Talking turkey: Pick duck for smaller gatherings

The Whole Dish podcast: Memories tie festive dishes to familiar faces

Making holidays memorable, without a truckload of food on hand, is the talking point of an upcoming “Jefferson Exchange” episode.

Hosting yours truly the day before Thanksgiving, the popular show on Jefferson Public Radio also will bring my cooking kindred spirit, Tod Davies, into the discussion. A local food writer, editor and book publisher, Tod invited me to join her in cooking from a “mystery bag” at last month’s Ashland Literary Arts Festival. Our repartee was so seamless that John Baxter, who volunteered to emcee, never got his chance to cut in.

Not to be denied, John, senior producer for the “Exchange,” asked us to meet on his turf to talk turkey. Tune in at 8:30 a.m. for a taste of what Tod and I cook up for the holidays.

John’s concept for the show seems to indicate a very small group of holiday diners. So I would suggest a smaller bird as the centerpiece. Duck isn’t exactly a pantry staple, although it’s widely available frozen, even at Food 4 Less in Medford.

Although their small size suits ducks to everyday preparation, they’re offbeat enough to constitute special-occasion fare. I blogged nearly a decade ago about choosing duck for a scaled-down family celebration.

If it’s a memorable meal you’re after, duck is the gift that keeps on giving. Saving a roast duck’s gorgeous fat for other dishes guarantees that you’ll remember that first dinner weeks or months down the road.

If it’s a dinner for just one other guest, duck breast is right on target. Make two breasts to feed four people.

Duck breast cooks quickly, slices seamlessly without bones to dismember and makes for an artful presentation fanned out on plates and garnished with a wine-and-butter sauce like this one from the Chicago Tribune. I would hazard that duck’s rich flavor and ruddy hue makes it an even better companion to Thanksgiving’s traditional cranberry sauce.

Tribune News Service photo

Duck Breast

1 duck breast, about 8 ounces

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

1/2 cup dry red wine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up

Rinse and pat dry the duck breast. Turn it skin-side up on a cutting board. With a long sharp knife, cut through skin and fat (but not meat) in a series of parallel stokes, forming a pattern of small squares or diamonds. Season all over with the salt and pepper, rubbing seasonings into meat.

Heat oven to 350 F. Keep handy a small saucepan for collecting duck fat. Heat a medium, cast-iron skillet over medium. When good and hot, settle in duck, skin-side down (big sizzle), pressing to make sure skin is flat against hot surface. Cook until skin is beautifully crisp, for about 8 minutes. Every 2 minutes, lift duck with tongs and pour off accumulated fat.

Pour off fat again. Turn duck meat-side down in skillet; slide it into hot oven. Cook until duck reaches 135 F inside, for about 15 minutes (see note). Set duck on a carving board, uncovered, let rest.

Set skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, scraping up browned bits, until shallots turn soft, for about 1 minute. Pour in the wine, and cook until sauce begins to thicken, for about 4 minutes. Stir in the butter. Pull pan off heat.

Thinly slice duck on diagonal. Mix juices from carving board into sauce. Pour sauce onto each of 2 plates; fan duck slices over sauce. Enjoy. Makes 2 servings.

Later, strain reserved duck fat into a small jar and chill. This will come in handy for crisping potatoes, seasoning chicken and other delicious projects. You’ll see.

NOTE: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking all poultry to an internal temperature of 165 F. If you have health concerns about rare meat, skip duck.

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