war of the worlds 2 Print
Written by guest culinary writer, Chef David Stemmle   

Classic Food and Wine Pairings:
Pinot Noir + Duck Breast

stemmle_warI love duck. It has long been one of my very favorite things.  I love duck breast cooked just under medium with a nice crisp layer on that wonderful fat.  I love duck confit, duck stock, Chinese duck and scallion pancakes, and duck skin cracklins — it's all fantastic!  And while I'm professing love for things, how about pinot noir: I love the sweet and musty Carneros pinots, I love the amazing pinots coming from Oregon (I went to Willamette a few years back), and I have had my share of amazing earthy burgundy as well.  Though I don't consider myself a wine expert, I know enough to know how little I know, and this makes me eager to learn and appreciate.  So when I embarked on this exploration of classic food and wine pairings, I jumped on the duck and Pinot Noir idea and never looked back.

I headed down to my favorite wine shop once again to talk about my "duck noir" evening.  Once again we aimed for a war of the worlds — Old World vs. New World.  I find this to be a pretty compelling format for a food and wine tasting; the possibility that the Old World wine might blossom with the food makes for an incredible experience (if it works!), plus it's like each wine is playing for a team, so that keeps it exciting!  Here were the starting lineups: for the Old World, Domaine Tripoz, Bourgogne Rouge "Chant de la Tour", Burgundy, France 2007 (importer: T. Edward), and for the New World, Bodega de Anelo, Jelu Pinot Noir, Patagonia Argentina 2006 (importer: Wine Without Borders).

I had picked up some Bell and Evans Duck Breast at a local store (2 - 6oz breasts per pack, $9.99), so now I needed to figure out what to do with it.  I've had these before - they are very nice quality and very convenient.  I usually think in terms of a meat, a starch, a veg, and a sauce. I had my meat for sure, but what about the rest?  For veg, I turned to a head of broccoli in my fridge, and picked out some Israeli couscous in my pantry for the starch.  Next I turned to the sauce — it would have to play off the flavors in the wine somehow, so I started looking for some dried cherries.  Instead, I found some dried cranberries and thought they would make an interesting substitute.  I poured them into a pan with some olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and some sliced onions.  Once I had some color on the onions, I covered it all in red wine and cut the heat to a simmer.  I found some pine nuts to add to the couscous and broccoli, and started to toast them in a dry pan.  I began to worry about the couscous.  It tended to be pretty bland, so I grabbed some stock from my freezer and got it simmering in a sauce pan.  I trimmed the stem off the broccoli head so that only the florets remained.  Putting the florets aside, I diced the stem pretty small and added it to the stock with a little salt.  Once that had boiled for about 10 minutes, I threw it in the blender and strained it back into the pan to use as the cooking liquid for the couscous.  (Ha.  This kind of idea gets me excited.  It takes advantage of a tougher and less-desirable-but-still-pretty-tasty part of the broccoli, adds a bunch of flavor and nutrition, and cuts back on waste.)  Then I seasoned and scored the fat on the duck breast and tossed it in a hot pan — fat side down.  POP!

I smelled and tasted the first wine, the Bourgogne Rouge.  I thought it was nice — cherry, earthy, about what I expected.  We picked up on some cloves and sour cherriness.  My friends agreed on some pruney flavors, but were otherwise split on their overall assessments.  We had one lover and one hater, so the average score worked out to 5.5 (out of 10).  The Jelu on the other hand managed a 7.75 with its fuller body, spiciness, and almost "light shiraz" style.  We started to talk about "Christmas cookie spices" and its silky finish.  What a fun wine to sip!  Break was over, back to the food.

I added my couscous to the simmering broccoli-stock, and tossed the broccoli florets in a few minutes later.  I flipped the duck.  Next I checked on my sauce — it had reduced nicely, so I pureed it and gave it a taste.  A little more salt, a squeeze of lemon, but it still needed something: some fat.  I thought about my options; cream or butter didn't seem quite right for some reason.  So I took a chance — I found some Boursin cheese (a spreadable garlic-herb cheese) in my fridge and I went for it.  Into the pan and stirred until smooth, it left the sauce a little lighter in color, creamier in body, with a hint of garlic and herbs.  I pulled my duck out to let it rest and got my plates ready.

It had finally come together: Seared duck breast with broccoli-pine nut Israeli cousous, and a cranberry-Boursin red wine sauce.  We poured the wine and sat down to dig in.  Mmmm duck.  The skin had that crispiness I love, and the meat was tasty, tender, and moist.  The sauce (which I was most worried about) turned out pretty well: thick and rich with an intense fruit presence that cut the richness of the cheese.  Unconventional yes, but not unsuccessful.  We all loved the toasted pine nuts in the couscous — they played off the cranberry flavor nicely and made the dish reminiscent of a Morroccan couscous.  This was a relatively simple and satisfying dish that should leave plenty of room for the wine to shine.

First we had the Bourgogne Rouge.  It was a huge hit — people said it made the food "pop out," that it was refreshing and "cleansed your palate after each bite of the meal."  Any pre-meal complaints seemed to vanish down the hatch - score: 8.  Next up was the Jelu.  The comments were mostly favorable. It was clearly a "bigger" wine, so it did compete with the food a little.  And one taster thought it was too peppery for the meal. I  was the only one who liked it during the meal as much as before the meal.  I thought it was particularly nice with the Boursin in the sauce and with the pinenuts.  I thought it was less acidic (than the Bourgogne Rouge), but that the fruit was forward enough without distracting from the food.  The spiciness of the wine was great with the duck and cranberry — it reminded me of Chinese Five Spice.  In the end, the Jelu lost points - down to a 5.75.

In the points roundup, the Domaine Tripoz Bourgogne Rouge ended up with 13.5 total points, while the Bodega de Anelo "Jelu" Pinot Noir came in at...13.5!  I need to come up with a tie breaking system!  And... done.  The Jelu costs $3 less at 16.99 that the Bourgogne Rouge at 19.99 (both for sale online at my favorite wine shop, Wine Authorities).  Price notwithstanding, the tie is a testament to the overall quality of both of these wines.  The Bourgogne Rouge won the most improved award for this round, while the Jelu would take the best overall performance.  The first rule of food and wine pairing is to eat what you like and drink what you like, so for your sake, I hope you like duck and pinot noir as much as I do!

Recipe (serves four)

Cranberry-Boursin-Red Wine Sauce

  • ½ large white onion
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • ground pepper
  • 2 cups dry red wine
  • 2 oz Boursin cheese

Add onions, cranberries, and garlic to a hot pan with a little olive oil, sauté until some color develops, then cover with the wine and reduce to a simmer for about 15 minutes.  Puree and strain back into the pan.  Whisk in cheese and dilute with water or stock to desired consistency.

Duck: 4 6oz duck breasts

Score, season and sear to your desired internal temperature. Start it with a touch of oil just to get it going. I start it fat side down and try to get a nice brown on the skin. Most chefs will cook duck breast medium rare - I like it a little closer to medium, just to get it warm in the middle. Feel free to baste the rendering fat over the top as it cooks.

Couscous with Broccoli and Pine Nuts

  • 1 head of broccoli
  • 2 cups stock (any kind you have)
  • 1 1/3 cup Israeli couscous
  • ½ cup pine nuts

Trim the end and tough skin from the end of the broccoli stalk, then cut off the florets and chop them pretty small.  Dice the stem and add it to a sauce pan with the stock, simmer until soft (about 10 minutes), then puree.  (Check the package of couscous and do it their way, but this is what I did.)  Strain liquid back into the pot and add the couscous and some salt to taste.  Seasoning the liquid now ensures that the couscous will be seasoned consistently as the salt water is absorbed into it - the same idea applies to potatoes and pasta.  Cook at a simmer with the lid mostly on for about 12 minutes, adding the broccoli florets halfway through - they will steam on top.  Toast the pine nuts in a dry sautee pan, and be careful not to burn them.  It takes a while to go from white to brown, but it goes from brown to black in no time!  When the cousous and broccoli are done, toss in the pinenuts and check for seasoning.  A squeeze of lemon and a splash of xvoo wouldn't be bad here either.