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Feb 17, 2015
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WINE WITH…Duck Breasts with Port Wine Sauce & Duck Fat Home Fries

On Valentine’s Day we decided to celebrate by bringing out a few bottles of select wines that we’d been hoarding in our cellar. Since this particular group of wines was red, and would probably be big, mouth filling and (we hoped) complex, we wanted to pair them with a dish that would be both celebratory and robust enough to do justice to the wines. What should we make?

We considered simply grilling a fabulous steak or lamb chops, or perhaps preparing Tournedos Rossini or a similar classic beefy dish. Any one of these would have been excellent with the wines, but what we eventually decided on was duck breasts, pan-seared to perfect pinkish-red with a crackly crust, then drizzled with a lush, deeply flavored Port wine sauce. The sauce, which was inspired by a classic recipe from Paula Wolffert, tastes fairly sweet by itself, but co-mingling with the dense, rich duck it all coalesced into a savory, rather than sweet, seductive entity. Potatoes sautéed in some of the duck’s own fat added a further note of gustatory--and dare we say romantic?--appeal.

Duck Breasts With Port Wine Sauce and Duck Fat Home Fries

Serves 4

For the Home Fries:

About one pound potatoes
Salt and pepper

You can get the potatoes ready up to a day in advance. Place them in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until they are almost tender. Drain, and when they are cool enough to handle, peel them, cut them in quarters, and mash with a fork or potato masher into coarse chunks. Season with salt and pepper. If you are preparing them in advance, toss the potatoes with about a tablespoon of olive oil to keep them from drying out and refrigerate until ready to use. To cook the home fries, transfer the melted fat from the duck breasts to another skillet (non-stick works well but isn’t essential). Heat the fat, add the potatoes and cook over high-to-medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they are crisp and browned.

For the Duck:

Preheat oven to 250° about 30 minutes before serving

2 whole duck breasts, halved
Salt and pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup Port wine
Freshly squeezed juice from one orange
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne)
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Salt and pepper both sides of the duck breasts, preferably up to a day ahead of time. Refrigerate them, lightly covered, in a bowl or concave plate until ready to use. When you are ready to cook them, blot the breasts dry with a paper towel, but reserve any juices that have accumulated. Using a very sharp knife, score the skin and fat in a cross-hatch pattern, taking care not to cut into the flesh.

Combine the chicken stock, Port, orange juice and Aleppo pepper, adding any duck juices you might have saved. Set aside. Heat a large, heavy skillet (cast iron is ideal), and when it is very hot add the duck breasts, skin side down. Cook, without moving them, monitoring the heat if necessary to keep them from burning, until the skin is crisp and nicely browned (this should take about 5-8 minutes).

Transfer the duck breasts, skin side up, to a shallow roasting pan or sided baking sheet and place it in the oven. Leave them in the oven for no more than 7-8 minutes, but begin checking for doneness after 5 minutes by slicing into one of the breasts with a sharp knife, or use an instant-read thermometer (135° for rare, 145° for medium). Slice the duck and arrange the slices on 4 serving plates.

Meanwhile, pour or ladle the duck fat into another skillet and add the potatoes, cooking them as instructed above. Blot away any excess fat that in the duck-cooking skillet and pour in the Port mixture. Cook over high heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture is reduced by about half. Add the cream and continue boiling the mixture, whisking constantly, until it is thick, dark and considerably reduced. Drizzle it over the sliced duck and serve at once.

* * *

This rich, sumptuous dish calls for an equally rich red wine, one with heft but at the same time grace and elegance. An aged Bordeaux or California Cabernet would be a classic choice, but then so too would an older red from the northern Rhône, Piedmont, or Tuscany. We, however, were trying younger wines, ones that we could recommend you purchase. Perhaps because red wines on the whole tend to be much more accessible in their youth than they were a few decades ago, we still found an array of delicious options. The basic principle still applied, though, as all were muscular but none was merely brawny.


Approx. Price


Frankland Estate, Franklin River Region (Australia) Shiraz “Isolation Ridge Vineyard” 2009

(Imported by Quintessential)


Well-structured and balanced, with firm tannins but plenty of underlying acidity to keep it tasting fresh, this dark red showed plenty of layered complexity, particularly in its finish.

Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley (California) Zinfandel 2011


Always one of California’s more elegant Zins, the 2011 Grgich Hills tastes spicy but also subtle and harmonious. It serves as a reminder that this variety need not be hot and heavy, but actually can taste refined and graceful.

Massolino, Barolo (Italy) 2010

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)


A relatively light Barolo, full of enticing floral notes in the bouquet and earthy, tobacco-like ones on the palate. Though not as intensely flavored as some of the other wines we are recommending, it undoubtedly is the most complex.

Rodney Strong, “Symmetry” Meritage, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County (California) 2012


A standout in an often disappointing category, this Meritage does what such a blend should do—outperform the sum of its parts. It offers plenty of sweet fruit, but checks that sweetness with earthy notes in the mid-palate and beautiful, evolving length in the finish.

V. Sattui Winery, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Vittorio’s Vineyard” 2010


A firm, very structured Cabernet made for aging, this wine definitely benefitted from being decanted. Exposure to air softened it and brought out all sorts of exciting secondary flavors that enhanced the dominant taste of dark berry fruit.