This dish is so good that it resulted in Spitzer securing a place in the semi-finals of MasterChef. She came up with a black za'atar spice mix, with black sesame, fennel and cumin seeds, that cooks to a crust on the outside of the rich duck breast, while the lentils provide the perfect textural foil to the unctuous meat. It's salty, sweet and spicy – an impressive main dish.

Ingredients

For the duck

  • 2 tbsp black sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tbsp ground sumac
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp freshly picked thyme leaves
  • 2 duck breasts, preferably Gressingham
  • 2 tbsp date syrup
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the lentils

  • 250ml chicken or beef stock
  • 2 tsp duck fat
  • 1 banana shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, white part only, trimmed, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée
  • 125g dried puy lentils, rinsed and drained
  • 3 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled but kept whole
  • 2 tbsp crème fraîche (optional)

Method

  1. Start by making the spiced crust for the duck breast. Heat a dry frying pan over a medium heat, add the black sesame, fennel and cumin seeds and lightly toast, shaking the pan constantly. Crush using a pestle and mortar and then place in a bowl with the remaining spices, thyme and some salt and black pepper.
  2. Pat the duck breasts dry. Using a sharp knife, score the skin in a crisscross pattern. Brush the skin of each of the breasts with the date syrup and then pat about a tablespoonful of the spice mixture on top, rubbing it in to make sure that it’s well coated. Place in a dish, cover and leave in the fridge to marinate for up to an hour.
  3. For the lentils, heat the stock in a saucepan. In a separate saucepan, melt the duck fat, add the shallot and leek and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes until soft.
  4. Add the tomato purée and lentils and cook for a further minute before adding the thyme, garlic and stock.
  5. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30-40 minutes until soft but still retaining a bite and the liquid has evaporated; top up with a little hot water if the lentils need more cooking time.
  6. Discard the garlic and thyme, season with salt and black pepper and leave to rest in the saucepan, covered, while you cook the duck.
  7. Preheat the oven to 220°C.
  8. Place the duck breasts, skin-side-down, in a cold, preferably ovenproof frying pan without any oil over a medium heat for around 6–8 minutes or until the skin is golden brown. Pour off the excess fat and then turn the duck breasts over and cook on the flesh side for a minute to seal.
  9. Transfer to the oven in the pan or on a baking tray, skin-side-up, and cook for a further 10 minutes for medium rare, 12 minutes for medium or 15 minutes for well done.
  10. Remove the duck from the oven and leave it to rest; it will need a good 5 minutes at least.
  11. Meanwhile, add the crème fraîche to the lentils, if using, and stir through.
  12. To serve, carve the duck into slices. Place a few spoonfuls of the lentils on the plates and top with duck slices.

Fress: Bold Flavours from a Jewish Kitchen by Emma Spitzer; photography by Claire Winfield. Mitchell Beazley, £25; octopusbooks.co.uk.