Sweet and spicy twice cooked Chinese duck.
Raised on mostly Western fare -- for me, the cooking is reliably intuitive -- I find that when I want to veer eastward in the kitchen, it is necessary to get into a particular mind-set. Although I fear my approach is always burdened with a certain cultural disadvantage, I forge ahead, fairly certain the result will be delectable, if not entirely authentic.
Two things I know for sure: Because the cooking process is swift for many Chinese dishes, ingredients need to be tidily organised and stoveside before the flame is ignited. The other is that food always tastes best straight from the wok.
There's even a term for it, wok-chi or wok-hei, which means breath of the wok. Chinese cooks say the flavourful life force of the food, gained from a quick high-heat sear, can be fleeting, gone in only a few minutes. Though the dish may still taste good, a certain elusive quality is lost, which is why takeout and steam-table dishes always lack the brightness of those freshly cooked and served. Cooking hot and fast is the key.
Still, for certain dishes, like the one I made at home this week, there is a slow component, too. I wanted to make a duck dish in the manner of twice-cooked pork, usually made with shoulder or belly. I had bought large Muscovy duck legs and thought they would be good candidates for this technique.
The principle is attractive: The meat is seasoned and gently simmered well ahead of the final cooking. It can even be cooked several days ahead.
Then, at the last minute, the chopped, cooked, fat-laced meat is briefly stir-fried; showered with aromatics like ginger, orange zest, garlic, cumin and hot pepper; splashed with rice wine, and finished with just-wilted pea shoots.
Both sweet and spicy, it was entirely satisfying, so I want to make it again soon. Next time, instead of jasmine rice, I may serve it with glutinous rice, or with steamed buns.
Twice-cooked duck with pea shoots Time: About 20 minutes, plus about 1 hour for initial duck simmering 4 Muscovy duck legs, about 1 pound each (or 4 pounds smaller Pekin legs) Salt 1 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder 4 thick slices ginger 1 large onion, halved 4 tablespoons rice wine 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 4 tablespoons brown sugar 1 teaspoon grated orange zest 1 teaspoon spicy black bean paste (available at Chinese grocers) 1 teaspoon sesame oil 2-inch chunk ginger, peeled and cut in fine julienne 6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped 8 to 10 small dried red chili peppers 1 teaspoon cumin seed 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 6 ounces pea shoots, leaves and tendrils (or use baby spinach or mizuna leaves) 3 tablespoons slivered scallions.
Method: 1. With a sharp knife, trim any excess fat from the duck legs, leaving the skin intact. Trim the skin a bit, too, if it seems quite thick.
Reserve duck fat for another purpose. Season each leg generously with salt, then sprinkle with the five-spice powder, rubbing the seasoning into the meat. Place the duck legs in a heavy-bottomed pan along with the ginger slices and onion. Cover with four cups water and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer gently, covered, until the meat is fairly tender when probed with a paring knife, about 45 minutes. Take the duck legs from the pot and let them cool. Remove the meat from the bones and chop into rough half-inch pieces. Strain and cool the cooking broth and skim any fat from surface. This step may be done up to two days in advance of finishing the dish.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the rice wine, soy sauce, brown sugar, orange zest, black bean paste and sesame oil. Put the julienne ginger,
chopped garlic, red chili peppers and cumin seed on a small plate. Measure one cup of defatted duck broth. Mix the cornstarch and water in a small container. Have all these ingredients in easy reach of the stove.
3. In a wok or large cast-iron skillet, heat the vegetable oil over high heat. Add the chopped duck meat and let it sizzle, stirring well, until crisp and lightly browned, about two minutes. Season lightly with salt.
Lower heat to medium high and add the ginger, garlic, red chili peppers and cumin seed. Stirring often, cook for one minute more, taking care not to burn the garlic. Add the rice wine mixture and duck broth and bring to a brisk simmer. Stir in the cornstarch mixture; cook until lightly thickened, 30 seconds or so. Turn off heat and add the pea shoots, mixing them into the sauce until barely wilted. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with scallions.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
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