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Oct 13, 2015
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WINE WITH…Duck Breasts with Mushroom Ketchup

During a recent re-reading of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, we were captivated by the passage in which David, now a young man, has invited friends to his lodgings for dinner. He is particularly anxious for the evening to go well, but alas, the housekeeper brings a disastrously undercooked leg of mutton to the table. David is sad to think that his lovely evening may have been ruined, but Mr. Micawber (no stranger to disaster himself) steps forward to save the day. After cutting the half-raw mutton into slices, “Mr. Micawber, who could do anything of this sort to perfection, covered them with pepper, mustard, salt and cayenne.” Mrs. Micawber, meanwhile, “heated and continually stirred some mushroom ketchup in a little sauce pan.”
Within minutes the party was seated at the table devouring the lamb slices as soon as they came out of the pan. “We reduced the leg of mutton to the bone,” the happy host confides; “I daresay there was never a greater success.”

This vignette of Victorian gastronomic celebration had us yearning to replicate this dish right then and there. But we faced two key problems: We had neither a leg of mutton nor mushroom ketchup on hand. Inspired by Mr. Micawber’s adaptability, however, we observed that we did have a duck breast in the fridge, as well as some mushrooms, and went to work.

Our resulting riff on David Copperfield’s dinner was, like the original, a great success, made even more so perhaps by the fact that we drank excellent red wine with it rather than Mr. Micawber’s hot rum punch.

Duck Breasts with Mushroom Ketchup

Serves 4

Mushroom ketchup, a staple of British cuisine, is usually preserved like tomato ketchup. But for this dish we wanted something fresher tasting and with some texture. Above all, we wanted to eat it right away (perhaps we should call our version Mock Mushroom Ketchup).

If possible, marinate the duck breasts at least an hour, and up to 24 hours, before cooking them.

For the duck breasts:

2 duck breasts
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

Pat the duck breasts dry with a paper towel. With a very sharp knife, score the fat in a criss-cross pattern. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Rub the mixture into both sides of the breasts, then place them in a self-sealing plastic bag and refrigerate for one hour or up to 24 hours. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before cooking.

To cook the duck breasts, heat a very sturdy skillet and add the olive oil. When the oil is very hot add the duck breasts, skin side down. Sear them for about 5 minutes, regulating the heat as necessary to keep them from burning, then flip them over and continue cooking over medium heat for another 3-5 minutes, spooning excess fat out once or twice as they cook. Cut into one of the breasts to check for doneness (medium rare is ideal). If the breasts are very large you may have to continue cooking, flipping them back and forth, for another few minutes. Remove the breasts from the pan and let them rest for about 5 minutes before slicing the meat on an angle.

For the mushroom ketchup:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
8-10 ounces mushrooms such as baby bella (cremini), button, or a combination
salt and pepper
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons red currant jelly or jam (or use cassis, cherry, blackberry or loganberry)
Garnish: minced parsley

Heat the oil in a skillet, then add the onion. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until softened, then stir in the garlic. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are soft. Pour in the wine and simmer over medium-high heat until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and the jelly and simmer another few minutes. When it has cooled enough to handle, transfer the mixture to a food processor and pulse until it is coarse but not too finely pureed.

The mixture may be refrigerated for two or three days, then reheated and served, garnished with minced parsley.

* * *

We weren’t at all sure what sort of wines would work best with this dish. Though fairly confident that reds would outshine whites, we had little sense of which reds to sample. Should we choose wines that were likely to have an affinity with mushrooms--earthy Pinot Noirs, for example, or southern Rhône blends? But then these mushrooms, being in a ketchup, will have a sweet, fruity edge. And the duck itself most likely will taste rich and substantial, so may well need an equally full-bodied wine at its side. We were confused about not only which wines to recommend, but also which to even try.

The solution to our dilemma became clear when, having tasted thirteen different bottles, we easily agreed on the winners. All had a sweet edge of their own, and four of the five hailed from California, home to many powerful, ripe, and yes, sweet, red wines these days. The experience reinforced what we should have known already--how a dish is prepared helps dictate which wine to choose. In this case, the balsamic and jelly transform the mushroom mixture from earthly to sweet, make a rich, fruity-sweet red wine an ideal partner.

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Approx. Price


Cepa 21, Ribera del Duero (Spain) Tempranillo 2011

(Imported by Moro Brothers)


The sweetness in this wine comes from not only ripe fruit but also barrel-aging, as the succulent taste of vanilla gives the wine a sumptuousness that it would otherwise lack. The oak overlay can be excessive in many Spanish reds, but in this one it tastes just right.

Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley (California) Meritage “The Mariner” 2012


A Bordeaux blend with California panache, this is a powerful but still sophisticated wine, Its bright character comes from the Golden State’s bright sunshine, and it has a seductively sweet personality.

MacMurray Estate Vineyards, Russian River Valley Sonoma County (California) Pinot Noir 2012


Unabashedly Californian, meaning very ripe so fairly bursting with sweet fruit flavor (think summer cherries), this wine has just enough body and heft to pair successfully with the dish. It might seem somewhat overdone on its own, but it was a great success with the food.

Matanzas Creek Winery, Sonoma County (California) Merlot 2011


With a weedy undercurrent, this Merlot seems something of a throwback, as it is not as sugary or fully ripe as many contemporary California Merlots. Nonetheless, it still tastes rich, and that impression of opulence is what made it an excellent partner for this particular dish.

Pedroncelli, Dry Creek Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Block 007 Estate Vineyard” 2012


Big and powerful, with well-defined tannins holding its sweet fruit in check, this is a seriously good wine from an often undervalued producer. Firmer than the Matanzas Creek Merlot, it still did much the same thing, imparting an added layer of richness to an already succulent meal.