Duck has become one of my favorite meats. The rich flavor, gobs of delicious fat, and the fact that it's all dark meat make it the preferred poultry at our house. In fact, since introducing duck to my husband, he has stated that he could happily never eat chicken again, and I often find him in the kitchen after a duck dinner, contentedly devouring any left over bits of meat and skin, dipping them in the fat in the pan. Most of the time, Michael devours the entire duck that night, and there are no leftovers. Whenever I have mourned that fact, he's told me, "If you want leftovers, then you need to cook two ducks!"
Normally I use a meat thermometer when roasting any cut of meat, but I find that it doesn't work so well with duck. Maybe I haven't found the "sweet" spot, but it seems that no matter where I place the thermometer, the rest of the duck just isn't cooked right. So I went back to the tried and true method I learned from my grandma...when the leg wiggles freely, the duck is done.
Most of the time, I keep the preparation simple...a little bit of salt and pepper, and maybe a few garlic cloves tucked under the skin (sooooo delicious!), then roast slow and low, and turn it up at the end to crisp the skin. There is a risk of drying out and overcooking if you don't roast it low enough, and it seems that the lower it roasts, the less need I have for turning it up at the end. For example, roasting at 300 degrees tends to be too high. The meat cooks too fast, and the skin doesn't crisp and brown as well. Turn it down to 250 or 275, and it takes a lot longer to cook, but it comes out beautifully.
I used to be afraid to cook so low, but the more I do it, the more I am sold on it. It may take 3 to 5 hours to cook a roast, but the meat comes out amazingly juicy and tender. I have only cooked pork shoulders and birds this way, so I can't speak for a cut of meat that doesn't have a skin to lock the moisture in, but I suspect it will still apply to those cuts of meat as well.
Chinese Five Spice Powder
I wanted to do something a little new and different with my latest duck. I just recently discovered what spices comprise Chinese Five Spice powder, and decided to try it out. I didn't have any in the cupboard, but the whole spices, freshly ground, provide a better, bolder flavor anyway, so I mixed it up myself. The most common spices in this blend are star anise, fennel, sichuan (also spelled szechuan) peppercorn, cinnamon and cloves.
The only component spice that I don't have is sichuan peppercorn, which, incidentally, is not related to either peppercorns or chili peppers. I've never eaten anything with this spice, but it sounds compelling and kind of exciting; it causes a mild tingle or numbness in the mouth, has a hint of citrus flavor, and is used in Sichuan cuisine, particularly with large doses of hot chili peppers. One of my life goals is to enjoy a real sichuan hot pot. (Just about every Asian culture has a version of hot pot...basically fondue with broth and lots of meats and vegetables. I'd like to try all of those versions too!)
I decided to substitute regular peppercorns for the sichuan pepper, because I wasn't interested in spicy heat for this particular dish. After looking at a lot of recipes online, I decided to mix my five spice powder in the following proportions:
1 tsp star anise - about 1 whole star anise and a few broken pieces
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp peppercorns
1/2 tsp cinnamon - about a half-inch of cinnamon stick, broken up
Most recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of clove and cinnamon, but I find that cloves can be too overpowering for other flavors, so I went conservative on it. Also, most recipes call for roasting the spices before grinding, but I decided to simply grind them, as they would be roasting for several hours on the duck.
Once my spices were ground, I was treated to an intoxicating, heady, exotic scent...the cinnamon was the key note, but the star anise and fennel were close behind, all melded together to create a fabulous aroma. I could almost see this as a cologne, along the lines of a nice Bay Rum, but with more duskiness. (Bay Rum for day wear, Five Spice for the evening?)
Chinese Five Spice Roasted Duck
I poked a few holes in the skin of the duck with a sharp knife, mixed my new five spice powder with salt and rubbed it all over the skin, making sure to get some inside the cavity, as well. I left all the organs inside the cavity, figuring their juices would add to the overall flavor.
Then I sliced 3 potatoes in half and placed them under the duck to absorb some of that decadent fat.
Once it was prepped I put it into the (preheated) oven at 275 degrees for about 3.5 hours. I checked it every 20 minutes after the 2.5 hour mark, and wiggled the leg to see if it would easily come loose. The house smelled incredible as the bird was cooking, and Michael was hovering toward the end. There may have been drool.
I am remiss in not getting a photo of this beauty when it came out of the oven. The skin was nice and dark and crispy, but still had lots of fat under it. I may be a bit of a renegade in this arena, because I like the skin to be a bit fatty, and not all drained and dried out, as most recipes call for. Especially the breast portion - I love the three tiers of crispy skin, juicy fat, and dark, rich meat. And the Chinese Five Spice really perfected it!
Luckily, that evening I had also cooked fish (my next recipe post) so I actually had enough leftover duck to make what is probably my favorite of all leftover dishes.
Leftover Five Spice Duck Fry-Up
Pick all the meat off of the duck carcass. In our house this is usually everything but the breasts and the drumsticks. There is a lot of meat on the back of the bird, so don't waste it!
Chop up some onion and the left over potatoes into bite sized pieces.
Cut up some green onions, and also set aside a hand-full of dried cherries. (Raisins might work, too, but only in an emergency. I keep dried cherries as a staple.)
Course-chop some mushrooms. I used dried mushrooms that I re-hydrated with boiling water. They come out a bit chewy, and have a richer flavor than the fresh white mushrooms from the grocery store. When I opened the bag of dried mushrooms, I swear they smelled like chocolate and tea with a slight mushroomy undertone.
In a hot cast iron skillet, or a good electric skillet set on high, add some duck fat, then the onions and potatoes. They should immediately start frying. As soon as they start to brown a bit, add all the chopped up duck meat, and make sure you put the skin in as well - it will get all crispy again. Let this fry and brown, stirring every few minutes, to get all the sides. When it's almost to your liking, add the cherries, green onions and mushrooms, and fry for a few minutes more. The only seasoning you may want to add is salt.
Serve and Nom!
The sweet-tartness of the cherries go incredibly well with the duck and the 5 spice seasoning. I love this kind of fusion, with sweet notes from the cinnamon and fruit, savory bits from the mushrooms, meat and onions, and the contrasting textures of crispy and chewy.