Monday, June 25, 2012

romantic dinner

I'm truly disappointed in how these photos came out, but this meal was just too special for me not to talk about it just because it was kind of a hot mess for the camera. This year, with Nathan back at school, we've kind of scaled back on our big special occasion dinners, and have made fancy meals at home rather than shelling out the big bucks at a restaurant. For Valentine's Day we made this duck breast with orange gastrique, aligot mashed potatoes, braised leeks and then a lightening-fast chocolate mousse for dessert.
I knew that I wanted to make a duck dish for the main course, and I ended up using a combination of two recipes. Nathan wasn't able to track down the cherries for this one, so while we did employ that pan-fried-then-roasted cooking technique, we switched out stone fruit for citrus and made duck with orange gastrique.

Before we could start, Nathan butchered the duck, because Whole Foods only carried the full bird.  Also, that boy never turns down the opportunity to hack away at a dead animal. I think he missed calling. Carving up a full duck is somewhat time consuming task, but totally doable. The rest of the recipe was fairly easy, and yielded beautiful, juicy, crispy duck cooked to a perfect medium temperature. My only warning for you would be not to overcook the sauce. 

The orange juice, zest, sugar and vinegar are supposed to cook down into a syrup, but it's very easy to over do it, like I did. I thought everything was great, a nice dark glaze, but when I poured the hot sauce over the duck, it cooled off and hardened up. It was tasty while it was hot, but the chewy texture was just terrible. So don't mess up that.

Duck Breast with Orange Gastrique
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Cooking School and Serious Eats

2 duck breasts  
1 orange, zest the skin and reserve the juice  
½ cup sugar  
½ cup red wine vinegar

Pre-heat the oven to 400˚. Score the duck skin and fat on top of the breast diagonally in crisscrossed lines, being careful not to cut into the meat.  Season the meat with salt and pepper. Set an oven-safe skillet over medium heat, and place the breast into the pan, skin side down. Cook for 10-12 minutes, letting the fat render off and the skin get crispy and golden brown. Don't move the duck around at all during this time, or you won't get as nice of a crust on the skin. Take the pan off the heat, and turn the duck breasts over so the bottom of the breasts are coated in the rendered duck fat. Pour the excess fat into a heat-proof container, and reserve for use later. Pro tip: duck fat is great with potatoes. 
Put the duck, skin-side-up in its original pan, in the oven and cook for 10 minutes. The internal temperature will be about 135°F. Let the duck breasts rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes before slicing. While the duck is in the oven, begin the gastrique. Heat sugar in a small pot over medium heat without stirring for 5 minutes, just swirling the pot slightly when the sugar is starting to melt. Once sugar is completely melted, caramelizing and turning brown, add vinegar and stir with a wooden spoon for 5 more minutes. Pour in orange juice and zest to simmer for a good 5 minutes until reduced to thick syrup.

Serve sauce over the sliced duck breast.

It may not be pretty, but tacky sauce aside, it was pretty great.

For the side dishes, I knew I was going to do a starch and a vegetable. I thought that mashed potatoes would go nicely with the duck and the sauce, and then I saw this recipe that included raclette cheese, which I've cooked with once before. While my first attempt at steak tartar was a flop, Nathan and I both loved the bubbly raclette cheese and potatoes, so I was quite excited to try another dish with those two ingredients.

If anything, these might have been even better. I don't know. They were certainly very rich, with the milk and cream and cheese, but if you can't eat something decadently caloric during a big romantic dinner, when can you? Or maybe normal women want to be ladylike and demure and not stuff their faces on a big night. I don't know; I don't even know how to curl my hair or walk in stilettos! Sometimes I feel like I missed "Being a Girl 101."

But regardless, these potatoes are bomb. There's a little garlic in there, which of course makes me happy, and they had a really great creamy texture. The only thing is that I should warn you that raclette might be a little stinky/funky when it is cold. The particular batch was fine both melted and at room temperature, but the first time I bought it, there was a very off-putting aroma and taste before the cheese was melted. Luckily, the funkiness totally mellowed after pass through the oven, so just try the stuff warm before you write it off. After all, that's how it's meant to be served.

Aligot Mashed Potatoes with Melted Raclette Cheese
adapted from Serious Eats

4 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced  
½ cup heavy cream  
¼ cup milk  
1 clove garlic, grated  
1 cup grated raclette  
Kosher salt  
Freshly ground black pepper

Cover the potatoes with cold water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, salt the water, and cook until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain.

Add the cream, milk, and garlic to the pot. Rice the potatoes into the mixture, and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add the cheese, salt, and pepper, and beat to combine. Serve.

It just so happened that one of the two duck recipes (the cherry sauce one) and the raclette potatoes were both from the same Serious Eats column, French in a Flash. It's definitely one of my favorite features on the site, full of easy, flavorful sounding French inspired dishes. So why not go three for three with French in a Flash's braised leeks with parsley
and lemon?

Leeks are one of my favorite vegetables, as they taste great with a minimum of gussying up. These get cooked on the stove top with just some white wine, chicken broth, butter, lemon olive and parsley. The leeks are tender and moist and the braising mellows the already relatively mild onion flavor nicely. This is an easy side dish that would complement any number of menus, and I'm pretty sure everyone would like it. A definite winner.

Braised Leeks with Parsley and Lemon 
adapted from Serious Eats

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving   
12 to 16 large leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed, split in half lengthwise   
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper   
½ cup dry white wine   
1 cup chicken broth   
2 tbsp unsalted butter   
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves   
2 tsp juice and 2 tsp zest from one lemon

Preheat oven to 325°F and adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add as many leeks as you can fit in a single layer cut side down. Cook, shaking occasionally until golden brown. Transfer cut-side up to a 13- by 9-inch baking dish. Repeat with remaining leeks until all leeks are browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add wine and broth. Dot with butter. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until leeks are completely tender and translucent, about 10 minutes longer.

Using a slotted spatula, carefully transfer leeks to a serving platter. Transfer pan juices to a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over high heat and cook until reduced to an emulsified sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in parsley, lemon juice, and lemon zest, season with salt and pepper, pour over leeks, and serve, drizzling with extra olive oil if desired.

For dessert, I knew Nathan would not be up for anything too involved after our big three course meal. I went with the simplest recipe I could find: the so-called best-chocolate-mousse-of-
your-life-under-5-minutes, a regular miracle dessert that promises to transform chocolate and water into a bonafide creamy, aerated mousse. I don't know if I would have believed it were it not for this video that demonstrates this bizarrely effective technique in near-real time. Chocolate is melted with water and then whisked vigorous over a bowl of ice water. Like magic, it thickens up into a mousse. I used an electric mixer and probably over did it just a bit, as it got a bit grainy, but it was still delicious chocolate mousse, served with freshly made whipped cream and just insanely easy to make. I would definitely try this one again.

Instant Chocolate Mousse (Chocolate Chantilly)
from Hervé This

9.35 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup water
4 tbsp sugar, optional

Place a large mixing bowl on top of another slightly smaller one, filled with ice and cold water (the bottom of the large bowl should touch the ice). Set aside.

Put chocolate and water (also sugar and/or liquor if you’re using) in a medium-sized pan and melt the chocolate over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Pour the melted chocolate into the mixing bowl sitting on top of ice and water, and start whisking with a wire whisk (or an electrical hand-held mixer) until thick. Watch the texture as you whip and make sure not to over-whip as it will make the mousse grainy. If the mousse becomes grainy (which is possible at your first try), transfer it back into the pan, reheat until half of it is melted, pour it back to the mixing bowl and whisk again briefly.

Divide into four serving cups and serve immediately.