We like to have a few recipes tucked away for special occasions. Meals that are foolproof, crowd-pleasing, and not too difficult — but still a little more demanding (and impressive) than our usual weeknight fare. This set of recipes from David Leite's new Portugese cookbook makes exactly that kind of meal: special, extra-delicious comfort food.
Duck is not inexpensive; we bought eight duck breasts for a recent special-occasion dinner party and they ran us a pretty penny. But it's worth it, once in a while, to get something so delicious. Duck is also generally better raised than, say, an expensive steak.
These recipes are wonderful tastes of Portugal, too; as Leite says below, they give much of that very intense restaurant-style flavor without really too much work.
Be sure to render off the duck fat; we didn't get it quite as crispy and melted away as we would have liked, especially on the breast we saved for these photos. It's quite unpleasantly chewy if the main reserve of fat isn't well melted away and crisped on the final layer. But if you can get it to that point, duck breast is one of the great pleasures of the poultry world. It's tender and red-fleshed, like steak, but with a rich yet delicate flavor. The sauce in the duck dish has immense flavor, too; it marries well with the risotto.
The risotto, on the other hand, was a little milder than we expected; we ended up including a few spoonfuls of the olive brine to kick in a little extra olive flavor. But it was a delicious risotto, still — creamy and tender. Together, the duck and risotto make a wonderfully grown-up meal, and so comfortingly delicious.
Duck Breasts with Black Olives
Peitos de pato com azeitonas pretas
serves 4 to 6
This version of the Portugese classic is an utter 180-degree departure, yet it has all the spot-on flavors of the original. I wanted to get to the heart of the dish — duck, black olives, a wickedly good sauce — without having to go through the tedious process of boning, braising, and then carving a whole duck. Instead, plump breasts are seared to a perfect medium-rare in minute, and the sauce is whipped up on the stovetop in even less time.
4 ounces (about 3 slices) thick-sliced slab bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide pieces
One 1/8-inch thick slice presunto, serrano ham, or prosciutto, cut into 1/8-inch cubes
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 cup chicken stock or low-sodium store-bought broth
2/3 cup tawny port or medium-dry Madeira
3/4 to 1 cup oil-cured black olives, to taste, pitted, halved, and rinsed
4 boneless moulard duck breast halves (about 3 pounds total)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the fat begins to render, about 6 minutes. Add the presunto and garlic and sizzle until the garlic is golden brown and the meaty bits start to crisp, about 6 minutes more. Stir in the rosemary and thyme, pour in the stock and port, and bring to a boil. Cook for a minute, then add the olives and remove the pan from the heat.
2. With a razor-sharp knife, score the skin of the duck breasts in a crosshatch pattern, being mindful not to cut into the flesh. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat a large dry skillet over medium-low heat. Add the breasts skin side down and sear until crisp, allowing the fat to render slowly, 10 to 15 minutes. Don't rush this — the last thing you want is a mouthful of chewy fat. Flip and sear the other side for 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring the sauce back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Nestle in the breasts, skin side up, and cook for 4 to 6 minutes for medium-rare, 135°F on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer the duck to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes.
4. Slice the breasts on an angle, arrange on plates, and spoon the sauce and olives on top. Devour immediately.
Black Olive Risotto
Rizoto de azeitonas pretas
serves 4 to 6 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a starter
My friend restaurateur Migual Júdice gave me this recipe. Well, not exactly. It was part of a vastly complicated, utterly delicious dish from one of his restaurants that I knew would be impossible to cook at home. So I deconstructed it, tossed out some elements that were definitely not Portugese, and kept the rest. What I like about this, besides its being a snap to make, is that it's a poster child for Portugal's new generation of cooks and cooking: it honors the country but looks beyond its borders. Olives and Carolino rice, both grown in Portugal, are two traditional staples that play nicely against the Italian cheeses.
8 cups chicken stock or store-bought low-sodium broth
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 cups Carolino, Carnaroli, or Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus curls for garnish
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup pitted oil-cured black olives, rinsed if overly salty, thinly sliced lengthwise, plus more for garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1. Pour the stock into a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Stir in the rice to coat, and cook until translucent around the edges, about 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and continue cooking until it has been absorbed. Add a ladleful of hot stock to the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid has almost burbled away. Keep up this rhythm of adding stock, stirring, and cooking until the rice slumps gently when mounded and is tender but offers just the slightest bit of resistance in the middle, 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Stir in a final ladleful of stock, the cheeses, and sliced olives and mix until well combined and very creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. To serve, dollop the risotto into warm soup bowls and garnish each one with a few olive slices, curls of cheese, and a sprinkle of parsley. Take to the table immediately.
— Reprinted from The New Portugese Table, by David Leite (Clarkson Potter, 2009)
• Read our cookbook review: The New Portugese Table by David Leite
(Images: Faith Durand)