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~ The Crown Jewel of Chinese Food: Peking Duck ~

IMG_5259Joe and I love Chinese food and have eaten it all over the world, including in China.  Take me to a city with a Mr. Chow and you will find me there eating their signature Peking duck.  Mr. Chow is an upscale restaurant chain founded by restaurateur Michael Chow, the son of Chinese Peking Grand Master Zhou Xingang.  He opened his first Mr. Chow in London in 1968, the second Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills in 1974, and, the third Mr. Chow in New York in 1978.  Joe and I have eaten in all three of them.  Others have subsequently been opened, and, they are all on my bucket list.  Alan Richman of GQ Magazine describes Mr. Chow as "an establishment that cannot be defined by customary standards but must be appreciated for its sheer fabulousness." For me, Mr. Chow set the standard for Chinese-American cuisine by which I judge all others.

200px-Dry_for_5_hours_croppedA bit about Peking duck:  Peking duck is one of China's national foods and dates back to the Imperial era. Sometimes called Beijing duck, this is an elaborate Chinese delicacy that takes days to prepare.  It starts with air being pumped between a duck skin and flesh and hung overnight to dry.  The duck is then blanched in boiling water to tighten the skin and begin rendering the fat.  Next, it gets coated with a honey mixture and hung for another day, until the skin is dry and hard.  After the duck is roasted, the skin becomes deep golden and intensely crisp.  While hot, it is cut into very thin slices or strips and served with ultra-thin, crepe-like pancakes referred to as: "Peking doilies", "Mandarin" or "moo shu" pancakes.  It is accompanied by minced scallions and Peking sauce. Peking sauce, also called hoisin sauce, is a thick, reddish brown sauce that is used in Chinese cooking for both a stir-fry sauce and as a table condiment.

In Imperial times, the crispy skin and pillowy fat was reserved for nobility (who wrapped it in the Mandarin pancakes, garnished with scallions and a sweet/salty sauce).  The meat and bones was given to the peasants for use in soup and stocks.  Nowawdays, savvy diners do not miss the opportunity to enjoy the whole bird:

What to expect from your restaurant experience:

IMG_5190Depending on the locale, this meal is going to cost upwards of $75 for a full duck (and in most places you can only order the full duck).  Seek out a restaurant that specializes in Peking duck. Unless they advertise that you can walk in to dine on this delicacy, always make reservations. When it comes to Peking duck, most establishments require 1-2 days notice from you, to give them ample time to prepare it.

IMG_5316Peking duck is traditionally served in two courses, which, is more than enough to feed two people, but not enough to feed four.  Joe and I make short work of the entire meal. Typically the server will bring the duck whole to your table.  He or she will carve/shave thin slices of the crispy duck skin and some meat for you to eat wrapped in some ultra-thin Mandarin pancakes that have been slathered with a bit of hoisin sauce and garnished with some scallions.  This is the first course.  

The remaining meat on the duck is then sliced in your presence. The second course is:  eat the remaining duck as is, or, for a small upcharge, have the chef prepare it for you in a stir-fry, lo-mein or fried-rice dish.

Why in the wide, wide world of foodie sports...

... would I (or anyone) want to try to make Peking duck at home?

In my foodie world, when I love a dish as much as I love this one, I won't stop until I figure out a way to make it for me and mine, in a manner that makes it doable for you too.  At first, because certain aspects of preparing Peking duck can't be duplicated in the home kitchen, the task of preparing this exquisite Chinese specialty in my own kitchen seemed daunting to me.  It took a bit of trial and error, combined with the knowledge of a couple not-so-classic culinary techniques to develop a method that produced everything I was looking for:  duck with crispy skin and moist, flavorful, sliceable meat.  Trust me when I say, no part of this is hard, it is just time consuming. Join me, as I attack this fun, two-day, one-of-a-kind foodie project head on:

Part One.  How to:  choose, wash, trim & dry the duck.

IMG_4993Choosing the Duck

Peking duck is made using a special breed of Beijing white ducks.  They are fed several times a day, for about 36-45 days, until they reach their ideal weight, which is about 5 1/2 pounds.  I am here to tell you, it is easier to procure live Bekijing white ducklings, than it is a dressed duck.  Since I am not interested in raising the ducks for this recipe, I am substituting what is available to me in the market:

2  5-5 1/2  pound "Long Island" ducklings (Note:  In 1873 a New York merchant named Ed McGrath brought duck eggs back from China and had them hatched.  The ducks took to the climate and todays Long Island ducks are all said to be decendants of the Beijing duck. )

IMG_5004Washing & Trimming the Duck 

Working in your kitchen sink, using a pair of kitchen shears,  carefully open the packaging (you do not want to cut or tear any of the skin) and remove the ducks.  

Remove the necks and giblet packets from the main cavity of the birds.  Place them in a food storage bag and refrigerate.  I am going to show you how to make my recipe for ~ Rich Asian Duck Stock ~ with them in my next blog post, and it will be found in Categories 13, 15 or 22.

IMG_5010Under cold running water, thoroughly rinse the birds, inside and out, until the water draining through them into the sink is running clear.

IMG_5014Using some wadded up paper towels, pat the ducks dry, inside and out.  Do this two or three times, to get as much of the excess water out of them as possible.

IMG_5026Transfer ducks to a cutting  board.

Ducks are a notoriously fatty bird. To diminish the fat and encourage a crispy skin, using the kitchen shears, trim all of the excess fat from around both ends of the body cavity.  Using some more wadded up paper towels, once again, thoroughly dry the duck, inside and out.  The duck to the front has been properly trimmed, the duck to the back has yet to be trimmed.

IMG_5045 IMG_5029Using your fingertips, begin loosening and separating the skin from the meat on each side of the duck breast. Do this carefully, you do not want to break the skin. This goes quite quickly once you get the hang of it.

Note:  Don't have long fingers (like me)?  The handle of a wooden spoon is a good tool for this.

IMG_5052Drying the Duck via Air-Chilling

Inflating the skin using a bicycle pump and hanging the ducks in front of a blowing fan overnight, is not my idea of good time.  I'm also not a proponent of leaving them at room temperature that long.  I'm using a method I've used to achieve a crispy skin on chickens:

IMG_5055Stuff the duck cavities with paper towels.  Place the ducks on a rack in a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan that has been lined with a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 8-12 hours, replacing the paper towels occasionally. Note:  Overnight is best, but if you only have 8 hours, everything will be just fine.

Part Two.  Preparing the spice rub & aromatic stuffing mixture.

At this point, the Chinese apply a mixture of maltose (a sugar of sorts) and soy sauce to the surface of the duck and then let it hang for a second night.  Granted, it does add to the mahogany color of the duck, but, it is such a wet, sticky, disgusting mess, I refuse to deal with it.

I called upon two techniques I use when preparing a dish called Cripsy Aromatic Duck (which is a Chinese dish that gets its cripsy skin from deep-frying the duck).  What do these two additions do to enhance this recipe in the home kitchen?  Besides maintain your sanity:

1)  The spice rub contains salt and sugar.  The salt is going to absorb moisture out of the skin and the sugar is going to help caramelize it.

2)  The aromatics (which are not meant to be eaten) go into the cavity of bird while it roasts. They're going to impart a lovely flavor into the duck meat, and, keep it moist too.

IMG_5070 IMG_5071For the spice rub:  In a small bowl, combine:

4  teaspoons sea salt

4  teaspoons sugar

2  tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder

Transfer mixture to a small, standard-sized spice jar and set aside.  This is going to make it easy and mess-free to apply.

IMG_5082For the aromatic stuffing mixture:

6  ounces coarsely-chopped green onion, white and light green part only (about 2 cups)

4  ounces peeled and chopped, fresh ginger (about 1 cup)

2  ounces peeled and chopped, fresh garlic (about 1/2 cup)

coarsely-chopped peel from 2, large, 10-12-ounce oranges

2  tablespoons Chinese five-spice 

Prep as directed, placing in a medium-sized bowl as you work.  Stir to combine all ingredients.

Part Three.  Preparing the honey glaze/dipping sauce.

IMG_50872  1/2  cups honey

2  1/2 cups low-sodium soy sauce, or Thai seasoning soy sauce

1  1/4  cups rice vinegar

2  tablespoons Sriracha sauce

Place ingredients in a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, stir, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Adjust heat to simmer gently and cook until sauce thickens and is reduced by about a third, about 25-30 minutes. Carefully regulate and pay close attention to the heat.  This mixture can and will boil over quickly.  

IMG_5090The glaze will coat the back of a wooden spoon, or, when drizzled onto a plate, hold its integrity when you run your finger through it.  

Remove from heat, cover and set aside, at room temperature, until it is time to glaze the duck.

Part Four.  Spice rubbing, stuffing & steaming the duck.

IMG_5101 IMG_5093After about 16 hours of air-chilling in the refrigerator, my ducks are back on the counter. The skin is taught, still soft to the touch (but considerably dryer than the spongy state it was in yesterday at this time), and, has taken on a bit of a tawney color.  In my humble opinion, they are a thing of beauty.

Remove and discard the wads of paper towels from the breast cavities.

At this point, the next Chinese process is to render excess fat from the duck.  They do it by blanching it in, or, ladling boiling water over the duck.  Wrestling with whole ducks in a pot of boiling water?  How big of a stockpot do I need for that? Ladling enough of boiling water over whole ducks until fat renders out?  How much boiling water do I need and how long will that take?  Besides sounding a like great way to get burned and win a free trip to the emergency room, that, is just a pain my foodie ass, and, I refuse to deal with it.  Listen up my foodie friends:

IMG_5105Did Mel say steaming the duck?

While Peking duck purists will surely initially disagree with my solution to this problem, I am here to tell you that lightly-steaming the duck prior to roasting it works on so many levels:

Excess fat not only renders out, it has a place to go (it drips down into the pan); the skin tightens up around the duck (like it is supposed to do), plus; my duck meat is getting infused with all of the great flavors of the spice rub and the aromatics at the same time.

IMG_5112Double two 20" x 12" x 4" disposible aluminum pans to form one sturdy pan.  Place a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling rack in the pan.  Add 2 quarts of water to the pan.  Pick up the rack the ducks are on and place it on top of the rack in the pan. Evenly distribute and shovel the aromatics into the breast cavities of both ducks, then, sprinkle all of the spice blend over the top of them.  Set aside, for about 1 hour.  

Note:  This "rest period" will allow the sugar and salt in the spice rub to begin to work its magic!!!

IMG_5116Tightly seal the pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil, making sure there are no rips or tears.  If there's even the smallest puncture, start over with a new piece of foil.  Place over two burners of stovetop over high heat. When you hear the water boil, turn the heat to low or extra-low. Allow the ducks to steam for 1 hour.

IMG_5120Remove the roasting pan from the heat and uncover.  Remove the rack with two ducks on it, but not the rack that was underneath them. Pour off and dispose of the water and rendered fat that had dripped down into it.  Return the rack with the ducks on it to the rack in the roasting pan.

Note:  These ducks are not the least bit browned or cooked through. That's spice rub your looking at.

Part Five.  Glazing and roasting the duck.

IMG_5134 IMG_5145Using a pastry brush, paint the ducks with the honey glaze until all of the visible skin/surface is coated. Set aside for 15 minutes.  

Repeat this process, three more times, waiting 15 minutes in between each glazing, for a total of 4 glazings and a total of 1 hour of time:

IMG_5158Roast these perfectly lacquered ducks on center rack of preheated 375 degree oven as follows:

Roast at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Paint ducks with a light coating of additional glaze.

Return to oven and roast in 350 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Paint ducks with a light coating of additional glaze.

Return to oven and roast in 325 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest for 30 minutes prior to thinly slicing and serving:

IMG_5184Perfectly cooked, medium-rare, sliceable duck w/a crispy skin:

IMG_5221The Crown Jewel of Chinese Food:  Peking Duck:  Recipe yields 2 ducks or 4 servings, and, about 4 cups of honey glaze/dipping sauce.  Note:  You will use about 1 cup of the sauce glazing the duck, and, about another cup at the table for spreading on the Mandarine pancakes, dipping and/or drizzing.  The leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator indefinitely and are a great condiment to have on hand for all sorts of other Chinese dishes.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen shears; lots of paper towels; large cooling rack; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling racks; parchment paper or aluminum foil;  cutting board; chef's knife; large spoon; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; 2, 20" x 12" x 14" disposable aluminum roasting pans (doubled to form one sturdy pan); heavy-duty aluminum foil; pastry brush

IMG_4955Cook's Note:  Want to learn ~ How to:  Make Mandarin-Style (Moo Shu) Pancakes ~?  You can find my recipe in Categories 2, 3, 13, 15 & 22.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)


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