Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Plum Crazy

Last week my good friend Lindsay sent a plea for help.  The plum tree in her back garden was so overladen with fruit that it represented a danger to itself and others, and was in need of a radical plum-ectomy.  Of course I was happy to help out.  We spent a thoroughly entertaining couple of hours teetering on precariously propped ladders, poking at out of reach branches with long sticks, and showering small children with plums of every stage of development from rock hard to mouldering mush.  At the end of the morning I came home with three large bags, filled with plums of all stages of development save the last.

The contents of the three bags had been sorted, into thoroughly unripe, not quite ripe, and ripe and ready to eat.  The latter went straight into the fruit bowl, of course; the others, of each of which there was a far greater quantity, demanded rather more thought.  Not that it really took a huge amount of either effort or intelligence to come up with the following thoughts:  chutney; jam; tart and sauce. 

And once I’d come up with plum sauce, it was scarcely an intuitive leap of genius to get to roast duck, either, and as luck would have it they happen to have duck breasts at half price in Sainsburys at the moment.  Which was, as the man from The Fast Show would say, nice.

Roast duck breasts, with or without a plum sauce is one of those things that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t written up here already – to the extent that I did several searches through my blog history, before being entirely convinced.  Mainly because a roast duck breast is one of those things – not unlike a pork tenderloin fillet, and for similar reasons – that is so quick and easy to do you can knock it together on a weekday evening after getting home from work, and yet produces a meal that is not only delicious, but feels like a rather luxurious treat.  And when the duck breasts themselves are half price – which they do quite often seem to be, at our local Sainsburys at least - it’s not too pricey either.  Not cheap, but, I think, worth it in a way that buying individual chicken breasts, never, ever is.  Not least because individual chicken breasts are, frankly, pretty uninspiring slabs of meat, so much less tasty, or versatile, than the same chicken’s own very much cheaper legs, while a duck breast, with its luscious layer of fat and crispable skin, really is a prime cut.

Another advantage of the roast duck breast - and, again something it shares with the pork tenderloin – although not relevant on this particular occasion, is that it’s something that’s very easily scale-able.  It really is one of those few things that’s as do-able for two as it is for twenty – and it’s scarcely more work for a larger number, it’s just a matter of the size of your pan/s.

Here and now though, it was just a dinner for two.  Which obviously meant that the sauce for it wasn’t going to make much of a dent in our current glut of plums, but never mind.  Perhaps in acknowledgement of that fact, I ended up making not one, but two plum sauces to go with my duck, thereby getting through twice the number of plums.  I say perhaps, but that’s a lie – the truth is that I just wasn’t happy with the first sauce.  Not that there was anything wrong with it, as a sauce, it just wasn’t right for the dish I had in mind, being too intense and concentrated.  It would have smothered the duck.  So I made a lighter, looser sauce – basically a compote - to go over the duck, and served the first sauce on the side like a ketchup.

Spicy plum ketchup:
6-8 plums
1 small onion (or shallot)
pomegranate molasses
good red wine or sherry vinegar
1/2 star anise
Salt, pepper

I finely chopped the onion, a clove of garlic and about a little fingernail’s worth of fresh chilli and put them, with a good slug of olive oil, in a small saucepan over a lowish heat.  Using a pestle and mortar a crushed a handful of black peppercorns, the star anise and a pinch of rock salt into powder and sprinkled it in with the onion.  While the onion was softening, I took a handful of plums – choosing a pretty random mix of ripenesses - halved and stoned them before adding to the pan once the onion was soft and translucent.  I allowed them to cook for about 10-15 minutes, till softening but still holding their shape, then added a good dash of the pomegranate and vinegar – probably about a dessertspoon of each.  Then I allowed the pan to simmer gently, for about another 15 minutes or so, till the liquid was reduced by maybe as much as a third, and the vinegar had lost its sting.

Then I checked for seasoning.  It had plenty, along with the tang of the vinegar, the sweetness of plums and pomegranate and a distinct hit of chilli heat.  That was the point that I decided that my original plan, to coat the duck breasts in this sauce, might need to be rethought.  This sauce was good, but it was not the right sauce - there was just a bit too much going on.

Fortunately, I’d been making the sauce in advance, so it was no problem just to set the pan aside for the sauce to cool, before blitzing it down to ketchup consistency - about 200ml worth, and a lovely, purpley/chocolatey colour - for a dipping sauce, leaving plenty of time to make up another sauce to pour over the duck.  A very quick, easy and tasty sauce, but nevertheless, one that wouldn’t overwhelm the duck.

Very mildly spicy plum compote:
6-8 plums
Star anise
Citrus zest (Satsuma and lemon in this case, or orange)
Splash of gin
Pinch of mixed spice

Again, I picked a handful of plums of varying degrees of ripeness and halved and stoned them.  I put them in a pan with just a smear of olive oil in the bottom to discourage sticking and gently started to cook them.  Meanwhile I used a veg peeler to shave a couple of good strips of zest each from a lemon and a Satsuma and threw those into the pan, along with the juice squeezed from half the lemon.  I sprinkled the plums with just a pinch of the spice mix I’d prepared for making  the plum chutney I’ll write up in my next post, but which consisted of salt, pepper and toasted fennel, coriander, cumin and mustard seeds, all crushed to a fine powder with pestle and mortar – allspice, cloves and cinnamon could go in there too, if you want, or indeed instead, but the key thing, rather than the specific spices used in this instance, was to keep the spicing light.  Then I added a good slug of gin and let everything cook together gently until the plums were soft but still plum shaped, and the gin and juices had reduced to a nice light syrup – literally no more than 10-15 minutes.  And that was that.  All ready to be spooned over the duck.

Roast duck breasts
Duck Breasts
Salt, pepper, star anise

Score the skin of the duck breasts, trying not to  slice right through the fat to the flesh below (but it’s not a disaster if the odd score does go all the way through.  Using a pestle and mortar, pound together a good pinch of rocksalt, a couple of dozen or so peppercorns and a star anise, and rub the resulting powder into the scored skin side of the breasts, rubbing any excess into the flesh side for good measure.

Get a metal handled (or otherwise oven proof) frying pan good and hot and sear the breasts, skin side down until crusted a dark golden brown.  Then turn the breasts in the pan and transer, skin side now up, to the oven, preheated to 180-200.  Roast for 10-12 minutes depending on the thickness of the breasts and the rareness you like.  Maybe as much as 15 minutes if you or your guests are squeamish about pink running juices.  Neither Becca nor I are (squeamish that is), you probably won’t be surprised to hear, but, unlike many alleged experts, I wouldn’t presume to sneer at anyone who preferred their duck, lamb or steak well done.  Different strokes and all that.  I was at a restaurant once with a work colleague who sent her lamb chops back three times to get it cooked beyond pink – and while I happen to share the chef’s opinion on the optimum degree of doneness for a lamb cutlet, I couldn’t understand his (or her – but I bet it was a him) dogged refusal to cook it any discernable degree further to suit the tastes of a paying customer.  That’s just arrogant and rude.

After taking the duck breasts out of the oven leave to rest for a good ten to fifteen minutes (you could even make the second plum sauce while the meat relaxes) before serving.  I like to slice them before plating up, but by all means serve them whole if you prefer (different strokes etc).  I spooned the compote over the sliced breasts and then I’m afraid I drizzled the spicy plum ketchup over and around the meat.  Given my time again I’d just spoon a single big blob onto the side of the plate like proper ketchup.

As the oven was on anyway I roasted up some potato, celery carrots and four giant cloves of garlic, with a handful of spring onions thrown into the roasting dish when I opened the oven to remove the duck.

The rest of the spicy plum ketchup - that which did not get drizzled (sorry) - is in a pot in the fridge.  It's already made an excellent dipping sauce for a delicious Vietnamese style pork belly stir fry that Becca made.

There was also a plum tart for dessert, but I’ll write that up in a separate post.


  1. Referring to you comments about chicken breasts Vs legs, I don't really understand why anyone pays for skinned breast fillets. No doubt some recipes do require it, but if I'm making a casserole, I've discovered that removing the skin from the legs first makes a rather dull casserole, lacking in magic scrumminess. I tried it once or twice on the grounds of fat reduction. I now see that fat is GOOD, as you have so often said. That does make a conundrum for those of us without hollow legs, but hey ho. Smaller portions, I suppose.

  2. Skinless chicken breasts are basically for people who don't like food. Why bother? You may as well live on protein shakes...

  3. Ok. Chicken Kiev, and escalopes, maybe. But still.

    And given that skin on breasts are cheaper in the supermarkets (I believe - it's a long time since I checked), why wouldn't you just buy them with the skin and pull it off yourself. It's hardly difficult...