“To begin cooking duck at one in the morning is one of the finest acts of madness that can be undertaken by a human being who is not mad.”
My mom's cousin owned a French- Vietnamese Bistro when I was a kid. Every Saturday evening after 5:00 PM church, we would make our way over there, to that somewhat janky strip mall in the outskirts of Little Saigon for dinner with my grandparents. My brother would always have steak frites, but my parents would perpetually stick to something more traditional like bun cha hanoi or bo luc lac. My sister and I would frequently share poulet au citron, or maybe a bowl of curry with a few loaves of Vietnamese baguettes.
Afterwards while my parents were having tea, we would run over next door, past the laundromat, to the liquor store at the end of the strip mall to have ice cream sandwiches for dessert. We'd sit there and eat under the restaurant's sign while my grandpa had his ritual after dinner cigarette. Those yellow Tollhouse ice cream wrappers, smudges of cookie dough on my fingers, and the lingering smell of nicotine in the air are hard things to forget.
It was one of those Saturday nights when I decided to break my usual streak of chicken curry and choose the unglanced at item in the bottom right corner of the menu: canard a l'orange. For a nine year old who looked forward to his Saturday ritual of sopping up curry with a baguette, it was a daring risk that paid off spectacularly. It was one of my earliest tastes of duck that didn't have the word peking attached to its name, and started my love affair for the fowl. With it's incredibly savory meat, crispy skin, and sweet, umami-laced sauce, Duck a l'Orange became one of those hallmark epiphany dishes - the one where you will always remember the first time you ever had it.
It's been a couple years since I've had canard a l'orange, mostly because: a) I don't live in Little Saigon anymore, and b) When was the last time you saw it on a menu? Either way, I've updated it a bit so it's more cleaner and less drenched in overly sweetened reduction, but also because despite its final appearance, this is so much less fussy to deal with. Just crisp up your duck breast, slice a few oranges and a fennel bulb, and in fifteen minutes you have dinner, hopefully to be followed up by a store bought ice cream sandwich.
MODERNIZED DUCK A L'ORANGE
for the fennel & orange salad
1 bulb of fennel, thinly sliced (save the fennel fronds)
a splash of white wine vinegar
a glug of extra virgin olive oil
2 duck breasts
2 bulbs of fennel, quartered into wedges
2 tablespoons of butter
mis en place: fennel & orange salad
Peel the orange with a knife, ensuring there is no pith remaining, and then cut the orange crosswise into slices. Save the orange peels. Toss the orange slices with the sliced fennel, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt to taste.
Using a very sharp knife, score the skin of the duck breasts at a 45 degree angle one direction, and then 45 degrees in the other direction so you end up with a crosshatch pattern. Be careful not to pierce the breast meat. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
Place the duck breasts skin side down in a cold pan. Turn the heat to medium low and allow the fat start rendering out and the skin to crisp. After five minutes, fat should begin rendering out: add the fennel wedges to the pan so they can start browning, along with the reserved orange peel.
Once the skin of the duck is beautifully bronzed, you can flip it over to the other side. Add the butter, and began basting the duck skin with orange scented butter for 2-3 minutes or until medium. Allow the duck to rest before slicing.
Arrange the fried fennel wedges on the plate, followed by slices of duck breast. Top with the fennel and orange salad, a sprinkle of sea salt, the reserved fronds, and a glug of extra virgin olive oil.