One of my go-to pasta dishes is chicken breast with mushrooms and tomatoes on a toothy pasta. Sometimes, I swap chicken demi-glace for a tomato-based sauce, to produce a dish that’s more refined and quite tasty. Yet it never occurred to me until recently to use duck breast instead of ubiquitous chicken breast — a switch that turns this and any chicken-based pasta sauce into something extraordinary.
Admittedly, duck breast costs a whole lot more than the chicken equivalent. Also, you’re paying for a huge hunk of duck fat and duck skin that doesn’t get used in this recipe (more on that later). Still….using duck elevates the flavors, inserting rich, savory meat for boring chicken breast, which seems to disappear into whatever it accompanies. Many markets sell packaged duck breasts (often two breast each), which frequently are frozen. No matter for this dish. Frozen duck is just fine.
I urge you to swap duck for chicken in your favorite pasta dish. Or any dish — Chinese stir-fry, anyone? — that calls for pieces of chicken breast. You’ve suddenly moved from a quick weekday dinner to something that’s dinner-party worthy.
And about that “wasted” duck fat and duck skin. After peeling them off the meat, cut them into pieces and render them slowly in a pan until the fat is liquid and the skin has become exotic cracklings. Let the crispy skin drain on a paper towel, salt and serve to your favorite non-dieter. The wondrous duck fat can be frozen and used for any number of dishes. In fact, try it instead of oil in savory dishes and see how irresistible are the results. I’ve included a super-simple use below, cooking potatoes in the duck fat. You’ll never use olive oil again.
Since I don’t use recipes, what’s below is not carefully measured. That should be okay because these are easy recipes that are hard to mess up.
Frozen duck breasts, skin and fat removed, cut into bite-sized pieces
Yellow onion, diced
Sliced cremini mushrooms
Olive oil or rendered duck fat
White wine (I use pinot grigio 2-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s,my standard cooking wine)
Good-quality fresh tomatoes (in season) or Muir Glen brand whole tomatoes the rest of the year
Garlic, peeled & chopped
Toothy pasta, like orchiette
Chopped parsley or mixture of tarragon and parsley
Shaved fresh Italian parmesan
Put some olive oil or duck fat in a pan and cook onions until soft. Add sliced mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes. Add cut-up whole tomatoes (don’t bother to skin or seed tomatoes unless you want to) or canned tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes are soft, then add garlic and cook a bit more.
In another pan, add a little oil or duck fat and saute duck meat briefly, then throw in some wine and cook until the meat is brown outside but not cooked through (this gives you the equivalent of rare duck breast, which is how you want to cook this bird). Remove from heat and hold until pasta is almost cooked. At that point, add entire contents of pan to onion/mushroom/tomato mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add parsley and cook briefly.
At this point, your pasta should be cooked. Drain it and put it into a wide bowl, adding the duck sauce, then top with grated parmesan.
Use rich demi-glace instead of tomatoes, or for part of the tomatoes. Another iteration: If you have it, switch smoked duck breast for the raw version, eliminating the cooking step above. This makes a sophisticated, tasty main course.
To beef up the mushroom-y element, soak some porcini in warm water, chop the re-hydrated mushrooms roughly and add to pan. Pour in the porcini water as well.
Duck Fat Rosemary Potatoes
Start with small, good-quality potatoes like fingerlings and the like. Cut them into thick slices. Pour some melted duck fat over the potatoes, adding chopped fresh rosemary and sea salt. Toss and spread in a roasting pan. Roast at 400 degrees for about 28 minutes, checking to see when the potatoes are cooked and crispy outside.
Personally, I don’t think this dish needs garlic or anything else. But if you can’t live without garlic, add some.