Duck Breasts with Sweet-and-Smoky Date Chile Sauce

Serves 4

At Rancho Meladuco Date farm, ducks and dates go hand in hand. Our 200-acre Southern California ranch began as a duck hunting club and is still a seasonal stop-over for millions of migratory birds. Notice the bird soaring across our packaging? That duck is one of my husband’s favorites, and a frequent visitor of our wetlands, the Pintail, or Bull Sprig.  Wild duck is one of our favorite foods to prepare and it seems even more special when paired with our dates that feed off of the same land.

This recipe is inspired by a fantastic dish from chef Aaron Sanchez and Food & Wine Magazine. In this version, we’ve made the rich, smoky chile sauce even better with the complex, caramelized sweetness of our dates. Since the sauce is pureed, this recipe is a great use for those not-so-pretty, but equally delicious, “Grinder” dates. When cooking duck, the key is to take it low-and-slow when rendering the fat. Try not to rush this step if you want that deeply golden, crackly skin. Before serving, the date-chile sauce is cooked in a bit of leftover duck fat. This added step not only warms up the sauce, but also intensifies the flavor and opens up the aroma of the chiles and spices. If you have any leftover sauce, save it for brushing on grilled chicken, or tossing with shredded pork or duck for burritos and tostadas.



  • 4 Ancho Chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ½ cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • Two 2-inch strips orange zest, plus ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice (about 2 oranges)
  • 6 large Rancho Meladuco dates, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 1 canned chipotle pepper in adobo
  • 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 4 large garlic cloves, smashed
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • Four 6- to 8-ounce duck breasts
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Toasted sesame seeds and small cilantro sprigs, for garnish
  1. In a large skillet, toast the ancho chiles over moderately-high heat until fragrant and pliable, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large heatproof measuring cup and cover with the boiling water. Let stand until softened, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the cumin seeds in the skillet over moderate heat until fragrant and lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.


  1. In a blender, puree the chiles with 1 cup of the soaking liquid, stock, orange juice, dates, chipotle pepper, sesame oil, cumin seeds and 2 of the garlic cloves until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.


  1. Using a sharp knife, score the skin of the duck in a tight crosshatch patter, being careful not to cut into the flesh. Season the duck breasts with salt and place them skin side down in a large, cold skillet. Set the skillet over moderately-low heat and cook, undisturbed and spooning off any excess fat, until the fat has rendered and the skin is golden brown and crispy, 10 to 12 minutes. To keep the edges from curling, weight the duck down with a smaller skillet. If the duck is browning too quickly, reduce the heat to low.


  1. Turn the duck skin side up and add the orange zest and the remaining 2 garlic cloves. Cook the duck over moderate heat, basting occasionally with the fat, until medium within (140° F), 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the duck, orange zest and garlic to a plate and let rest for at least 5 minutes.


  1. Meanwhile, pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Add the chile puree and bring to a gentle boil over moderate heat. Cook, stirring, until thickened slightly and darkened in color, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.


  1. Thinly slice the duck across the grain and arrange on four plates. Spoon the sauce over the top and garnish with toasted sesame seeds and cilantro sprigs. Serve right away.


Recipe and photo credits: Julia Heffelfinger – thank you!






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