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Healthy duck? It’s possible and flavorful for Mardi Gras

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 12:01 am

With Mardi Gras looming March 4, I thought it might be fun to cook up some New Orleans-styled goodies featuring duck, andouille sausage and Creole seasoning. These rich ingredients are typical of the fare from this town that knows how to party — an instinct that goes into overdrive during Mardi Gras.

And in this recipe, I've figured out a couple ways for us to have our cake and eat it, too. It delivers big flavor without the usual complement of fat and calories.

We start with the star of this show, the breast of duck, a well-known fount of flavor that — depending on how you cook it — doesn't have to be terribly heavy. I do recommend that you saute the breast with the skin on; that's how to maximize its deliciousness and moistness.

But you can remove and discard the skin — along with most of the serious fat and calories — afterward. In happy fact, duck meat without the skin is leaner than white meat chicken. And duck fat is not bad fat. Yes, some of it is saturated, but a large percentage of it is mono- and poly-unsaturated, with the same properties, incredibly enough, as olive oil.

The duck and its sauce are brightened with homemade Creole seasoning, which has at least as much flavor, and significantly less salt, than many store-bought versions. My version is modeled on the spice mixes of two of New Orleans's greatest chefs — Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.

A great all-purpose mix, my blend works equally well with chicken, shrimp, beef, pork, eggs and vegetables. In fact, you might want to double the recipe and keep the extra at the ready for future use. Here, I season the duck ahead of time and let it stand for 15 minutes, which allows the spices to flavor the meat more deeply. But if you're short on time, just sprinkle the duck with the seasoning right before cooking.

The tomato-based sauce is flavored not only with my Creole spice mix, but with Louisiana's holy trinity of vegetables: carrot, celery and bell pepper. Also, in a nod to the city's trademark richness, there's a soupcon of andouille sausage. Imported by Louisiana's French settlers in the mid-1700s, andouille usually is made of smoked and coarsely ground pork. It's spicy, too, with the American version having picked up more heat than the French over the centuries.

There's so little andouille called for here that you might consider using the full-fat version, but you're welcome to seek out leaner brands at the supermarket; they'll be made of chicken and turkey, not pork. In either case, this sauce, like the Creole seasoning, is widely useful. Try it with shrimp, chicken, beef, or pork and see for yourself.

By the way, if duck has always struck you as gamey, you haven't tried Peking (also known as Long Island) duck breast, the kind employed in this recipe. I serve duck breast once a week at home and the family loves it. It's so quick and easy to prepare that I put it in the same category as steak. As a matter of fact, duck breasts pair up nicely with any of the sauces you'd use with steak.

Meanwhile, back to Mardi Gras. Ladies and gents, let the good times roll!

Spicy sauteed Creole duck breasts

Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (40 minutes active)

Servings: 6

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 ounces andouille sausage, finely chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped celery

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning (purchased or use the recipe below), divided

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup chopped or crushed canned tomatoes (preferably fire roasted)

2 whole Peking duck breasts (4 halves, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)

In a medium saucepan over medium, heat oil. Add sausage and cook, stirring, until browned, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer sausage to a bowl, then return pan to heat and add onion, bell pepper and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Add 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of Creole spice mix (or more if you want a very spicy sauce) and garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add chicken broth and tomatoes, then bring mixture to a boil and simmer until much of liquid has reduced, about 20 minutes. Set aside.

While sauce is simmering, using a very sharp knife, lightly score skin on each duck breast half in a crisscross pattern, cutting well into but not entirely through meat. Pat breasts dry and sprinkle them on both sides with remaining 2 teaspoons Creole spice mix, making sure that mix gets into cracks of scored skin. Let stand for 15 minutes.

In a large cold skillet, place duck breasts, skin side down. Turn heat to medium-low and cook until skin looks very crispy, about 12 minutes. Do not pour off fat; liquid fat in pan helps to render out fat in skin.

When duck skin is crisp, transfer breasts to a plate. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from pan. Return duck to skillet, skin side up, and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer duck to a clean plate, skin side up. Cover loosely with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

Pour off any remaining fat in skillet. Add sauce and browned sausage to skillet and bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits in bottom of pan. Add any juices that have collected on the plate the duck breasts are on.

Remove and discard skin from duck, if desired (separating it by slicing off skin with a paring knife). Thinly slice duck and arrange it on 6 serving plates. Spoon some sauce over each portion.

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories; 110 calories from fat (32 percent of total calories); 13 g fat (3.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 255 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 50 g protein; 670 mg sodium.

Creole seasoning

Start to finish: 5 minutes

Makes about 1/3 cup

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon hot paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder

1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.