Cooking Off the Cuff: Candied Olives? And Duck?!

Duck with olives is a classic, and of course, sweetness is common in sauces for duck, so long as it is balanced by acidity. So why not sweetened olives?
05/01/2013 09:08 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Jackie and I were sharing a pan-seared duck breast for dinner the other night, so my mind naturally turned to macaroons -- or "macarons," as many people have taken to calling the French version. Specifically, I recalled the olive ones from Pierre Hermᅢᄅ's pastry shop in Paris. They were olivy but sweet; many (Jackie among them) find them weird, even unpalatable, but I loved them.

That association isn't as illogical as it sounds: Duck with olives is a classic, and I've served a chicken dish with their strong flavors too. And of course, sweetness is common in sauces for duck, so long as it is balanced by acidity. So why not sweetened olives?

Making a real olive confit, where the fruit develops an entirely new texture as it loses moisture, is something of a project, so I streamlined the process to yield olives that retained more of their normal consistency -- and flavor -- but were nicely sweetened and a little chewy. This was a cinch: For sauce sufficient for two or three (perhaps even four) portions, I pitted a mixture of Kalamata and cerignola olives, then tore them by hand into halves for the Kalamatas and equivalent-sized pieces for the gigantic cerignolas, enough to yield a generous half cup. (Use whatever good, flavorful olives you like.) I put them into a small saucepan with three tablespoons of sugar, half a cup of water, the grated zest of half an orange, some thyme leaves and a few dried chili flakes. This I simmered slowly until the water evaporated, about 25 minutes; now, I pressed on the olives with the back of a spoon to squeeze out some of their juices and added an extra tablespoon of water to keep the cooking going a little while longer. When the liquid evaporated again, I cooked the syrup until it had caramelized and coated the olives -- it is hard to see the caramelization, because the mixture is murky from the olives, so watch for a true syrup consistency, and use your nose to head off any burning.

Then, I stood back to avoid fumes and added two tablespoons of sherry vinegar. When this had reduced back to syrup, I added 3/4 cup of rich duck stock and the grated zest of the other half of the orange and simmered for a few minutes, tasting for salt, pepper and flavor -- had it needed more of the latter, I'd have continued to reduce the sauce. (If I hadn't had duck stock in the freezer from another meal, I'd have used chicken, duckified with whatever scraps of meat, connective tissue and skin I could manage to trim from the duck breast.)

Now, I pan-cooked that big moulard duck breast over medium heat (you could grill it, of course): five or six solid minutes on the skin side, then turning every minute or so until rare or medium-rare. I let it rest on a plate for a good 10 minutes and poured the juices from the plate (and later from the carving board) into the saucepan. A final taste of the reheated sauce, and that was that. It is up to you whether you swirl in a little butter; I didn't, but if I'd wanted a slightly thicker sauce, that's how I'd have gotten it.

The olives hadn't lost their flavor and, in fact, had shared it with the entire sauce; at the same time, thanks in part to the orange zest, this evoked one of those good old-fashioned sweet-and-sour duck dishes. Since the sauce is made independently of the duck apart from the last-minute addition of juices, it is practical to make in larger quantities for guests -- and it would be great with a whole roast duck too (whose carcass would generate the stock for the next batch of sauce).

Candied Olives? And Duck?