelling without that fruit, be it cherries, citrus, plums, apples, figs, persimmons, or whatever.
In the end, those experts who created haute cuisine years ago knew what they were doing. Then again, you’ll also find overlaps of haute cuisine with bistro cuisine’s greatest hits. Duck with a fruit sauce can always be found in both universes, at three starred Alain Ducasse or the tiny corner bistro Chez Jacques that isn’t known outside of its arrondissement.
Duck truly soars to its finest when paired with an orange-based sauce, à l’orange.The version I use and often cook for celebrations, including my birthday the past few years, is from the venerable Paris temple of gastronomy Taillevent’s former chef, Michel del Burgo. From the pitch perfect fruit notes to sweet notes in the sauce to the superb addition of crushed coriander seeds for a needed jolt, everything clicks.
Being careful when cooking, the sauce avoids the watery, too sweet nature of most duck à l’orange preparations.
The recipe calls for four duck breasts for four people, but my experience has been that two breasts are often plenty for a group of four hungry eaters.
Start by coarsely crushing the coriander seeds with a rolling pin or heavy book between two sheets of wax paper. It’s a bit of a pain. However, you really want those seeds as crushed as possible. They’re not the most pleasant to pick out of your teeth.
The trick is timing the sauce with the duck. It’s a real tight rope. The meat needs to achieve that perfect rosy hue of medium rare when the sauce is slightly thick, almost like a marmalade-sauce hybrid. A watery sauce loses the oranges’ effect and doesn’t compliment the meat since duck is a bad absorber of sauce. The duck needs to be covered with the sauce.
I’ve certainly left the sauce on high heat for too long, causing it to become char. The key is frequent, almost continual stirring every other minute for roughly ten minutes. This point should be achieved roughly when the duck has been in the oven for an initial three minutes.
Beforehand, the duck’s skin receives initial sweetness from a brush of honey and coriander seeds. Don’t skip this step. It’s essential for the skin’s crispness later, making it almost like candy, and yes, you will most likely want to eat this slightly fatty skin. And you should since it’s the bacon element to the duck.
After the meat’s session in the skillet on both sides for roughly two rounds of five minutes, the duck goes to the oven for somewhere between five and seven minutes. You don’t want medium duck! Duck, maybe even more so than beef, loses its beautiful flavor and the texture gets gummy when the pink disappears.
At that critical three minute mark in the oven, summer the sauce down until it has that marmalade with a little sauce consistency. Del Burgo calls for only a 1/2 cup of sauce, but you want much more than that, so be prudent in not going too long with the simmering.
I present the duck in medallions fanned over the plate with the sauce ladled over the center. You can add Del Burgo’s endive, or go for a fascinating bitter counterpoint to the sauce with rapini. Often, you’ll find snow peas and green beans for some crunch in our preparations. The one constant: a tender, chewy baguette. That is a must to finish sopping the sauce and temper the orange’s sweetness.
Duck à l’orange is a royal dish fit for a king or queen that is also very humble and elegant at the same time. Fortunately, you don’t have to live at Versailles or pay 90 euros at Taillevent for this relatively simple to prepare, French bistro and haute cuisine standard that is perfect for any celebration.