Dear Vox, I have a confession to make. I have been dating the most wonderful person for the past year and a half. He has been my best friend for the past 6 years, and he makes me happy like nobody else can. They say you can't possibly know that you've found the one when your eyes first meet. And I can't pretend to be quite that astute. But I will never forget the way my heart skipped a beat in my chest the day I first met him more than 6 years ago. What happened over the next several years is probably a story fit for a romantic comedy screenplay, and one that I'll spare you the details of for now, but we found ourselves together just before I started medical school, and since that day I will never again doubt the voodoo they call true chemistry.
I am immensely lucky to have found a man who not only shares my sense of humor and cherishes my strengths and vulnerabilities, but also a man who encourages my passion for baking and cooking. Perhaps he is quite familiar with that glimmer of joy in my eyes that only a few things in my life can bring out in me. Our first official date was, as I'll always fondly recall, a candlelight dinner that we made together. Juicy pan-seared scallops over a bed of risotto and vegetables, followed by strawberry cream puffs. Whether it was the sentiment or the food that made that night special, it will always remind me of how content I felt to be spending that evening with him. Since then, we have celebrated several special occasions by planning out nice dinners to make together. There's something so wonderful about being able to work side by side in the kitchen to create a special dish together. Sure, we haven't yet quite mastered the skill of keeping our finished dishes warm while we put on the finishing touches of these dinner dates, which includes slipping into nice clothes, breaking out special beverages, and taking pictures, of course, to remind us of our accomplishments. But therein lies the magic of food that you've spent the time and effort to make, even more so when you've done it together with the one you love. No matter how your dishes turn out, they still taste amazing. This effect is further magnified by the fact that I see him only once every few months, as we have been in a long distance relationship since the day we began dating. They always said, food is a powerful aphrodisiac after all!
Our most recent dinner date was to celebrate our one and a half years together (that's 18 months), since I happened to be visiting him for Thanksgiving at the same time. We agreed to tackle the quintessential French dish Duck L'Orange for this dinner, and poured over a handful of recipes before deciding on one that seemed to work with the ingredients we had on hand yet still sounded similar to some of the other more complicated recipes. Looking back on our kitchen escapades, I realize that we rarely ever follow recipes down to a T, and this duck l'orange was no exception. We did not have access to duck breast, so we substituted with duck legs instead. A lack of sherry vinegar was remedied with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and red wine. This improvisational cooking brings an excitment paired with perhaps nervousness, but I like to think that it makes our food that much more personal :)
This recipe does a wonderful job with perhaps the most important part of duck l'orange, the orange sauce itself. I was initially skeptical about the process, and how so few flavors could be blended together to make a complex flavor (sugar, sherry vinegar, chicken stock, and orange), but after the first sip I was sold! This sauce is simply wonderful, with just the right balance of sweet, sour, and and salty to complement the duck meat. The one thing I would change the next time I make this recipe (and I really think it would be a great recipe for guests because it looks and tastes to elegant when it is really not very difficult to make), is that I would definitely go with duck breasts instead of the duck legs. Duck legs are deceptively difficult to cook thoroughly when you are simply pan-searing them. We had to sear them on all sides and finish them off with a stint in the oven, after which point we discovered that parts of the duck were overcooked while other parts were perfectly done medium-rare. So, make things easy for yourself and go with duck breasts! I did make several stylistic changes to the recipe, but its proportions are maintained. It is fancy fare made absolutely accessible to the casual cook, and it made for a lovely dinner date that I'll never forget.
Duck L'Orange (serves 2) Recipe adapted from About.com
1/8 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp water
1/2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tbsp red wine
3/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tbsp onion, minced
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 large orange, sections cut from membranes
2 duck legs, seasoned with salt and pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp orange zest, plus more for garnish
chopped green onions or chives for garnish
1. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepot. Boil on high heat for several minutes, until the syrup
caramelizes and turns a golden brown color. (I have to admit I had trouble with this step because my saucepot was a bit big, so the water kept boiling off and leaving me with sugar crystals. Use a small saucepot or double the amounts of sugar and water and simply just use half the syrup for the sauce). I ended up just using my syrup that had not caramelized, having only turned a light tinge of yellow, and it came out just fine.
2. Add the vinegar, wine, orange juice and onions. The liquid will bubble vigorously at first. Stir well and boil until 1/4 cup of liquid remains.
3. Add chicken stock and boil until the sauce is reduced to 1/3 cup volume. Remove from heat and stir in orange zest. Set aside until just before serving. This sauce can be made ahead of time. When it is ready to be served, add butter and warm up on medium heat, stirring to melt and incorporate butter. Gently stir in orange segments.
4. Meanwhile, prepare duck legs for cooking. Score duck skin with a knife just through the skin layer. Season with salt and pepper. Over high heat in a very lightly oiled skillet, sear the duck legs about 10 minutes on each side, rotating as needed to obtain an evenly cooked leg. If needed, finish cooking duck in a 350 degree oven to prevent outside from over-cooking.
5. Rest duck legs for 10 minutes on a cutting board, then slice through meat before plating. Drizzle with warmed sauce and garnish with extra orange zest and green onions. Reserve remaining sauce in a sauce terrine on the side to use as needed.
We paired the duck l'orange with sauteed green beans and some garlic mashed potatoes with roasted onions and red peppers. The sides went nicely with the duck, and the potatoes did not need any gravy owing to its own flavor from the chicken stock I added and some of the duck drippings from the skillet. Mmmm. And I really couldn't get enough of the orange sauce, the flavors came together nicely and the orange zest imparted a sophisticated touch that was just right. At first taste it might seem like the sauce is a bit reminiscent of sweet and sour sauce, but the flavors are really more rich than that. The night was just perfect as I relished the dish slowly over the candlelight and wonderful company :)