Duck breasts are ideal for making a quick but elegant meal. The breasts from birds fattened for foie gras are large and quite expensive (they are usually labelled magret de canard), but there is little shrinkage because they are cooked so quickly. Even the fat that renders out of the skin while the breasts are cooking doesn’t have to be wasted; it’s fantastic for sautéing potatoes.
Tea smoking is common in Chinese cuisines, and the process is fast and easy. I chose jasmine tea for its floral fragrance and flavour but, if you like, you can use something stronger. Be sure to use loose tea leaves, not anything in a tea bag.
Smoking this quickly doesn’t cook the meat any further, so make sure the breasts are done to your liking before putting them in the wok.
Use paper towels to blot up the moisture from the skin and meat sides of the duck breasts. Place them skin-side up on a cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, cut the skin in a 5mm (¼in) diamond pattern, taking care not to slice into the flesh. Turn the breasts over and sprinkle the flesh with salt, then flip them over again and sprinkle salt on the skin. Leave them at room temperature for an hour. (Or they can be refrigerated for longer. Take them from the fridge about 30 minutes before cooking them.)
While the duck breasts are salting, make the plum sauce. Remove the pits from the plums then cut the flesh into small dice. Finely mince the shallots. Break the cinnamon stick into two pieces. Use the side of a knife or cleaver to lightly crush the ginger. Put the plums, shallot, cinnamon stick and ginger into a medium-sized pan with the cloves and sugar. Mix in the lemon juice and about 45ml (3tbsp) of water, then place the pan over a medium flame and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and cook at a low simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often. Taste the mixture and add more ginger, sugar and/or lemon juice, if necessary. If the cinnamon and clove flavours are sufficiently strong at this point, remove them. Continue to cook for another 15 minutes, or until the fruit starts breaking up. Stir often, and add a little water if the mixture sticks to the pan. The consistency should be that of a rough, fairly thick purée. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Once again, use paper towels to blot the moisture from the surface of the duck breasts. Place them skin side down in an unoiled, unheated skillet, preferably black cast iron. Put the skillet over a high flame and once the duck fat starts to render out of the skin (you'll hear it sizzing) turn the heat to medium. Let the breasts cook until the skin is medium-brown (about eight minutes from when you first put them on the heat). Transfer the breasts to a plate and pour off as much fat as possible from the skillet.
Put the breasts back in the skillet, skin side-up. Turn the heat to medium, cover the pan with a lid and let the breasts cook for three to five minutes. Remove the lid and pour off any fat in the pan. Turn the breasts over and cook them skin side-down over a high flame for a minute or two. The breasts need to cook for about 15 minutes in total for medium-rare. Check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer - medium-rare is 55°C (130°F). If you prefer the meat less pink, cook the breasts longer, or until done to your liking. Place them skin side up on a cutting board and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
To smoke the duck breasts, put a double layer of foil in the bottom of an unoiled wok. Mix the tea leaves, rice, flour and cane sugar, then spread this mixture over the foil in a thin layer. Put a rack with low legs in the wok then place the duck breasts skin side up on the rack. Cover the wok with the lid. Place the wok over a high flame. As the tea mixture heats, you will see smoke coming out of the sides of the wok. The smoke will be white, then light yellow, then dark yellow. As soon as the smoke turns dark yellow, lower the heat and start timing. Smoke for one minute, then turn off the flame and leave for two minutes. Remove the breasts from the wok.
Warm the plum sauce and remove the cinnamon, cloves and ginger (if you haven’t done so already). Taste again for seasonings and correct, if necessary. Mix in some freshly ground black pepper. Thinly slice the duck breasts then serve with the plum sauce. Serves three to four.