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Normally, I wouldn’t travel during the worst winter storm in years just to experience duck in a few different arrangements.  A fortunate misfortune, I guess you could say…but thank goodness it happened, even if it was unexpected.  Being stuck in a hotel in the middle of a snowstorm can be somewhat ridiculous.  I arrived in Chicago on a day without weather issues and found myself in the midst of a snowstorm of epic proportions.  Every local and national news station was blaring warnings about going outside.  I chose to ignore the warnings and set out for a chilly but delicious adventure.  Even three feet of snow and minus thirty degree temps couldn’t keep me trapped in my hotel for long.  I was eager, kind of brave in a foolish sort of way, famished and ready for Chicago’s Chinatown.

Here was my logic: if my hotel has a Porte-cochere, and I hop into a cab, and then exit the car directly in front of my destination, well, I’m not really outside in the elements, am I? Here is what I know: Chicago’s Chinatown has amazing food, it’s totally my speed, and today I’m in the mood for duck.  When you walk into a restaurant and the first thing you have to do is climb one or two full flights of stairs, the food better be damn good.  For the average eater, you may stumble into the dining room fresh off the two mountains of stairs and think; this is a shit-show.  But I’m not the average diner, and when I see the restaurant, I feel like I’ve just barged into someone’s home.  I startle the wait staff as they are deep in their own noodle bowls.  This is a comfort to me – seeing the staff eating the food and loving it – while deeply engaged in conversation in an otherwise empty restaurant.  This is a good sign.  As I’m seated, I decide I’m on a mission, and it requires Duck Dim Sum. I’m looking through the menu quickly and interested in everything happening on the full color glossy booklet.  I know I’ve made the right choice for my arctic food adventure with the Phoenix.

I love the brave choices of ingredients.  The idea that I can add chilies to anything I order and it will complement the flavors is very exciting on a frigid day like today.  Hot tea kicks the party off.  Since I’m a Southerner, it takes very little time for me to discard all of my “winter wear.”  It literally takes about two seconds for me to get my coat off.  I don’t own gloves, a hat, a scarf or glasses to shield me from the subzero wind.  I have my hefty two layers of North Face and a thick long-sleeve pullover.

Eating out is always a journey.  It starts with deciding on your destination, and then choosing your adventure when you arrive.  My adventure today is the weather and the city of Chicago, vibrant and full of flavor.  I’m the customer, literally the only customer goofy enough to walk in to this restaurant and order three plates of Dim Sum.  Did I forget to mention the near minus thirty degree weather?  And that’s not even a temperature that’s appropriate for food storage, much less dining out.  This is sluggish weather – hard to maneuver in, and I’m a Southerner.  Despite how I’ve described my trip so far, it isn’t as bad as you may imagine.  I settle into my wobbly table and after ordering, the kitchen begins to deliver one amazing plate after another, quickly and without hesitation.  I take a deep breath, the sigh a sign that I may have over-ordered. duck-4

The first plate hits the table.  It’s a quartered duck, skin-side up.  The skin is so crispy; it looks like amber-stained glass.  My server-slash-grandmother gently pours a pot licker from a tea kettle over my duck, careful not to drench the skin.  This will ensure that the glassy nature of the duck skin remains intact.  I dive into the dish with both hands looking for my first bit of meat.  It’s a quarter of a duck, cut into maybe twelve pieces.  It’s an umami of flavor – bold, with citrus, sweetness, and spice and blanketed with a savory quality.  Each individual portion of duck has its own identity, even though it is all from the same animal. This first dish is complete reassurance of my mission to eat in Chicago’s China Town and my choice of duck.

With multiple and obviously complicated cooking techniques well-utilized, I’m finding moist, tender duck meat wrapped around caramelized bones, and the skin full of flavor, like meat-candy shards of glass that melt on your tongue.  The broth is rich and offers plenty of depth, showing signals of smoke and a briny quality that makes you want to never stop eating.  Just when I thought the dish may be over-salted, I get a blast of heat from the chilies and then some acid from the lime and cilantro that meld all these duck flavors into harmony.

So now, my fingers and mouth are permeated with duck meat, duck fat, and duck skin which is washed down with a duck broth rich in chilies, cilantro, citrus and soy.  I can’t say this week that I’ve enjoyed a better version of roasted duck, but I’m en route for two more Dim Sum plates so the “one-upper” aspect is in full effect.  My grandmother-slash-waitress swings through the dining room with a hasty stride that would put a snail to shame.  Thank God I have food already on my table!  She drops the next duck-urious plate on my wobbly table.

Its handmade dumplings filled with a piping hot fusion of duck confit and vegetables, but the flavors resemble that of duck à l’orange. The smell is over-the-top and sucks me into the handmade dumplings without any fear of burning my face off from the steaming temperature.  I dredge the dumplings through a watery pot jus that has notes of garlic and ginger.  I find it’s complicating the flavors of my duck dumpling, so I decide to avoid the sauce and enjoy the dumplings unpolluted.  It’s a great dumpling dish.  I can see the skill and love put into the dish – the imperfection in each crimp and fold, and how the steam basket works so well at cooking each side and different thickness of the noodle vessels perfectly.  I’ve eaten the equivalent of maybe half a duck at this point with one more offering still yet to be delivered. duck-2

The third plate is a duck roll, utilizing a similar noodle to the dumplings, but rolled and steamed.  The noodles are perfect, and the duck is out of this world!  The restaurant shows its authenticity to their native food style and culture by using every element of the animal.  I’m eating rich duck livers and organ meat that is gently braised and folded together with crunchy vegetables that are so perfectly cut; a surgeon must have done the knife work.  The earthiness of the organ meat isn’t as strong as you might imagine – subtle, but rich.  Each bite shows how the duck is multi-faceted and a great choice for ingredients as well as cost of goods.  I’m eating nearly every inch of this animal in three very unique preparations. duck

Duck is a complicated, but simple animal that offers multiple interesting flavors.  It is often a misconceived ingredient.  It’s often undersold.   Unfortunately, at times, it can end up being not that good unless the chef or cook takes the time to understand the different parts of the animal and how each component can convey completely individual tastes and textures with just a little skill and technique.  Duck is also a valiant choice for someone looking to try ingredients that are unfamiliar; it can be a very rewarding first step into the world of adventuresome eating.

I enjoy measuring restaurants on their ability to execute specific ingredients well, and when I stumble on  a kitchen that’s able to rock out the duck, I’m confident the other selections will show as much skill and talent for handling food.  On this mission, I knew what I wanted.  I knew Chicago’s China Town was the right choice for duck.  I had no opportunity for mistake, because I was banking on a sure thing.  I know the restaurants clustered together in China Town understand duck as an ingredient and respect its ability to appeal to the masses while tasting completely different in each application.

Weather kept me from making an unsure risky lunch choice.  I landed in Chicago, dug my way through the snow, and found duck in three delicious movements on a frigid day.  It was a success by all standards.  The tastes I experienced are recipes that I will try to re-create in my own kitchen, based solely on memories, smells and flavors.  These re-created recipes are for you, so you’re able to experience the same amazing tastes, without the risk of frost-bite.

I’m not on a mission to conform the world into duck’ovores.  I’m only suggesting that your mission with food be a mission of something new and bold.  This is the opportunity for you to decide if you like it or not.  Let’s all bypass that pre-determined, over-used, processed ingredient list.  Instead, let’s stumble out into the cold and explore the flavors next door.  I truly believe the ingredients will always be more important than the recipe.

I have carefully recreated my favorite dish from my arctic China Town eating excursion, purposefully un-complicating the steps to encourage you to cook duck for yourself, your friends, your family at home.  The recipe explains step-by-step how to create and appreciate the versatility in this delicious, under-appreciated ingredient, duck.  Worship the meat and the fat.  I know of no other animal that lends itself so well to multiple totally overwhelming and delicious preparations.

Cheers to you and best wishes on your next duck adventure!

Chinese-style Snow Day Braised Duck

Yield: Serves 6-8 (Depending on Appetite)

Chinese-style Snow Day Braised Duck

Ingredients

  • 1 whole duck
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons duck fat
  • 1/2 large, seedless navel orange, cut into large chunks (skin and all)
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3-inch piece fresh ginger, halved lengthwise and smashed
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 4-inch sections, bulb smashed
  • 10 to 12 sprigs cilantro
  • 1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp. Ground Chilies
  • 2 Tbsp. Coconut Butter
  • 4 Tbsp. Honey
  • 1 Mint infused Tea Bag
  • 2 cups Duck stock or Beef Broth

Method

  1. Season duck generously with salt pepper. Pre-heat a large crock pot to medium-high. In a separate pan, brown your whole duck on all sides using the duck fat. This should take about 12 minutes. Transfer to plate and allow cooling. If there’s too much duck fat in your pan, pour it off
  2. Add orange, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, and peppercorns to your crock pot. Pour in broth and stir to combine, scraping up any browned bits into the crock pot. Now add your whole duck into the crock pot and liquid. Bring to a simmer without the lid and then reduce heat to medium-low, and cover to braise duck until tender, about 1 hour.
  3. Once the entire duck is tender, remove the lid, turn off the crock pot and carefully remove the duck from the pot. Observe the skin and make sure it’s not damaged in the move. Try and keep the skin in tack and transfer to a sheet pan.
  4. Pre-heat your oven to broil. In a mixing bowl combine chilies, salt, honey and coconut butter.
  5. Generously slather the ducks skin with the sweet and spicy mixture. Once the duck is completely covered and the oven is at 500 degrees add the duck to the broiler.
  6. Brown the skin in the oven until bubbly and deep brown, rotating often and getting the most even color as possible. Once your duck is completely browned remove and allow cooling for 20 minutes.
  7. Strain the cooking liquid from the crock pot and place in a sauce pan, adjust the seasoning with chilies, salt and lime juice, reduce by half. You should have syrup of deep brown goodness. A little optional trick you can add one bag of minted tea to your reduction for huge deep flavors.
  8. Once your duck is cooled and your sauce is thickened serve the duck with the sauce as whole or you may to decide to break up the duck into manageable size portions. Garnish with citrus and cilantro and pour carefully your reduction to preserve the glass skin

Below I’ve included an easy to follow duck diagram for breaking down this birdie.


To purchase ingredients for this recipe and more please visit a few of these popular retailers

Whole Duck – http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/49?prod=103

Duck Fat – http://www.mapleleaffarms.com/54?prod=291

Coconut Butter – http://www.chefsshelf.com/852-extra-virgin-organic-coconut-butter.html

Black Pepper – http://www.chefsshelf.com/861-organic-malabar-black-pepper.html

Chilies – http://www.chefsshelf.com/843-chefs-shelf-coromandel-chili-powder.html