A cook's life is made up of small milestones. The first hollandaise sauce that doesn't curdle. The first flaming dish without too much sizzle or fizzle. And tonight a monumental milestone, the first company dinner.
Oh, most of the meals we've put together here can be served-without fear or apology-to guests. But tonight's meal is not quite so simple as the others. Which is why you may want to test it first on the family. After all, even the most lavish Broadway show will have its out-of-town tryout. So see if it plays in the sticks and then send out invitations for, oh, six. And since tonight is a company dinner let's see the time a little later than usual, say 7:30.
The Staples: Make sure these are all on hand: salt, pepper, Tabasco, Dijon mustard, curry powder, garlic, wheat germ, butter, coffee (and accompanying cream and sugar).
The Shopping List: Two ducks (under 5 pounds each); 2 boxes frozen peas; 1 1/2 pounds mushrooms; canned chicken broth (3 cups); wild rice (1 cup); condensed milk; graham cracker crumbs (1 cup); raisins; chocolate chips (1small package); celery; 1 onion; 2 lemons; 1 orange; 1 small jar honey; red wine.
The starting point for this recipe was a talk 1 once had with a Milwaukee food editor. She told me that the most popular recipe she ever wrote was a simple roast chicken basted with a combination of honey, lemon, mustard and curry powder. If you try it, you'll understand why. And a nice bonus: It works as well with ducks. Perhaps the most common way of preparing duck is a l'orange -with an orange sauce. This is equally impressive and quite a bit less work.
Prepare in Advance: The brownies.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix together the can of condensed milk, a cup of graham cracker crumbs and 1/4 cup wheat germ. Stir in a large handful of raisins and a small package of chocolate chips. Butter the inside of a rectangular 9-by-13 baking dish and pour in the batter. Bake for exactly 30 minutes, remove from the heat and cut into small squares. Set aside.
Also to Be Prepared in Advance: The ducklings. If frozen, they should be thawed.
And the duck basting sauce. Mix together in a small bowl 1/2 cup of honey; 3 garlic cloves, minced; a couple of shots of Tabasco; a tablespoon of Dijon mustard; the juice of 2 lemons and 1 orange; 2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder.
And the vegetables. Rinse the mushrooms and cut off the tips of the stems. Slice them thinly. Allow the green peas to thaw if frozen.
And the other vegetables for the wild rice. Cut 5 celery stalks into tiny pieces. Chop up a small onion. Set these aside.
5:30 p.m.: Preheat oven to 360 degrees.
First, the wild rice casserole. Rinse the wild rice in cool water before beginning. (Caution! Don't allow any of it slip away-you won't, if you remember what you paid for it.) Take a casserole pan and butter the inside surface. Add 2 1/2 cups chicken broth. And a cup of wild rice. Now the celery, the onion and, if you feel like it, you can swipe a small handful of the sliced mushrooms. Put the cover on the casserole and pop it into the oven.
5:45 p.m.: Prepare the ducks. Take the curry-honey-lemon-orange mixture and smear it generously over- and inside-the birds. When you're placing them in the roasting pan, put them on a metal rack-above the reach of the melted fat.
6 p.m.: Place the ducks in the oven with the wild rice casserole. Most of your work is done by this time. Greet the company. Smile. Have a drink. Oh, c'mon, relax a little. And every 20 minutes or so get up and baste the ducks with fresh coats of the honey mixture. Every now and then pierce the skin with a fork to let more fat escape. You may want to pour away the fat if there's too great an accumulation.
7 p.m.: Remove the rice casserole from the oven and keep it warm until ready to serve. If it shows signs of being too dry, add some of the remaining chicken broth. Now's a good moment to open the bottle of red wine and let it "breathe" for a while.
7:20 p.m.: Raise oven temperature to 450 degrees to put a nice crisp finish on the ducks. Continue to baste.
And, in a skillet over medium heat; melt 1/2 stick of butter. Add the sliced mushrooms and, in a couple of minutes, the peas. A little salt and pepper and cook it until the vegetables are just tender. Lower heat.
7:30 p.m.: Cut into one of the ducks to make sure that it is cooked to your liking. Check the rice. Plug in the coffee maker.
Your last challenge will be to carve the ducks. You'll need a sharp knife and a steady hand. Simply cut the duck into quarters, then served beside the wild rice. And the peas. And the wine. Followed in due time by the coffee. And the brownies. And a profound sense of relief.