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Classic Food and Wine Pairings:
Pinot Noir + Duck Breast
I love duck. It has long been one of my very favorite things. I love duck breast cooked just under medium with a nice crisp layer on that wonderful fat. I love duck confit, duck stock, Chinese duck and scallion pancakes, and duck skin cracklins — it's all fantastic! And while I'm professing love for things, how about pinot noir: I love the sweet and musty Carneros pinots, I love the amazing pinots coming from Oregon (I went to Willamette a few years back), and I have had my share of amazing earthy burgundy as well. Though I don't consider myself a wine expert, I know enough to know how little I know, and this makes me eager to learn and appreciate. So when I embarked on this exploration of classic food and wine pairings, I jumped on the duck and Pinot Noir idea and never looked back.
I headed down to my favorite wine shop once again to talk about my "duck noir" evening. Once again we aimed for a war of the worlds — Old World vs. New World. I find this to be a pretty compelling format for a food and wine tasting; the possibility that the Old World wine might blossom with the food makes for an incredible experience (if it works!), plus it's like each wine is playing for a team, so that keeps it exciting! Here were the starting lineups: for the Old World, Domaine Tripoz, Bourgogne Rouge "Chant de la Tour", Burgundy, France 2007 (importer: T. Edward), and for the New World, Bodega de Anelo, Jelu Pinot Noir, Patagonia Argentina 2006 (importer: Wine Without Borders).
I had picked up some Bell and Evans Duck Breast at a local store (2 - 6oz breasts per pack, $9.99), so now I needed to figure out what to do with it. I've had these before - they are very nice quality and very convenient. I usually think in terms of a meat, a starch, a veg, and a sauce. I had my meat for sure, but what about the rest? For veg, I turned to a head of broccoli in my fridge, and picked out some Israeli couscous in my pantry for the starch. Next I turned to the sauce — it would have to play off the flavors in the wine somehow, so I started looking for some dried cherries. Instead, I found some dried cranberries and thought they would make an interesting substitute. I poured them into a pan with some olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and some sliced onions. Once I had some color on the onions, I covered it all in red wine and cut the heat to a simmer. I found some pine nuts to add to the couscous and broccoli, and started to toast them in a dry pan. I began to worry about the couscous. It tended to be pretty bland, so I grabbed some stock from my freezer and got it simmering in a sauce pan. I trimmed the stem off the broccoli head so that only the florets remained. Putting the florets aside, I diced the stem pretty small and added it to the stock with a little salt. Once that had boiled for about 10 minutes, I threw it in the blender and strained it back into the pan to use as the cooking liquid for the couscous. (Ha. This kind of idea gets me excited. It takes advantage of a tougher and less-desirable-but-still-pretty-tasty part of the broccoli, adds a bunch of flavor and nutrition, and cuts back on waste.) Then I seasoned and scored the fat on the duck breast and tossed it in a hot pan — fat side down. POP!
I smelled and tasted the first wine, the Bourgogne Rouge. I thought it was nice — cherry, earthy, about what I expected. We picked up on some cloves and sour cherriness. My friends agreed on some pruney flavors, but were otherwise split on their overall assessments. We had one lover and one hater, so the average score worked out to 5.5 (out of 10). The Jelu on the other hand managed a 7.75 with its fuller body, spiciness, and almost "light shiraz" style. We started to talk about "Christmas cookie spices" and its silky finish. What a fun wine to sip! Break was over, back to the food.
I added my couscous to the simmering broccoli-stock, and tossed the broccoli florets in a few minutes later. I flipped the duck. Next I checked on my sauce — it had reduced nicely, so I pureed it and gave it a taste. A little more salt, a squeeze of lemon, but it still needed something: some fat. I thought about my options; cream or butter didn't seem quite right for some reason. So I took a chance — I found some Boursin cheese (a spreadable garlic-herb cheese) in my fridge and I went for it. Into the pan and stirred until smooth, it left the sauce a little lighter in color, creamier in body, with a hint of garlic and herbs. I pulled my duck out to let it rest and got my plates ready.
It had finally come together: Seared duck breast with broccoli-pine nut Israeli cousous, and a cranberry-Boursin red wine sauce. We poured the wine and sat down to dig in. Mmmm duck. The skin had that crispiness I love, and the meat was tasty, tender, and moist. The sauce (which I was most worried about) turned out pretty well: thick and rich with an intense fruit presence that cut the richness of the cheese. Unconventional yes, but not unsuccessful. We all loved the toasted pine nuts in the couscous — they played off the cranberry flavor nicely and made the dish reminiscent of a Morroccan couscous. This was a relatively simple and satisfying dish that should leave plenty of room for the wine to shine.