On our first afternoon in Buenos Aires, as we lazily wandered the Palermo district, stupefied by an overnight flight and a filling lunch featuring our first Argentine steak and an immoderate milanesa napolitana, we paused to admire the way the beautiful lilac-blue flowers of a blooming jacaranda overhung a stucco wall that years of sub-tropical sun had softened to a color somewhere between beige and blond. As we pointed and took photos, a horse-drawn cart trundled past laden with cut logs. Suddenly, a large hardwood gate creaked open just down from us and the lean, tanned face of a gentleman in his seventies poked out and broke into a smile. “De donde estan ustedes? / Where are you from?” he asked us. “From the United States,” we replied. “This is our first day in Buenos Aires.” “Ah, bienvenidos a Argentina! / Welcome to Argentina!” he responded. “Would you like to come in and see the rest of the garden?”.
Coming straight from Brooklyn, we were initially taken aback that residents of a large city would invite complete strangers onto their property, and we looked at one another quizzically, wondering for an instant whether this was some sort of bizarre trap, designed purely for romanticized tourists, but, curious, we gladly followed as the kindly fellow disappeared back inside. The gate gave on to a compound, perhaps fifty yards long and thirty wide, about a third of which was taken up by a pretty red brick building which we would learn was the summer-house to the adjacent property. The rest was cobbled in pale grey stone inset with low raised beds out of which more bushes and plants spilled their yellow and orange flowers, perfuming the air like the ground floor of a department store. Birds chirped all around us from their perches hidden within the thick red and purple bougainvillea that grew against the compound walls while clematis and passion flowers hung daintily from telephone wires overhead.
At the far end, lay a small swimming pool, the water a murky green, and into it, a large tabby poked a tentative paw and then made a face upon finding it wet. In the middle of the courtyard, opposite the open door of the summer-house, was a raised circular area, about 10 yards across, in which a large black wrought-iron cradle sat between two rectangles made up of thick V-shaped bars arranged in parallel. Past this, we saw that the end wall of the house had been opened to the air and that in it, a large dome-shaped oven sat in pride of place. Surveying all of this, we realized, hugely impressed, that the owners had put together a very serious Argentine-style outdoor kitchen: a giant parrilla with a log basket for starting the fire, two grills to hold the selection of meats, and an oven in which to bake the empanadas which are the appetizer for every Sunday parrillada cook-out. That we two, who had spent the past six months fantasizing about this trip and the carnivorous experiences we would have, could have blundered upon this place and been somehow invited in to appreciate it within six hours of getting off the plane felt miraculous.
Even now, I don’t recall how long we stayed, but after thanking the old gent, who explained that he and his wife were custodians of the property, we found ourselves back on the street, thirsty for a drink and agog at our good fortune. When we recall that day, we still marvel at this chance experience and talk about how it influenced our subsequent obsession with grilling, and now we own a house, how much we look forward to creating an approximation of that set-up in our own backyard.
We have found inspiration for our grilling before in Seven Fires, the extraordinary book by Argentine chef, Francis Mallmann, and as the rosy combination of warm weather, nature in full riot, and a weekend morning, our mood expansive at the prospect of a day spent amid wood-smoke and sizzling meats, is tantalizingly close as this gelid winter nears its end, we turned to it once again seeking succulent, seared flavors. Mallmann’s signature style blends the outdoor techniques native to Argentina with the elegance of haute-cuisine dining that he learned under some of France’s most notable chefs, and the Mediterranean ingredients common to the Argentine table. He doesn’t have a catchy name for it, but I may have: meat meets Med.
Many of his recipes countenance burning the food to achieve a bitterness that he believes enhances the flavors of the dish. Though we love a dark crust on our steaks, this felt unlikely, but willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after making his extraordinary peached pork in September, we decided upon a variation of his pork with brown sugar, thyme and burned confit of oranges. Thinking ourselves very clever we drew inspiration from the classic magret of duck breast a l’orange, and landed upon cooking a duck breast with brown sugar, thyme and burned confit oranges in our cast-iron skillet. The result was stunning – among the best things we have ever made at home, really. The floral orange perfume of the confit citrus skins highlighted by their scorched bitter notes perfectly accentuated the rich gamey flavor of the duck breast. The hint of sweetness from the sugar rounded everything out. It didn’t need any sauce and the game chips we served with it were really only there to sop up the duck juices.
Now, as the snows melt and memories of icy winds recede to be replaced by excitement at warm days and the bright green of spring, is the time to take advantage of the best citrus of year and make this dish. It’s bound to have strangers from miles around rubbernecking at your gate to get a look at what you’re cooking in your backyard.
- 1 large duck breast, about 1 lb
- 10 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp good sea salt, like Maldon
- 10 strips of orange confit
- 2 tbsp orange confit oil
For the orange confit:
- 5 large oranges
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 cups plus 2 tsp best olive oil
- 4 cups boiling water
For the orange confit:
- Halve oranges and squeeze out juice. Drink or save, then place oranges in large saucepan with bay leaves, peppercorns, 2 tsp olive oil and boiling water (or enough to cover oranges).
- Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes or until oranges are nicely soft but not falling apart.
- Strain mixture and allow oranges to cool.
- When handle-able, carefully separate orange rind from as much of the white pith as you can, doing your best to keep rind in decently-sized pieces.
- Discard pith and place rinds in a plastic container and cover completely with olive oil.
- Allow to sit and steep as little as overnight, but as long as a week or two, before use.
For the duck:
- With a sharp knife, score fat on duck breast in a cross-hatch and sprinkle well with coarse sea salt and a pinch of brown sugar. Allow to sit for half an hour and come up to room temperature.
- Heat cast iron skillet or griddle pan to medium, add 1 tsp of orange confit olive oil before placing duck breast skin side down.
- Cook without moving for 6 minutes.
- Then removing duck from pan temporarily, lay a bed of confit orange rinds topped with 4-5 thyme sprigs on uncooked side of duck breast, pressing it on firmly.
- Sprinkle generously with salt and remaining brown sugar. Add remaining teaspoon of orange confit olive oil to pan before carefully laying (confit orange side-down) duck back in pan.
- Cook without moving for another 3-4 minutes for medium-rare, 4-5 minutes for medium.
- Remove and allow to rest. Make sure to remove all orange confit from pan and reserve it too.
- After at least 10 minutes have passed, slice duck and serve with slightly scorched confit orange, extra thyme sprigs and any pan juices.