Eric Akis: Duck salad perfect for early autumn

Eric Akis

Duck pairs well with fruit. French-style preparations that highlight that are duck à l’orange, and duck with cherry sauce. When recently harvesting pears from my backyard tree, I remembered that it’s another fruit that works well with it.

I know because the other day I combined the two in a main-course salad. To make it, balsamic vinaigrette coated salad greens were set on dinner plates, and then topped with cooked, sliced duck breast, wedges of ripe pear, roasted squash, nuggets of goat cheese and toasted walnuts. It was a filling creation that had an eye appealing, palate pleasing, early autumn look and taste.

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The method I used for cooking the boneless duck breasts I bought began with me setting them skin-side-down in a cold skillet. The skillet is then set over medium heat. As the duck slowly begins to cook, the skin begins sear, and the fat under that skin renders out, something that also occurs when you finish cooking the duck in the oven.

Many reputable cookbooks and online culinary sources suggest, to prevent duck breast from become overly dry, you cook it to anywhere from medium rare to medium in doneness, about 135 F or 140 F (57 C to 60 C) in the very centre. How most restaurants cook it, and so did I.

That said, you should know that health agencies say there’s a chance that, similar to other fowl, when raw it may contain harmful bacteria. Why Health Canada suggests that, to kill any potential bacteria, you cook duck pieces, such as breast, well done to 165 F (74 C).

As noted in a previous story on cooking duck breasts, I’ve always eaten duck breast with a bit pink in the middle and not had an issue. But doneness level comes down to personal choice, so if you would prefer it cooked well done for the reason noted above you have that option in my recipe.

You’ll find the frozen, boneless duck breasts for sale at some supermarkets and butcher shops. But it best to call ahead to the place you plan shop at to make sure they have them in stock. To thaw the duck breasts, I set them the packages of them on a plate in the refrigerator overnight.

With regards to the pears, unlike many other fruits, their eating quality is actually better when harvested when they are mature enough to come off the tree, but still firm and not fully ripe. How you’ll find them for sale at most food stores.

That final bit of ripening will occur in your home, when the pears are allowed to sit at room temperature a few days, until the flesh is sweet and juicy and soft enough to yield to gentle pressure. To speed up the ripening process, put the pears in paper bag.

Duck and Pear Salad with Squash, Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Here’s a perfect for early autumn, main-course salad that sees succulent slices of duck breast served with in-season squash and pears, tangy goat cheese and rich walnuts.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: about 35 minutes

Makes: two servings

1 cup peeled and cubed butternut squash (see Note 1)

1/8 tsp ground sage

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 (6 to 7 oz./170 to 200 gram) boneless duck breasts, thoroughly patted dry

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1/2 tsp honey

3 Tbsp + 1 tsp olive oil (divided)

4 to 6 cups mixed salad greens

1 small to medium ripe pear, halved, cored and cut into wedges

12 walnuts halves, lightly toasted (see Note 2)

60 grams soft goat cheese, pulled into small nuggets, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Set squash in the pan and drizzle and sprinkle with 2 tsp olive oil, sage, salt and pepper. Toss the squash to coat. Roast squash 20 minutes, or until tender.

While squash roasts, season the duck with salt and pepper, and then set skin-side-down in a cold cast iron or ovenproof, non-stick skillet. Set the skillet over medium heat. When the duck begins to cook and crackle, set a timer for seven minutes. Cook the duck those seven minutes, and then drain excess fat from the skillet. Cook the duck three minutes more. Turn each breast over and cook on the other side one minute. Now turn the duck skin-side-down again.

When the squash is cooked, remove from the oven and set it aside for now. Set the skillet with the duck it in the 400 F oven and roast 10 minutes, or until medium, medium-rare doneness, about 135 F to 140 F. Or, if you prefer the duck to be cooked well done, cook it 15 minutes in the oven, or until about 155 F to 160 F (the duck will continue to cook as it rests and reach well-done status).

While the duck cooks in the oven, make salad dressing by combining vinegar, mustard, honey, 2 Tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil and salt and pepper, to taste, in a medium bowl.

When the duck is cooked, transfer it to a cutting board, setting the breasts skin-side-up, and let them rest a few minutes. Now slice each duck breast, widthwise and at a slight angle, into 1/2-inch thick pieces.

To make the salads, add the salad greens to the dressing and toss to coat. Now divide and set some salad greens on each of two dinner plates. Artfully top the greens with the duck, roasted squash, pear wedges, walnuts and goat cheese, and then serve.

Note 1: I cut the squash in 3/4-inch cubes. Other types of squash will also work in this recipe.

Note 2: To toast walnuts, place in a skillet and set over medium heat. Heat, swirling the pan from time to time, until walnuts aromatic and lightly toasted, about three to four minutes.

Eric’s options: If desired, you can keep the leftover duck fat from the pan for cooking other foods, such as roasted potatoes. Store in a sealed jar in the fridge until ready to melt and use. If duck is not your thing, other types of proteins could replace it in this salad, such as cooked, sliced chicken or pork tenderloin.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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