Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Eighteen: Duck


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

The Pekin duck (not Peking duck, which is a recipe or procedure) is the "Long Island" white duck, which was brought from China by a man who thought he was importing Chinese geese. It's large -- bigger than the mallard or barbarie, which is another popular breed (more so in Europe) -- and apparently all Pekin ducks raised in the US descend from those originals. It's called "Long Island" because most of them used to be raised in that area of New York State.

The other major duck type is the Muscovy, which is very large. The breast of this duck is called a magret. No other duck breast can be called this; instead, the boned breasts are suprêe;mes, the generic term for all poultry breasts. More vocabulary: the aiguillette refers to the sliced meat of a duck breast. These are normally fanned out on a plate and napped with sauce.

You hear people wax with rapture about rendered duck fat. Basically, there is a LOT of fat on a duck, and when rendered (the fat melted out over low heat), it's a wondrous thing. It has a high smoke point (meaning it can get really really hot before it breaks down) so it makes foods fried in it ultra crispy, and the flavor is amazing. The only fat you cannot use is the stuff in the "fat glands" -- these are small olive-shaped capsules of fat, somewhat darker than the smoother fat around it. It is located above the tail, and at the base of the neck. These will impart a bitter flavor to the oil, so cut them out before rendering.

Basically, there is so much fat on a duck that when you cook it you have to choose between having delicious skin, or meat that is cooked properly. The Chinese choose the skin, thus the meat on a Peking Duck dish is dry and stringy, but that's okay since you're after the crispy well-done skin anyway. The French being who they are, offer a compromise, but first, you have to break down the duck into pieces. The legs will be braised, the breasts will be pan-friend like a steak, and the rest will be rendered for fat or made into stock.

Boning a duck is much like boning a chicken, but the duck's carcass is more elongated, and front and back can look identical at first glance. (In fact, one padawan tried to "bone out" the back! Until the Jedi Master saw her and said, "These are the tits! Tits go up!") It's important to keep the blade of your knife flat against the plane of the carcass to get the meat off, sort of like when we did fish. But use the boning knife, since a fillet knife will bend and could poke through the meat.

The fat is cut off the carcass and we gave it to the Jedi Knight to render. We also gave the livers to him to soak in cognac, and he made duck mousseline, which will be ready during our next lesson. Can hardly wait! The mignon or tenderloin that runs along the underside of the duck breast was used for the mousseline also. The bones were chopped up and put into the oven to roast, to fortify our sauce.

The legs were seared to brown, then placed in a sautoir in which a coarse mirepoix was browned, along with the browned bones, which served as a rack for the meat. Brown veal stock and water were put in, and the whole covered with a parchment lid and foil, then stuck into the oven to braise.

The breasts are scored in a quadrillage pattern to help the fat drain and to keep the fat from shrinking back too much. They started cooking in a sauteuse, breast side down. LEAVE IT ALONE and let it brown. The fat will run out -- you may need to drain it out -- but keep it cooking till the skin is very brown and very crisp and thin. Turn it over and you can cook it for another few minutes, or finish it in the oven for about five minutes. Let it rest for about 5 minutes before carving the meat on the bias, so every slice gets a nice bit of the fat on it, too. These are the aiguillettes, and they should not be cut till just before serving, as they will dry and cool quickly.

The sauce is the classic l'Orange -- the liquid left from braising the duck is strained, skimmed and reduced. An orange is washed and the zest removed and cut into very thin strips, which are soaked in orange liqueur. The orange is cut peler à vif and suprêmes are cut out, and the remaining membranes and such squeezed for the juice. Prepare a gastrique, which is sugar cooked with an acid (such as vinegar or citrus juice) in a saucepan till a light caramel is formed. This is added, along with the zest and orange juice, to the reinforced stock. Taste and season, and add the liqueur to sweeten if desired. Mount with butter and hold in a bain marie.

To plate the dish, place a blob of potato or salad in the middle of the plate and fan out the aiguillettes against it, and top/prop with the carved, braised leg meat. It's very pretty, but gets cold and dry fast, so don't plate it till you know the guests are ready to eat it.

The other preparation we did today was done with a chicken, "butterflying" it in a method recently termed "spatchcocking." The backbone is cut out and the whole bird splayed open for grilling. I remember reading an article in the New York Times last Thanksgiving about how this method also works well for turkeys. By flattening it out, you can grill it or bake it, and the cooking time is reduced radically -- a 12 lb turkey can take a mere 40 minutes to roast!

So after cutting out the backbone (save for stock, of course), trim off the excess fat, but keep the skin flaps below the thigh. Poke a hole in each of those flaps with a knife, then push the drumsticks through, so they don't flop around. The "knees" will invert to be on the "inside" in a position opposite what you might expect. The wings are not chopped off this time, but are bent back so the chicken looks like it's arms are behind it's head, as if it's been sunbathing. Brush with oil and lay thyme sprigs over, wrap and refrigerate till needed.

Heat up the grill till it's really hot, and drop the chicken skin side down on it, and mark with a quadrillage pattern. Place on a baking sheet skin side up, then roast for about 15 minutes till nearly cooked through. Remove and let cool enough so you can bone out the breast rack and ribs (you keep them in so your chicken doesn't fall apart during the grilling process). Paint the open surface of the chicken with Dijon mustard, then pat with breadcrumbs. Return to the oven to reheat and crisp up, then carve.

The sauce is a Diable -- shallots and crushed peppercorns are cooked with vinegar, white wine adn water to infuse. Stock is reduced, the reduction is added and strained, then finished with chopped herbs and mounted with butter.

The garniture here is similar to a mixed grill -- where tomatoes, mushrooms and bacon are grilled on a griddle, finished on a sizzle platter in the oven, and served with a bouquet of watercress. The sauce is served in a sauceboat on the side, not napped over.

In terms of timing, this was a very tough class. We didn't get to eat dinner at our usual 8:30pm, and so many of us simply skipped dinner and got woozy from the heat and the hunger. Many of the padawans couldn't remember stuff, so it had to be demonstrated over again, taking up more time. But on the up side, I took everything home and finished cooking it there. Everyone I invited lowed like cattle ... they loved it!

Another thing ... I found out I'm the "sauce bitch." I can fix just about any problem with a sauce, and I like doing it. I want a trophy with the engraved at the base!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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