Of all the courses at the Five-Course Duck Feast, these crispy duck breasts were the big crowd pleaser. The first three courses had been intriguing: duck skin served Peking-duck style, Asian-flavored broth made from the back, legs, and giblets, and a duck liver pâté. By comparison, these crispy duck breasts, served on a mound of carrot-parsnip puree, drizzled with a cherry sauce, and scattered with pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, were both familiar and comforting.

To get the skin crisp I heated a large skillet. Before adding the duck breasts, I turned the burner to medium-low and let them cook, skin side down, a good fifteen to twenty minutes, to render the fat and color the skin a rich gold brown. So that I didn’t have to turn my attention to cooking the duck breasts during dinner, I crisped the skin a couple of hours ahead, and as I plated the first course, I set the breasts in a 250-degree oven to slowly and evenly cook.

This dinner was rich enough without burdening the parsnip-carrot puree with heavy cream. Instead I used lower-calorie evaporated milk, its subtle caramel flavor the perfect moistener for the sweet roasted root vegetables. As for the Brussels sprouts, no need to roast them in the oven. In less than ten minutes you can do it stovetop in a large skillet.

With this course we served two red wines, a 2001 Pine Ridge cabernet which, according to our friend, was approaching its peak. We also uncorked a 2003 La Conseillante, a mellow Bordeaux similar in character to the Pine Ridge. We saved the biggest, best wine for cassoulet course, which I’ll post tomorrow

Crispy Duck Breasts with Balsamic-Cherry Sauce, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Parsnip-Carrot Puree

Serves 8 as part of The Five-Course Duck Dinner or 4 as a main course

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Parsnip-Carrot Puree
1 1/2 pounds each: parsnips and carrots, trimmed, peeled, and cut into large bite-size chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
1 cup evaporated milk
24 Brussels sprouts, (a generous pound) trimmed and halved

Crispy Duck Breast with Balsamic-Cherry Sauce
4 whole boneless skin-on duck breast halves
Salt and ground black pepper
1 generous cup frozen dark sweet cherries, halved
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

For the vegetables: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss parsnips and carrots with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Roast until caramel brown and tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a blender and process, adding milk with blender running, until pureed. (Can be cooled, covered and refrigerated several days in advance. Reheat before serving
Place 1/2 cup water, remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and a sprinkling of salt in a large skillet. Place Brussels sprouts, cut side down, in a single layer. Turn burner on high, cover and cook until vegetables are almost tender and water has almost evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove lid, and reduce heat to medium-low, continue to cook, uncovered, until the cut sides of the Brussels sprouts are golden brown, about 5 minutes longer (Can be cool, covered, and refrigerated for a couple of days.) Reheat before serving.

For the duck: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and add duck breast, skin side down, and cook until most of the fat has rendered and skin is crispy brown. Transfer duck breasts to a wire rack set over a small, rimmed baking sheet and set aside. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add cherries, chicken broth, and vinegar and cook until thin sauce consistency. (Can be set aside at room temperature up to 2 hours ahead.)
About 30 minutes before serving, heat oven to 250 degrees. Cook duck, skin side up, until desired doneness, 25 to 30 minutes for medium pale pink. Cut each duck breast into thin slices. Warm sauce; if it has thickened, add water to desired consistency. Spoon a portion of puree and scatter a portion of Brussels sprouts on each plate. Top with duck slices and a little sauce. Serve.