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Mail-Order Mission: Smoked duck breast yields a divine trinity

D'Artagnan has been a mail-order friend for years. The New Jersey company began as a high-end commercial source for chefs wanting superior duck, which wasn't available in the United States. At some point it went retail, and that's when I began ordering its products: game, duck fat (which never met a fried or roasted potato it didn't love), truffle butter and other things.

I don't buy during our warm months because I am fearful of long hours in hot cargo bellies and trucks in transit. But when late fall hits, I hit my keyboard.

These days you can find some D'Artagnan products at local stores such as Fresh Market and Whole Foods. But I haven't found one of my favorites, smoked duck breast. I don't have a smoker, nor do I want one, and besides, I prefer the gentle infusion of smokiness imparted by this version as opposed to the heartier flavor that seems inevitable with do-it-yourself efforts.

You pay dearly for this quality, $17.99 for a 12-ounce boneless breast (plus shipping, so it's wise to order several things at once). But I wring every possible benefit from this compact little package; nothing is wasted. The meat itself can be stretched to feed four people if used judiciously. It's precooked, so no prep is necessary.

The easiest thing to do is to slice it thinly and serve on top of a salad with summer berries, fall pears or winter oranges. With a good baguette and a bit of cheese, it's a meal.

Today, though, I'm using it in more elaborate preparations that still go a long way. Slices of it star as the topper for a butternut squash tart with caramelized onions, goat cheese and sage, which makes a smashing entree when paired with a salad. You can downsize the tarts for a first course or appetizers, and then the duck, cut into slivers, will go even further.

You also get two bonuses from the skin and fat. They sit unappealingly atop the meat when you unwrap the package, but do not discard them. You'll slowly cook the skin to a crispy delight in that fat, then use them as accessories in two more recipes here.

The first is for a butternut squash soup gussied up with a tangy-sweet drizzle of sour cream infused with apple cider, then given a little snap by crispy bits of duck skin brought to a deep mahogany with a long simmer in the melted duck fat. The fat is used to saute potatoes for a hash that becomes a meal with the addition of eggs nestled into it while it's cooking.

The tarts require several recipes that come together in the final assembly. Don't be daunted by that; each is easy and can be made in advance so the final prep is fast.

Central to both the tarts and soup is another favorite ingredient of mine that you'll find in inexpensive abundance right now at your nearest grocery store: butternut squash.

Fear it not!

It looks like a hard-shelled monolith rising from a bulbous base, but it's not that hard to peel, much easier than a pumpkin and more flavorful. A good vegetable peeler will do the trick, but I suggest you first separate the upper cylinder from the lower globe if it's really rounded. Then cut the pieces in half and use a spoon to remove the fiber and seeds in the lower part of the squash. You can slice it or cut it into chunks. When I need a puree, I prefer chunks. Then it's ready for roasting.

If you like the idea of some of these dishes but lack the time to execute them, substitutions work just fine. Canned winter squash or unseasoned pumpkin can be used, for example. Boneless duck breasts (unsmoked) are usually available in the frozen meats section, and you can roast or saute one for a lot less than D'Artagnan's smoked version in the tart. Lose the fried sage leaf that tops it. Croutons can provide crunch instead of duck cracklings in the soup. You'll see in the photograph that I used one made from frozen puff pastry. And vegetable or olive oil can be swapped for the duck fat in the hash.

But if you do give these recipes a go in their original version, I think you'll enjoy the interplay of their three acts. As another D'Artagnan, a character in the Three Musketeers said, "All for one and one for all!"

Lennie Bennett is the Times' art critic and amateur food lover. Mail-Order Mission is an occasional series about her quest for interesting ingredients unavailable locally. She can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

>>moderate

Smoked Duck and Butternut Squash Tarts

For the pastry shells:

1 refrigerated sheet of premade pie crust dough

For the caramelized onions:

2 medium red onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar

For the butternut squash puree:

3 cups roasted butternut squash (see master recipe)

1 tablespoon real maple syrup

2 tablespoons butter

½ teaspoon fresh sage, minced, or ¼ teaspoon dried

For the duck:

1 smoked duck breast, sliced into 16 to 20 very thin pieces and brushed with maple syrup glaze

Maple syrup glaze:

½ cup pure maple syrup

1 tablespoon coarsely ground pepper

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

For garnish:

2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

Fried sage leaves (optional):

4 fresh sage leaves

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

To make the tart shells, roll dough on a lightly floured board. Cut four 7-inch circles and fit them into four 6-inch tartlette pans with removable bottoms. Trim edges. Refrigerate for an hour or freeze for up to several months. Line with foil or parchment and weight with dried beans or pie weights. Place them on a cookie sheet and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden. Remove the foil and cook 5 to 8 minutes more, until baked through.

To caramelize the sliced onions, saute them in olive oil over medium-low heat until caramelized, about 30 minutes. Add vinegar and continue cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed, a minute or two. Can be made several days in advance and refrigerated.

If you roasted the squash in advance, reheat it. Puree with remaining ingredients in blender or food processor.

To make the glaze, in a small saucepan, cook syrup and pepper over medium high heat until syrup is thickened. Add vinegar and remove from heat. Can be made one week in advance and refrigerated. Reheat before using.

To fry sage leaves, in a small skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat until bubbling. Add sage, let fry for a few seconds and turn and fry other side. Drain on paper towels. Can be made 1 day in advance and stored at room temperature in a plastic bag.

To assemble:

Divide the caramelized onions equally among the tart shells, spreading evenly. Cover each with ½ cup of puree. Brush the duck slices generously with the glaze. Fan 4 to 5 duck slices over each tart. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven until warmed through, about 10 minutes. (You're not cooking this, just getting it warmed up.) Remove from oven. Sprinkle goat cheese over duck and top with fried sage (if using).

Serves 4.

Source: Adapted from Danny Boome

>>moderate

Butternut Squash Soup With Apple Cider Cream and Duck Cracklings

5 tablespoons butter

¼ cup chopped peeled carrot

¼ cup chopped celery

½ cup chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only), soaked in cold water to remove sand, drained

1 small to medium Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, chopped (1 generous cup)

½ teaspoon dried thyme

¼ teaspoon dried sage

5 cups roasted butternut squash (see master recipe)

2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth

½ cup apple cider

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup whipping or heavy cream

Chopped chives, garnish

Duck cracklings (see master recipe), garnish

Apple cider cream:

1 cup apple cider

1 cinnamon stick

cup sour cream

In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and saute carrot, celery and leeks until wilted. Add apple and herbs and saute a few more minutes. Add squash, broth and cider. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Add salt. Puree in a blender or food processor in batches. Taste again for salt. Can be frozen for a month or refrigerated for a few days at this point. To finish, stir cream into hot soup and taste for salt.

To make apple cider cream, in a small saucepan, boil cider with cinnamon until reduced to ¼ cup, about 8 minutes. Cool. Remove cinnamon stick and stir into the sour cream. Can be made several days in advance and refrigerated.

To serve, ladle into soup bowls, drizzle with apple cider cream, top with chopped chives and, if desired, a few bits of duck cracklings.

Serves 6.

Source: Adapted from Steven Dunn, ouichef.typepad.com

>>easy

Hash Brown Potatoes Cooked

in Duck Fat and Eggs

Though it looks like a breakfast dish, it's good for lunch or dinner, too. I often scatter over the top chopped Peppadews (spicy preserved peppers from South Africa, available in some specialty food stores or from www.peppadew.com) instead of using the sauteed red bell peppers.

¼ cup rendered duck fat (see master recipe) or vegetable oil

8 to 12 small potatoes cut into half-inch cubes

1 medium onion, chopped

½ red bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

4 eggs

Chopped parsley or other herbs

In a skillet, preferably cast iron, heat the fat over medium heat until hot. Saute potatoes until beginning to cook through, about 10 minutes. Increase to medium-high and lightly brown the potatoes. Add onion and red pepper and cook until wilted. Add garlic, salt and pepper, lower heat to medium and cook for a few more minutes. Make four wells in the hash. Break an egg into each well, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, reduce heat to medium-low, cover skillet and cook until egg is at desired doneness. (I like mine with a soft yolk.) Sprinkle with something green — parsley, herbs, scallions — and serve.

Serves 4

Source: Lennie Bennett

>>easy

Master Recipe for Roasted Butternut Squash

When I'm roasting squash, I always make extra, which will supply two of the recipes here. Roasted squash is so good, you may decide to eat it as is and forget further treatment. If you don't want to do the peel-chop routine, cut the unpeeled squash in half, clean it out, give it a good oil slick, put flesh side down on a foil-lined baking sheet and cook for 45 minutes to an hour until soft. Scrape out flesh and use for purees.

4 pounds (or more) butternut squash

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

Preheat oven to 350. Toss squash with enough oil to coat and salt and pepper to taste. Spread in a single layer on foil-lined baking sheet and roast for about 30 minutes or until slightly caramelized and soft.

Makes about 5 cups of roasted squash or 4 cups puree.

Source: Lennie Bennett

>>moderate

Master Recipe for Rendered Duck Fat

and Cracklings

Skin and fat removed from one smoked duck breast

Cut duck skin into large pieces (it shrinks a lot as it cooks down) and put in a small saucepan with the layer of fat. Cook over lowest heat until skin is dark brown and crispy, about 2 hours. This can also be done in a 300-degree oven. Remove skin and drain on paper towels. Cracklings can be stored in refrigerator for several days. Reheat before using. Fat doesn't need to be strained. Cool slightly and pour into a lidded container. Keeps refrigerated for a week or in the freezer for months.

Yields about ¼ cup duck fat and the same amount of cracklings.

Source: Lennie Bennett

.more information

D'Artagnan

The New Jersey specialty food company's website is

dartagnan.com. Order there or call toll-free 1-800-327-8246.

Mail-Order Mission: Smoked duck breast yields a divine trinity 12/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 8:17am]

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