One thing I need to work on in the kitchen is keeping an even keel when things don’t go well. As D. can testify, it doesn’t take much to put me off my game; mistakes haunt me and leave me in a deep funk until well after the plates have cleared.
And I’m not even talking about big time, “Omigod, dinner is ruined!” failures, but small, often correctable errors, like accidentally doubling the amount of bacon in my bologenese sauce (sure, it was fatty and overpoweringly bacon-y, but really: who doesn’t like bacon?) My reaction to these is usually completely out of proportion to the size of the error with kitchen implements hurled into the sink and long strings of cuss words hurled into the air.
The problem is, when you try new recipes or techniques, the chances of a screw up and corresponding meltdown are that much greater. So, if I want to get better, I better learn to put the occasional failure or near-miss into perspective and basically chill the hell out. That, or avoid failure by sticking with what I know and just spend the rest of my life in a deep, smooth rut.
A recent example here. The dish: duck breast with orange gastrique. The challenge: making the caramel base for the gastrique. I get real nervous when sugar is on the stove, knowing full well how quickly it can burn, so I was filled with trepidation when I started melting the sugar, but detected the telltale smell of char, even though it remained a deep amber colour with no signs of burning. Cue the panic. I pulled the sugar off the heat and called D. over for her opinion. She decided to forge ahead, while I raged in the background. The few moments the sugar was off the heat caused it to solidify, so D. was forced to spend the next several minutes scraping and stirring to get the now crystallized sugar to dissolve into the stock. In the end, the sugar was unburned, the sauce drizzled over perfectly pink slices of duck. It was short of the thick syrup I had hoped for, but delicious all the same. Next time, I'll either use a candy thermometer or do it all in a double broiler.
Duck Breast with Orange Gastrique adapted from Martha Stewart's Cooking School
- 1 large duck breast
- coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 orange, zest of one half sliced into julienne, both halves juiced
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup best quality red wine vinegar
Bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the orange zest and simmer for two minutes, then drain and set aside.
Score the skin of the duck in a cross hatch patter, cutting into the fat, but avoiding the flesh.Season both sides with salt and pepper and place skin-side down in pan on medium-low heat until pool of fat forms. Turn breast over and cook other side for one minute, then turn back over. Pour off fat and reserve for another day. Continue cooking duck until skin is browned and crisp, spooning off excess fat as you go. Turn duck so the skin side is up. Now start your gastrique while the duck cooks for another 8-10 minutes.
Heat sugar in a medium sauce pan over medium heat without stirring until melted and uniformly amber. Swirl the pan around to ensure the sugar caramelizes evenly, about five minutes more.Add the vinegar and combine with a wooden spoon, then continue simmering for 5 minutes more, until reduced.
Quick! Check the duck. It should be medium rare (the internal temperature should be between 125F and 130F). Transfer to wire rack to cool.
Add orange juice and zest to your sauce and simmer until reduced to a thick syrup, about 5 minutes longer.
Slice duck crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices, and drizzle with sauce before serving.