Spiced Duck Breasts with Mandarin Oranges and Dates

I’ll never forget the lecture and meticulous demonstration our instructor gave on the “proper” way to cook a duck breast during the last week of culinary labs before my fellow classmates and I were turned loose to operate our school’s restaurant. With all the pomp and circumstance afforded a chef in a 2-foot-high toque, he went through a completely overwhelming tutorial devised to scare us into thinking duck breast is too challenging for the average human to cook.While the method I learned in culinary school did deliver a beautiful medium-rare breast with a crisp, golden brown crust, achieving that same outcome doesn’t have to be so complicated or intimidating. Pan-searing duck breast, it turns out, is actually a relatively simple process, as long as you follow a few key steps.It’s important to score the skin and fat with a sharp knife before cooking the duck breast. Scoring provides more surface area for the fat to render so the skin crisps and develops a gorgeous deep golden color and crisp texture. It’s also key to let the breast come to room temperature and to start cooking the breast skin side down in a cold pan, both of which help the fat render at just the right pace.Once the fat is mostly rendered and that enviable crust forms, I flip the breast to finish cooking the meat to medium-rare briefly on the other side. What’s left in the pan after the meat is set aside is liquid gold—in the form of duck fat. In this recipe, you’ll use that liquid gold to finish fluffy couscous that’s steamed with orange juice and turmeric, then tossed with dates, almonds and fresh herbs. Consider this a Moroccan twist on duck a l’orange. The duck is seasoned with ras el hanout, a bold spice blend that complements the full-flavored meat. Duck breast may not be your typical weeknight fare, but with this recipe it can be.I often think of a bold yet refined Bordeaux for pairing with duck, but here the Moroccan spices seem to lean toward a more rustic, wild red. I poured an aged Tempranillo from Spain’s Ribera del Duero region—understudy to the more celebrated Rioja—and found the concentrated red-fruit notes balanced by the decent acidity of wines from this region partner nicely.

Spiced Duck Recipe
Photo: Alison Miksch
Active Time:
30 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 15 mins


  • 4 (8-ounce) duck breasts

  • 4 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

  • 2 teaspoons ras el hanout, divided

  • 1 cup uncooked couscous

  • 1 cup chicken stock

  • 2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest plus 1 cup fresh orange juice, divided

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

  • 2 mandarin oranges, peeled and separated into segments

  • 1 teaspoon honey

  • 1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

  • 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped

  • 5 pitted Medjool dates, thinly sliced

  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted


  1. Pat duck breasts dry with a paper towel. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/2-inch crosshatch pattern into the fatty skin, taking care not to penetrate the flesh underneath. Season both sides generously with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Sprinkle the meat sides with 1 1/2 teaspoons ras el hanout. Let stand, skin sides up, 30 minutes to 1 hour, until duck breasts come to room temperature.

  2. Meanwhile, place couscous in a medium heatproof bowl. Combine chicken stock, zest, 1/2 cup orange juice, turmeric, and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high. Pour boiling liquid over couscous, and immediately cover bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside to allow the couscous to absorb the liquid while you prepare the duck.

  3. Place duck breasts, fat sides down, in a cold large skillet. Place skillet over medium heat. Cook until duck skin is crisp and deep golden brown and most of the fat has rendered, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip duck, and cook, adjusting heat as needed, until thickest part of each breast registers 120°F to 125°F on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer duck breasts to a cutting board, fat sides up; let rest about 10 minutes while you finish the dish.

  4. Pour off and reserve duck fat from pan. Add mandarin segments, honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, remaining 1/2 cup orange juice, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout to pan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high, scraping up bits from bottom of pan. Simmer until juice is slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from the heat. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt.

  5. Uncover couscous, and drizzle in 3 tablespoons hot reserved duck fat. Use the tines of a fork to comb the couscous layer by layer until loose and fluffy. Add parsley, mint, dates, and almonds; toss briefly to combine. Stir in remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt.

  6. Spoon couscous into centers of warmed plates. Slice duck breasts against the grain, and arrange them on couscous. Spoon pan sauce and oranges over duck and around plates.

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