A recently published master class taught by Thomas Keller on the Los Angeles Times website piqued my interest, stopping me in my web browsing tracks and instigating a drool reflex as soon as mine eyes laid upon the duck. Yes, the duck. I’m a sucker for all things related to the familiar fowl and all things Keller, so his how-to on executing sous vide duck breast at home landed firmly in my wheel house.
The explanation was simple and exacting without leaving out any small details, right down to the elimination of the air bubbles that can result after you wrap the duck breast in plastic wrap. I urge you to look it up, but if I may boil it down: simply wrap a duck breast in plastic wrap, heat a good volume of water up to 140 degrees, fill a cooler with said water and wrapped duck and wait an hour. After that hour has passed, finish the duck in a hot sauté pan to crisp the skin and render the fat. Keller and the LA Times food staff do en excellent job breaking down that operation step by step and also in leaving a few things to the imagination.
That’s where we come in.
Lacking any direction on how to season and pair the duck with a side dish, Keller leaves you to figure out on your own route from point b to c. That’s where the lessons I’ve internalized as a cook over the years, in no small part gleaned from the cooking of Keller’s myriad recipes over and over, began to kick in. The meal that came together was a conglomeration, with ideas pulled from Bouchon, The French Laundry Cookbook and a little of my own kitchen common sense.
To flavor the duck, prior to cooking, I added freshly grated nutmeg to the pinch of salt the article recommended. That touch was right out of the Bouchon playbook.
I then let the breast sit for an hour outside of the fridge to bring it to room temperature. The only chef I ever hear talk about the importance of the home cook tempering their proteins is Keller. It’s a lesson that’s as applicable to duck as it is to a steak, whole chicken or a filet of fish. If you add a cold, fresh out of the fridge protein to a heated pan/water bath/cooking vessel, it is going to reduce the temperature of the chosen implement you want to cook in. That has ramifications that will change your cooking time and the level of doneness you will come to. What home cook hasn’t screwed up a steak by grilling it straight out of the fridge and coming away with a perfectly seared outside and stone cold raw inside? I know I have. So whether it’s hamburger meat or a thanksgiving turkey, leave it out of the fridge for a while so it can come to room temperature. You’ll be a better cook for it.
To accompany the dish I settled on a simple rice pilaf of brown rice with finely chopped leeks, red onion and carrots, cooked in white wine and chicken stock. Duck with rice is a common dish in many food cultures whether it’s the arroz con pato variations that have become so ubiquitous in many of New York’s South American establishments or the canard et riz from a French bistro.
Even in that decision there was a touch of Keller, substituting leeks for celery in the mirepoix is something I cribbed from Keller a long time ago via his recipes for stock in The French Laundry Cookbook. The rationale that celery imparts an undesired bitterness is something I’ve come to agree with over the years.
The result was nothing if not interesting. Firstly, there is the MacGyver element that comes with cooking in a cooler. As bizarre as that sounds, the duck came out as advertised, cooked perfectly medium rare from top to bottom. That’s the attraction of cooking sous vide. I’ve cooked many a duck breast the traditional way, skin crisped and fat rendered in the pan, and then flipped and finished in the oven to consistently uneven results. The steps to prep for sous vide are foreign but not complicated, and the rewards are perfect, edge-to-edge doneness. And that is worth experimenting for.
Simple Rice Pilaf
2 tbsp olive oil
½ cup red onions, finely chopped
½ cup leeks, finely chopped
½ cup carrots, finely chopped
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup brown rice
1 ½ cups of low sodium chicken stock
Heat a medium sized saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the onions, leeks and carrots, and sauté for 5 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the white wine and let it reduce to roughly 2 tablespoons. Add the rice and mix to coat with the vegetables and wine. Add the stock, turn the heat to low, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes or until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid.