Sometimes, it's the little details that make all the difference. The magic in the following recipe comes from several creative cooking methods that will take your duck breast fillets from good to great. First, if you are among the duck hunters who choose to skin, rather than pluck, your puddle ducks, you are sacrificing flavor for convenience. Taking the extra time to pluck your ducks results in a big payoff at the dinner table. Next, drying the meat before cooking will help it sear more readily. When cooking, pay close attention to the temperature of your pan—as a general rule, the thicker the fillet, the lower the temperature. Finally, the rendered duck fat you make at home will add some delightful flavor and rival the pricey duck fat that now occupies shelf space next to other cooking oils in many high-end grocery stores.
SIMPLE PAN-SEARED DUCK
Puddle duck breast fillets, skin on Kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper
[STEP 1] To dry the duck breast fillets, wrap them with two-ply paper towels and give them a good squeeze to remove excess liquid. Then place them uncovered on a rack in the refrigerator for at least several hours, or for as long as a day or two.
[STEP 2] Using a sharp knife, score the skin on each fillet in a crisscross pattern, but don't cut all the way into the flesh. This will help crisp up the skin and keep it from curling. Season the skin side with salt and pepper.
[STEP 3] Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Add the duck breast fillets, skin side down. It's best not to try to speed up the process—if the heat is too high, the skin will be too crisp, or burnt, on the outside and rubbery near the flesh.
[STEP 4] Season the flesh side of each fillet with additional salt and pepper. Once the skin side is medium-brown and slightly crispy, flip over and brown the other side. While cooking, baste the fillets with the rendered duck fat. Cook to medium rare (between 130 and 135 degrees at the center).
[STEP 5] Remove the fillets from the skillet and allow them to rest for a few minutes before slicing across the grain and serving.
RENDERED DUCK FAT
Duck fat from puddle ducks has a rich taste and a high smoke point. Best of all, it's included at no extra charge with every puddle duck you harvest. To render duck fat, pluck the birds and remove the breast fillets and legs. Trim away any fat from the carcasses. (I usually save these uncooked fatty scraps in the freezer until I have enough to make a large batch of duck fat.) For obvious reasons, when trimming the fat from the tail end of the birds make sure that it is thoroughly cleaned. Place the fat scraps into a large skillet and add enough water to barely cover them. Bring to a boil and then slowly reduce the heat as the water evaporates and the fat is rendered. Strain the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove the scraps. Allow the liquid to cool, pour it into a container, and store it in the refrigerator.