The weather has been quite wintry since mid-July, when Maggie and I returned to Melbourne from our travels in North America. Even when the clouds have cleared to let some sunshine in, cold winds have made it feel bleaker than it looks.
So, for the last seven weeks, all of our meals have been prepared and consumed indoors. And, in the main, we have reprised some of our favourite cold-weather dishes. Think boeuf bourguignon, chicken cacciatore, beef goulash, spicy pork steaks, corned beef, spag bol, cauliflower & mushroom lasagne, homemade burgers, steamed mussels, minestrone, braised duck marylands, roast quail, fish curry and veal osso buco.
However, we have made room for three new recipes, one inspired by some belt-tightening, the other two by our local supermarket introducing a regular bargain-priced offering of good quality duck breasts and whole quail.
The belt-tightening – a rehearsal for living on a modest, fixed income one year soon – has lead us to use cheaper cuts of beef more often, assigning the more expensive cuts to special occasion dining. Taking advantage of ‘specials’, we have produced enough food to provide us with six dinners each using less than $25 of what is known here as gravy beef; some of you might know it as ‘shin’ beef.
We use this cut to produce both boeuf bourguignon and beef goulash. However, keen to expand our repertoire of cheap-but-tasty meals, we went looking for a third option. The one we found most appealing was located by Googling ‘how to cook the perfect beef casserole or stew’. This took me to one in the regular series of ‘how to cook perfect …’, published in the British newspaper The Guardian. (My good friend Bill introduced me to this column last year and I have gone to it several times since.)
You can read the beef stew column here. It worked well enough but the flavours and textures fell just a little short of what we experience with our two established faves. Still, we might give it another try next year, after we return to yet another local winter from northern hemisphere travels (Scotland and Norway, more news of that another time).
The novelty of nearby access to fresh quail prompted another search. This time, I found something on the Australian recipe website taste.com, for a dish called hunter-style-quail. (That would be quaglia cacciatore in Italy.) The recipe worked well enough but, when we make a second attempt, we will delete the red-wine vinegar – it served no purpose and made the sauce so astringent that we needed to go to some lengths in order to rescue it.
The third new recipe took advantage of the local supply of duck breast. Again, we found it on the taste.com website, one of more than 50 recipes featuring duck breast. Only a few of these recipes appealed as a source of winter comfort and this one struck a chord for us with orange and fennel in the mix of ingredients.
We began to modify the recipe from the outset, made further changes before our second attempt and have tweaked it yet again to settle on the recipe below.
We served it on a bed of basmati rice and mixed quinoa (two parts to one), with the salad as a side dish. The slightly untidy look of the sauce on top of the duck meat is due to the fact that we choose not to strain the fibre out of our hand-squeezed orange juice.
3-4 tsp fennel seeds
4 tsp cumin seeds
generous pinch of chilli flakes
3-4 tsp whole black peppercorns
2 tsp salt flakes
2 duck breasts
120ml fresh orange juice
120ml dry red wine
150ml chicken stock
2 tsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2-3 tsp caster sugar
1-2 whole star anise
1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced
1 small or 1/2 a large flavoursome orange, peeled and cut into small segments (remove as much pith and membranous material as you can)
- Place the spices in a small non-stick pan over low heat for 2 minutes. Transfer spices to a mortar and pestle with the salt and crush, then grind to a fine powder. This will produce enough powder for for six duck breasts.
- Score the skin of the duck breasts in a diagonal criss-cross pattern (see below).
- Using one-third of the spice powder, rub it into the skin and flesh of the duck breasts. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. Remove from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking.
- Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat, place the breasts in the pan skin-side down and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook for a further 2 minutes. Turn again and cook on the skin side for 2 more minutes. Remove pan from heat and transfer breasts to a warm plate.
- Remove all but 15-20ml of the rendered duck fat from the pan; try to scrape out as much of the gritty spice residue as possible. Return pan to heat, add orange juice, wine, stock, vinegar, star anise and caster sugar to the pan, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced by at least half, to produce a thickish syrup (12-15 minutes). Adjust seasoning, especially salt.
- Return the duck breasts to the pan and cook gently for 4-6 minutes, until cooked to your liking. Cut breasts into slices, serve on warmed plates and spoon the sauce over the meat.
- Meanwhile, make the salad by scattering the fennel across the base of a dish, add the pieces of orange and spoon some vinaigrette dressing over the top (see photo below).