Can you believe it's autumn already? Seriously. I've still got tomatoes to pick at my mother's, but more than twice as many leaves are orange or red this week than last, the mornings are cool, the grape harvest has ended except for the Concords, and the good apples are here - I've got Crimson Crisp, Zabergaw Reinette, Golden Russett, Empire, and Spencer apples sitting right here with me, along with Wickson crabapples. That's some serious apple business, you know?
So for Marx Foods' "Sweet to Savory" challenge, I wanted to do something autumnal. Marx sent me, and the other participants, vanilla beans, fennel flower crystals, coconut sugar, and granulated honey, with the proviso that we have to use at least 2 of the 4 ingredients in a savory recipe.
One of the things that made this tricky at first glance is that three of the four ingredients aren't just flavors we associate with sweets, they're ingredients with sugar in them. I wanted to avoid a sweet and sour recipe. Nothing against them, and the ingredients might lend themselves that way - it's just not what I wanted to do here.
So instead, I thought about the vanilla, and which of the other ingredients I could include with it. I could use honey, but its flavor would get drowned out by a lot of savory ingredients - though I was thinking about some kind of roasted eggplant for a while. I could use coconut sugar, especially if I went towards some kind of curry.
I decided on the fennel flower crystals, partly because I love fennel, and partly because the textural contrast came in handy in this dish. These crystals are the ingredient you're least likely to be familiar with. They're just very small fennel blossoms that have been candied, so you get the fennel flavor along with the crunch of sugar - and not so much sugar that it'll overwhelm a dish and make it too sweet. They're very cool.
With vanilla and fennel, I had to think about what other ingredients would work to sort of connect them, and wound up with a duck dish that also uses parsnip (for earthiness, as well as creamy textural contrast so that you have three main textures in every bite - the creamy parsnip puree, the duck meat, and the crunch of the garnish), tarragon (which has an anise note like fennel), and Calvados. You could substitute brandy, apple jack, or even white wine for the Calvados, but apple cider would be too sweet.
Duck and parsnip with vanilla, fennel, and Calvados
Two duck breasts
Fennel flower crystals
A little butter
1/2 cup duck stock
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup Calvados (French apple brandy; substitute good applejack like Laird's bonded, or brandy or white wine)
Pinch of tarragon
This recipe uses duck breast, duck cracklings made from duck skin, and duck stock. To start from scratch with a whole duck, butcher the duck into pieces: two boneless breasts (skin on), wings and leg quarters, carcass, and trim the large pieces of skin from the carcass. Reserve the leg quarters and wings for some other recipe (I made duck confit, for instance).
Roast duck carcass until well browned (any temperature and time that gets you there will work, so feel free to piggyback on some other usage of the oven in order to conserve energy). Cover it with water in a stockpot and simmer overnight. Add vegetable trimmings - such as fennel fronds and onion skin - for the last hour of cooking. Strain through a mesh strainer and reduce if necessary.
Cut duck skin into pieces, cover in lightly salted water, and simmer slowly until the water has evaporated and the cracklings are frying in their own fat. At this point you may want to transfer them to the oven where they can cook evenly - 400 for half an hour usually does it.
You can precook the cracklings whenever you want up to this point, and heat them long enough to make them hot and crispy when ready to serve.
Just before plating, chop cracklings up into smaller pieces and toss with salt, fennel pollen, and fennel flower crystals.
Peel and chop two to three parsnips, depending on size (mine were small). Simmer in salted water until very soft. Puree with a pat of butter until very smooth and creamy. Check for seasoning and add salt if necessary.
Duck breast and sauce:
Let duck breasts come up to room temperature before cooking if possible. Cook on a cast-iron or copper-bottomed surface if possible, for even heat.
Salt both sides of each duck breast, lightly score the skin, pat dry, and cook skin-side down for about six minutes, flip, and cook for another three minutes. Most of the fat should render out. These directions assume a domestic duck - wild duck is usually leaner and has smaller breasts.
Slit a vanilla bean in half and scrape the vanilla seeds out. Chop a few leaves of tarragon - just a pinch.
Let the breasts rest for at least five minutes. Meanwhile, pour the fat out of the pan and immediately add about 1/2 cup duck stock, 1/4 cup heavy cream, 1/8 cup Calvados, a pinch of salt, the vanilla seeds, and the tarragon.
Simmer the sauce until it thickens and taste for seasoning.
Slice each duck breast, plate alongside the parsnip puree, drizzle with sauce, and garnish with fennel cracklings.
This was very good, autumnal, and rich without being overwhelming or sweet, and without being too heavy - we had it for lunch after the gym. Vanilla, parsnip, and fennel all bring flavors which are subtle in a way that worked especially well together.