Simply the Breast! – St Ambroise Vintage Ale Meets Seared Duck
One of my favorite meats to eat and cook is duck, but more specifically, duck breasts. In texture and richness, it’s the perfect crossover between poultry and beef. When cooked properly to medium rare, a duck breast should eat like a steak, but with a deliciously crispy skin on one side. Think about it, it’s basically gluttonous perfection. On top of that, it’s super easy to make, and I’m not one of those people who presumes everyone can cook to the same level – really, it’s simple. You can make a sauce for it, marinate it, brine it, or eat it plain as is. In Quebec – and I’m presuming in other areas as well – ducks are not bred on giant factory farms, injected with hormones and the like, so you can also relish in the fact that you are eating something local, and free of (certain) toxins. Also in Quebec, you can pretty much get duck breasts at most grocery stores, and although seemingly expensive, think for a second how much you can pay for a nice steak. Depending on the size, where you buy it, and if they are on sale, you can pay on average between 8-12 dollars per breast – and one is more than enough for a single portion (sometimes two portions). So the next time you think about buying a think steak, grab a duck breast instead, you won’t be disappointed.
At this point I can presume that you realize I’ll be doing a beer pairing, using a duck breast. The question now is what beer to pair with it. Because duck breast eats like a steak, I want to choose something on the bolder side, and on the bigger side. I have plenty of options in that category, as these are the best beers for aging; I have a cellar full of specimens. I decided on McAuslan’s St Ambroise Vintage Ale 2012. This barleywine comes out every December, and can age well for several years. From what I recall, it has a big malty backbone with enough hop bitterness to balance it out nicely. I’ve been holding onto this one for about seven months, and hopefully it has gained that much more complexity during its time in the cellar.
Although duck breasts are easy to cook, they are also a bit finicky in the sense that when overcooked, they turn rubbery and are just not very good. Also, they can be quite challenging on the BBQ, because all the fat renders off of them quickly, causing the BBQ to flare up like you are in some kind of bad comedy. I’m not kidding, be careful, and use indirect heat most of the time if you decide on the grill. The easiest way to cook a duck breast is using a pan and your oven. The great thing is, most people have both those things, and if you don’t, then I’m not sure why you are reading this, sell your computer and go buy an oven.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to keep it pretty simple – although It’s really more because I don’t really have any ingredients, and I’m trying to balance taking care of my son at the same time. So because I’m doing this on the fly (as usual), there will be no marinade or brine, although I do highly recommend either of these processes. There are plenty of ideas floating around online, so check it out. I have some asparagus as well; now we have a meal going! How paleo/Atkins of me. Okay, so the first thing you want to do it pat down the breast with some paper towels until it’s dry. Next you want to score the skin; the idea here is that by scoring it, the fat underneath the skin renders into the pan, which separates it from the meat, and provides a fatty base to basically deep fry the skin, making it crispy and sexy. To do so, take a very very sharp knife and cut the skin of the breast crosswise going in both directions – it should look like an argyle sweater when you’re done (take a look at the picture). It is very important that you don’t cut all the way down into the flesh! When that’s done, season it with some salt and pepper, or whatever else you want.
Now for the actual cooking part. Turn your pan to a medium high heat, and once it’s nice and hot, throw the breast in, skin side down. Do not add oil, you don’t need it, even with cast iron or other non-Teflon pans. Right away, you should hear sizzling, and you will begin to see the fat rendering and starting to pool under the breast – this is good. I’d say keep it there about seven minutes, give or take, but basically it’s ready to flip once the skin is a golden brown color and super crispy. If your breast is really thin – like an inch or so – then you really don’t need to bake it, you can just flip it and keep cooking for another few minutes. Remove it from the heat when it reaches an internal temperature of about 135 Fahrenheit; 140 max. If it’s a bigger breast, then when you flip it, place the pan in the oven at about 400 Fahrenheit; this presumes you have an oven-safe pan, if not, transfer it to a baking dish. Again, remove it from the heat when it reaches the temperature I stated above. Let it sit for about five minutes before cutting into it, as it needs to continue cooking.
While prepping I decided to crack open this beautiful beer and give it a taste. The nose is predominantly filled with aromas of toasted caramel, dark fruit, and some generally sweet malty goodness. I’m also getting a lot of zesty floral hops and a minimal, but still present, yeast profile. On the taste front I’m first hit with a caramel bomb; sweet, but not too much so, with a beautifully bitter hop-inspired finish that lingers until the next sip. It carries a citrusy grapefruit, almost zesty quality, which really sticks with you, resting on the back of your tongue. There is an awesome burnt taffy thing happening here. Also, I’m getting a star anise element, which is subtle, but gives a nice spice to the whole thing. The carbonation is spot on, and very effervescent, which helps with the richness of the beer. The alcohol is so well hidden, it’s brilliant, making for quite the easy drinkability given the 10% ABV. As I mentioned earlier, this one has been aged for about 6 months in the Beerism cellar, and it has certainly improved since my last tasting.
I’m keeping the meal pretty simple, essentially following the same directions listed earlier. However, I still wanted to give the dish a bit of depth. So while my cast iron pan is still very hot, I removed a bit of the fat, and added some freshly chopped sage, a bit of maple syrup, and some balsamic vinegar. The mixture began to sizzle and reduce immediately given that the pan was scorching. Once the mixture was substantially reduced, I threw in some previously steamed asparagus, let them slightly brown, and then removed everything from the heat. At that point, the duck had been resting for a few minutes, so I sliced it into pieces, topped it with the asparagus, some chives, and the maple balsamic glaze I threw together.
The duck turned out quite well, and the asparagus added a nice fresh crunchy texture, which balanced well against the richness of the meat. While sipping the beer, I noticed how much the sugars brought out the gamey flavors of the bird, which was quite nice. The pairing really worked, as this big and bold beer stood up perfectly against the heavy and robust meat. Duck can have a little of what I can only describe as a a “livery” type of flavor, which sounds like it could be a turn off, but it’s quite the a opposite; and in this case, the big toasted caramel essence of the beer really made this element of the bird fantastic. Going in the other direction, the duck really helped bring out some of the malty and fruity characters of this Barleywine. Strawberries, cherries and apples began to emerge, mixing well with the savory and sweet components of the dish.
Overall this pairing was a success, and although both the dish and the beer were on the rich side of things, neither were so much so that you couldn’t have this in the summer – but maybe not during a heat wave. As I stated earlier, this Vintage Ale comes out once and year and is pretty readily available for a few months afterwards. McAuslan is certainly not giving it away, however it’s worth every penny in my opinion. Go make a duck breast already!
An Article by Noah Forrest