My mother grew up in Vojvodina, the part of the country that was under the Austro-Hungarian rule until the end of WWI. When she married my father and joined him in central Serbia, she brought with her many culinary traditions which were not very familiar to the natives. Some of them were immediately accepted by her new friends and family; some needed a longer time and more cunning approaches to become a staple at dinner time; and some just never survived the challenges of the impenetrable barrier of the palates unaccustomed to weird, different, and foreign influences.
While we ate plenty of chickens along with pheasants and quails Father brought from his intermittent hunting expeditions, only when we went to Vojvodina did we have a chance to taste a duck or a goose. We were entranced by these white birds that seem to frolic in every yard, splashing in the ponds and squawking, the shape of their bright-orange beaks the only notable difference between the species: sharp, pointy beaks belong to geese, the flatter and rounded ones to ducks.
And while the holidays in our home town always involved roasted piglets or spring lambs, in Vojvodina we were treated to roasted ducks and geese. As if the mere taste of the water fowl was not enough to separate the two geographical regions deeper than the river Danube that marked the border, the fruit sauce that accompanied them made us feel as if we were visiting another country, with the benefit of still speaking the same language. Depending on the season, we had cherry, apple, pear, or quince sauces, only slightly sweetened, chunky and surprisingly delightful along the stronger tasting meat of the water fowl.
Back at home, we never mixed sweet and savory, even though Father was an adventurous eater. And I have never seen a duck or a goose at the Farmers’ Market in my home town (forget the grocery stores, as we never buy our meets there.)
But then I decided to make my new home all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and my first Thanksgiving meal was turkey served with cranberry sauce from the can and many other side dishes and desserts, most of which originated in a can or a box. I have never tasted cranberries before and I immediately fell in love with their tart and assertive taste so capable of pairing with the gaminess of turkey. It took years to fight my way over to the real food and side dishes made from scratch, but I am now happy to know that my daughters will remember my slowly simmered cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, and giblet gravy as the part of their holiday tradition.
And more than that, I carried over my mother’s culinary ways, even those exiled forever, including fruit sauces with roasts, always leaning on seasonal produce. That’s why I though of pairing beautiful duck breasts with crunchy and juicy Korean pears simmered in apple cider (they worked so well in Kale Salad I made recently.) My ancestors might be rolling their eyes, but the combination worked beautifully. The pears were firm and kept their texture without becoming mushy, while adding a fragrant note to the sauce slightly enriched by the spiciness of the cider. A pat of butter was enough to add a smidgen of richness without competing with the complex taste of the seared duck breasts.
My mother passed away five summers ago. She might have raised an eyebrow if I served her this dish and she might have given me an advice on how to make it better, but I know that she would have approved of my creativity after a few minutes of grumbling. She might have been silent at dinner table, but I am pretty sure that she would have smiled comforted in the thought that her culinary traditions are making their way across the meridians and across the generations.
- 2 duck breasts
- ½ tsp salt
- a pinch of freshly ground pepper
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp rendered duck fat
- 1 Korean pear, cored and diced
- 1 cup apple cider
- Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat (you can use a stainless steel skillet, too).
- Score the duck skin in a criss-cross manner, making sure not to cut into the meat.
- Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the duck skin down in the skillet for 6 minutes, allowing the fat to render and the skin to turn brown.
- Turn the breasts and cook or another 4 minutes for medium-rare, up to 8 minutes for well done.
- Place on a plate and let them rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting into thin slices.
- Pour all but 1 Tbsp of duck fat into a separate bowl and save for frying potatoes (or anything else).
- Add butter and heat a 10-inch skillet on medium heat.
- Add diced pears and saute for a minute, until they start to brown and sizzle.
- Add apple cider, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Take the cover off and simmer for another 15 minutes, reducing the sauce until it's thick and chunky.
- Serve atop of sliced duck breast.