Submitted while in transit from France back to Vermont:
Several years ago on a train ride to Paris I sat next to a garrulous lady from Avignon. Steeple-topped villages and grazing cows whizzed by out the window but I was more focused on what was happening inside the train, on our conversation. It was about how to cook duck breast.
Through the Rhone-Alpes region we’d chatted about families – mostly her five children, twelve grandchildren and their large gatherings. She was an elegant grande dame, suit and heels, not a strand of cheveux out of place. I was surprised she’d take so much time to converse with an American, especially one who’s tongue was partially paralyzed by an inability to conjugate French verbs. By the time we entered Bourgogne, Madame was still talking, animatedly explaining what she cooked when the extended family arrived for dinner. I started taking notes.
“It’s almost as easy to make for twenty-five people as it is for two,” she insisted, her chignon bobbing up and down. “My sons grill the duck breast on the barbeque over pieces of dried grape vines while I’m inside preparing everything else.” She described the rest of her simple menu : oven-roasted tomatoes with herbed bread crumbs, salad and baguette, all finished off with – like a beautiful church topped with it’s steeple – a “Tarte au Citron Meringuee” (Lemon Tart with Meringue).
Before I knew it we were coming to a stop in the Gare de Lyon. We said our “au revoirs.” I’d thoroughly enjoyed my time with Madame and could hardly wait to try out the recipes she’d shared. When I stepped onto the platform, a little disoriented, I realized I’d hardly looked out the train window at all but instead through a French kitchen window, at a plate of grilled duck breast and a lemon tart.
Grilled Duck Breast with Herbes de Provence
The important thing to know about duck is that unlike chicken, whose breast meat is white and whose leg meat is dark, the entire duck is composed of dark meat. However, duck breast is a different consistency than the rest of the bird. It is tender, delicate and lean whereas the legs are firmer, can be tough and need to cook longer to be enjoyable. The boneless breast of the duck – known as “magret” in French – tastes best when served rare or medium rare. If cooked past this point it can become tough and turn a somewhat grayish, brownish color. A good strategy, then, is to cook the different parts of the duck separately or, if making the whole duck, remove the breast before the rest of the bird is finished cooking.
Easiest is to simply purchase the boneless breasts separately. If you’ve cooked duck in the oven you’ll know that it can leave behind a bit of a mess. Grilling eliminates this nuisance. Steven Raichlen, in his epic book on grilling “The Barbeque Bible”, assertively declares, “There is no better way to cook duck than on a grill.” The recipes in his book call for whole ducks so I am happy to share with you another, perhaps lesser-and almost effortless technique for preparing this most delectable cut of the bird.
Remember: duck breast is best when served rare or medium rare as it can get very tough if cooked longer.
1 lb boneless duck breast*
1 1/2 tbs coarse kosher salt or sel de mer
1 1/2 herbes de Provence (see description)
Rinse and pat dry duck breasts. Rub the meat with course salt and place on a hot grill (don’t worry if you don’t have dried grape vines, any grill will do). Just before removing rare/medium rare duck from the grill, sprinkle with the Herbes de Provence (sometimes I get so excited about the “Herbes” that I sprinkle them on the duck before I start grilling – either way works). Slice as you would steak. Drizzle with the juices from the platter and serve with Tomatoes Provencal, baguette and a salad.
Grilled Tomatoes Provencal
Add some color to your dinner plate with these grilled tomatoes. They’re delicious hot or cold and are a wonderful, juicy compliment to the duck. Though Madame (my friend on the train) bakes her tomatoes in the oven, I adapted her recipe for the grill.
8 small vine-ripened tomatoes or plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence
Place tomatoes on skewers, brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Position on a preheated hot grill and cook until they are sizzling and the skin appears a bit blistered. This should take about 8-12 minutes total. Slide the tomatoes off of the skewers and sprinkle with the herbes de Provence.
What exactly are “Herbes de Provence”?
You’ve probably heard of them. You may have even tasted them. But did you ever wonder what the heck is in this mixture of herbs? Herbes de Provence is a blend of savory, lavender, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and rosemary. This combination of herbs grow all over the hills and valleys of southern France and the alchemy is wonderful in stews, pizza, and most broiled and roasted meats.