Duck Tales: My Very First Cook-Off

I have fallen deeply, madly in love with duck. It might just be my second favorite protein, behind lamb, so I’m always looking for new duck recipes. Several months ago, I came across a recipe for Duck Breasts with Fennel and Rosemary. The description said that the duck is prepared in the style of porchettaroasted suckling pig highly seasoned with aromatic herbs and garlic. The recipe was solid, but not spectacular: good enough to hold onto until I had time to tweak it.

Then, last month, I received an email from Food Systems Network NYC announcing their 3rd Annual Duck-Off at Jimmy’s No. 43. A duck cook-off! I’ve never participated in a cook-off before, but Hudson Valley Duck Farm was donating the duck, so I was in! I decided to revisit the duck porchetta recipe, figuring that it was simple enough to scale up the recipe for a large crowd, and it was the perfect opportunity to finally play around and perfect it.

The first (and best) porchetta I’ve ever tasted was at Sara Jenkins’ shop, Porchetta, so I decided to begin experimenting with her recipe, which you can find on the shop’s website. This meant I had to procure fennel pollen. FENNEL POLLEN! This is a key ingredient to the porchetta herb mixture, as Chef Jenkins explains on her website:

the wild fennel pollen: comes from the small dried petals and pollen of the wild fennel flower which grows everywhere in the Mediterranean. This powerful flavor is so closely connected to Porchetta in Italy that other meats using fennel pollen are said to be Porchetta style.

Okay, this was already getting interesting. After some snooping on the internet, I decided to order the fennel pollen directly from Pollen Ranch. And then I had to wait a few days.

Fennel pollen acquired, I made a small batch of duck breast following Jenkins’ herb-mix recipe exactly. It was good, but duck has a gamier flavor than pork, so I needed to play around with it a bit. I decided I needed more garlic and the sweet, citrusy flavor of orange zest. Also, I decided to season the meat directly with salt and pepper, rather than adding those ingredients to the rub. Et voilà! After just a couple of small tweaks, I had my recipe. I decided to serve the duck simply — an open-faced sandwich on ciabatta bread, similarly to how Ms. Jenkins serves her porchetta sandwiches. The meat is flavorful enough that you really don’t need much more to accompany it. Besides, this competition was all about the duck.

I had eighteen pounds of duck breast to prepare! So, I seasoned and tied all 18 breasts together the night before the cook-off and let them sit in the fridge overnight. I’d never let the breasts marinate so long before cooking them, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. In fact, I think it only improved the outcome because . . .

I ended up winning 2nd Place — People’s Choice! I won a very nifty Wüsthof knife, and I may be hooked on this cook-off lifestyle. The whole experience was a lot of fun and I met some great cooks and duck enthusiasts. For a list of all the winners, click here.

Big thanks to FSNYC, Hudson Valley Duck, and Jimmy’s No. 43 for such a fun experience! And a special thank you to Sara Jenkins for inspiring my prize-winning recipe!

Now, without further ado, here’s the recipe for my prize-winning Duck Breasts “Porchettata”.

Roasted Duck Breasts “Porchettata”
Adapted from Sara Jenkins’ Porchetta recipe
Serves 8

4 boneless duck breast halves (approximately 4 pounds, total)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
20 fresh sage leaves
3 leafy sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
3 leafy sprigs rosemary, stemmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fennel pollen*
zest from half an orange, grated

Heat oven to 400ºF.

Pat duck breasts dry, and with a sharp knife score skin in a one-inch crosshatch pattern (be careful not to cut into the meat). Place duck breasts, skin side down, on work surface and season generously with salt and pepper.

Finely chop sage, thyme, rosemary, and garlic together (you can do this in a food processor or by hand). Place the mixture in a small bowl and add fennel pollen and orange zest. Mix well.

Press the herb mixture over duck breast meat. Place one breast atop another, meaty sides together. Tie breasts together with kitchen twine so that you have 2 duck breast bundles.

Place tied duck breasts in a 12-inch, heavy-bottomed ovenproof skillet. Place skillet (with the duck breasts in it) on the stovetop over medium heat. Cook until well browned on all sides, turning occasionally, about 10-15 minutes. Discard fat from skillet. Transfer skillet with duck to oven. Roast about 25 minutes, flipping the breasts midway through cooking. Transfer duck to cutting board and let rest 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour pan drippings into glass measuring cup. Spoon fat off top. Remove string and cut each breast into half-inch slices. Drizzle any pan juices over and serve immediately.

*Fennel pollen is available at Kalustyan’s,,, and select specialty food stores.


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