These crisp-skinned, pan-fried duck breasts have an umami-packed meatiness that’s boosted by a fiery, caramelly, and citrusy marinade of Thai chilies, palm sugar, tamarind, and rice wine. Our crispy duck is served with bright, al dente vegetables, along with a grapefruit-and-soy sauce that’s hot, tangy, and salty-sweet.
Duck has been wonderfully paired with citrus-based sauces for several centuries. Oranges are the most famous partner, with their slightly tart, cutting sweetness acting as a counterweight to the fat richness of the full-flavored duck.
In terms of its taste and texture, duck breast is so full-flavored and finely grained that it shares far more similarities with aged filet steak than it does with the most popular poultry of them all, chicken.
That means duck can happily be partnered with other, strong, lavish tastes without losing its own wonderfully distinct character. And that’s the boldly flavored route we’re taking with our crispy duck’s marinade, and for the vegetables’ big-hitting sauce.
Big flavors: the marinade and the sauce
Clear rice wine and palm sugar accentuate the impact of our marinade’s star ingredient, tamarind. Famed for the potency of its super-sharp, citrus kick, tamarind paste ticks all the right boxes as a fruity, ultra-tart buddy for duck.
Tamarind’s astringency is another grand foil to the succulent fattiness of the breasts’ skin, and that zesty bite is emphasized by the rice wine’s hard-liquor hit.
Heading in the opposite direction entirely, there’s the palm sugar with its honeyed, rounded, smoky-caramel savor. If the tamarind and rice wine hit all the high notes, then the palm sugar pulls in a resonant, steadying bass line that underscores the buttery nuttiness of the breasts’ meat.
And this theme of big, contrasting tastes continues with the hot, tangy, and salty-sweet sauce. Its immediately obvious heat comes from fresh, thinly sliced, red and green Thai bird’s eye chilies. These are simply sprinkled over a mix of ponzu sauce and roughly chopped segments of fresh grapefruit.
Ponzu? Yep. It’s a staple condiment, dip, and dressing in Japan. It’s described on one of the widely available, big-brand bottles as a seasoned Japanese soy sauce, accented with citrus for the perfect balance of salty, tangy, and sweet.
Looking beyond the label’s sales spiel, ponzu is gorgeously moreish with an upfront, citrus-and-ocean-briny tang, and a lingering glow of soy-like umami. Combine those attributes with the Thai chilies’ sudden heat and the intensely fruity, gentle tartness of the grapefruit, and you have a sauce that highlights the variety of fresh, earthy flavors in your vegetable stir fry.
The vibrant, stir-fried vegetables
Here we have a multi-colored collection of widely differing tastes and textures.
As with so many Asian-style stir-fries, it begins with the trinity of grated garlic, fresh ginger, and slices of scallions (or spring onions.)
Once that trio’s been very rapidly fried in a big, very hot skillet, it’s joined by chunky squares of red and yellow bell peppers, sliced green beans, whole mangetout (or snap peas), halved baby corn, bean sprouts, and sliced shiitake mushrooms.
Now, I don’t want to elevate those full-bodied, high-flavor mushrooms above the standing of their companions, but I will stress how superb they are with the duck. That doesn’t take anything away from our stir-fry’s other elements, which all keep their own identities thanks to being cooked seriously hot-and-fast. accentuate
And it’s this combination-key of high heat and speed that unlocks the whole appeal of this dish. Just like those grand mushrooms, the peppers, beans, corn, mangetout, and sprouts all have an al dente freshness that pinpoints their individuality.
A few words about the duck
As a nation, the Chinese eat more duck than anyone else. And it seems France comes next on the duck-loving list. So, if you’re a fan of those countries’ cuisine, it perhaps makes a great deal of tasteful sense to cook more duck.
It might be considerably more expensive than chicken, but there’s an upside here. A little goes a long way. For example, an average size, boneless, skin-on breast typically comes in at about eight ounces, and since duck is so satisfyingly rich, that’s ample for one person.
As for choosing your duck, skin-on is absolutely the way to go. The fatty skin is an essential component in the complex taste of duck. And the fat’s also crucial in the cooking process. As it melts in the pan, it becomes the only fat in which the breasts are slowly fried to a medium rare, slightly pinkish finish inside, with a lovely, crisp-skinned outside.
Quite unlike the vegetables, the duck is cooked much more slowly over gradually increasing heat. To begin, the marinated breasts cook skin-side down in a dry pan over low heat for eight or so minutes until most of their fat has melted into the pan. The heat is then raised to medium-high to add more crispness to the skin and to finish frying the breasts on their other side.
Cooking the breasts so that they have nicely crisped skin and wonderfully tender, medium rare meat really is very simple. A little watchful care and patience are way more important than any special skill, and you’ll find the rewards are well worth a little attentive effort.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
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- Tequila Marinated Steaks With Patatas Bravas: These steaks are made by its rich sauce and bold, fiery potatoes along side it.
- Sicilian Tuna Steaks In Spicy Sauce: Plenty of Mediterranean spices here.
Explore the Scoville scale through our Up The Scale spice set, featuring medium heat jalapeño, extra-hot habanero, and fiery super-hot ghost powders.
Crispy Duck With Stir-Fried Vegetables And Spicy Fruit Sauce
For the duck
- 4 skin-on boneless duck breasts The breasts I used each weighed about 8 ounces. And frozen breasts are just fine if you can’t find fresh ones.
- 2 teaspoons ground sea salt for seasoning the duck breasts just before you fry them
For the duck’s marinade
- 1 Thai bird’s eye chili fresh and red, finely chopped (seeds and all.) The one I used was about 2 inches long.
- 1 heaped teaspoon tamarind paste diluted in 1 tablespoon boiling water
- 2 heaped tablespoons palm sugar finely crushed. I use the ‘rock’ variety that comes in domes about 2 inches across I reckon 1 dome equals a tablespoon and use a pestle and mortar to crush the domes
- 2 tablespoons clear rice wine The clear variety is often tagged as something like ‘Chinese cooking wine’ and has more of a raw-alcohol bite than the more refined, sweeter, and more expensive Shaoxing rice wine.
For the sauce
- 2 Thai bird’s eye chili fresh, one red and one green chili, each about 2 inches long – sliced into 1/8-inch disks, seeds and all
- 4 tablespoons ponzu sauce This goes well with so many other savory dishes that it’s definitely worth seeking out.
- 1 grapefruit all the juice and roughly chopped flesh from the fruit. Canned segments will be dandy if you can’t find a fresh grapefruit.
For the stir-fried vegetables
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 1 heaped tablespoon fresh ginger root finely grated, skin and all
- 6 scallions or spring onions, cut into 1/3-inch disks. Use all the white parts and all the fresh, crisp, green leaves.
- 8 ounces mangetout or snap peas. Topped, tailed, and with the strings pulled out. Look for ones that are around 3 inches long because bigger ones tend to be tougher.
- 8 ounces baby corn halved through the middle
- 8 ounces green beans topped, tailed and cut into 2-inch lengths
- 1 red bell pepper deseeded and cut into roughish 1-inch square pieces
- 1 yellow bell pepper deseeded and cut into roughish 1-inch square pieces
- 12 dried shiitake mushrooms medium-sized, stalks and all, soaked for 30 minutes in 4 tablespoons boiling water, then cut into ¼-inch slices
- 5 ounces bean sprouts left whole
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 2 tablespoons reserved duck fat kept in the skillet used for frying the duck breasts
Making the sauce
- In a pretty serving bowl that’s large enough to hold all the sauce’s ingredients, stir together the ponzu sauce, roughly chopped grapefruit, and all its juice.
- Sprinkle the sliced red and green Thai chilies over the top and set aside. Done. You can stir in the chilies, but I think the sauce looks and tastes better if the chills sort of ‘float’ on top of the sauce.
Marinating and prepping the duck breasts
- To make the marinade, stir together the tamarind baste and boiling water in a small mixing bowl. The paste will probably take a few minutes’ thorough stirring for it to dissolve completely in the water.
- Once that happens, stir in the rice wine and ground palm sugar. That’s it, your marinade’s ready. Time now to prep the duck breasts so they’rer ready for marinating and cooking.
- To prep the duck breasts, use a sharp knife to score the skin on the duck breasts. What you’re aiming for here is to make a series of parallel, widthways cuts right through the skin, and about 1/3-inch apart.
- Take a little care to only cut through the skin and not into the meat. This scoring matters because it allows the fat from the skin to melt more readily into the pan when you start cooking the breasts.
- Now set the scored duck breasts on a large plate, pour the marinade over them, and use your fingers to give the breasts a thorough coating of marinade. The breasts can now sit for a couple of minutes while you warm a pan ready for slowly frying them.
Cooking the duck breasts
- For this, I used a big, heavy, deep-sided, 12-inch skillet. That sort of pan is ideal because you can cook all 4 breasts simultaneously. And it will also be just right for stir-frying the vegetables.
- So, set your big, dry skillet on a low heat and let it warm for a minute or so. While that’s happening, use your fingers to remove any excess marinade from the duck breasts so that no marinade drips from them. The breasts should be glistening with marinade rather than ‘swimming’ in it.
- Now rub ½ level teaspoon of salt as evenly as you can into the scored skin of each breast. Good. The breasts are now ready for frying.
- Lay the marinated and salted breasts skin-side down in your dry, warmed skillet, and just let them start to slowly sizzle – untouched – on that low heat for about 8 minutes. During that time, you’ll find that the skin’s fat melts into the skillet as the breasts slowly get hotter and hotter. And there will be quite a lot of that fat, maybe at least 4 or more tablespoons – which is great because that’s exactly what you want to happen.
- As the fat melts, the skin will start to crisp a little, but you’ll now need more heat to finish that crisping and to cook the breasts on their other side.
- So, after those 8 or so fat-melting minutes, turn the heat to medium and let the breasts fry – still untouched and still skin-side down – for another 3 minutes.
- While that’s happening, give the tops of the breasts a couple of good bastings with the hot fat, then turn them all over.
- Once you’ve turned the breasts, let them fry untouched for another 2 minutes on that medium heat and, once again, give them couple of good bastings all over with the hot fat. Done. Turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to remove the breasts from the skillet and set them aside, skin-side up, on a big, warm plate to ‘rest’ while you quickly cook the vegetables.
- Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet – that’s where the vegetables are heading to be fried right now.
Stir-frying the vegetables
- Hot and fast are the watchwords here, hot and fast. So, your skillet stays on a high heat all the time, and the stir-frying happens fast. Start to finish, this should take no more than 6 minutes.
- To start, set your big, duck-fatted skillet back on a high heat and let it sit there for 90 seconds.
- Now add the scallions (or spring onions), garlic, and ginger. Stir fry the mix continuously for 90 seconds, then add the green beans, mangetout (or snap peas), baby corn, bell peppers, and shitake mushrooms. (Not the bean sprouts – they only go in right at the end along with the salt.)
- Stir thoroughly and quickly so that everything gets a coating of the hot fat, and keep stir-frying for another 3, sizzling-hot minutes.
- Bear in mind that during those 3 minutes you want the vegetables to just start picking up a little color as they cook to an al dente finish. You’ll find that the slight coloring will happen if you give the vegetables a thorough, turning stir every 30 seconds – rather than stirring all the time.
- After those 3 minutes, add the beansprouts and salt. Give the skillet one final, thorough stir, and turn off the heat. Done and ready to serve.
Serving your duck, vegetables, and sauce
- I like to turn the vegetables onto a big, warmed platter straight from their still sizzling skillet – ready for the sliced duck breasts to be arranged on top.
- So, as soon as the vegetables are laid out on the platter, transfer the duck breasts from their warm plate onto a carving board – skin-side up – and quickly cut them into 1/3-inch thick slices.
- Arrange the slices in the center of your platter and set the sauce alongside. Folks can then help themselves to an equitable share of duck, a serving of vegetables, and a little of that fiery, sweet, and tangy sauce.