Stalking the Waiter

Riffing on foods, flavors and methods, that would be telling.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Paper Chef #11 - Fall Foods

This is my first ever entry in the food blogging community's frequent comps. This is Paper Chef #11, a monthly event, so it will be one year old next month, it looks like. The topic, as chosen by Stephen of is Favorite Fall Foods. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the ingredients are: duck, nut butter, ginger and pears.

Photos are optional, and, unfortunately, if I have them at all, mine will be late. Yes, my battery charger remains among the missing and the camera battery was low. I did take some shots with my trusty SLR, but that means getting prints and scanning them or doing one of those other magic things to wind up with digital images. Anyway, if they come out, at some point I will append them to this post, with a note to that effect.

I chose a fairly eclectic combination of dishes, but I think they go very well together, and they made a delicious and satisfying meal. The duck, Bosc pears and yams were once seasonal fare available only in the colder months, but, now, we can get them year round. Those of us who live where Summers are hot, though, are less inclined to eat the richer foods before the weather starts to cool. I think this combination of ingredients makes a perfect Fall dinner. Here's my menu.

Spicy Groundnut Soup
Smoky Oven Roasted Duck Breast
Yam Puree with Coriander
Salad of Fresh Greens with Pears

I served a chilled Ch. Ste. Michelle 2003 Gewurztraminer with the soup and main courses. It's typically spicy character and fruity flavors goes well with rich or spicy foods.

The Planning

Although I love groundnut soup, it's not something I often think of cooking, so, thanks to whoever suggested nutbutter as one of the required ingredients. Roasting a whole duck seems like a waste of time, unless you're making something like Peking duck, where the skin is as important as the meat. My duck recipe was similar to Peking Duck in many ways, but without the air drying, and I just didn't want to take the oven time.

I wanted a good partner for the duck, and I, at first, thought of doing a stir fry of sweet fennel, red bell peppers and sweet onions. But this is a Fall meal, so I decided to go with something simpler and more in keeping with the theme - baked, puréed yams. All of the dishes in the menu are rich, so I chose to finish with a light salad of baby/bitter greens with unadorned Bosc pears.

First, A Description of the Meal

We started with steaming bowls of Spicy Groundnut Soup. This is a wonderful soup for cold weather, just rich and heavy enough to take the chill away. Slightly creamy from the peanut butter, it had grace notes from a variety of spices, with heat provided by a dollop of chile paste, if desired.

The main course was a half, sliced, duck breast apiece, with a glistening, translucent sauce made from a white balsamico reduction of the pan juices. As I prepared it, the skin was crispy and a rich, almost mahogany hue, with a spicy bite to it. The flesh was tender with a band of darker brown next to the skin and a hint of smoky sweetness.

On the side, I served a rich, slightly sweet purée of yams. Their mild but complex seasoning made them an excellent accompaniment to the spicy duck breast.

To finish the meal, we had a salad of baby greens, with frisée and radicchio, and slices of perfect Bosc pears. The dressing was light, a little sweet and a little spicy, and the cool sweet flavor of the pear rang clear as a bell with that background. Throughout the salad were crunchy and chewy flavor accents from seasoned bits of rendered duck skin and glacéed ginger.

We were too full to contemplate dessert right after the meal, but, about an hour later, we were ready for a cup of tea and homemade ginger-macademia shortbread. I think I enjoyed the planning and the preparations as much as the meal. Well, almost. I'm so glad I decided to baptize my new food blog by participating in PC#11.

The Process

Spicy Groundnut Soup - I first tasted this soup at a fund raiser for a linguistics organization. Every year, they had an international banquet which was essentially a potluck supper with paying guests. The version of Groundnut Soup I had there is still my favorite. I guess we all prefer the first we taste of something, as long as it's good. It's the benchmark for all other versions.

The soup was between a broth and a puree in consistency, a good place for my textural preferences. Not too peanutty, but with a luxurious feeling in the mouth. Only moderately spicy, it was made to please the greatest number of palates. Because I wanted to emulate that soup, I made my broth using bones from the duck, warming spices, like cumin, turmeric and a tiny hint of cardamom, and garlic mashed with a little bit of salt. When the flavor was where I wanted it, I began whisking in the peanut butter, until I was satisfied with both taste and consistency. Recipes usually recommend that you use an unsweetened peanut butter, but I prefer the smoothness the sweetened variety gives to what could otherwise be almost a curry flavor.

I provided a small dish of Chile Paste with Garlic (right out of the jar) as a garnish for those who wanted a bit more fire. I used this same Paste in prepping the duck, so there were echoes of the flavor in both courses.

Smoky Oven Roasted Duck Breast - I wanted the duck breast to have a somewhat sweet, smoky flavor. This is where my secret ingredient came in. I brined the whole duck, using a combination of salt and brown sugar. The secret ingredient was Lapsang Souchong tea. I added a couple small scoops of the leaves to the brining water. I was aiming for a hint of smokiness, maybe some darkening right under the skin, without turning the whole thing brown and overpowering any other flavor. It was the first time I'd tried this, and, I'm happy to say the result was exactly what I'd hoped for.

My duck was frozen, so I thawed it in the brining solution, overnight. While I preheated the oven, I gave the bird a swipe with a wet paper towel to get off any clinging tea leaves. Then I cut off the wings and separated the breast from the rest of the bird but didn't bone it. I made a mixture of the Chile Paste, more brown sugar, and a little sea salt. I rubbed this over the duck breast and roasted it in the oven - on a rack, with a foil tent over it and a little water in the bottom of the pan. I find this browns and crisps the skin nicely but eliminates the need to baste.

In the meantime: I removed the legs and set them aside with the wings, then peeled the skin off the rest of the duck. This got a good rub on both sides with the chile paste mixture, as well as extra salt. Then, I rendered the skin in a saute pan, slowly, held flat by a bacon weight. This gets out virtually all the fat and leaves you with flat, crispy sheets of deliciousness. I blotted them on paper towels. Then, I crumbled them up into fairly small pieces, as you would crumble bacon.

When the duck breast was done, I removed it to a plate to rest for a few minutes before removing it from the bone. I poured off most of the fat from the pan where I rendered the skin. I deglazed the pan with a white balsamico. When all the bits of fond were loosened, I added the duck pan juices to it. I cooked this down to a fairly thick consistency, perhaps like a heavy oil.

Yam Puree with Coriander - The yams were baked along with the duck. To serve them, I split them and scraped out the softened flesh, added a mixture of butter and olive oil, crushed garlic, a pinch or two of brown sugar, and ground coriander to my taste. It's a fairly sophisitcated rendering of the traditional Sweet Potato Casserole so popular with Thanksgiving turkey dinners.

Salad of Fresh Greens with Pears - The salad was simply a bed of greens, frisée and radicchio foremost, with the sliced pears. I saved a bit of the pan reduction to make a very light dressing with just a squeeze of lemon to thin it. The toppings were the crumbles of spicy rendered duck skin and finely chopped glacéed ginger.

Cook's Treats
Tomorrow, I'll probably make something with the remainder of the duck. I still have the wings and legs, not a lot of meat. I may cook them with some canellini beans, using some of that zippy rendered duck fat, for a cassoulet. Or I might debone the meat, chop it and make potstickers with more of the chile paste mixture I used on the duck skin, and some of the glacéed ginger. Those would be good for the freezer, as a first course for a future dinner. I'll use the rest of the rendered skin on veggies, baked potatoes, potato salad, or just to munch.


At 6:51 PM, Blogger 2-minute Noodle Cook said...

Hi b'gina, I must say that this is a very impressive first entry into Paper Chef,with so many dishes, and making full use of the duck: fat, bones, skin etc! That Lapsang Souchong tea and sugar brining idea sounds like a great way of creating smoke taste and browning without the mess of smoking in a covered wok. Cheers.


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