Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Duck Confit Salad With Plumped Dried Cherries

Why is it that people love the novelty of breakfast for dinner, but when presented with what is essentially lunch for dinner—a sandwich and chips, say, or soup and salad—it just feels like a downgrade?

This question occurred to me, and I was inspired to do a soup-and-salad combo that would be worthy of the label “dinner.” This one fit the bill, to the tune of $12 total for a light dinner for two.

The meal consists of a French onion–style mushroom soup, a salad with duck leg confit and dried cherries, and a loaf of crusty bread with pesto butter. All of which sounds fancier and more complicated than it in fact is. I will herewith break down this salad, including the homemade vinaigrette—and, what the heck, the pesto butter too.

This salad would also be a fantastic first course for any date-night or special-occasion meal, even those occasions that are special for no particular reason.

First, a few words about duck confit, which I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog. Basically, confit is to duck as bacon is to pork, or crack is to cocaine. It’s made by slow-cooking cured duck on low heat in its own fat, so all of the meat’s tenderness and richness increase seemingly exponentially. Although it’s fully cooked, you want to briefly roast it to reheat it, so the skin on top gets all crispy and the flesh on the bottom almost caramelized-like.

Confit is somewhat pricey per pound, yes, but a little goes a long way and totally carries a dish, as with this simple salad. Depending where you live, you might find individual vacuum-sealed packages of duck leg confit at your supermarket (D’Artagnan is a common brand), or you can go to a specialty store. (You can try making it yourself with this Gourmet recipe, but it's a three-day undertaking requiring 35 ounces of duck fat.) One leg cost me $6 from the excellent Grand Army Plaza greenmarket vendor Hudson Valley Duck Farm, and the rest of the meal ingredients were super cheap. (Dried cherries are also expensive—like $9.99 a pound—but if you find a place where you can buy them by weight out of a bin, you can get the amount the salad requires for 60 cents.)

Balsamic Vinaigrette:

  • In an empty jar with a lid, mix ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, 2 TBSP maple syrup or honey, 2 TBSP Dijon mustard, 2 mashed cloves of garlic, 1 tsp dried basil and/or oregano, and some salt and crushed pepper.
  • Add ¼ cup olive oil, cover, and shake vigorously until blended. Taste and adjust as needed.
  • Ideally, keep this in your fridge overnight to let the flavors blend; bring jar to room temperature and shake before dressing salad.

To serve 2 a filling portion in accompaniment to soup, you’ll need:

  • 1 handful dried cherries
  • 1 TBSP agave nectar (optional)
  • 1 leg duck confit
  • ½ red onion, thinly sliced the circular way
  • Arugula (baby or adult) or frisée lettuce, maybe 4 oz. but you don't have to be precise
  • Balsamic vinaigrette to taste (see sidebar)

Reconstitute the cherries: Put about ¼ cup water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, dump in the cherries and let them sit until soft before straining them out. (This is where the "plumped" part comes in..."reconstituted" just didn't sound sexy enough for a recipe title.)

Optionally, make a glaze for the duck: Reserve the cherry water, add the agave nectar (or you could use molasses or maple syrup), whisk together, and simmer until a syrup forms; remove from heat.

You can do this in either the oven or the toaster oven, at 400°: Pile the onions on a foil-covered metal sheet pan and drizzle with 1 TBSP or so of the vinaigrette, then toss. Place the duck leg, skin side down, on the onions. If you made the glaze, brush about half of it on the exposed duck surface.

Cook until roasty and browned in spots, about 5–10 minutes; then flip the duck leg, brush with the glaze if you made it, and roast until the skin is browned and crispy in spots, another 5–10 minutes. Remove from oven/toaster oven and allow to cool off a bit.

Toss the arugula or frisée in the vinaigrette—be cautious; you can always add more, but you can’t subtract—and divide between 2 plates.

Transfer the duck to a cutting board and hack the meat into chunks or shred with your fingers.

Strew the onions and cherries on top of the salad greens, trying to distribute as evenly as possible between the 2 plates. Top with the duck meat, again doing your best to distribute evenly, and serve.

Pesto Butter:

  • Buy a baguette or similarly shaped loaf of bread.
  • Warm it gently in a paper bag on top of the toaster oven/oven while the confit roasts.
  • Using an immersion blender, food processor, or whisk, mix a tablespoon of pesto—homemade or store-bought—into half a stick of softened butter.
  • Transfer the butter into a ramekin or cute little bowl and serve alongside the bread.
  • Boom.

Goat cheese, sliced pears, and/or slightly roasted pecans or walnuts would be great additions. You could also vary the greens; mixing in some radicchio would be awesome. I recently did a cherry-free variation of the salad featuring pea shoots from the GAP greenmarket, toasted squash seeds, raw red onion, and turnip wedges—the turnips were also from the greenmarket—upon which I had roasted the duck (as with the onion above). It was accompanied by a curried cauliflower soup garnished with some toasted wedges of leftover scallion crepes—which, ironically enough, I had made to enfold roast turkey drumsticks that were designed to simulate duck. (Okay, maybe that wasn't all that ironic. It wasn't, like, 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife, or anything.)

Any of these myriad incarnations is clearly a dinner-worthy salad! And to answer the question I began with, I’ve come to the conclusion that people like breakfast for dinner because it involves delicious indulgences like eggs, bacon, cheese, and pancakes, as opposed to ... well, soup and salad. But with enough duck confit, my fellow 'Merickans, we can make a difference!

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