When I was in my early twenties, one of my favorite dishes to cook was Peking duck. Ambitious, yes, but I loved the ritual of it — getting a fresh duck, inflating the skin, dousing it in a honey/water mixture, then hanging it with a fan to dry for 24 hours.
I was always looking for the best place to hang the duck. Once, my mother came home and let out a gasp upon entering her kitchen and discovering a duck dangling from the light fixture.
The best place to get a duck was in Chinatown. Of the countless options, I would always go to Superior Poultry, which had a giant rooster on the roof and cages of birds inside. Usually I’d walk up to the counter, ask for a duck, and they’d hand me one already cleaned — though still with the head and webbed feed attached. One time, however, they told me it would be about 20 minutes. My girlfriend and I went outside and sat down on the curb to wait, watching the hustle and bustle of Chinatown.
A moment later, there was a commotion inside. I heard squaking, saw a cloud of white feathers… and a big, scared white duck came running out, chased by a guy in a white smock. My duck. It scurried out onto Broadway, weaving frantically in and out of traffic, the executioner close behind. With pale faces, my girlfriend and I looked at one another, got up, and left.
I didn’t eat duck for awhile.
You must be careful, in general, when you go to Chinatown to buy duck-related products. The Chinese eat things we do not. Another time, I was in a market looking for duck eggs, and I found them in the back. They had little black “x”s on them. When I got up to the counter to pay, the Chinese woman at the check stand was kind enough to recognize that there may have been a mistake. “Do you know what these are?” she said in broken English. “Duck eggs?” I offered up feebly. “Baby ducks inside,” she said. Once again, my face went white. “I’ll put them back,” she said, for which I thanked her profusely.
Another time, our friend, Guo Nan, invited us over for Szechuan hot pot. She was thrilled to announce she’d secured a rare seasonal ingredient — duck tongues. My wife and I, reasonably adventurous eaters, each graciously took a sample from the mountainous pile and dropped it into our hot pot — and discovered our teeth not up to the task of chewing through the paper-clip like cartilage in our mouths. I gagged mine down while my wife discreetly transferred her’s to her napkin.
Real Peking duck, as mentioned above, is a production. But you can make a reasonable and enjoyable facsimile without all the work. Following is a recipe for a”quick” Peking duck breast. No traumatic trips to Chinese poultry shops required. Enjoy…
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Peking duck breast with Chinese pancakes and scallions
4 duck breasts, preferably with bones still attached
2 tbsp. honey
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. five spice
8 Chinese pancakes (available at Chinese markets; thin flour tortillas will work in a pinch)
4 scallions, white and light green part only
4 tbsp. plum sauce
Prepare a day ahead:
Wash and dry duck breasts. Salt and set aside for a couple hours in the fridge. Take duck breasts out, wiggle your fingers beneath the skin (as demonstrated in picture A), carefully loosening skin from flesh (except at the edges, you don’t want the skin to fall off). In a small pan, heat the honey, soy sauce, water and five spice to a boil, then turn off. With a pastry brush (or spoon if you don’t have a brush), brush the hot liquid on to the surface of the skin (as demonstrated in picture B). Place breasts uncovered on a plate in the fridge overnight.
The next day, you should find the skin has dried somewhat. This is what you want. (To accelerate the drying process, you can also leave the breasts out on the counter with a fan blowing on them for a couple hours.) Heat oven to 450 degrees, and place breasts skin up on a wire rack with a tray beneath to catch drippings. Cook for 10 minutes until skin begins to look lacquered, then reduce heat to 350 and cook for 40 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for 10 minutes.
While duck is resting, chop scallions lengthwise into slivers. In a hot pan, toast the Chinese pancakes briefly on each side until they begin to blister, and stack on a clean dishtowel on a plate, wrapping up when you’ve heated all of them. Divide plum sauce between four small bowls.
With a very sharp knife, cut the breasts into strips, discarding the bones. Place two pancakes on each of four plates, and divide the duck meat and scallions among the plates. Let each guest brush his pancake with some plum sauce, add scallions and duck meat and wrap up into little burrito-like packages.