It should be pretty clear to regular readers that I’m a big fan of making soft tacos. I have a tortilla press, after all, and have written about making tacos the centerpiece of a dinner party. When I was considering cooking another “unique meat,” I wanted to serve it in a way that was original, but also forgiving. Thus, duck tacos were born.
In this recurring feature I try cooking meats that aren’t as familiar to Americans (i.e., something other than beef, pork or chicken). This time I cooked duck breasts.
I wanted to try duck for a couple of reasons. First, it isn’t a totally weird meat – it’s just more uncommon than chicken. It also requires more attention when cooking, and I wanted to learn more. Waterfowl like duck and geese have a thick layer of fat on their breast to keep them warm, and rendering that fat is an extra step in the cooking process.
Even though I settled on duck tacos, I needed to decide which flavor direction to go – were these going to be Mexican-style tacos, or barbeque? My wife suggested exploring Asian flavors. After all, one of the most common ways to eat duck is to have peking duck at a Chinese restaurant. I loved that idea, so I set to work finalizing the dish.
For toppings I wanted something that would mirror the lettuce and salsa fresca in traditional tacos. I used napa cabbage in place of lettuce. Napa cabbage is a Chinese cabbage used frequently in East Asian cooking. To replace the salsa fresca I looked to Vietnam and the banh mi sandwich, and made a pickled slaw with carrots and daikon radish. Finally, I bought two sauces – plum and orange ginger – that I thought would pair well with the rest of the taco ingredients.
Unlike last time, this attempt to prepare a unique meat was a total success. Cooking the duck was a little challenging, but nothing unmanageable. The taco toppings worked great, especially the pairing of the sweetness from the plum sauce with the sourness from the pickled vegetables. Did I perfectly execute everything? No. But I learned a lot and the eaters were happy. I’ll definitely be making duck in the future. It’s delicious when cooked right, and it’s a treat that’s not too expensive. The duck I bought cost $10 a pound, half as much as beef filets. Two pounds of duck fed four people perfectly.
- 2 large carrots (about 8 ounces total)
- 1 large daikon radish (about 8 ounces)
- 1/2 jalapeño, seeded and sliced very fine
- 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 pounds duck breast (Duck breast is usually sold in vacuum-packed packages. Each of my packages was about 1 pound and held two breasts.)
- Five-spice powder
- 1/2 head napa cabbage, sliced 1/4-inch thick
- 1 jar plum sauce
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- 12-16 tortillas
Let’s make the slaw first, because it’s good for the carrots and daikon to pickle for at least a couple hours.
Step 2. Combine the rice wine vinegar and sugar in a small bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved. It helps to heat the vinegar in the microwave for a few seconds to make the sugar dissolve faster.
Step 3. Slice the half of seeded jalapeño as fine as your knife skills will allow, into very thin half moons. The jalapeño just provides a little extra flavor and seasoning – the slaw isn’t spicy.
Step 4. Combine everything together in a medium bowl, and mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate for a couple hours, and up to 1 day.
Now, it’s on to the duck. For a primer on cooking duck, read this. It gave me a lot more confidence.
Step 1. Open up your packages, rinse the breasts and pat them dry. Trim the breasts so they will lie flat in your pan.
Step 2. Score the layer of fat by making a cross-hatch pattern with a sharp knife. Cut to the base of the fat, but not into the meat. Note: The only mistake I made was not scoring the fat deep enough. If you don’t score deep, the fat won’t render out and the layer of fat will be too thick to eat on the cooked breast. This ultimately wasn’t a problem for me; I just trimmed off the cooked fat cap. It would have been better to have the crispy duck skin, however.
Step 3. Season both sides of the breasts with salt and five-spice powder. Make sure the seasoning gets into the fat cap.
Step 4. Heat a large dry frying pan over high heat. Add the breasts, skin- and fat-side down, and reduce the heat to medium low. You don’t need to oil the pan before adding the duck because the duck fat will instantly begin to render. Cook for 15 minutes. Just think of cooking duck as really fatty bacon. Duck is actually more forgiving than bacon, because it is thicker.
Step 5. Remove the duck breasts from the pan and pour out the fat. I recommend preparing the vessel that’s going to hold all the duck fat ahead of time. Don’t just pour directly into the trash can – you’ll have at least a half-cup of fat. And definitely don’t pour the fat down the sink!
Step 6. Return the breasts to the pan, skin-side up. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of your breasts. You’re aiming for a doneness level of medium-rare. Duck cooked well-done, like chicken, will be very tough and lack color. Squeeze the sides of the breast with tongs or touch with a fork. If there is still some give to the meat, but it doesn’t feel raw anymore, then you’re good. You don’t want the breast to be completely firm.
Serve the sliced duck with the pickled slaw, cabbage, plum sauce and a cilantro garnish.